St. Peter’s Church, Hartshead

 

Although this church lies on the very border of Calderdale with Kirklees, its status as an integral part of the ancient parish of Hartshead-cum-Clifton means that its associations with the region are strong enough to warrant its inclusion here. It is one of the oldest churches in the district and a place of worship is first recorded at the site in 1120 when the Earl of Warren granted it to the Priory of Lewes, although it was possibly the location of an earlier Saxon chapel. Although the church was extensively restored in 1881, the chancel arch, west tower and south door are believed to be remnants of the 12th Century Norman structure.

Arguably, the church’s greatest claim to fame is that Reverend Patrick Brontë, father of the famous literary sisters, was incumbent here between 1810 and 1815. The Luddite attack on Cartwright Mill at Rawfolds occurred during his tenure and his memoirs from that period provided his daughter Charlotte with material for her novel “Shirley”. Although Brontë was an opponent of the Luddite movement, it is said that one night he witnessed some of the men killed during the failed assault receive a surreptitious burial in the south-eastern corner of the churchyard and did not intervene. There is still a space where their unmarked graves lie.

It was a curious local superstition for Hartshead folk to hold a vigil in the porch of the church every year on St. Mark’s Eve (24th April) from 11pm to 1am. The vigil had to be carried out for three years in succession and on the third year, the watchers were supposed to witness the spirits of all those who would die in the year ahead process into the church. It is said that if anybody whose name was mentioned as amongst those seen on St. Mark’s Eve fell ill during the course of the following year, they often despaired of recovery and some are actually supposed to have died as a result of their anxiety arising from such gossip.

Given the proximity of Kirklees Park and the long association of the Armytage family with the church, it is unsurprising that a couple of Robin Hood legends have attached themselves to it. It is said locally that he cut his last arrows from a yew tree in the churchyard, the dead trunk of which can still be seen standing there today. Meanwhile, the Yorkshire Robin Hood Society has suggested that the original stone from his grave — recorded by Nathaniel Johnston and others in the 17th Century but which some believe vanished from the grave site long ago — may be the medieval slab inscribed with a simple Calvary cross lying next to the south-east door of the church. However, this has been disputed.

Just to the north of the church, now almost entirely concealed beneath a hawthorn tree, lies the Lady Well. The origin of the name is likely to be Our Lady’s Well, referring to the Virgin Mary, which suggests it was once an important holy well used for baptisms in the earliest period of Christianity in England. Local historian H.N. Pobjoy thinks it possible that the 7th Century missionary and first Archbishop of York Paulinus may have performed baptisms here and like many such wells, it was probably regarded as sacred long before the arrival of Christianity. It’s presence certainly attests to the antiquity of worship around the site of the church.

The Rastrick Exorcist

Although the principle events in this drama occurred outside the Calderdale region, one of the main players had previously been something of a fixture in the area, namely the Father Peter Vincent who was vicar at the Church of Saint John the Divine in Rastrick between 1963 and 1971. The case and his involvement in it consequently generated a lot of discussion in the local press at the time, and hence it seems worth recounting here.

By 1974, Vincent was the parish priest at the Church of Saint Thomas in Gawber, South Yorkshire and known to be an expert in the art euphemistically described as “deliverance” but more commonly known as exorcism. Thus, he was called in by the Christian Fellowship Group of Osset when one of their members, Michael Taylor, felt he was possessed following an attack he carried out on his wife Christine and an encounter with the devil himself.

On the night of 5th April, Vincent and the Methodist priest Reverend Raymond Smith took Taylor to Saint Thames’ Church in Barnsley, whereupon the performed an intensive exorcism ritual which lasted over seven hours into the following morning. The clerics claimed to have expelled forty demons from Taylor but in light of the events that followed admitted “at least three demons – insanity, murder, and violence – were still left in him.”

Returning to his home in the early hours of the morning and clearly still in a profoundly disturbed state of mind, Taylor proceeded to murder his wife Christine and mutilate her body by reportedly removing her eyes and tongue, practically tearing her face off the skull with his bare hands. He went on to kill the family’s pet poodle and was subsequently found by the police wandering the streets naked and slick with blood, claiming to have no memory of events.

Taylor was found to be suffering from schizophrenia and an inquest declared him criminally insane, confining him to an asylum from which he was released only three years later. Inevitably, the incident sparked a huge controversy concerning the role of exorcism in modern society. In the Church of England, deliverance cases must now first be referred to a panel including a medical psychiatrist, and the Taylor exorcism remains the last acknowledged instance in an Anglican church.

In April 1975 following the conclusion of the inquest, the Brighouse Echo reports that Vincent successor at St. John’s Church, Rev. Ian Walker had performed an exorcism in the Brighouse district on at least one occasion, whilst it seems inevitable that Vincent himself carried out such rites in the area during in his term, considering his reputation as an expert in those matters. However, following the Taylor incident, all exorcism in the Wakefield diocese was banned by the bishop.

Published in: on April 7, 2010 at 15:05  Comments (1)  
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Curiosities of Priestley Green

Located in the pastoral tract of land between Lightcliffe and Norwood Green, just down the road from Coley, the community of Priestley Green is a remarkably serene locale, its sense of repose only ever disturbed by the thrum of the 4x4s which seem so popular in this disproportionately affluent district. There is a distinct sense of place here. Perhaps it is simply a reflection of the relative lack of population density compared to surrounding areas. Or perhaps it is an atmosphere which has always been felt here, an atmosphere of sanctity which led a community of monks to settle here in the early Middle Ages and provide it with its name. Perhaps it had been regarded as a holy place long before that even, a conclusion which might be drawn from the concentration of holy wells in the vicinity of the hamlet.

The first and most imposing of these is Helliwell Syke Well (which means “holy well by boggy land”) where a spring feeds a series of four troughs adjacent to Syke Lane as it approaches Priestley Green from Lightcliffe. It is set amidst a profusion of ash-trees, which are often associated with sacred waters. There has been evidence of a well at Helliwell Syke since Saxon times according to J. Horsfall Turner’s 1893 History of Brighouse, Rastrick & Hipperholme. By 1373 the Wakefield court rolls record that a nearby settlement of the same name had been abandoned following the enclosure of the site by Henry de Bentley. However, the well was clearly important enough to have remained in common use after that time. Indeed, it was clearly still utilised in the 19th Century when the trough complex seen today was constructed.

The second site is set into the pavement in the centre of the hamlet and is known as Lister’s Well or more simply just as the Holy Well. Less is known about this and some writers on the subject have speculated as to whether this well and Helliwell Syke have been conflated in the literature over the ages. However, a 1904 reference records that it was believed to “possess magic cures for all who drank its crystal waters, and pilgrimages were made to it”. Meanwhile, the fact that it has been retained as part of the structure of the pavement when so many others holy wells (such as Alegar Well or a holy well recorded at Woodhouse Lane in Rastrick which appears on Ordnance Survey maps until 1938) were simply tarmacked over suggests that some memory of its importance survived.

The third example – St. John’s Well – is technically at Coley but still lies within the same square mile, whilst the history of Priestley Green and its neighbour are possibly connected. The story of Coley will be explored more fully in a subsequent entry on Coley Hall but it is germane to mention here that between the 13th and 16th Century the tenure of the land was held by the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem also known as the Knights Hospitaller. As their name suggests, John the Baptist was their patron and this is reflected in the dedication of the church at Coley today and of course, St. John’s Well. There are also suggestions that the Knights’ actually founded a priory at Coley and whilst there is no archaeological evidence for this, it would certainly tie in with the tradition of a monastic community at Priestley Green and its abundance of holy wells.

A more recent tradition concerning Priestley Green pertains to the Sisters’ House, which stands directly behind Lister’s Well. A dwelling on this site is recorded as far back as the 13th Century but the current cottage was built in 1630 by Samuel Sunderland of nearby Coley Hall. Local legend says that it was once home to the Appleyard sisters who for want of a place to worship nearby decided they would found a church themselves. However, they disagreed over precisely where it should be located so they built one each, Coley Chapel and Eastfield Chapel, with the house supposedly exactly half-way between the two. The story is doubtless intended to explain how two chapels came to be built so close together but it is demonstrably apocryphal as the chapels were built in 1529, a whole century before the Sisters’ House.

Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, Southowram

An article published in the Evening Courier on 29th June 1983 recounts the story of a mysterious apparition which apparently manifested following the wedding of Martyn Rhodes and Jacqueline Longstaff at the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel in Southowram. As the couple departed from the church following the ceremony, they were filmed by the groom’s uncle, Derek Rhodes, located in the gallery above and whilst they were posing for photographs at the entrance, an old woman in black mourning attire including a veil was allegedly caught on the film, appearing to speak before fading away.

Nobody in the wedding party recalled seeing such a person, who would surely have been conspicuous in the small chapel, whilst the church steward of 25 years, Arthur Coates, denies knowledge of any such woman in the regular congregation. However, it is interesting that according to the Courier article, nobody other than Mr. Rhodes – who was “on holiday” at the time – had seen the film when the report was published and there appears to be no follow up article. Efforts by author Andy Owen to trace the Rhodes have proved unsuccessful, whilst the chapel closed due to dwindling congregations in 2005 and was converted into apartments.

Published in: on March 18, 2010 at 15:46  Leave a Comment  
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