Chapter Eight

                                   1900 - 1936

 

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Stalybridge had changed dramatically in its sociological and industrial outlook.  It was at the turn of the century, in 1901, that the new library in Trinity Street was opened, a gift from Mr J F Cheetham whose wife had laid the foundation stone four years earlier.  It was in the following year that the new Post Office (next door) was first commissioned having moved from its original premises on Melbourne Street.

 

1902 also was the year in which work began on the Electric Tramway which was to connect Ashton to Stalybridge and this would be ready, for limited use, in the following year.  The last horse drawn tram ran in March, 1903 and the first electric tram in October of the same year.  1904 was to be the year that electricity would revolutionise the life of the town and the first "consumers" had their home lit by electricity in that year.

 

The population had increased in 1901 and census figures show that a record total of 27,673 inhabitants were in the town.  Many new houses had been built in the more outlying districts of the area though many of the streets which now exist had not at that time been constructed.  The photograph, taken in 1900, shows the open aspect of the church viewed from somewhere around the top of the Hamilton Street area.

 

The majority of the towns-folk still relied heavily on cotton for their livelihood, despite the tremendous fluctuations of good and bad trading of the time.  Warning signs were evident during this period that there would be a Cotton Famine which ought to have made it abundantly clear to all concerned that it would be unwise for the town to base its economy almost exclusively on this one industry.

 

The many Factory Acts had done much to improve the conditions in the mills, though workers were still expected to complete very long shifts compared to modern day standards.  Mills were open from 6 am and closed for the day around 5.30 pm.  It was in this period that the "Knocker Up" found his role to be an invaluable contribution to the workers of the area.  For a small fee, the Knocker Up went on his rounds to the houses of his clients and woke them in time for work by "rattling" on their bedroom windows with a long pole.  Hoards of workers would then make their way to the mills carrying with them their breakfast and dinner, for the mills had no canteen facilities, but did often offer the use of large ovens where meals could be warmed up and a constant supply of hot water provided for brewing tea.

 

Wages in the cotton mills remained at a low level and figures of £1 per week would be considered to be good.  Some records indicate that wages at this period were even lower than they were thirty years before, consequently the standard of living of the people was much lower with a good deal of real poverty throughout the district.

 

These "ordinary working folk" were to be the backbone of the two churches of St George, and these same churches were to be served for the next quarter of a century, by men of great pastoral insight and sensitivity.

 

Herbert Hampson, who was inducted as the incumbent of the old church in 1904, was a man much loved by his people.  His first wife had died relatively early in their marriage and he subsequently married his House-Keeper who was to become a firm favourite of the parishioners.  He was deeply interested in the work of the Sunday School and in the younger people of the church, but lost no time at all in trying to bring together the various factions and groups, both in the church and in the community.  He worked very hard indeed with the poor of the parish and was unselfish and generous in a practical, spiritual and financial sense as each case dictated.

 

His commitment was to the ordinary man and woman in the street and he appeared to treat everyone alike, caring nothing for social background or wealth but only for those in need.  This endeared him to many of the people in the town who responded to his welcome and different approach by coming into the fellowship of the church.

 

It was Herbert Hampson who initiated the idea of a Dramatic Society which was to grow considerably and have a significant place within the church for the next half century.  This Society did not depend upon class but was an honest attempt to involve everyone.  Although we do not have records to show that he actually took part in any of the performances, he was certainly very much involved behind the scenes working and helping as much as was possible.

 

Many small memorials were added to the church during his incumbency but perhaps the most significant, indeed the only surviving one, was the font.

 

The font was situated in the "Children's Corner" of the octagonal church and was given on the "26th April, 1906 by Florence A Court in memory of her parents, Dr F I Roberts and Amelia (Amy) Roberts-Dudley".  As the photograph shows, this font is an alabaster cast angel in a typical style of the period with the angel kneeling and holding the baptism bowl that would be used in the service of initiation.

 

Herbert Hampson's ministry is perhaps best described in the form found within a letter lodged in the Diocesan Registry which reads, "Mr Hampson's ministry is loving, caring and wonderful to all of us who have been part of his church.  He has changed little within the building itself in any physical form, but has made a great contribution to the spiritual life and welfare of all who have worshipped in the church during his incumbency".  Herbert Hampson was not the extrovert, dynamic clergyman that many believe to exist today, but a caring and loving pastor.  He was also a keen sportsman and founded the Athletic Club at the church.  Cricket was also one of his great interests and he was an active member of the church's cricket team.

 

His ministry continued until his untimely death on the 9th September, 1924  which was followed by a special service held in the church some few days later.  At this service, which was "very well attended", the congregation sang his favourite hymn, "On the Resurrection morning" showing his belief in the hope and love of God and not dwelling on the misery of death.  His funeral service  was described as "impressive".  He had died in Old Colwyn and his body was brought from there to lie in the church overnight in the centre of the aisle.

 

In the new church "reigned" the powerful and imposing figure of Thomas Murphy Oldfield.  Like his colleague, he too lost his wife in the early years of their marriage, leaving a three months old child, Emily, to whom Murphy Oldfield was clearly devoted.  His reputation in the parish and in the diocese was one of a disciplinarian and a firm believer in Catholic order.  As his photograph indicates, he was a man who came from the more Catholic wing of the church and he was commonly seen wearing his biretta around the parish.  Those who still recall his ministry, reflect upon this stern character with much admiration and devotion.  One person recalled, "he was a real tyrant, a person you did not speak to unless invited to do so and, as a child, someone you almost feared".

 

Though not a man who had any significant wealth, he inherited a small fortune on the death of his wife and through his typical unselfish nature he shared, generally in an unknown way, his wealth with the community and more directly with the church.  Records show that Murphy Oldfield very often, if not always during the years of the recession, paid for the coke to fire the boilers both in the church and in the school.  He also took responsibility for the payment of bills relating to the repair of the church and New St George's was fortunate to have an incumbent who owned his own property, thus they did not have to find money to upkeep the house.  The parish of New St George was not populated by the wealthy gentlemen of the area and, with the low income of the inhabitants, it was not possible to keep the doors of the church open by depending on the giving of the people.

 

Again like his colleague, Murphy Oldfield did not make any physical changes to the building, nor in fact did he attract large congregations around him, but he had a ministry that was most effective and appreciated by those who lived in the parish and worshipped at the church during his incumbency.  His stern and dictatorial manner is well-balanced by stories from people who recall being invited to tea at the vicarage.  These were not the "Gentlefolk" one might imagine but the ordinary men and women, boys and girls from within his congregation.  One choir boy of the time recalls, "we sat in the parlour and waited, cakes in front of us and the tea poured.  No one moved until the "command" to begin had been given, and when we did no one rushed to eat the food we so much looked forward to, but ate at the rather slow pace of the Vicar".

 

The singular recollection that all people appear to hold of Murphy Oldfield, was to do with his physique. He was far from a small individual and estimates vary as to his actual weight, but clearly all are agreed that he was "a big man".  This did not, however, prevent him from being involved in different sporting activities and many recall the fact that he was an excellent skater.  The Park Lake often froze solidly during the rather harsh winters of the earlier part of the twentieth century, and this allowed the Vicar and many of his flock to demonstrate their prowess as skaters.  Apparently Murphy Oldfield had a "party piece" which was to carve his own name in the ice.  This particular activity took place almost as a kind of " annual religious feast".

 

Those who share the author's keen interest in the game of cricket will not be surprised to hear that he was not the first person, in the role of incumbent of the church, to take such an interest in the game.  Thomas Murphy Oldfield was not only an able skater but "an extremely good cricketer".  It was during his time that the cricket team of St George's first took shape and many recall the Vicar with his sleeves rolled up helping to tend the field and pavilion that was then in the care of the church.

 

The Cricket field was on the Springs estate but it is now covered by bungalows and access paths for the elderly.  This field was approximately 150 yards from Darnton Road on the left hand side of what is now Springs Lane.  The field "was well cared for and of reasonable size with a good number of wickets cut on the square."  There was a pavilion in excellent condition and the team flourished in the local cricket league.  This activity was undoubtedly the root cause of some of the men, who were later to become stalwarts of the church, to find "God via the willow" and become great servants of both the church and the community.

 

Both Herbert Hampson and Murphy Oldfield saw their parishes through the first and "Great War".  The Stalybridge Territorials were mobilised by early November, 1914 and scores of men either enlisted or were called up.  The cotton mills turned their energy at this time to the war effort producing cloth by the mile and the engineering works were engaged in the production of shells and other associated materials. 

 

Needless to say that many of the men who went to war were killed in their defence of this nation.  By the end of the war a total of 663 names were included on the War Memorial which was unveiled in the November of 1921. A short quotation from the official programme of the service to dedicate the Memorial, expresses in a fine fashion the sentiments of the time:-

 

"In number equal to a battalion going into action, they sprinkled in a hundred regiments.  Together in time, they did not fall - each year took its steady toll; nor yet in place - they rest in scattered graves in both hemispheres, but now in this Memorial is achieved perfect unity."

 

Those who did return from the war, came home to a period a great prosperity as the mills and factories boomed.  Not enough goods could be produced to meet the needs of the country - prices were high but wages remained at a modest level.  The cotton mills were making enormous profits and many of the mill owners re-invested capital in the belief that the "good times had returned".  This was not to be the case as foreign competition soon began to eat its way into the market. 

In 1921 a further slump had begun and many lost heavily; soon the mills began to reflect this trend and workers were once more put on short time. Queues of unemployed men and women were often seen outside the Labour Exchange in Market Street waiting to "sign on" in order to qualify for some unemployment pay.  These were the years of the twenties and thirties when Stalybridge and many other towns stood helplessly by unable to do anything as their basic industry declined before their eyes.  This is recorded as one of the most tragic periods in the history of Stalybridge.

 

The cotton trade continued to decline, and by 1932 seven of the largest of the mills in the town had closed.  By this stage dole queues were larger than ever and unemployment figures for the time show that, once again, over 7,000 people were out of work.  Families simply uprooted themselves and left the district in search of employment in different parts of the county - and even of the country.  In 1921 the population figures had dwindled to 25,216 and by 1931 they had fallen again to a level of 24,800.  By 1938 estimates suggest that this reduced even further to 23,400.

 

This situation was to remain for a number of years and it was only in 1934, after a conscious decision by the Town Council to invest and to try and attract new companies to the town, that the trend began to reverse.  By 1939, around the outbreak of the Second World War, unemployment had almost completely disappeared as the large mills were replaced by smaller and more economically viable businesses.

 

The church had taken a significant lead in coping with, but certainly not combating, the poverty of its people during that period.  Records show, by letters of appreciation, the good work undertaken by Hampson and Oldfield, much in the way that the Leeson brothers had operated those years before.  Murphy Oldfield died in 1927 and was sadly missed.  He was succeeded by the Revd Rupert Kirk in 1928 who remained in the post of incumbent for eight years.  In the old church Herbert Hampson was succeeded by Frank Augustine Whitehead who stayed from 1924 to 1937.  Both of these two incumbents had much in common in the sense that they were very different from their predecessors and shared a particular interest in education.

 

Schools became a prime interest in both parishes as the incumbents gave a great deal of time to the educational development of the children.  Rupert Kirk had a particularly quiet ministry and, like John Thomas Read, communicated rarely with the diocesan authorities.  He changed nothing in a physical sense in the building and appears to have had a ministry of consolidation, building upon the work of Oldfield, perhaps not being able to escape his shadow.  It would appear that his was not a particularly happy ministry in a personal sense, but many remember his gentle approach with affection.

 

Frank Augustine Whitehead was "a great encouragement" to the people and supported many of the activities that existed at the time, but in particular that of the Dramatic Society.  He was the first, and so far as can be determined the last, incumbent who actually took part in the productions at the old church.  His interest in education and in the schools is demonstrated by the frequent correspondence between the diocese and the parish, and this clearly bore fruit when it came to finding boys for the choir.  Old St George's always appeared to have had a good musical tradition and equally a collection of some rather difficult choirmasters. One of the photographs, sadly not clear enough to be reproduced in this book, shows The Revd Whitehead with the choir and his Verger but perhaps all was not well - on the back of the photograph it reads, "Photograph by J H & E R Howard, who, however, cannot accept responsibility for the grouping, which was interfered with by the choirmaster".  Clearly all was not necessarily well between the choirmaster and the rest of the world, and this particular tradition of odd choirmasters seemed to continue for some time.

 

It was also during the time of Whitehead that the Guide Movement first came into the parish, somewhere around 1933.  Records are not explicit about this but Guides certainly existed towards the latter part of the year. 

 

By the time that Frank Whitehead came to leave the church he had endeared himself to many of the congregation who were "extremely sorry to see him go".  At a special service to mark his ministry he was presented with a "study chair and a bookcase" from the people who did not lose the opportunity to express in words the love they had come to know from him.  After a dialect poem or two by the choir, his Warden, Mr Turner, said of him, "we thought that he had become a fixture and that he would end up his time in the church.  Looking round,  he did not think that Mr Whitehead need be ashamed of his 13 years.  He was leaving both the church and the school in a better condition than when he came, and whoever his successor was he would be a lucky man, because both the church and the school were free from debt".

 

By the end of the ministries of Rupert Kirk and Frank Whitehead, the churches had moved through a substantial period of stability, but this was not to continue and, as we shall see later in the history of the churches, change was to become the order of the day.  Ahead lay a mixture of challenge and unavoidable change that was to alter the churches and their communities in a most interesting manner.