If celebrities had existed in 1817, Rev. Dr. John Fawcett would have been one. Such was his fame, he came to the attention of King George III and was offered positions by wealthy city chapels in both London and Bristol. Tempted by the London offer, he and his family were all packed and ready to make the journey, but he could not bear to part from the people of Wainsgate Chapel, on the hills above Hebden Bridge in the Calder Valley of the Pennines.
So at the last moment he changed his mind – and stayed. Today, Wainsgate Chapel is in the ownership of the Historic Chapels Trust.
The Friends of Wainsgate Chapel, in partnership with Hebden Bridge Local History Society and Hope Chapel in Hebden Bridge, are organising Fawcett200 which will commemorate the bicentenary of the death of the Wainsgate Baptist minister (6 January 1739 – 25 July 1817). Fawcett and his family are buried in the burial ground at Wainsgate and, although quite simple in design, the memorial is individually listed in view of Fawcett’s importance to the development of the worldwide Baptist movement.
Fawcett is perhaps today best known as the author of the hymn, “Blest be the Ties that Bind” but it is easy to under-estimate the influence the Minister had on the mill communities of the area in both social and spiritual leadership. Having been a poor Bradford apprentice who sought to better himself, he recognised the importance of education. He started a school and training for Baptist ministers, but was also keen to improve the lot of the poor children, so he began the first Sunday School in the Upper Calder Valley, just a few years after the Sunday School movement had begun. He published Hints on the Education of Children in which he said
Some parents are so poor as to be unable to pay the demands of a teacher, or to dispense with the little earnings of their children’s labour. Thus multitudes of families have lived in gross darkness, in the midst of poverty and wretchedness, till it pleased the Almighty to put it into the heart of an highly favoured individual, to form the plan of Sunday Schools. … The good effects of the institution we are now recommending, have been apparent in many places. Peace and quietness are enjoyed in towns and villages where noise, riot and mischief before prevailed.
By 1833, there were 49 in the Upper Calder Valley, with 9,669 children and young people enrolled, 80 per cent of whom were non-conformists. Ten years the later, the numbers had tripled. (for more details see Amy Binns Valley of A Hundred Chapels – Yorkshire non-conformists’ lives and legacies).
Although a Wainsgate Sunday school was established in Fawcett’s time, in 1834, Wainsgate Chapel opened a purpose-built Sunday School. A third school was erected in 1860 and included accommodation for the minister. When a new detached manse was built in 1891, the fourth school was made from the redundant manse and school.
“A re-union of old and present scholars took place, when over 300 had tea and celebrated the completion of the new school, rejoicing in the fact that this work had been brought to a successful completion without incurring any debt whatsoever.” – A Short History of the Baptist Church at Wainsgate 1750-1950.
Finally in the 1920s an old stable was converted into further school accommodation. The school building is as large as the chapel itself and is used mainly as artists’ studios.
At the centre of Fawcett200 will be a Fawcett weekend September 23rd and 24th 2017 – not just for those interested in John Fawcett, but for those who have a Fawcett ancestor. For example, we have had contact with some descendants from as far afield as Canada. We have also had much interest from USA because of the strong Baptist tradition there. The surname originated from Fawcett in Westmorland as early as the 13th century, reached Leeds in the 1500s and Bradford soon afterwards and is now prolific in both places. Hebden Bridge Local History Society is also searching for more descendants of the famous minister or his brother Richard. Follow this link on the right to access the Society’s website.