The Present Day at Chowbent Unitarian Chapel

The present chapel is much as it was when first built using local oak (from the nearby Hulton Estate) and local labour. It is built of hand made brick with stone detailing, round arched windows in two storeys. Date of 1722 on top course of bricks north side, Cupola and bell. The box pews are original though a few have been removed to allow needed space to the front of the distinctive three-decker pulpit.

In 1722, reflecting the Puritan element in dissenting chapel architecture, the walls would have been simply whitewashed and the windows (many now worked in stained glass) diamond paned in lead.

The roof would have been open to the solid oak rafters and trusses. Music then would not have been entertained (the chanting of Psalms was allowed) but the first organ was installed in 1806. The present organ is a fine instrument installed in 1901 by 'ALEXR. YOUNG & SONS, ORGAN BUILDERS, MANCHESTER, this required an extension to the south aspect of the chapel, allowing for the creation also of an entrance area and two vestibules.

The story of Chowbent chapel, written in 1921 by the then Minister, Reverend J.J. Wright was reprinted in 1990: copies are available from the chapel, proceeds going to the restoration fund.

The chapel burial and baptism records are also available in CD Rom format (please contact David Shallcross).
David is also happy to talk about the chapel and its history to groups who would like to arrange a visit.
The congregation celebrated its 350th Anniversary in 1995.To mark this visitors will note the modern-style stained glass window in the east vestibule and the beautiful hand-made Communion Table Cloth. These items were crafted by chapel members Jan Swierczynski and June Yates respectively.
Now fully refurbished internally and externally, the chapel is truly magnificent the grounds have also had major landscaping work done.

1662 the Act of Uniformity 

The Monarchy was restored in 1660 though now the religious face of the nation would be altered irrevocably. At once the Bishops and conforming clergy were re-installed but at Chowbent the Presbyterian form of congregational life continued. In 1662 the Act of Uniformity was passed – this required that all clergy must be episcopally ordained (the laying on of hands by a Bishop) before officiating in a Church and, moreover, must swear unfeigned assent and consent to all that was contained in the Book of Common Prayer.

The immediate consequence was that an estimated 2000 clergy felt unable, in conscience, to conform and so lost their livings. This was known as the Great Ejection and caused great hardship to many clergy as well as depriving congregations of their chosen minister. The ejection included Reverend James Wood, the father of the James Wood who was the last minister of the old chapel and the first of the new (present) chapel. Like many of his brother clergy, Wood continued to hold services in private houses, including that of the Mort family at Wharton Hall in (Little Hulton). For his disregard of the law Wood was ’catched and sent to prison’ in1670.

Following the Act of Toleration in1689, some dissenters gained freedom to worship and the worship life of Chowbent chapel continued. In1695 James Wood (the son) succeeded his father. James Wood’s ministry lasted a remarkable 60 years and saw the transfer of the congregation from the old to the new (present) chapel.

Wood was a loyal supporter of the House of Hanover. In 1715 he marched a large number of men of his congregation to Walton, near Preston. Armed with basic weapons such as farm implements, Wood and his ‘army’ successfully prevented the rebel Jacobites from crossing the River Ribble. For his courageous action, Wood was awarded a pension and the honorary title of ‘General’ to add to that of Reverend.

The then Lord of the Manor, Richard Atherton, was a Jacobite and furious at what had taken place.

Noting that the land on which the dissenters' chapel was built was legally his (loaned not given by his forbear) he evicted the congregation and closed the chapel. This took place in 1721 when Richard had reached the age of 21 years. Reverend General Wood was not easily discouraged and, with his congregation, he set about building the present Chowbent chapel, which was fully in use in 1722.

This time the land on which the chapel is built was given by Nathan Mort, the then occupant of Alder House, part of Alder Fold Estate. This land was given in perpetuity.

More historical notes
Follow the various links for more information on those earlier days

In the 12th century the town of Leigh was made up of six townships, including Chowbent, Lowton and Pennington, where weekly markets were held and a cattle fair held twice-yearly.

Leigh was divided in its allegiance during the English Civil War, some of the population supporting the Royalists cause while others supported the Parliamentarians. A battle was fought in the town on December 2, 1642, when 3,000 Chowbenters beat back and then routed Cavalier troops under the command of James Stanley, the 7th Earl of Derby. The Earl of Derby passed through Leigh again in 1651, when he spent his last night in the King's Arms, before going on to his execution in Bolton. The original Chowbent chapel was built in 1645 on land owned, and loaned by “Ye Lord of Atherton”, a supporter of religious dissent. The building described as a low brick edifice’ no longer exists: the Parish Church of St. John the Baptist standing in its place (approximately). Two years before this date, the Civil War had begun. Episcopacy (rule by Bishops) and the Book of Common Prayer (of 1559) had been abolished and, for a brief time, the nation was officially English Presbyterian.
Chowbent chapel was such a Presbyterian congregation meaning that it exercised a local autonomy via elected elders, called its own Minister and adopted its own order of service. Though now Unitarian in religious tone, these principles remain the case today. Though there was strong reaction in many areas to the ways of the Anglican church there seems to have been little or no local hostility; it was noted that a copy of both Bible and Prayer Book were kept in the Chowbent pulpit for use by the Vicar of Leigh on his regular visits. Happily cordial relations have been preserved between “Chowbenters” and the Anglican community of Atherton.
The present chapel retains the only known surviving artefacts from the 1645 building, namely the Communion table and two fine Commonwealth silver communion cups gifted by Robert Mort in 1654, The cups are kept securely in a local vault and are brought to chapel only for special occasions. A nail studded door that separates the chapel from the vestry is also thought to be from the original 1645 chapel.
More historical notes 

A Town with Two Names

Since 01 April 1974, Atherton and its neighbourhoods of Hag Fold, Hindsford and Howe Bridge, has been a township of the Metropolitan Borough of Wigan, within the Metropolitan County of Greater Manchester. But as anyone from Atherton will tell you, it is an archetypal south Lancashire town with a long industrial and manorial history. It also has two names. Formally the town is Atherton, but for hundreds of years was known as Chowbent, or simply as Bent, the familiar contraction still in use by locals.

From Atherton…

In Anglo Saxon times, the area presented a gently sloping, wooded landscape drained by brooks in small valleys (adre), where a settlement (tun) in an enclosed clearing, gave rise to the name Adurton, first recorded in the 13th century. By the early 14th century the name had stabilised as Atherton, and had been adopted by the 'de Athertons', a Norman family who held the Lodge manor and owed feudal duties to the king's tenants-in-chief, the Botelers of Warrington. Atherton was one of 6 settlements, or chapelries comprising the Parish of Leigh (along with Astley, Bedford, Pennington, Tyldesley and Westleigh), and remained so till 1859 when it achieved the status of an independent parish.

To Chowbent…

The medieval Lords of the Manor of Atherton lived some distance south of the village sited in and around the valley of Chanters Brook, on lands tenanted by the Chow family (a name with variants such as Chew, Chowl and Cholle). Authorities agree that the village became known as Chow's Bent in honour of that yeoman family, but exactly what the Bent was remains a matter of discussion. Perhaps a field, but just as likely it was an Old English word meaning bend, slope or hollow, for the road from Bolton angled down a steepish slope past Chow's place, across the valley of Chanters Brook (an area known then and now as The Valley), and back up the other side. Chow's home and hostelry have long gone, but the name lives on in Chowbent Primary School, built on what were once the Chow family lands on the east side of The Valley.

The first references to Chollebynt appear as early as the 14th century (Ashcroft, 2003), and Chowbent was well known as an alternative name to Atherton in the 16th century, when a royal pardon was issued to "John Atherton of Atherton or the Lodge alias of Chowbent alias Sir John Atherton sheriff of the County of Lancaster" (Lunn, 1971).

And back again…

For 300 years or more, Atherton was subsumed in favour of Chowbent, though both names coexisted, as can be seen on the Ordnance Survey map of 1849 where the town is clearly labelled Chowbent, with Atherton as the general geographical region to the south. Changes in the organisation of local government in response to rapid industrialisation, population growth and urban expansion from the 1850s onwards saw the older name of Atherton gain ascendancy. The Ordnance Survey map of 1894 still called the town Chowbent, but by 1909 even the OS accepted that both the urban district and town had the same name - Atherton. But old habits die hard, and even now at the start of the 21st century, most born and bred Athertonians know they are also Benters.

Two battles
The area was divided in its allegiance during the Civil War, in 1642 men of Chowbent were on their way to Leigh Church when word came that James Stanley, 7th Earl of Derby's Royalist troops were marching through Leigh probably on route for Manchester. The men of Chowbent armed themselves and drove the Earl's men back to Lowton Common, killing some, wounding others and taking prisoner about 200 men: "... we are all upon our guard, and the Naylors of Chowbent, instead of making Nayles, have busied themselves making Bills and Battle Axes." (Civil War tracts of Lancashire, Chetham Society Series, vol II).
In 1715, during the Jacobite Uprising the supporters of the Old Pretender were marching on Preston. General Charles Wills wrote to Minister Wood of Atherton Chapel asking him to raise a force to be at Cuerden Green the following day, 12 November.Minister Wood led a force of Chowbent men who were given the job of guarding the bridge over the River Ribble at Walton-le-Dale and a ford at Penwortham, which they defended successfully. The Highlanders were routed, and for his efforts Parson James Wood was given £100 annuity by Parliament and the title "The General" by his congregation.