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The Old Meeting House - The Story of Elder Yard Chapel, Chesterfield

Posted Tuesday, June 12, 2007

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The Old Meeting House

The Story of Elder Yard Chapel in Chesterfield

Chesterfield’s famous 'Crooked Spire' is a familiar landmark and must surely, without exception, be known by anyone born in or around the town.

But there is another church in the town centre which is not so readily recognised, and which a good percentage of the population would be hard pressed to identify or locate, - and yet it has been there for over 300 years!

Elder Yard Chapel was built in 1694, and with its tree-lined garden and stone-flagged approach it stands sheltering sedately behind the Victorian iron railings which surmount its boundary wall directly opposite the Cooperative store on Elder Way. It is the oldest nonconformist meeting house still in use in Derbyshire and one of the oldest in England, and has a fascinating history.

Nonconformist History

Nonconformity took root with the passing of the Act of Uniformity on St.Bartholomew's Day, August 24th 1662. The Act required all clergy to conform to the Book of Common Prayer and almost 2000 clergymen were deprived of their livings rather than conform to its requirements. The ejected ministers constituted about one fifth of all English clergy and many of them continued to hold secret meetings in private houses, or in open fields. This became almost impossible following the passing in 1664 of the Conventicle Act which made it a criminal offence not to attend the Parish church!

The vicar of the parish church in Chesterfield, Rev. John Billingsley and his curate James Ford had both been 'ejected', and because of the 'Five Mile Act' of 1665 which forbade ejected clergy from publicly preaching within a five mile radius, they continued to hold secret meetings in Mansfield.

These meetings were frequently broken up by constables and soldiers, and the gaols were soon filled up with honest men whose only crime was a desire to worship God according to the dictates of their conscience. Some measure of the persecution can be gleaned from old records which show that in the whole of England during the reign of Charles 2nd nearly eight thousand nonconformists died in prison!

James 2nd took the throne in 1685 and attempted to restore the Papacy, but the 'Glorious Revolution' of 1688 resulted in James being driven from the throne and succeeded in 1689 by William of Orange and his Queen, Mary.

Chesterfield was a stronghold for Dissenters, and it is significant that the plot for the 'Glorious Revolution' was hatched in the now famous 'Revolution House' at Old Whittington. That same year saw the passing of the 'Toleration Act' which allowed Dissenting Protestants to build their own places of worship, and in effect, Nonconformity was decriminalised!

The History of Elder Yard Chapel

In 1692 Cornelius Clarke, who was the son of the first Mayor of Chesterfield and who had been High Sheriff of Derbyshire in 1670, set about providing the Dissenters of the town with a permanent meeting house.

Ford's 'History of Chesterfield' tells us that:-

'Cornelius Clarke purchased from John Smith, a hatter; on 26th of October 1692, a parcel of land in or near to a place called Eller Yard, being part of a croft there formerly belonging to Humphrey Petty, deceased, and in size 40 yards by 23 yards. This said parcel of land the same Cornelius Clarke did so purchase with intent to erect a new building thereupon to be a place of meeting for Dissenting Protestants for religious worship. Upon this land accordingly Cornelius Clarke caused Elder Yard Chapel to be built'.

The total cost of the land and erection of the building was £229 lOs 6d!

The original building was of a plain rectangular shape about 50 feet long and 25 feet wide, with walls some 2ft 6ins thick and was completed in 1694. It was duly certified as a Dissenting Place of Worship at Derby Quarter Sessions on 17th April in that year.

The earliest congregation was a mixture of Congregationalists and Presbyterians and a Minister for each was employed at the Chapel until 1721 when the Congregationalist Minister departed, and the few Congregationalists who were left finally withdrew in 1772 upon the appointment of Rev.Thomas Astley, whose theological imperatives were decidedly Arian.

But the first reference to the building as 'The Unitarian Chapel' comes from a tradesman’s bill dated 1818. It must be remembered that Unitarianism, which denies the Doctrine of The Trinity, was illegal in England until 1813!

The Last 200 Years!

Progress was rapid in the 19th century. In 1821 the chancel was added, and in 1828 a piece of land to the east of the Chapel and fronting Saltergate was acquired upon which new schoolrooms were built.

Gas lighting was installed in 1836 and in 1845 a second storey was added to the schoolrooms as the congregation expanded rapidly along with the religious revival of the Victorian age.

The 20th century brought many changes; electricity was installed in 1922, and six years later the whole aspect of the Chapel was altered. The original 'Elder Yard' had been a narrow passage that linked Saltergate and Knifesmithgate and access to the Chapel was from either of these directions, but in 1928 the building of Elder Way was commenced to the west of the Chapel, and new access was sought.

The land which now forms the current frontage onto Elder Way was given as a gift by Mrs.Henry Wragg in memory of her husband. The work on the new frontage which provided access from Elder Way was completed and the forecourt officially opened by Miss Violet Markham JP. on 10th Nov.1934.

Many noteable Chesterfield families have long and valuable associations with the Chapel, among them are familiar names such as Broomhead, Malkin, Markham, Swanwick and Pearson. Of the well known pottery family both Theophilus Pearson and AId. Johnson Pearson JP served as Chapel Wardens, as did both George and William North Broomhead. Miss Mary Swanwick was a member of the congregation, and both Eric Drayton Swanwick and former Chesterfield Coroner; the late Michael Swanwick JP also served as Chapel Wardens in their time.

The 20th century witnessed a drastic and continual decline in churchgoing with the result that over 85% of nonconformist places of worship were forced into closure. Elder Yard did not escape the vagaries of decline, which in turn accounted for it's scout troop, boy's brigade, choir, and forced the sale of it's schoolrooms and land adjoining Saltergate.

Rev. Arthur Vallance, the last full time Minister, left a quarter of a century ago and by 1985 the Chapel was on the verge of closure.

But in 1986, when it seemed that only a miracle could stave off the inevitable, an 11th hour appeal went out and a remarkable transformation began. Chapel Secretary Alan Ravey, together with Lay Pastor Neil Lee and his wife Valerie re-energised the committee, with a series of initiatives.

Within two years the congregation had quadrupled in number and many new fund-raising ideas began to bear fruit. Plans were made for a new Peace Garden; lorry loads of rubbish were removed and the derelict old graveyard was slowly transformed; long forgotten buried pathways were uncovered and restored; ornamental trees and shrubs were planted and seats were added; the Chapel was redecorated, and the vestry re-roofed.

The Peace Garden was officially opened to the public on September 20th 1987 by Rev. Derek Smith, President of the General Assembly of Unitarian & Free Christian Churches of Great Britain & Northern Ireland.

These days Elder Yard has a part-time minister, and has developed an excellent reputation as a venue for weddings and cultural events; lunch-time organ recitals, and a number of other social events take place on a regular basis.

The old schoolrooms, once the premises of Harry Fish the Furrier, have been converted in modern times into a popular town-centre bar, previously named after former Unitarian minister, Douglas Robson, whose remains are buried at the foot of the tree in the centre of the rear courtyard, now a car parking area.

The legacy left behind by those who have gone before has ensured the future of this historic old Meeting House and it continues to flourish and provide a peaceful haven for the people of the town, and a place of worship for the Nonconformist Dissenters of Chesterfield – as it has done for over 300 years.

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The Old Meeting House - The Story of Elder Yard Chapel, Chesterfield
Elder Yard Chapel on Elder Way, Chesterfield

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