In 1662 during the reign of Charles II, Ministers of the Established Church, were required to sign a declaration under the ‘Act of Uniformity’ accepting the Book of Common Prayer. Some 2000 pious and educated clergymen refused to sign and were ejected from the Church of England and forbidden to hold meetings of more than 5 people, excluding their families. These were known as Dissenters.
1695 Dissenters, from the Church of England, used a barn in Scholes, owned by Margaret Laithwaite, to practice their religion in. These dissenters later formed St. Paul’s Church.
1764 John Wesley said of Wiganers that they were “famous for all manner of wickedness”. In 1768 Wesley, after preaching at the old playhouse in the Wiend, described them as “wild as wild might be”. At the time men and women worked together in the coal mines, often cohabiting there with children born to them in the mines.
1774 Dissenters were meeting in a room at Bear’s Paw Inn, Wigan Wallgate.
1775 Was the start of a real revival in the power of scriptural belief and in that year the first chapel was built – the Wesleyan Chapel in Wallgate
1783 Rev John Johnson, was sent by the Countess of Huntingdon, who was spending large sums evangelising the dark parts of the country, to minister in Wigan. On more than one occasion his life was in danger from persecution and it was reported that a persecutor died in the process. Mr Johnson was a poet, a musician, a Hebraist (expert in Hebrew), yea almost a universal genius. He published a volume of tunes adapted to the harpsichord; dedicated to his patroness, the Countess of Huntington. Among his earliest converts was a 17 year old young man, William Roby who co-laboured in the Christian Gospel with Rev Johnson. William Roby was to become one of the Founding Fathers of the Lancashire Congregational Union in 1806.
18 July 1785 Rev Mr Wills, a Chaplain to the Countess of Huntingdon, announced the first hymn to be sung in St. Paul’s Independent Chapel, Standishgate, Wigan, a building then with no roof or floor. The day before, Rev Wills had preached, on ‘The Good Samaritan’, to a crowd of 6000 in Wigan.
In 1808 Napoleon was ravaging Europe and England was preparing for an invasion. Handloom weavers, in Lancashire, were being displaced by power-looms, causing unemployment and destitution. Young girls were selling sand (to clean flagged floors) or matches, or begging cold potatoes.
1809 Rev. Alexander Steill, who was Calvinistic in his approach and a well-qualified theologian and a great preacher, entered the pastorate of St Paul’s and ministered for 21 years in Wigan. His epitaph in St Paul’s Churchyard says: ‘He faithfully preached the Gospel in this Chapel 21 years . . . ’ However there were some who found him to be worldly-minded, haughty and overbearing with a bitter temper, and uneasiness broke out among the congregation and many people left in 1810, to start the Hope Street Chapel. Mr Steill appears to have been an active and zealous Minister, where church attendance was good and the congregation attentive. In 1829 during Mr Steill’s ministry a Government Survey of Non-conformist Meetings recorded that St. Paul’s had 1,200 adherents. Records of baptisms relating to St. Paul’s between 1777 and 1837 show 800 entries. Mary the wife of Rev Steill died suddenly aged 60 in 1829 and the Minister himself died in 1832 aged 64.
The Rev. William Roaf entered the pastorate at St. Paul’s in 1839. He was a quaint and interesting character, who wielded a prolific pen and was a zealous Independent, kind and generous even to a fault. It was reported that when he reviewed his ministerial work in 1869, after 30 years’ service as Pastor of St. Paul’s, he said: “I have aimed at the instructive, the bracing, the deciding, rather than at what was sensational and exciting. I would prefer bread to brandy, and a lamp to a sky-rocket. Like Whitfield, I would be a spiritual physician, healing the wounds of sin, rather than a spiritual milliner, decorating a dead soul. I would be a star of the smallest magnitude and remotest orbit, rather than a comet of the most eccentric course and fiery tail. Gladly would I lay down my life tonight, if I could see such a rising of all hearts to Christ as, like a springtide filling all channels with life, should send revived energy into all closets, all families, all devotional services, and all benevolent operations.”
William Roaf preached his last sermon on 9 January 1870, resigned his position as Secretary of the Congregational Union, and his Pastorate of St. Paul’s and died on 7 March 1870 at the age of sixty seven. He had served in the ministry for more than forty years, 30 at St. Paul’s and in the service of Lancashire Congregationalism.
1862 was remembered more for being the first year of the Cotton Famine, rather than the Bicentenary of the Ejectment of Dissenting Ministers. The cotton famine caused by the American Civil War, brought unparalleled misery and distress for those working in the Lancashire cotton Mills, which at the time were almost entirely dependent on the American cotton. The careful savings of long years of arduous toil vanished – the poor-houses were crowded; and, though charity flowed freely, starvation and hunger were only partially relieved. A soup kitchen was opened at St. Paul’s and William Roaf was well in the forefront in helping to bring relief to families in their distress. Even bread that had not been used at the Lord’s Supper was given to feed the needy in the congregation. A rare treat for the children, at the Sunday School Fair Picnic, was to be given a bun and an orange.
In 1875 the Church was cleaned, painted inside, walls pointed, roof re-leaded, churchyard levelled, and Church House built (£154) – and an Organ was erected (£345) – the total cost £701 9s 6d, and all paid for. Truly a remarkable achievement in those days of hardship! It’s probably not surprising that fixed pew rents of 3s 6d per quarter were introduced around his time. Possibly due to the acquisition of the organ, the attendance at services improved but attendances at Church Meetings left much to be desired. Two years later at a church meeting it was decided to introduce segregated seating, dividing the congregation into three sections: Scholes, Wallgate and Wigan Lane – the mind boggles! Wrangles over pew occupancy and payments were a recurring pantomime theme for about ten years. The Deacons at a protracted church meeting were even asked to evict one family from a pew in favour of another family ‘that was there first!’
Around this time a day school was opened by the Church with Bible, Science and Art Classes and students were being entered for examinations (and passing); the fees were 5s-0d a term, subsidised by Government Grant! Apparently St. Paul’s Sunday School was the home of part of the Wigan Grammar School and the Wigan Observer reported that at the invitation of the Mayor, the Grammar School boys and Masters assembled at St. Paul’s Schools and marched in procession to the North Western Station for a day trip to His Worship’s residence, Anderton Hall in Adlington – a rare treat!
The Choir Leader, a Mr McClure, didn’t last long in the post as he was only permitted one anthem a month, and in his resignation letter stated that “Dissenters were afraid of music,” and he was going to join the Church of England “where they are not afraid to give to God’s House the best they can”. How things have changed!
In 1880 the Minister (Rev. P W Darnton) and Deacons of Hope Church had to find a new site for their church buildings and wrote to the Minister at St. Paul’s requesting the union of the two churches “in the cause of Christ and the interests of Congregationalism”. Sadly that request was turned down on this occasion and it would be a further 90 years before it was finally agreed.
In March 1902 St. Paul’s old Chapel, which was opened for worship in 1785, and had Galleries added in 1791, held its last service before being demolished. It was arranged with Hope Church that joint services would be held until the new Chapel building was completed at a cost of £6000. Under the foundation stones of the new church, which were laid with due ceremony, were placed copies of the Wigan Examiner, Wigan Observer, Lancashire Congregational Year Book, a local magazine – “Round the Churches”, a Sunday School Union Chronicle and a sample of a Child’s Collecting Card (used to pay for the new pulpit) as well as postage stamps, etc.
Fund raising efforts were high on the agenda at this time, with donations from Mrs Rylands of Manchester (widow of John Rylands). A gift, from the PSA (?), of a new organ costing £800 was given, and the Sunday School managed to raise the funds to provide a new pulpit.
On 26 August 1903 the building contractors presented to Mrs Wright (a long standing member of the church) a silver key with which she duly opened the door and declared the new St. Paul’s Congregational Church open.
During the Great War, the Sunday School picnic was suspended, but the Church Magazine made another appearance, (the cost one penny) with the intention of keeping in touch with those serving in H.M. Forces. Sadly lives were lost from among members of the church family. Following the signing of the Armistice Agreement in November 1918 a Peace Carnival was held and a Roll of Honour was unveiled.
In 1926 the Recreation Ground (a field) was opened, although, it wasn’t purchased by the church until a year or two later. The church “rejoiced in the fact that for all time St. Paul’s will have this happy retreat for her people, where young friends can meet for healthy recreation and older friends gather for helpful social converse”. Secretaries of the Tennis, Cricket, Hockey, Football and ‘Subscriptions’ were appointed. A bowling green, two tennis courts and a badminton court were laid. St. Paul’s Boy’ Brigade and Scout Troops were formed and the grounds were used for church picnics, fêtes and for ‘The Ceremony of the Crowning of the Rose Queen’, with maypole dancing. Over the years Cubs and Brownies groups were started.
Of interest to many – in 1930, a Mr F Ashcroft (Senior) was appointed organist. By 1951 he had completed 21 years as Organist and Choirmaster. The first meeting of the Women’s Guild of Christian Service was held at St. Paul’s in 1932 and within a year had 40 members and in that year electric lighting was installed in the Church and Sunday School.
During the Second World War, the Sunday School buildings were requisitioned by the military authorities; the Evening Services were moved to the afternoon to comply with the ‘Blackout Regulations’; and it was reluctantly agreed that the church owned Recreation Ground should be dug up (ouch!) for allotments (which apparently flourished). This was in support of the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign, and supplement food for the country, since convoy ships of the Merchant Navy (bringing one million tons of food and goods per week from America) were suffering heavy losses from the German ‘U’- Boat and air attacks in the Atlantic. Several men of the Church paid the ultimate price and were sadly killed or ‘missing’ while serving in the forces.
In 1940 a new boiler was installed in the church (£80) – just as well, as some parts of Wigan were under several feet of snow, roads were impassable and some members of the congregation, living in the more outlying areas, had to access their homes via ladders up to their bedroom windows!
A rota was arranged of Church Friends to write to the 26 young people away on war service and a copy of the Church Magazine was also sent to them to help keep them intouch with home. Prayers for Peace were held in the church and during the lighter summer months the Evening Services were resumed at 6pm.
It was reported that there was a shortage of flowers for the Communion Table in 1942 as France and Holland (flower producing regions) were occupied by German Armed Forces and shipping could not be spared to bring flowers from the Scilly Isles. East Anglia, our own bulb growing area, was growing aerodromes instead of flowers and playing host to bombers and fighter planes. Garden parties, teas and other gatherings (but not the annual Crowning of the Rose Queen which was abandoned during the war years) had to be held in the Hut on the Recreation Ground as the Army had requisitioned the School Buildings for £135 per annum, a good income for the Church.
The Church premises were insured during the war, against the effects of air raids, for £55 per annum. In the event the only building destroyed by enemy action over Wigan was the Independent Methodist Church in Greenough Street, which ironically had been designated as a Rest Centre for people made homeless as a result of enemy action. Fortunately it was not in use for that purpose at the time. A thank offering and a performance of “Elijah” raised a total of £220 towards the rebuilding fund for that church. Indeed Wigan escaped very lightly with no casualties, although the blast from a second bomb, dropped in a field nearby, did shake chimneys and bring soot down on 3 members of the congregation. The Church collected silver paper for charity and also provided financial support to: the British Sailors’ Society, Wigan Infirmary, Dr Barnardo’s Homes and the local Blind Society, among other organisations.
After the war, the still homeless, Greenough Street congregation was invited to worship at St. Paul’s and hold their Anniversary Services there. The Sunday School Buildings were re-opened with a Service of Re-dedication in October 1946.
In 1948, the Sunday School Scholars had the exciting experience of visiting Liverpool Docks, to board the John Williams V, a ship they had so earnestly collected money for, before she sailed to the South Seas to begin her work. The church had purchased a porthole for L.M.S. John Williams IV at a cost of £5 back in 1930.
Friends of Hope Church were invited to join the Tennis Club and the New Greenough Street Independent Methodist Church was opened in 1950.
In 1952 a Mr W Ireland was appointed to the position of Church Secretary. The Congregational Tea was postponed, owing to the death of King George VI and a period of National Mourning. On 2 June 1953 the Coronation of HM Queen Elizabeth II took place in Westminster Abbey. All churches joined in special prayers for the Sovereign and Country; and everyone was asked to rededicate themselves to the service of God, the Church and the Country. Earlier in May, Sunday Schools throughout the Country had been asked to explain the significance of the vestments and regalia used in the Coronation and there was a special celebration on Youth Sunday with a church parade by the Scouts, Cubs and Brownies. (1958 the Girl Guides make an appearance). A Coronation copy of the New Testament was presented to each Sunday School Scholar and the decorations for the May Fair were in Coronation Colours.
In 1954 Mr Frank Ashcroft returned from Oxford University and was made a Deacon upon his return to Church life. The Dramatic Society presented “The Happiest Days of Your Life”, to capacity audiences.
Covenant Giving was started, as Expenditure (£1,250) exceeded income (£800). To try to balance the books (a recurring theme over the years) the church Envelope system would be overhauled, the School premises let, advertisements in the “Wigan Observer” cancelled and more effort made to raise funds with strict economies to be made with heating and lighting.
1957 - It was reported that the Sunday School had been reorganised and would now take the form of Family Church Services on Sunday mornings. The children would sit with their families for the early part of the service and leave to go to their classes after the Children’s Address had been given.
In 1962 the Manse in Milton Grove was sold for £4000.
A joint meeting of the Diaconates of Hope Street and St. Paul’s was held in 1963; the purpose being, to discuss the union of the two churches. Discussions continued over the next few years and eventually ‘bore fruit’.
By 1965 Frank Ashcroft was Church treasurer. It was reported that the costs of running the Church and its activities had increased by 12% during the previous year and dry rot was reported in the fabric of the building causing great concern.
The Scouts and Cubs held an Open Evening, and the Duke of Edinburgh Award was presented to John Bilsborough, the first scout in the Wigan Division to receive the Award.
Of real significance, in 1971, the Assemblies of both the Congregational and Presbyterian Unions voted “Yes” to the proposed United Church. On 18 September, an Extraordinary Meeting of the Lancashire Congregational Union was held in St. Paul’s, the purpose being to vote on the proposed Congregational/Presbyterian Union; the result 85% “For”. Although St Paul’s church members were initially against the Union, the decision was reversed at a later meeting. On 14 October the first Synod Meeting of the ‘United Reformed Church’ took place in Liverpool, and the following day a Special Service of Thanksgiving was held in Hope Church for the ‘United Reformed Church’, which was attended by members of St. Paul’s, as well as civic leaders and representatives of other denominations.
By the end of 1972, it was evident that the site on which Hope Church stood was required for commercial reasons and combined St. Paul’s/Hope St. Services became more frequent. On 25 February 1973, at a Church Meeting, 33 members of St. Paul’s unanimously passed the resolution, “To invite the Minister and Congregation of Hope United Reformed Church to worship with us, and share our facilities.” The Church Secretary was invited to convey this information to Hope United Reformed Church; the joint occupation to begin on December 16th. The young people and the fellowship were at last one.
After the last Services held in Hope Church on 9 December 1973, the furnishings from that Church and Sunday School were transferred to St. Paul’s Church and School.
In 1976 the Chronicle of St Paul’s, a 62 page booklet, which spanned 190 years in the life of the church, was published. It had taken two dedicated church members, Joan Bamford and Alice Hodgeon, 15 years to research and prepare and it ends with this thought:
“If we want a new start we must look to the past;
The present is too occupied, the future too obscure.”
It is from this very detailed booklet that the above historical extracts have been taken. During the 190 years (up to 1973) that were chronicled in the life of St. Paul’s, the Church had 20 Ministers, 3 of whom served for 75 years between them. It is humbling to glimpse a little of God’s work, through the ordinary and extraordinary lives of the men and women of the Church.