photo kindly sent in by Des Brady


In the ancient hilltop weaving village of Heptonstall, overlooking Hebden Bridge, stand two churches, both in the same churchyard, one in ruins and the other one still very much in use. There are only a handful of Churches in England that can boast of having two churches built in the same grounds, and one of them is Westminster Abbey. It would seem that Heptonstall is in good company and indeed, has the advantage of a far pleasanter outlook than that of Westminster Abbey.


The Church of St John the Baptist in Halifax was built around 1095. It was meant to provide for the whole Parish, which was the largest in England at 150 square miles. It must be 12 miles or more  from Todmorden to Halifax and some parts of the Parish would be further away. It was the only place to have your child baptised, to marry and be buried, to say nothing of regular worship. Hardly surprising that children went unbaptised and marriages happened in the market place, ( the "brush" marriage).  The original Chapel at Heptonstall was the first built to alleviate this problem, as a chapel of ease to the Parish Church of Halifax. It served the five townships of Heptonstall, Erringden, Langfield, Stansfield and Wadsworth.

The chapel was erected between 1256 and 1260 and was dedicated to Thomas a Becket who was murdered in 1170, became a saint in 1173, and was a popular symbol of resistance to state authority. It had a chancel, a south nave, which is still standing, and a tower. Much re-furbishment occurred in the 14th and 15th centuries and eventually there were two naves, two aisles and two chantry chapels as well as a tower. It would have been a built quite low, so as to avoid the worst elements that the Pennine weather can produce.

In 1440 William del Bryge of Heptonstall left 10 marks for bells to be made.


Still to be seen is the tower, which was heightened by adding a new bell stage in the 15th century, built upon the 13th century base, and an original stair turret.


Just before the Reformation in the mid 16th century a huge development took place and the floor area was almost doubled and a three-decked pulpit was positioned to serve the two naves.

During the Civil War, Heptonstall was a Parliamentarian village and when the Royalists set up their guns ready for attack, the church was covered in sheepskins to protect it from cannonballs.

The 17th and 18th centuries continued to see the population of the area grow and with it the congregation also grew in numbers. To accommodate the people, new galleries were built and in 1617 North and South Lofts were erected.


The church didn't rate very high in John Wesley's opinion, for he had preached here on several occasions and he is noted as saying in 1786, "it is the ugliest Church I know". He mustn't have noticed the beautiful view, which alone could make up for any man made ugliness, if indeed it was as ugly as he said. It now seems a very romantic and impressive place but maybe that is due to the nature of the ruin, the gravestones, and the preserved village setting. I have the feeling that it was by this time tolerated by the locals rather than loved and there was little concern for it's state of disrepair.  After all the whole area was a hotbed of non conformity.

The 19th century began and the church could seat 815 on the ground floor and 300 in the galleries. It must have been a sight to see it packed with parishioners, the vicar in full voice and then the huge congregation joining together in one voice to sing praises to the Lord.

By now the fabric of the old building had begun to deteriorate and in 1847 a great storm destroyed the West face of the tower and plans were made to replace the whole structure. This plan was scrapped in favour of building a new church, and the old church continued to be used until 1854 when the new one was finally finished.

Before the storm

(click picture to enlarge)


The ruined church above the village of Heptonstall in the 1800's

(click picture to enlarge)

One startling discovery was made after the storm, when the fossilised remains of a cat was found in the rafters. It was thought to be thousands of years old and caused such a commotion and to do that it was taken to the Cross Inn and displayed in a glass case. It stayed there for many years but disappeared in 1958 in mysterious circumstances.


In 1868 further demolition to the old church took place, this time man was responsible, not the elements. As the historian John Travis was walking around on one of his journeys, he noted that the slates had been removed and men were busy taking down the oak roof. It was then taken to a foundry in Hebden Bridge, where it was sold off for firewood. It is a question of morality as to the correctness of selling something that has been dedicated to God. As is usual, money wins over morals.

The new church was built by subscription at a cost of £6.600, in the Victorian Gothic style. The building was made from local stone, which was taken from the nearby quarry at Hell Hole. The foundation stone was laid on the 15th May 1850 and the church was completed by 1854. The Rt. Rev. Dr. Longley, the Bishop of Ripon, consecrated it on 26th October 1854 and it was dedicated to St. Thomas the Apostle.
The font from the old church was removed to the new one and is still in use. A remarkable and unusual eleven-sided one, lined with lead and given a new cover, which is appropriate in design and in keeping with the décor of the new church.


The arms over the door of the church are the royal coat-of-arms of King George III (1760-1820) and were also taken from the old church.


Also preserved from the old church are an oak table, an oak chair dated 1690, and a long settle.


Looking at the clock in the tower, you will be seeing the one that was once in the now ruined church from 1809 until 1854, at which date it began a new lease of life as timekeeper in the new church, without having to move very far. It was made nearby Sowerby Bridge.


The church, being built where it was, open to all the elements, made it inevitable that sooner or later nature would play a part in the story and on the 5th April 1875 it was struck by lightening, which caused the south west pinnacle to come crashing down onto graves below. The roof was badly damaged along with the tombstones. Money was raised by public subscription to pay for the repairs which cost £200.


The pinnacle now rests by the side of the church and is inscribed:

This pinnacle was struck down by lightening from the south west corner of this tower on

April 5th A.D. 1875

The interior of the church was constructed in the early 1960's from money made available by the legacy of Mr. Abraham Gibson who had died in 1956. The original Victorian interior was badly affected by dry rot, so Mr. Gibson's contribution was much welcomed. It is a very non-traditional interior, being an adaptation of a traditional medieval style converted into a 20th century plan.
A surprising find at the tower end of the church is a copy of Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper". The original of it is still to be seen in Milan and it is an amazing story of how this copy came to be hanging in a church, in a village high in the Pennines, so many miles away from Italy.

Gringaschi painted the copy for the Italian government in 1905. They wanted one as the original was beginning to fade and lose some of its beautiful colour, and the wall on which it was painted was shelling. They wanted people to be able to see both the copy and the original and so be able to view the full beauty of Leonardo's fresco, as it had first appeared, so they hung them side-by-side. In 1906, a wealthy Hebden Bridge man by the name of John Sutcliffe bought it for a large sum of money. This was only after special permission had been given by the Italian government for the sale to take place. It was bequeathed to the church by one of the late Mr. Sutcliffe's relations.


Calling people to church by the ringing of bells has echoed over the hills and valleys from Heptonstall church for over 500 years. Additions to the earlier bells of 1440 were six dated 1742 and 1748, and were transferred to the new church. They were recast in 1911 with the addition of two new bells to make a full peal of eight. They weigh in total over four tons. The framework, in which they are housed, is regarded as one of the finest in the country.


The old church is still there, in ruins, and a memorial to times past. Times that we know little about, except from old manuscripts and the like. Would that we could tap into it's walls and perhaps hear again the congregations from long ago, singing and praying, being married, buried and baptised.  


Data from the registers of St. Thomas' Chapels can be purchased as follows:

Microfiche of the original registers

baptisms 1599 - 1904

marriages 1594 - 1837

burials 1594 - 1898

banns 1754 - 1959

from the West Yorkshire Archives at


Transcriptions of the registers in various volumes by Douglas Wilson to be found at the Tourist Information Office in Todmorden


Burial Ground

The graveyard, which surrounds the two churches, is large and is said to hold over 10,000 bodies. One indication of how crowded it is is seen by the re-use of gravestones. There are inscriptions on both sides of some of the stones with one set of inscriptions face downwards. Only Halifax and Heptonstall could be used for burials until the 17th century. The earliest dated stone is 1501, but burials have taken place here since the 1200's, and many of the memorials are in Latin.

David Hartley of Cragg Vale Coiners notoriety is buried here. He was hanged on 8th April 1770. The fascinating story of the Coiners can be read in "Clip a Bright Guinea" by John Marsh.


David Hartley 1770


Here was interred the Body of Grace Hartley

of Lodge in Erringden

who departed this life Sept. 2nd 1802

in the 61 year of her age.

Also of David Hartley her grandson

who departed this life Feby 23rd 1845

aged 25 years.

Also of David Hartley his father who died Feby 27th 1847 aged 81 years

Also Prudence Hartley

who died June 1st. 1883 in her 86th year


In 1911, Gamiel Sutcliffe donated land for a new graveyard and as a result, the old one closed in 1915.


Below is a selection of graves and memorial inscriptions from the burial ground


In loving memory of Abraham ROBERTSHAW,

Bacup Road Todmorden

Who died Sept 1st 1903 aged 54 years

Also of 4 infants

Also of Grace his wife

Who died Novr 18th 1906 aged 59 years

Also of James their son

Who died October 2nd 1919 aged 51 years.

Also of John CRABTREE of Bacup Road

Died Novr 15th 1945 aged 59 years

Also of Sarah wife of the above

Who died July 11th 1955 aged 69 years.

In memory of Elizabeth,

daughter of Thomas & Grace GREENWOOD of Todmorden

Who died June 5th 1860 aged 15 years

Also of Emma GREENWOOD their daughter

Who died Jan 27th 1872 aged 22 years

Also of Thomas GREENWOOD their father

Who died March 25th 1880 aged 64 years

Also of Grace, relict of the above Thomas GREENWOOD

Who died Nov 18th 1892 aged 75 years.

In Loving Memory of Thomas SLATER of Heptonstall

who died Decr 27th 1909 aged 65 years.

Also Sarah Ann his wife who died Jan 31st 1925 aged 77 years.

Also of Ada SHARP niece of the above

who died Feby 14th 1951 aged 77 years.


B.A. 1772


Thomas ACKROYD 1822 aged 66

Also of Sally Akroyd his wife who died Octr 11 th 1836 aged 81 years.

Also of Sally Akroyd their daughter

who died November 4th 1875 aged 80 years


In memory of Absalam STOTT of Burntacres Woodbottom

who died Nov 2nd 1880 aged 65 years.

Also of Amy Stott his mother who died Feby 3 rd 1826 aged 41 years.

Also of John Stott her husband who died Jany 18 th 1840 aged 57 years. Also of John who died in infancy.


In memory of Betty wife of Thomas BOLTON of this town

who died Dec 19th 1856 aged 69 years.

Also of the above named Thomas Bolton

who died Novr 26 th 1865 in

the 77th year of his age.


In Loving Memory of Mary Hannah wife of George MASTERS Heptonstall

who died April 13th 1899 aged 22 years.

Also of the above George Masters who died Jany 9 th 1959 aged 64 years. Also of Edith their daughter who died June 18th 1958 aged 60 years.

Also of Marzilla his wife who died Jany 19th 1961 aged 81 years.


Here lieth the body of John UTTLEY who died Nov? ?? 1833 aged 90 years.

Also of Jonas Uttley of Walsden who died Jan 7th 1890 aged 73 years

"Thy Will Be Done"

Also of Elizabeth, relict of the above Jonas UTTLEY

who died Sept 1st. 1900 in her 82nd year.

"At Rest"

In affectionate remembrance of James CRABTREE of Castle Street Todmorden

who died July 22 nd 1870 aged 29 years

Also of Elizabeth relict of the above who died May 16 th 1914 aged 76 years

"At Rest"

To my loved one far away

Private Sam BARKER 2nd . South Staffs Regt. Son-in-Law of the above

born June 26 th 1883 Killed in action November 30th 1917

He nobly did his duty

Also of Sarah Ellen Barker wife of the above who died February 17th 1942 aged 74


In memory of Mary wife of John HAIGH of Nut Clough Wadsworth

Who died July 19th 1865 aged 56 years

Also of Susannah Haigh their daughter Who died Feb 13th 1873 aged 37 years

Also of the aforesaid John Haigh who died Nov. 17th 1880 aged 74 years

Also of Mary wife of John Haigh jnr. of Heptonstall

who died Feb 17th 1904 aged 65 years

Also of John Haigh jnr. of Heptonstall who died Feb 15th 1918 aged 78 years

R.I.P .


In Loving Memory of Jane wife of John VARLEY of Cornholme

Who died May 14th 1891 aged 48 years

Also of Sarah Ann their daughter who died April 30th 1891 aged 18 years

Also of the above John VARLEY who died July 14th 1911 in his 70th year

Also Alexander WILD son in law of the above died March 25th 1945 aged 72

Also of Betsy his wife died July 17th (unreadable) aged 22 years

Also of Herbert WILD son of Alexander and Betsy

died October 24th 1982 aged 71 years


In Affectionate Remembrance of Samuel CHATBURN

Of South Hollingworth Walsden

Born March 13th 1853 Died May 27th 1883


Hartley the infant son of H and M.E. HOLLINRAKE born Novr 7th 1904 died Novr 12th 1904.

Hartley the dearly beloved husband of Mary Ellen HOLLINRAKE

born Sept 28th 1869 died March 29th 1932.

Also of the above Mary Ellen HOLLINRAKE born Jany 9th 1868 died Sept 29th 1956.

James HOLLINRAKE Lance Corpl. 7th Lincolnshire Regt. Aged 22 years.

Dearly loved son of Jonas and Margaret HOLLINRAKE Church St., Heptonstall.

Died of wounds Sept. 4th 1916. Buried at the British Cemetery Warlincourt Halte, France.

Other side of memorial

Also the aforesaid Margaret HOLLINRAKE who fell on sleep December 13th 1926 in her 68th year.

Also of Ada daughter of the above who died March 1st 1946 aged 57 years.