If we could travel back in time to 400 years ago, Meltham would have been a small rural community in the wider Parish of Almondbury, which encompassed the land south of the River Colne. Passing north-to-south through Meltham was a well-trodden road from Marsden to Penistone, via Honley.
Many of the baptisms, marriages and funerals of the people of Meltham took place at the Parish Church in Almondbury, some 8 miles distant from here. According to local legend, coffin bearers would take a well-deserved rest upon reaching the half-way point of the ancient settlement of Deadmanstone at Berry Brow before tackling the steep ascent of Castle Hill along Lady House Lane to reach Almondbury. It was at Deadmanstone that they would take the body of the deceased out of the coffin and pass it through a short natural tunnel in a rocky outcrop by the side of the path to symbolise the journey into the afterlife. Whether that legend is true or not, we do know that Victorian children in Berry Brow would dare each other to go through that tunnel or pretend to be dead, so that their friends could pass them through!
As the population of Meltham grew, it became impractical for there to be only one church for the entire parish and so-called “Chapels of Ease” began to be built in the various townships. For example, Honley built their chapel in the early 1500s. These would most likely be rather plain and functional buildings, usually with earthen floors that would be covered in rushes during the annual rush-bearing ceremony. Although they wouldn’t have a bell tower, a bell would usually be hung on the gable end to call the faithful to worship.
It is estimated that the population of Meltham was around 200 people when it was decided to build a chapel here in the mid-1600s. According to the Rev. Joseph Hughes’ book, it was William Woodhead who left money in his Will for the building of a chapel at Meltham, as his mother used to make the weekly journey to the chapel at Honley on foot and was “occasionally pelted with sods [of earth] by idle and mischievous lads”!
Unfortunately the mid-1600s was also the time that Oliver Cromwell was seizing power and threatening the outright abolition of bishops. Understandably, most local bishops were keen to keep a low profile and it seems none were willing to risk their necks by consecrating the new chapel at Meltham. Instead it fell to an exiled Irishman named Henry Tilson to do the job. He had once been the Bishop of Elphin in Ireland, but had fled persecution and was living in retirement in Dewsbury. Perhaps at the invitation of Rev. Christian Binns, who was the first curate of the chapel, Bishop Tilson consecrated the Meltham Chapel on St. Bartholomew’s Day, 24th of August 1651.
After around 120 years of use, the Chapel was falling into disrepair and was unable to accommodate the growing population and an Act of Parliament was sought in 1785 to build a new Chapel on the site. Work on the demolition of the original chapel began in the summer of 1786 with some of the stone from the old Chapel being sold to Nathaniel Dyson who used it to build a small mill at Meltham Mills.
One possibly apocryphal story goes that the plans for the new chapel had overlooked the need to re-use the existing bell, which had originally been forged for the Parish Church at Almondbury. The masons contracted to build the new chapel therefore regarded it as being their salvage and refused to hand it over! After some lengthy negotiations, it was apparently agreed that the masons would hand the disputed item over if they were given the equivalent of enough ale to fill the upturned bell!
The new chapel, which forms the main body of the present church, was completed by the summer of 1788 at a reported cost of around £160.
The chapel was enlarged into a church in the 1830s by the addition of a tower at the western end and of a chancel for the altar and pulpit at the eastern end. The architect behind these additions was James Pigott Pritchett of York, who is perhaps best known locally as the architect of Huddersfield Railway station.
The new tower was completed within five months and was ready for St. Bartholomew’s Day 1835. From the Rev. Joseph Hughes’ book, we learn that Meltham celebrated heartily and the masons responsible for building the tower offered the townspeople lifts up the side of the tower in the heavy basket used to winch up the stones. If that wasn’t hair-raising enough, Hughes also states that a local man named Joseph Taylor was so overcome by the occasion that he snatched up his one-year-old daughter Levina in one arm and proceeded to climb up the rickety ladders still attached to the side of the tower. One elderly onlooker was so horrified that he reportedly “rushed into his house to escape the sight of what he believed inevitable — namely, the destruction of both father and child”! Fortunately, Joseph made it safely to the top of the tower where he then proceeded to hold little Levina aloft “in triumph”! Joseph Taylor went on to became the local parish registrar of births and deaths whilst his daughter Levina, none the worse for her adventures at the top of the tower, lived to a ripe old age.
The following February, a peal of six bells were installed in the tower. A few years later, Mr. Edwin Eastwood paid for the clock to be installed. It was around this time that the Rev. Joseph Hughes became the incumbent vicar and he remained here until his death in 1863.
By the late 1840s, the graveyard here was becoming full and land for a new cemetery on Mill Moor Road was consecrated on Friday 14th November 1851 by the Bishop of Ripon.
The next major event was major year-long refurbishment of the inside of the church which was undertaken by architects Edward Burchall of Leeds of John Kirk & Sons of Huddersfield, with Edward Brook of Meltham Hall gifting the handsome sum of £5,000. Along with a new panelled ceiling, chancel and replacement galleries, a new pipe organ was installed by the well-known firm of Conacher & Co. of Huddersfield. The re-opening service took place on Friday 3rd May 1878.
Did You Know?
- If you go through the church door and turn immediately to your right, you’ll find a date stone from the original chapel which reads “1651”.
Historic England Listing
- Grade II (6 April 1967)
GREEN END ROAD (Meltham). Church of St. Bartholomew. Classical church on site of church of 1651. 1782-6. Thought to be by Joseph Jagger. Tower and north transept added 1835 by J P Pritchett. Neo-Norman chancel added 1877-8 by John Kirk. Tower and nave, ashlar with raised quoins. Chancel, hammer dressed stone. Stone slate roof with gable copings on square kneelers. Moulded eaves cornice. Two storey nave with band between floors. Six-bay nave, two-bay chancel, square west tower. Single light windows to nave, four to ground floor, south side, and doorway to left and right with architrave, pulvinated frieze and cornce. Three-bay transept on north side, one bay deep, with single light windows, as nave, and oculus in gable apex. Chancel has slender round arched single lights with hood moulds. The east window has three equal round headed slender single lights with colonnettes with broad foliated capitals. Group of three small round-arched lights in gable apex. Three-tier west tower has blind round-arched windows in recess to second tier. Tall three-light, louvred bell chamber openings. Corner pilasters to bell chamber, supporting architrave, frieze and cornice, with blocking course and four large urns. Interior. Gallery to rear and north over aisle, on slender cast iron columns. Panelled gallery fronts with balustrade. Wood panelled coffered ceiling. Round chancel arch on paired, squat, red granite colonnettes. Neo-Norman font presented 1878. Various early and mid C19 wall memorials including one to James Brook, d. 1845 by H Mares, depicting kneeling woman by an altar.