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History: St Stephen's, Lindley & The Waterloo Churches

St Stephen's in Lindley is one of those English parish churches that could fool you into thinking it's much older than it really is. It's built in the Gothic style, and appears to be one of those ancient parish churches that have dotted England's landscape for centuries.

St Stephen's, Lindley, from the lychgate

The Building

The clue, however, is the urban location. Lindley isn't a quiet village in the Yorkshire moors; it's a suburb of Huddersfield, one of West Yorkshire's principal towns. They're so closely joined that you wouldn't notice passing from one to the other. And while both places get a mention in the Doomsday Book, they weren't significant settlements until the Industrial Revolution, around 700 years later.

In fact, St Stephen's was built in the 1820s, in the Gothic style popular with designers of English churches partly because it looks old and venerable and has been used for churches for so long. In England, Gothic is church-like; it reminds us of other, older, churches.

Slightly later, the interior of St Stephen's was remodelled, to reflect the mid-century interest in worship focused on the chancel instead of the pulpit. This nationwide change was inspired by the Tractarian movement, and England's Catholic revival. That Catholic, High Church, aspect was ironic, given the founding aims of churches like St Stephen's, as we'll see shortly.

The Commission

The money for St Stephen's came from central government. In 1818, parliament voted to put £1million into a new program of church-building, with a top-up of £500,000 in 1824. The Church Building Commission that was formed to administer this fund and some parish changes was responsible for over 600 new churches. St Stephen's was one of them, costing just over £2000.

Why 600 New Churches?

There were three important and connected reasons for creating new Church of England churches at this time. All three involved revolutionary threats that the Anglican establishment hoped to counter with an increased physical presence.

-The Industrial Revolution

In the first decades of the nineteenth-century, Britain's working-class population was on the move.* The Industrial Revolution had caused an explosion of jobs in the towns and cities, and people poured in from the countryside to fill them. The pre-Industrial network of parish churches had served a largely rural population well enough, but by the 1820s parish boundaries didn't reflect where people lived any more; there were increasingly large urban populations with no spaces for Anglican worship.

Lindley, a growing suburb of rapidly-expanding Huddersfield, was one of those places. The closest parish church was St Peter's in the middle of Huddersfield, whose parish was divided up among several new churches during the nineteenth-century. These daughter parishes eventually gained their independence. Questions remain, however, about the social background and class of these new parishes, and how attractive that might be to potential converts.

Lindley Clock tower from St Stephen's churchyard

-Non-conformity and Dissent

Not all of those new working urbanites were Anglicans, of course. In the first decades of the Industrial Revolution, Christian groups outside of the Anglican establishment – Baptists and Methodists especially – had more joy recruiting members from the newly industrialised areas (mainly from the middle and upper-lower classes). New churches were a way to stem the tide of defections, putting Anglicanism back into communities, and making sure new population centres like Lindley weren't left to fall into the arms of Dissenting groups.

The Church of England faced a real challenge from rival churches undermining any claim it might make to be representing all of England's Protestant Christians. Meanwhile, there were long-running internal problems – including a lack of available churches and preachers – causing dissatisfaction among existing members. Not for nothing was this referred to as a confessional marketplace.

It became more and more clear that not all English Protestants were willing to subscribe to the hierarchy of the Anglican church. The problem, given how much the Anglican church identified itself with the state, was that at the head of that hierarchy was the monarch. Which brings us to the third reason for new churches.

-The French Revolution

In 1793, the French had executed their king during a decade of revolutionary activity. That revolution grew out of, among other things, an increasing awareness of, and dissatisfaction with, the class divisions across French society, as well as changing economic and social conditions. At Waterloo, in 1815, a European alliance had defeated Napoleon for the second time and put an end to France's political and military turbulence – or so they hoped.

At the same time, the migrations into Britain's industrialised areas had major impacts on the social cohesion of British society. People left behind families and communities they and their ancestors has been part of for centuries. They left behind more than their parish church. In the towns and cities, people lived away from the countryside rhythms that had defined rural life for generations. Worse than that, the concentration of people in much larger groups than previously, encouraged filth and disease to spread. New urban communities were easy prey to squalor, dissatisfaction and social unrest.

The 600 churches built with money from the Act of 1818 are known as Commission Churches, but also as Waterloo churches, highlighting the importance of that victory in persuading Parliament of the need to do something before England went the same way as France.

St Stephen's churchyard

Waterloo Success?

The Commission's 600 Anglican churches were intended to reintegrate the newly urban population into an Anglican hierarchy and stable, controlled, society that wouldn't follow France's example. The Anglican establishment still strove to encompass all of England's Christians. Measured against those aims, the Commission's successes were limited. The 1851 census recorded average Anglican attendance over the previous year as only slightly higher than nonconformist attendance, while the remodelling of St Stephen's interior shows that nonconformity wasn't the only threat.

St Stephen's, however, still stands as an Anglican parish church serving its community, unlike nearby fellow Commission Church St Paul's, which is now a concert hall for Huddersfield University.

*Britain's social class system is more fluid and nuanced than terms like 'working-class' suggest, and probably was even in the nineteenth-century – but such terms serve as serve as a useful shorthand, for want of anything better.


Further Reading:


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