St Stephen's, Astley
Although Astley had been recognised as a village since before 1212, when Adam Mort arrived in the village in 1606 it had no place of worship. The inhabitants had to travel either three miles to Leigh or six miles to Eccles.
Adam Mort set about building a chapel for the people of Astley, although the chapel was completed in 1630, during his lifetime, it was not consecrated until 3rd August 1631, some five months after Adam Mort’s death. This was the first of three St Stephen’s church buildings at Astley.
This first chapel, being within the parish of Leigh, was a ‘chapel of ease’ and this in itself created the first problem with St Stephen’s. The vicar of Leigh would normally choose who was to minister the new chapel, however Adam Mort, within his will, had invested the right to appoint the minister to his son Thomas Mort. Thomas Mort was also granted the right to pass on this responsibility or failing this the appointment would rest with twelve leading householders of Astley. This question of appointment was to have dramatic effects nearly two hundred years later. Rev Thomas Crompton was the first permanent minister of Astley chapel when he arrived in 1632, however by 1760 the chapel had fallen into such a state it had to be rebuilt.
The second chapel was built on the same site as the original chapel was slightly larger has an interesting history. The provision in Adam Mort’s will to appoint a curate was to cause an uprising in 1822. When Robert Baker, who had been the incumbent of Astley for over fifty-three years, died in April 1822, Joseph Hodgkinson, who was the vicar of Leigh nominated Thomas Birkett as the next curate of Astley. This infuriated the villagers of Astley who set up a committee and nominated Edward Bowman as curate. The dispute was to escalate more when the Bishop of Chester supported Thomas Birkett. Threats where made by the villagers and the action came to a head in July 1822 when Thomas Birkett was escorted to the chapel by twenty dragoon guards. The crowd, numbering a few thousand, blockaded the chapel and as tension mounted stones were thrown at the soldiers who retaliated by drawing sabres and forcing their way into the chapel. This riot was reported in the Evening Mail on July 22nd and the incident was referred to the King’s Bench division in July 1824. The chapel once again started to fall into disrepair and by 1832 it was described as being damp, dirty, smelly, the floor covered in fungus and with the front doors broken the interior had become a playground for dogs. In 1832 the Rev Alfred Hewlett arrived at Astley, on January 8th he preached to a congregation of twelve. Hewlett initially had no intention of staying at Astley, he was only twenty six years old was recently married. Being shunned by most of the village he set about his preaching and by 1834 the congregation had increased so much Hewlett had plans to extend the chapel by putting in a gallery. Hewlett left Astley in 1838 but was to return in 1840 staying at Astley until his death in 1885. During his time at Astley, Hewlett had made a made a great impression on the villagers with his compassion and Calvinistic sermons, he visited homes in his parish every day learning both the good and bad about his parishioners. Rev Johnstone (1885-1927) followed by Rev Bean (1927-1934) and Rev Ferguson (1934-1947) were to follow Rev Hewlett at Astley. When Rev King came to Astley in 1947 major changes once again started to happen, pew-rents were abolished in 1848 and in 1956 restoration took place removing several of the pew boxes and redecorating the interior. However it was on Sunday 18th June 1961, the day of the annual walking day, that the greatest change was made. In the evening a fire was discovered at the church which resulted not only in the destruction of the church but also priceless monuments and the library of valuable books.
Restoration of his second chapel was considered inappropriate due to a number of factors and finally it was decided to build the third chapel along with the new St Stephen’s school a few hundred yards away.