Honey Hole Road, Todmorden



Photo by kind permission of Frank Woolrych

This church is a Grade 1 Listed Building overlooking the town. It is perched high on a hill in an imposing position and can be seen for miles around, helped by the spire, which increases its height by a further 192 feet. Reached by a long winding drive starting at a gatehouse, it looks more like an Anglican Cathedral than a non-conformist chapel. Even the gatehouse is a listed building. The church stands in its own substantial landscaped grounds and has a large burial ground on the wooded slopes behind the building.

However, the church is new in comparison to most, and wasn't the first place of worship for the Todmorden Unitarians. Joseph Cooke was a former Wesleyan Minister who had been expelled for heresy. His followers called themselves the Methodist Unitarians and they set up a number of Societies in the Rochdale area, including Todmorden.

John Fielden (1784-1849), the local mill owner, social reformer and later radical MP for Oldham, was of Quaker stock. He dabbled in Wesleyanism and in 1818 was persuaded to follow the break away Unitarians, enticed no doubt by their political aims of social reform in factories, prisons and women's rights.

They first met at a room in Hanging Ditch, Todmorden, and in 1823 built their own chapel and school. John was closely involved in this and became a teacher at the school. By 1828 the congregation had grown but the Society was in considerable debt so John bought the chapel and cleared the debt from his own pocket. John is buried in a plain and simple grave in the burial ground adjacent to the chapel.

The old chapel later remodelled as a

Sunday School


His grave is a rectangular stone kerb surrounding a gravel base. There is no headstone and the only inscription on the kerb reads:

Born 17th Jany 1784 - John Fielden - died 29th May 1849

Is it a sign of the times that the man who gave so much to Todmorden rests in a forgotten grave, which is now neglected and overgrown?

In the years after John Fielden's death, the Unitarian community in Todmorden grew rapidly and the facilities at the chapel became inadequate. In 1864 his three sons, Joshua, John and Samuel, agreed to help the community, but far from enlarging the existing premises they commissioned a brand new church to be built on their land at Honey Hole in Todmorden. Money was no object to these brothers, and they decreed that only the best quality stone, marble and oak were to be used. The cost ended up in excess of £35,000, which was a colossal sum in those days. No expense was spared and the building was one of considerable size and splendour.
Beneath the tower is a splendid porch, the entrance to which can be seen in the photograph, and from here is a staircase leading to the bell ringing chamber. There is a full octave of bells in the tower, which can be rung by pull ropes or by a complex system of wires and hammers in a carillon drum. The drum also plays 4 popular Victorian tunes including "Home Sweet Home."

Set in to the porch floor is a commemorative plaque to the three Fielden brothers

Erected by Samuel, John and Joshua Fielden



Just beyond the porch are the graves of two of the brothers, Joshua and Samuel. They lie side by side in isolated splendour. Samuel's grave is the one on the right, with the following inscription:

In Memory of Samuel Fielden

Born at Dawson Weir, Todmorden 21 January 1816

Died at Centre Vale Todmorden 9 November 1889.

In Memory of Sarah Jane Fielden

wife of the late Samuel Fielden.

Born at West Dingle, Liverpool

5 November 1819

Died at Centre Vale Todmorden 4 July 1910.

Joshua's' grave is on the left with a simple inscription:

Joshua Fielden born March 8th 1827,

died March 8th 1887 aged 60 years


Photo by very kind permission of Frank Woolrych

The photographs show the interior view of the chancel, a group of bell ringers about 1910 and the decorative marble font.
Also worth a mention is the organ, which was powered by an underground water wheel until as late as 1939.
The church opened its doors in April 1869 when 800 people gathered to hear the first sermon by the invited guest William Gaskell, widower of the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell. He was an important Unitarian in the Manchester area. Local feeling had been mixed when the church was being built. Non-conformist tradition was to have everything plain and simple, and this gothic structure seemed ostentatious and more in keeping with the Anglican or Roman Church. William Gaskell devoted part of his address to arguing that there is nothing wrong in using art in religion. This must have pleased the Fielden brothers, who were aware of the unease amongst the community.

Rev. William Gaskell


The Rev. Taplin wrote a note in the front of his new Register of Baptisms, saying:

The new building was opened for religious worship on Wednesday April 7th 1869, on the Sunday following, April 11th, a service was held in the church at 3pm for the christening of young children, who I baptised with water of the Jordan (for which I was indebted to my venerable friend the Rev. William James of Birstal who had lately returned from the east) the following children. Lindsay Taplin

29 children in all were baptised on that day.

The church soon became very loved and popular, and thrived as a centre of the Unitarian faith until well in to the 20th Century, which in the early days upset the local Anglican community, mainly due to the minister Rev. Lindsay Taplin, who was a very outspoken preacher in favour of the Unitarian liberal and humanistic views. Rev. Taplin was the minister from 1856 to 1881. In November 1887 the Rev. Taplin committed suicide whilst pastor of Kingswood Unitarian Chapel.

The first marriage was celebrated at the church on 6th. March 1873. It was between Mr. Joseph Sutcliffe, one of the bell ringers, and Miss Ann Holt, both of Cobden. Mrs. John Fielden of Dobroyd Castle presented the pair with a Family Bible, a copy of Martineau's "Hymns for the Christian Church and Home" and the Service Book used at the church.


The church and Langfield Moor, kindly sent by

Audrey Watts

After Rev. Taplin left Todmorden, the Fielden brothers set up an endowment trust to give the church some sort of independence from the family, who still owned the land and buildings.

Despite this, as time passed and congregations dwindled, there became a shortage of funds.


In the centenary year, 1969, there were great efforts made to raise money to keep the church going, but it finally closed in 1987. Services continued until 1992 in the gatehouse and were then disbanded.

Not all of the Unitarian community were rich and prominent figures. James Graham was an ordinary working class blacksmith who also became a member of the Unitarian Society and worshipped at the original chapel. He was born in 1837, the eldest son of Thomas Graham and Mary. Thomas had arrived in Todmorden as a young man from Whalley and had set himself up as a blacksmith at Bridge End, Shade. His business thrived and he took on 2 local apprentices. He also taught his son the trade, and by the time he was 14 James was already a fully fledged blacksmith.

The family was then living at 10, Little Holme Street. When Thomas died, James took over the business, married Susan, and moved to Dobroyd. James and Susan brought up their two children to be members of the Unitarian Society and would have sent them to the Sunday school at the chapel. Their son, Thomas, was a clever lad and his parents must have been very proud of him. However, James didn't live long enough to see his son's achievements in later life. He died in 1875 at the age of 37 and is buried in the chapel grounds very close to the last resting place of the founder, John Fielden. Thomas was just 8 years old.


In memory of James Graham of Dobroyd Todmorden

Born March 18th 1837 Died February 12th 1875

My sledge and hammer lay declined

My bellows too have lost their wind,

My fires extinguished, my force decayed,

My vice now in the dust is laid;

My iron and my coals are gone

My nails are drove my work is done,

My fire dried corpse lies here at rest,

My soul is waiting to be blessed.

Also of Susan his wife

who died September 18th 1905 aged 78 years.


Young Thomas was left, at the age of 8, with his widowed mother and a younger sister. His mother had to work to keep her family and she became a laundress. She made sure her son was fully educated and would no doubt have noticed his intelligence and thirst for learning. He continued to follow in the Unitarian tradition of liberalism and social reform, and became a part time "extension" student of Oxford University, a little similar to our present day Open University students, whereby he would attend lectures by travelling Oxford Lecturers as part of the University's scheme to encourage adult education amongst the working classes and especially amongst the non-conformists. At the age of 24 he was awarded a £5 grant towards attending a summer meeting of Oxford Extension students at Oxford. The following year, 1891, he was awarded a £5 scholarship by the Oxford Examiners along with 2 other Todmorden men, the examiners reporting "the historical essays show much thought as well as reading, and the best show a high standard of excellence."

Thomas remained at Dobroyd, delivering talks to the Liberal Club and other organisations, one of which was entitled "Drink and Poverty". He was a committee member of the Todmorden Sunday School Union and an active participant in the Unitarian Sunday school as well as a member of the Band of Hope. When his mother died in 1905 and was buried next to her husband in the chapel burial ground, the headstone was inscribed accordingly. I wonder if it was Thomas who penned the lovely verse in remembrance of his father, the blacksmith? In July 1907 Thomas left Todmorden to take charge of the Lewins Mead Unitarian Domestic Mission in Bristol.

The old chapel was converted for use as a school when the new church opened in 1869 and was enlarged and remodelled in 1899. It was reported at the time:

During the afternoon of this date, a memorial stone of the additions to the Todmorden Unitarian Sunday School was laid by the Rev. S. Alfred Steinthal of Manchester, in the presence of a large crowd of friends. Mr. Jas. Crabtree, a warden, presided, and Councillor W.S. Hollinrake of Waterside House presented the trowel and mallet to Mr. Steinthal. The memorial stone consisted of a slab fitted into a recess on the first floor level and bearing the following inscription:


To the memory of Samuel, John and Joshua Fielden.

Constant benefactors of the Unitarian Church and School.

This stone was laid by S. Alfred Steinthal

June 17th 1899.

Burial Grounds
There are two quite separate burial grounds. The oldest is at the original chapel and Sunday School. This was replaced by a much larger burial ground at the church.

The Old Chapel Burial Ground

The burial ground adjacent to the old chapel and Sunday School is quite small but has several graves, including of course those of John Fielden M.P. and James Graham, blacksmith. Most of them are in reasonable condition and easy enough to read, although the ground is neglected and beginning to become overgrown.

The inscriptions of the entire Old Chapel burial ground can be found on the following link, with grateful thanks to the Todmorden Antiquarian Society. Some of the graves have photos.



The main burial ground at the church

The church itself has a large burial ground, which at one time was extensively landscaped. It is located in a wooded area on a steep slope with a separate entrance from Shoebroad Lane. It is accessible from the church by means of a woodland path, which winds upwards and away from the church. It is difficult to imagine how a coffin could be carried along that path from the church.

The friends of the church have done a wonderful job in clearing the jungle that had engulfed the graveyard. Below are before and after photos, the latest one taken February 2007.





The inscriptions of the entire church burial ground can be found on the following link, with grateful thanks to the Todmorden Antiquarian Society. Some of the graves have photos.



Inside the church is a memorial tablet:

Memorial to the men of the Unitarian Church, Todmorden,

who fell in the war 1914-1918


© Colin Hinson


In Honour and in ever grateful remembrance of the members of this church who gave their lives in defence of their native land and for the cause of freedom, justice and peace in the War of 1914-1918


William Bailey

John Mason

Ernest Barker

James Murie

Ernest Butterworth

James A. Pearson

Herbert Coupe

James Pickles

Fielden Crabtree

Harold Pilling

Frank Crossley

Richard Potter

Harry Crossley

Herbert Robinson

Leonard B. Dawson

Ronald Shackleton

J. W. B. Farrer

Thomas W. Shackleton

Wilfred Firth

James W. Smith

Ernest Greenwood

John Stephenson

Fred Greenwood

George Sunderland

Irving Greenwood

Tom Sunderland

Thomas H. Greenwood

Robert Suthers

George Hodgson

Leonard Toothill

Harold F. Hollinrake

Arthur Whipp

Tom Jackson

Marshall Whitham

Clarence Lee

Wilbert S. Whitham

Following its closure as a place of worship in 1987, the church fell into disrepair and suffered both vandalism and decay. Its acquisition by the Historic Chapels Trust in 1994 and significant financial investment  in its repair and renovation, in great part thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund, has enable the church to be restored to its former glory.

The Church is now available for hire for a variety of events such as weddings, receptions, concerts, exhibitions etc. The restored church has its own website at http://todunitarianchurch.caldercats.com/

The Unitarian Church baptisms 1868-1934 and burials 1832-1931 are held in TOUCHSTONES LOCAL STUDIES LIBRARY in Rochdale, opposite the Town Hall