Churches in the Parish of Atherton
The chapel is in Atherton on the south side of Bolton Old Road (BOR) between Chapel Street and Alderfold Street about 90m east from where High Street crosses BOR. Keep your eyes peeled - it's easy to drive right past! The main gates on BOR are usually locked, as are the chapel doors. The Chapel Hall where the minister has his office, is behind the chapel. Access is from Alderfold Street on the east side of the chapel.
Minister of Chowbent Unitarian Chapel (as at December 2007)
The Old Bent Chapel
The first place of worship located in Atherton was a small brick edifice built by Chowbent men in 1645, on the lands of the Atherton family where the present parish church now stands. This first Bent chapel was a place of Puritan worship, and was not consecrated to the Church of England till after the Rev. James "General Jimmy" Wood and his congregation of Protestant Dissenters had been evicted in 1721. James Wood was the fourth incumbent (1695-1759) of Bent chapel, and served at a time when the Vicar of Leigh unsuccessfully attempted to establish parochial rights over the chapel. Parson Wood may have protested against the ecclesiastical rule of the established high church, but his loyalty to the House of Hanover was proven during the Scots rebellion of 1714-15, and ironically led to the doors of Bent chapel being locked against him.
James "The General" Wood
In 1715 the Highlanders were advancing south across Lancashire and the call went out for ministers to gather "lusty young fellows" armed with bill hooks and scythes, and to march to Preston where they would join with the army and stop the rebels in their tracks. Parson Wood soon raised a considerable band of Chowbent men, well-armed as could be expected in a community skilled in iron working, and marched north with them. They were detailed to guard a ford and bridges on the Ribble at Penwortham and Walton. The invaders were defeated, and the Chowbent men did their duty with such panache and courage that James Wood was ever after known as The General. His exploits earned him no gratitude from the Athertons, who were Jacobite supporters of the Stuart king. The young scion of the family was "Mad" Richard Atherton, who bided his time till he reached his majority in 1721 before exacting revenge on The General and his flock. Bent chapel stood on Atherton lands, unsecured by deeds, and it was a simple matter for Mad Richard's steward to demand the chapel keys, lock the door and prevent the congregation from gathering there again.
The New Bent Chapel
Undaunted, the Chowbent dissenters set to work with energy and spirit, and built themselves another chapel, this time on land donated freehold by Nathan Mort of Alder House. Opened in April 1722, with some later modifications, this is the building that still stands on Bolton Old Road. Its modest brick exterior hides a rich interior with polished dark oak box pews, organ gallery, and a magnificent three-tier pulpit of old-fashioned Puritan style. It is said to be the finest example of early 18th century non-conformist architecture in England, and is a Grade 2 listed building. Renovation to restore the sandstone surrounds of the stained-glass windows was completed in 2005.
This, the New Bent chapel was registered as Presbyterian, appropriate at the time, and indicating not its doctrine, but its form of congregational government. The religious philosophy of the new chapel's guiding lights, Parson James Wood and his friend John Mort, was essentially Unitarian and the building has long been known as Chowbent Unitarian Chapel. As a banner in the chapel declares, the present congregation have no doubts that they are the physical heirs to the old Chowbent chapel, and spiritual descendants of its worshipers.
The original Bent chapel built in 1645 became an Episcopalian chapel in Leigh Parish till its demolition in 1810. So for nearly 90 years, the Old Bent Chapel and the New Bent Chapel were both in use in Atherton. This has lead to some confusion among those unfamiliar with the origin of the name Bent. Most people searching for their Atherton ancestors will have come across the LDS International Genealogical Index (IGI) and its reference to christenings at "Newbent Chapel Presbyterian, Chowbent, Lancashire". Technically the chapel is Presbyterian, but it is not at Newbent, for there is no such place. In fact the title page of the register states quite clearly that it is "The register of births & christenings belonging to the Protestant Dissenting Chapel Chowbent, in the County of Lancaster".
Resources for Chowbent Chapel
The above information comes from the following book. Wright, J.J. (1921) The story of Chowbent Chapel. Reprinted 2001 by Read Publications Ltd., Leigh (148pp).
Manchester Central Library lists the following registers.
Baptisms 1758-1837 MFPR 269
The LDS also have Family History Library films of the Chowbent Chapel registers as follows:-
FHL BRITISH Film [560879 Items 11-13]. Baptisms & burials 1758-1786; baptisms 1786-1837; burials 1793-1837
In 1906, a chapel member recorded all the monument inscriptions in the closed cemetery. A copy of this hand-written document can be inspected in the chapel archives, on request. A searchable transcript is on this site in the MIs pages.
Chowbent Chapel was registered for marriages on 3 January 1839, but the chapel did not appoint its own registrar/authorised person till 21 September 1901, and the records of marriages prior to that date are not accessible to the public as they are not yet regarded as a public record. Registers for 1901-1924 are available on microfilm at Leigh Library and Wigan History Shop, and transcribed on this site.
Links: Chowbent Chapel has an official site.