Rochdale Parish Church of St Chad
and St Mary in the Baum

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History & Heritage

History & Heritage

Open your eyes to history

St Chad's Church Watch gives you a chance to meet with friendly volunteers and find out more about the fascinating history of both church and town. 

St Chad's

We have two useful histories of the church for you to enjoy. They are both entitled Top o' th' Steps. The book by Wild is out of print but well worth a read for its detail. You can buy a copy of the more recent history by Ken Dixon at £3 from the Church or download it here (for free - do buy a hard copy when you visit!!)  Also, a new guide has been written by Donald Fletcher and is available to purchase in Church.

Download a pdf of a history of St Chad's by AS Wild

Download a pdf of a history of St Chad's by KH Dixon

Download a Chronology of events at St Chad's since Saxon times

Early history of the church

Situated on an eminence overlooking the busy town of Rochdale, the Parish Church of St. Chad has been a geographical and spiritual focal point for at least 800 years. In common with that other famous local enimage - the 'Roman Road' over Blackstone Edge - the origins of the Parish Church are hidden in the mist of antiquity.

The first written record of the existence of the Church is in a document of 1194 which refers to Geoffrey the Elder, Dean of Whalley, as Vicar of Rochdale.  Hence the 800th anniversary was celebrated in 1994 with a visit by Her Majesty the Queen and Prince Philip.

However, the dedication to St Chad argues that the Church may have a much earlier foundation.  Ceadda or St Chad as he became known, was born in the 7th century and educated under St Aidan in the monastery on Linidisfarne.  He is known to have made several missionary journeys on foot in the north before being consecrated Bishop of Mercia.

He died soon aftwards in 672.  It is not impossible that he founded this church in Rochdale on one of his journeys.  In the window dedicated to him in the south aisle, he is pictured preaching in Rochdale and his image is over the south porch holding the church in his hands.  St Chad is much venerated in the Diocese of Manchester; there are five other churches dedicated to him, but none is of ancient foundation except Rochdale.  However, there are two in North Lancashire - Poulton-le-Fylde and Claughton - which are.  There are no remains of an earlier church foundation except the so-called "Saxon Wall" at the northwest boundary of the churchyard.  This consists of some 30ft of slab of local stone slotted into uprights.  It was found partly buried and re-erected in 1903.  The authority for describing the wall as "Saxon" is obscure.


The fact that there is no mention of a church in Rochdale in the Domesday Book (1086) is not conclusive.  Lancashire, due to the difficult terrain and sparse population, was not as thoroughly surveyed as elsewhere.  However it is recorded in the Domesday Book that Gamel the Thane held two hides of land (240 acres) in Rochdale from the King.  It was Gamel who, according to local legend, commenced to build a church on the north side of the River Roch.

However, each night the stones were removed to the top of the hill by supernatural means until it was decided that this was where the church was meant to be and here the church has stood ever since.

Gamel was in the highest order of Thanes by virtue of his holding his land directly from the King.  Therefore it can be assumed that he had a church.

Before 1194, Adam de Spotland gave land for the Love of God and to save his soul and his wives, his ancestors and succession to all the Saints and to St Ceadda and the Church of Rochdale.

The patronage of the church passed to the Cistercian monks of Stanlow.  In 1296 they moved to Whalley.  In 1536 John Paslow, Abbot of Whalley, was executed at Lancaster for his part in the rebellion known as Pilgrimage of Grace.  Two years later, Henry VIII let the church and parsonage to one of his pages, Henry Parker, for 21 years after which they reverted to the Archbishop of Canterbury.  This was confirmed by Edward VI.  It has been pointed out that the fact of the of Archbishop of Canterbury being for so long apatron had an important bearing on the type of parson who became Vicar of Rochdale.

The original Rochdale parish was very extensive covering an area of over 58,000 acres and stretching as far as Todmorden to the north and Saddleworth to the east.  It was 10.5 miles from north to south and 9 miles from east to west.  It was anciently divided into four townships: Huddersfield, Spotland, Castleton and Butterworth. Such was the extent that, as the population grew, what seem now extraordinary numbers of baptism, marriages and confirmations were carried out at St. Chad's.  In 1837 when there were only two other churches in Rochdale, 1560 baptisms took place, including 175 on one day - Februrary 16th.  In 1835, 518 marriages were celbrated at St. Chad's including 34 on one day.  Eventually 33 parishes were carved out of the original Rochdale parish.

The Churchyard

The churchyard was the burial place for the dead of Rochdale for several hundred years.  The level of the churchyard is much higher than the surrounding ground due to the number of interments which have taken place.  It has been estimated that it contains the remains of the 5,000 people (including over 500 buried at the time of the Great Plague in 1623).  The oldest remaining gravestone is dated 1659 and the churchyard was closed to further burials in 1813.

Burials then took place in the "new burial ground" across the road until 1855.  This contains a further 2,000 graves and it is estimated that about 6,000 people have been interred there.  Since 1855 Rochdale burials have been at the Municipal Cemetery off Bury Road.

An exception to this was the last interment inside church was was the daughter of Lord of the Manor, James Dearden, in 1858.  Many of the gravestones are sad memorials to past high levels of infact mortality; many are also the more interesting because of the local custom of including the inscription of occupation and address in the inscription.

In 1970 a large number of the gravestones were removed and placed to form pavements.  This, and the landscaping of lawns and rose beds, were executed at a cost of £7,000 by Rochale Council as the town's contribution to the then church restoration.  The council now accepts responsibility for the repair and maintenance of the churchyard.

Exterior of the Church

The church is now classified as a Grade II* listed building of special architectural and historic interest.  It presents a handsome, well-proportioned and harmonious appearance.  Although it has, it fact, been subjected to much re-building, restoration and enlargement over centuries.  It is "Queen Anne in front of Mary Anne behind", in that the south side is well built of ashlar stone, whereas the stonework on the north side, which is not subject to the same close inspection, is altogether rougher.

The nave and the lower tower incorporates the oldest part of the present church.  They contain some work dating back to the 14th Century and possibly earlier. In the 16th century an upper row of windows or clerestory was added and the church given a lot of features of Perpendicular style. Both north and south aisles were re-built at different times during the 19th century.  The Nave was re-roofed in 1856 and in 1873 a new south porch was added and the tower raised by 35ft to 95ft, the architect being WH Crossland who was also responsible for Rochdale Town Hall.  The porch is crowned by a welcoming figure of St. Chad holding the church in his hand.

In 1885, the chancel was completely re-built and much enlarged.  A clerestory was added and it was extended by two bays from the point marked by diagonal buttresses.

The nature of the stones changes from Rossendale millstone grit of which the main body of the church is built to Yorkshire sandstone for the extension.  Beneath the east windows are carved the head of Queen Victoria and three fishes representing the river Roach.  The architect of the new chancel was JS Crowther who also did much of the work on Manchester Cathedral and designed the new chancel for Littleborough Parish Church dedicated in 1890.

The Vicars of Rochdale

Entering the church by the porch on the south side, we pass boards on which are listed the 45 vicars since 1194, commencing with Geoffry the Dean.  Not all have been models of virtue.  It is recorded that Richard de Perebald (Vicar 1302-1317) was in 1306 fined 20 shillings for hunting and killing deer.  Gilbert Haybock (Vicar 1522-1554), the last appointment of a vicar by the Abbots of Whalley, refers in his will to his "bastard children".  However, several have been distinguished men for other reasons.  There have been many Deans, Archdeacons and Canons, amongst them Henry Tilson (Vicar 1615-1635) who became Dean of Dublin Cathedral and then Bishop of Elphin in Ireland. More recently David Boner (Vicar 1982-1986) was subsquently Bishop of Bolton.

Thomas de Boulton (Vicar 1317-1349) was almost certainly a victim of the Black Death, the bubonic plague which killed a third of the population at the time.  No successor was appointed for nine months, a long inter-regnum in those days.  Henry de Marland (Vicar 1426-1455) was the only local man to be appointed until Alan Shackleton (Vicar 1986-1997) was hailed from Milnrow.

Robert Bath was Vicar (1635-1662) during the Civil War period. Although originally a High Churchman, he accepted "The Solemn League and Covenant" and became a Presbyterian.  At the restoration of the monarchy in 1662 he would not recounce the Covenant and so was turned out of the Living together with his curate.  He took up residence in Deeplish where his preaching drew a large following.  He died in 1674 having become in effect the founder of Nonconformity in Rochdale.

His successor, Henry Pigot was Vicar for 60 years (1662-1722) until he died in 1794.  He was thus St. Chad's longest serving vicar.  The galleries west and south were erected in the church in his time and were not removed until 1855.  In 1678 the church sent to London the proceedings of the collection to pay towards the rebuilding of St. Pauls Cathedral in London after the Great Fire.

Samuel Dunester (Vicar 1724-1754), the builder of the old vicarage, died in office aged 81 and was succeeded by Nathanial Forester (Vicar 1754-1757).  A distinguished scholar, both an Oxford DD and a Fellow of the Royal Society, he died young at 41.  He was followed by James Tunstall (Vicar 1757-1762).  The concern of his wife to keep her seven daughters apart from the choirboys has already been mentioned.

It was during the vicariate of Richard Hind (1778-1790) that the sundial in the churchyard was installed in 1783.  His successor was Thomas Drake (Vicar 1790-1819) whose name is commemorated in that one of Rochdale's main streets.

The next Vicar William Hay (Vicar 1819-1839), was also a barrister.  His was not a popular appointment as, shortly before, in the capacity of Chairman of the Salford Quarter Sessions, he was responsible for reading the Riot Act at the gathering of some 50,000 in St. Peter's Field, Manchester.  The resultant bloodshed, including the eleven deaths, became known as the Peterloo Massacre.

When Hay's successor Dr. John Edward Nassua Molesworth (Vicar 1839-1877) took over he found a church "in a state of great collapse and stagnation".  In 1840 he called a meeting of ratepayers to set a "half penny rate" to pay for necessary repairs.

Molesworth's successor was Dr Edward Maclure (Vicar 1877-1890).  His memorial is the entirely rebuilt and enlarged chancel and the lengthening of the Trinity and St Katherine's Chapels, together with a very fine new organ.  He made St. Chad's what is called a "Double Apostles Church".  However, Dr. Maclure was appointed Dean of Manchester and Rochdale was nominated as no more than a Seat of an Archdeaconry.

The next vicar was the distinguished Dr. James Wilson (Vicar 1890-1905) ex Headmaster of Clifton College, and a noted mathematican and theologian.  The more recent vicars included another Molesworth, the great grandson of the first Gilbert Edward Nassau Molesworth and Harry Nightingale (Vicar 1953-1970) who carried out the last major restoration.

The next vicar was Alan Shackleton (Vicar 1986-1997) who received HM The Queen and Prince Philip when they visited the church to mark the 800th anniversary celebration in 1994.

St Mary in the Baum

This recent article by Steve Cooke is worth a read


Ninian Comper was a leading Anglo-Catholic designer and architect in the late C19 and early C20 who was renowned for the virtuosity and intellectual rigour of his designs for church furnishings and stained glass and highly accomplished as a church architect;


St Mary-in-the-Baum has an ingenious and highly individual plan due to the awkward, built-up urban site which places the nave and chancel on the south side to take advantage of the primary source of light, with two contiguous aisles on the north side;

Architectural interest

Comper became increasingly inspired by the continuity of Christian worship and St Mary-in-the-Baum is the first church which clearly shows his synthesis of classical and Gothic styles, combining Perpendicular Gothic with classical details measured directly from Greek architecture, while the outer aisle is designed in the character of the previous C18 chapel of which the congregation were very fond;

Decorative quality

The church is a tour-de-force of Comper's design skills in church fixtures and fittings and stained glass, which are exquisitively executed and demonstrate a high degree of craftsmanship, notably in the intricate, timber screens, and enormous East window;


Influenced by early Christian iconography, this is the first significant representation by Comper of a young, beardless Good Shepherd in Majestas (Christ Pantokrator) set in a mandorla on the chancel tie beam and incorporated into the East window and subsequently used at his St Mary the Virgin, Wellingborough (Grade I), and elsewhere.


The Church of St Mary's-in-the-Baum, Rochdale, originated in 1738 when a subscription deed outlined the need for a 'chapel of relief' in Rochdale due to the growing number of parishioners. The resulting chapel and associated churchyard was largely gifted by Samuel Chetham of Castleton Hall, who supplied the land and £500. The chapel opened for worship in 1742. It was a modest, brick-built, rectangular building of six bays with round-headed windows. In 1865 a chancel was added and the following year it became a parish church. In 1867 the windows were filled with paired stained glass roundels of Christ's Life by Wailes to designs by the Revd Robert Napier Sharpe. 

By 1905 the church was suffering from cracks and a sinking apse. The decision was made to build a new church, though the C18 building was well-loved by the parishioners and there was a clear desire to retain some of its character in the new design. A challenging design brief was drawn up including improved ventilation and light within the mill-ridden neighbourhood, greater interior decoration, greater capacity (682 persons was specified in one document), and also the retention of the character of the original chapel. The architect was Ninian Comper whose design for the new church sensitively addressed the brief. The church had an unusual floor plan. The south side of the built-up site provided the best light due to a fall in the land. A continuous nave and chancel were located here where they could be well lit by large, clear glass windows. It also enabled the large east window to be located in the only open space between the high cotton mills on its eastern side. A broad central aisle acted as the principal circulation space of the church, and beyond was a low, north aisle built in the character of the original chapel. Decorative treatment was concentrated upon the interior, with a simple exterior of handmade brick, a pragmatic choice by Comper as he considered it would resist the effects of pollution from the industrial location better than the local sandstone. 

The foundation stone was laid on 12 June 1909 and the new church was consecrated on 2 February 1911. The original altar was retained and Comper designed the four riddel posts topped by gilded angels that flanked the altar supporting altar curtains. The 1866 font was also retained and the 1867 stained glass roundels were re-set in groups of three in the deeper round-headed windows of the northern aisle. Timber panelling on the south and west walls of the nave was in the manner of the gallery fronts of the original church with a suggestion that some panels were re-used. Likewise there is a suggestion that capitals and bases from the columns of the upper galleries were used for the north aisle arcade of the new church. The arch soffits have lozenge coffering taken from measurements Comper took in the temple of Bassae, Greece, when he visited in 1906, as was the external balustrade to the north aisle. The large east window was designed by Comper, who also designed a relief carving in the spandrel of the tie beam marking the division between the nave and chancel. It depicted the Pantokrator (Ruler of All) as a beardless Christ inspired by early Christian images of the Good Shepherd set in a mandorla. This was the first significant representation of the beardless Pantokrator by Comper, who used it in a number of his subsequent ecclesiastical designs. He also designed the timber parclose screen around the Jesus Chapel in the north aisle, which was carved by Mr Gough. 

In 1923 Comper designed the west War Memorial window in the central aisle, and the east memorial window depicting saints in 1924. His timber chancel screen and east screen in front of the organ loft in the central aisle were also added in 1924. They contained figures of the apostles and the chancel screen carried his rood group. In the early 1930s an organ built by Fitton and Haley of Stanningley, Leeds, was added to the pre-existing organ loft. The organ case was designed by Comper, as were the choir stalls of c1936. 

The architect Ninian Comper (1864-1960) was initially an assistant to C E Kempe, the glass painter and church craftsman before being articled to the architect G F Bodley in 1883. In 1888 he entered into partnership with William Bucknall until 1905 after which time he employed assistants. Comper was Anglo-Catholic in his emphasis on interpreting English church art and liturgical worship based on scientific principles. He was renowned for the virtuosity of his designs for church fixtures, fittings, furnishings and stained glass. He designed fifteen churches initially using the Decorated Gothic style of C14, before becoming inspired by the English Perpendicular architecture of C15. In the early C20 he visited Rome, Sicily and the Mediterranean, and Greece. This encouraged an inclusive approach to architecture which synthesized many decorative and architectural styles. He also published three influential liturgical papers. Comper was knighted in 1950.


The church is built of narrow, hand-made red bricks in English garden wall bond (4:1) with Alderley sandstone ashlar dressings and small, red tiles to the roofs. The north (entrance) elevation has a flat-roofed outer aisle with a balustraded parapet with moulded stone cornice, coping and turned balusters. The aisle is divided into four bays by stepped, brick pilasters with cyma mouldings. There are two windows in the first, second and fourth bays, and a projecting porch to the third bay. The windows are round-headed with ashlar surrounds incorporating pilasters and keystones. Each window contains glass incorporating three large stained-glass roundels (1867) set in small, leaded roundels of clear glass. The pedimented porch has a doorway with ashlar pilasters and a moulded round-headed arch with a keystone. The door is of twelve fielded panels with an overlight with small, leaded roundels of clear glass. The single-storey vestry to the left has a steeply pitched roof with a stone-coped gable and kneelers at the left-hand end. It has a three-light and a five-light mullioned window with hood moulds separated by a Tudor-arched doorway. The stepped-back clerestorey to the higher central aisle has 'Y' tracery to flattened pointed arches. The chancel to the rear of the vestry and central aisle has a single large pointed-arch window with Perpendicular style tracery. The west elevation is of three bays. The left-hand bay is the return bay of the north, outer aisle. It has a similarly detailed round-headed window and balustraded parapet. Separated by a stepped buttress are the gable walls of the central aisle and higher nave, both with stone coping and kneelers. On the ridge of the nave is an ornate, classical timber and lead bell-cote which has been re-used from the original church. Both gable walls have large Perpendicular style windows. On the right-hand side of the central aisle is a porch with an embattled parapet which is flush with the slightly-projecting nave wall. The porch has a pointed-arch doorway with panelled double doors. The south elevation is of seven window bays separated by gableted, stepped buttresses. The buttress between the fifth and sixth bays is taller and heavier and divides the nave from the chancel. Abutting it is an embattled porch with a doorway in the west elevation and a two-light window in the south elevation. The very large pointed-arch windows (24ft x 12 ft / 7.3m x 3.6m) have four-light, Perpendicular style tracery and small panes of leaded, clear glass. The east gable wall of the chancel has a very large pointed-arch window (30ft x 18ft / 9.1m x 5.5m) with Perpendicular style tracery, stone coping, kneelers, and a cross finial. The east gable wall of the central aisle is stepped back with a six-light window divided in two by a central mullion with a hood mould at ground-floor level. The right-hand gable wall of the vestry has a five-light window with a hood mould. 


The interior is faced in ashlar stone with embattled oak panelling almost to sill level on the south and west walls of the five-bay nave. The south wall of the two-bay chancel has a timber sedilia beneath the first window and panelling up to the embattled sill of the second window. The stone window sills above are also embattled. The floors are wooden parquet with stone flags in the chancel. The chancel has a stone piscina in the south wall, and an aumbry in the north wall. There is also a squint through from the area beneath the organ loft at the east end of the central aisle. The nave and chancel are of considerable height (120ft / 36.6m). The roof has elaborately painted king-post trusses, shaped braces, and roof surface, now faded. A moulded stone arch head separates the nave and chancel with a decorated, timber tie-beam which supports a relief-carved beardless Christ seated in a mandorla and flanked by kneeling angels. The huge, twelve-light east window has Perpendicular style tracery and stained glass designed by Comper depicting 'Life and Love of God, so lovingly bestowed upon man' and includes two images of an unbearded Christ in a mandorla. The nave is separated from the central aisle by a very tall arcade of alternately round and concave-sided octagonal piers. The central aisle has a shallow arched and panelled roof. The west window is a War Memorial window with a roundel of St George slaying the Dragon around which shields bearing the arms of the five principal allied nations are arrayed. It commemorates the 73 men of the congregation who died in the First World War; a panel was later added to commemorate the seven men lost in the Second World War. The six-light east memorial window, beneath the organ loft, depicts three female saints on the left-hand side and three male saints in the right-hand side. The central aisle is separated from the outer north aisle by an arcade with Tuscan columns and semi-circular arches with lozenge coffering to the soffits. The north aisle has a flat, panelled ceiling with moulded, timber spine and cross beams. In the east wall is a depressed-arch doorway opening into the vestry and there is a round-headed doorway opening into the north porch. The stained glass roundels of the Life of Christ from the original church are set in the windows, flanked by an Annunciation in the easternmost window and the Crucifixion in the west window. A heavily enriched and intricately carved timber screen designed by Comper separates the nave and chancel. It incorporates tracery and tabernacles with saints bearing either the symbol of their martyrdom or ministry. Set on top of the screen are a rood group with a crucified Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary, St John and two angels (above Christ is the tie beam supporting the Pantokrator). The screen is continued in the same manner in line with the chancel screen across the east end of the central aisle, in front of the organ loft. The organ case in the organ loft has a case by Comper with angled groups of pipes and painted images of cherubs. The four eastern bays of the north aisle are enclosed by an intricate timber parclose screen with brattishing. At the west end of the nave is the 1866 stone font from the original church. On the south side of the nave is a hexagonal, panelled pulpit on a pedestal with an octagonal sounding board supported by an intricately carved post and a back panel carved with linenfold.

Source Historic England



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