Unitarians in Rochdale - a brief history
There is evidence to suggest a small group with Unitarian beliefs existed in Rochdale as early as 1512. Rev Thomas Assheton, Bishop of Middleton, was dismissed for preaching that Jesus was neither son of God nor risen Lord. He came to Rochdale in1511/12 and continued to hold services with a group of followers, but within a few years was taken before Archbishop Cranmer and recanted under threat of torture.
There is conjecture as to whether followers in Rochdale continued their form of worship after his departure but it seems reasonable to assume so.
Blackwater Street Unitarian Church
This church had the distinction of being the oldest non-conformist church in town, dating from 1717. The congregation had its origins in the days of Charles II.
The Act of Uniformity in 1662 drove 2000 ministers from the Anglican Church, among them Robert Bathe, vicar of Rochdale. For ten years he was obliged to conduct services in secret.
In 1672 a chapel was established in a house known as “Amen Corner” and services were held there until 1717. A new chapel was erected in Blackwater Street. In 1856 this was replaced completely by a beautiful gothic building. Its members were responsible for founding the earliest schools in Rochdale at Toad Lane and Vicar’s Moss (now Milnrow Road). That building was demolished in the early 1970s, to make way for the current market development, and is fondly remembered by many of the present congregation.
Clover Street Chapel
In 1803 Rev Joseph Cooke, an itinerant preacher on the Methodist Circuit, was dismissed for “heretical” preaching. His supporters from surrounding districts subscribed to and built Providence Chapel and Cooke continued to preach until his death in 1811. His congregation proved to be the nucleus for another Unitarian group in the Rochdale area with its influence felt far beyond Rochdale.
The movement, however, declined after Cooke’s death, but a faithful few continued to worship in hired rooms or their own homes. In 1818 the little chapel in Clover Street was dedicated. A Sunday School was also started but, as no preacher was available, services and classes were conducted by members of the congregation. These lay preachers divided their time between churches in Rochdale, Newchurch and Todmorden, with other regular meetings being held in many surrounding villages.
The first regular minister was appointed in 1862. The congregation grew in strength and in 1868, to mark the Jubilee, a new school was built and the chapel itself modernised. The following year a Day School was established, continuing until 1890 when it was taken over by Rochdale School Board and transferred to a new building. Clover Street was known as the “Co-op Chapel” because many of the original Pioneers worshipped there.
Over the years, it became clear that the two congregations had developed shared Unitarian beliefs even though they originally developed independently. Amalgamation took place in 1890, with occasional services at first being held in the
Clover Street building.
With the ravages of time and demands of town planners, the mid-1960s saw the closure of Blackwater Street and demolition of the Clover Street building to make way for the present building. The new building was opened on 29 July 1974.
The current church was designed as a multi-purpose building and allows for a wide variety of religious and social activities.
The exquisite pre-Rapahelite windows, by famous Victorian artist William Burne-Jones, were retained from Blackwater Street and serve as a constant reminder of our shared heritage and unique faith.