The Roman Catholic Church of St Joseph (formerly Bedford RC Chapel), Bedford
Bedford RC Chapel, later RC Church of St Joseph
(RC Archdiocese of Liverpool, Deanery of Leigh)
National Grid 366350,399900 (SJ 663999) (click for modern map)
Address: St Joseph's, Mather Lane, Leigh, Lancs, WN7 2PR
Note that the use of the terms "popish" and "papist" in this article, while not "politically correct" today, were the terms in use at the time and appeared in titles of contemporary documents. I apologize if anyone is offended by them, but maintain that their use in this context is justified.
Many parts of Lancashire were strongholds of the old faith after the reformation, led by prominent local recusant families. In Leigh these included the Urmstons of Parsonage House, West Leigh, the Sales of Hopcar (later Hope Carr) Hall, Bedford, and the Shuttleworths of Shuttleworth House, Bedford. Members of all these families are mentioned with several other less prominent local people on a list of recusants convicted during the reign of Charles II (1660-1685) transcribed and published by the Catholic Record Society in 1909 [CRS Records series vol 6]
There was a Jesuit mission in Leigh recorded as early as 1640, but the first recorded priest (in 1678) was Father John Penketh, Society of Jesus (SJ), alias John Rivers (the Jesuits have a long history in Leigh and remained at St Joseph's until the second half of the 20th century). However, at that time the persecutions of clergy re-started (after Titus Oates's "discovery" of a popish plot) and Fr. Penketh was arrested and imprisoned in Lancaster Gaol. He was tried in 1679 and sentenced to death but was granted a royal reprieve. He remained in prison until James II acceded to the throne in 1685 when all imprisoned priests were released. After the revolution of 1688 when James II was deposed, the persecutions started again and Fr. Penketh was forced to go into hiding, probably at one or more of the houses mentioned above or at Culcheth House. He died in 1701 (1707?) at the age of 71. The mission was later served by Fathers Sebastian Needham, SJ, alias Robert Morgan (1699), Robert Petre, SJ (1728), John Sale, SJ (1733, incumbent from about 1759-1767 and a scion of the Sales of Hopcar Hall), James Adams, SJ (incumbent from about 1767-1770), and possibly one other before Fr. Shaw (below).
In the 18th century all the above mentioned houses had private chapels at which services would be conducted in secret for the local RC population. By the mid-18th century penal restrictions were less rigorously enforced so the services were held more openly. At that time Hopcar was the main chapel, supplemented by one at Hall House, Bedford.
Unfortunately there are few records of the early missions in Leigh, or of ordinary Roman Catholics (there are more records of Catholic gentry and others who owned property and left wills, which are outside the scope of this article). A census of papists was taken (by order of parliament) by the C of E in 1705/6 but for some reason Leigh is omitted - maybe the returns were lost or maybe the vicar of St Mary's just didn't get around to dealing with it. A couple of 1739 congregation lists for Hopcar were found mixed up with the registers of the mission at Crondon Park, Essex (how they got there is a long story), and were transcribed and published with those registers by the CRS in 1909 [Records series vol 6]. The originals of these lists have since been lost. Another census of papists was taken in 1767 which was transcribed and published by the CRS in 1980 [Occasional publication no. 1]. It names over 250 people (mainly non-gentry) in the whole parish of Leigh (including Astley, Atherton and Tyldesley), grouped in families with ages and how long they had been resident.
In 1778 Fr. Joseph Shaw SJ (who had succeeded as incumbent in 1776) built a new chapel on the corner of Chapel Street and Mather Lane, Bedford, and registers survive from that date to the present. There was no graveyard initially, so burials would have continued to be at St Mary's (C of E). Additional land was later bought and a graveyard opened in 1816. Marriages would also have had to be at St Mary's or some other C of E parish church under Lord Hardwicke's act of 1754 which was not repealed until 1837. However, it was the practice at that time for RCs to have two marriage ceremonies, one legally at a C of E parish church and one at an RC chapel, and these duplicate marriages are recorded in the register from 1808-1828.
In 1829 most of the restrictions against Roman Catholics were repealed, but not Lord Hardwicke's Act - as mentioned above, that had to wait until 1837. Finally, in 1850, Pope Pius IX proclaimed the restoration of the hierarchy in England and Wales, meaning that the church was organized into dioceses like the Church of England (and, of course, as it had been before the reformation). Unsurprisingly, this was opposed by the Church of England as an usurpation of its privileges, and the government of the day responded by passing the Ecclesiastical Titles Act forbidding the use of episcopal titles outside the C of E. However, after a lot of diplomacy, the C of E bishops were won over and the penalties prescribed under the act were never enforced. Under these new arrangements Leigh came under the RC Diocese of Liverpool (elevated to an archdiocese in 1911).
The priests following Fr. Shaw, all SJ but not necessarily incumbents, were Fathers William Poole (1807), Edward Morron (1828), John Reeve (1828), James Brownbill (1840), Felix Poole (1841), Henry Beeston (1843), Francis West (1843), J McClune (1844), and John Middlehurst (1846). The list is taken from "Historical Notes on English Catholic Missions", Kelly, B W, 1907. This book was reprinted in facsimile by Michael Gandy in 1995.
In 1855 the chapel was replaced by a new church built on an adjacent site and dedicated to St Joseph. It suffered severe storm damage in 1865 and was repaired. The tower was added shortly after, completing the present building. St Joseph's was the only RC church in the area until Sacred Heart at Hindsford, Atherton, opened in 1865.
The municipal cemetery in Manchester Road was opened in 1856 with a Roman Catholic section and chapel and from that date burials take place there but are still recorded in St Joseph's register . St Joseph's graveyard may have been formally closed at the time and over the years it has been paved over and is now is a church car park.
The remaining 19th century priests were Fathers Anthony Butler (1877), James Fanning (1878), Henry Cowell (1886), Edward Porter (1898) and Henry Martin (1899), again all SJ but not necessarily incumbent (from the same source as the list above).
Abbreviations: Bp - baptism (christening), M - marriage, Bu - burial. Others are defined where they first occur.
The original registers listed below are at the Lancashire Record Office (LRO) at Preston. Those listed have been microfilmed by the LRO and can be consulted at the LRO, at Wigan History Shop (WHS) and at the Society of Genealogists (SoG) in London. Each microfilm includes two to four original registers. The list below gives three references for each: the LRO original register [RCLh..], the LRO film [MF9/..] and the SoG film number.Bp 1778-1821 [RCLh 1, MF 9/6, SoG film 3174]. This register includes also marriages and deaths from 1808-28. The marriages are the duplicate ceremonies mentioned in the history section above. The deaths (not burials) recorded here appear to be deaths of people old enough to be practising members of the congregation; young children are not included, as a comparison with the actual burial register starting in 1816 (next entry) shows. After 1816 when the burial ground opened, some of the people in this death list are missing from the burial register and possibly were buried elsewhere.
Some other miscellaneous material is included in the above registers: Lists of Bedford Chapel congregation confirmed at Culcheth in 1813 and 1821, at Wigan in 1821 and at Bedford in 1825, during bishops' visits, are in RCLh 2; an 1843 list of the dead and lists of Easter communicants from 1844 to 1859 are in RCLh 6.
Two transcripts, privately produced in typescript in 1986 and 1989 by Canon Brendan Alger (then at St Joseph's, later RC Dean of the Isle of Man) cover the first two registers RCLh 1 and RCLh 2. Canon Alger has given his permission for the transcripts to be put online, and digital images were provided to us by Joseph Shovelton (originally from Leigh) whose father was involved in the transcription work.
Introductory pages for register transcript 1 and transcript 2 are shown here and give the transcription methodology.