Lancaster Road Congregational Chapel

Churches and Chapels by Atticus (Contents)

Preston Congregationalism is a very good, a very respectable, and a very quarrelsome creature. It is liberal but gingerly; has a large regard for freedom, but will quarrel if crossed; can achieve commendable triumphs in the regions of peace, but likes a conscientious disturbance at intervals; believes in the power of union, but acts as if a split were occasionally essential; will nurse its own children well when they are quiet, but recognises the virtues of a shake if uneasiness supervenes; respects its ministers much, but will order them to move on if they fret its epidermis too acutely; can pray well, work well, fight well; and from its antagonisms can distil benefits. About nine years since, a sacred stirring of heads, a sharp moving of tongues, and a lively up-heaving of bristles took place at Cannon-street Congregational Chapel, in this town. The result of the dispute involved, amongst other things, a separation – a clear marching from the place of several parties who, whether rightly or wrongly, matters not now, felt themselves aggrieved. They did not leave the chapel in processional order, neither did they throw stones and then run, when they took their departure. The process of evaporation was quiet and orderly. For 12 months the seceders worshipped on their own account, in accordance with the principles of Congregationalism, at the Institution, Avenham, and whilst there they gathered strength. In the meantime they negotiated for land upon which to build a new chapel and schools; and finally they purchased a site on the higher side of the Orchard, contiguous to the old Vicarage – a rare piece of antique, rubbishy ruin in these days – and very near, if not actually upon, ground which once formed the garden of the famous Isaac Ambrose, who was Vicar of Preston in 1650, and afterwards ejected; with many more in the land, on account of his religious opinions. Thinking it good to harmonise with that ancient wisdom which recommends people to carry the calf before beginning with the cow, the new band of Congregationalists under notice, commenced operations on the site named by erecting a large school room in which for about a year they worshipped. In due time they got the chapel built, and for about seven years it has been open.

Its position is prominent; but its associations, like those of the generality of sacred edifices, has a special bearing upon the world we live in. Above it there is a portion of the old vicarage buildings, graced in front with various articles, the most prominent being a string of delapidated red jackets; right facing it we have the sable Smithsonian Institute, flanked with that gay and festive lion which is for ever running and never stirring; below there are classic establishments for rifle-shooting, likeness taking, and hot pea revelling; and ahead there is the police station. The chapel stands well, occupies high and commanding ground, and looks rather stately. Its exterior design is good; and if the stone of its facade had been of a better quality – had contained fewer flaws and been more closely jointed – it would have merited one of our best architectural bows. The chapel and school, and the land upon which they are erected, cost £7,000, and about £1,000 of that sum remains to be paid. This is not bad. Considering the brevity of their existence and the severe times they have had to pass through, the Lancaster-road Congregationalists must have worked hard and put a very vigorous Christian screw into operation to reduce their debt so rapidly. The inside of the chapel is plain, very neat, and quite genteel. We have seen no Congregational place of worship in this part equal to it in ease and elegance of design. It is amphitheatrical, is galleried three quarters round, and derives the bulk of its beauty – not from ornament, not from rich artistic hues, nor rare mouldings, nor exquisite carvings, but from its quiet harmony of arrangement, its simple gracefulness of form, its close adherence in outline and detail to the laws of symmetry and proportion. The circular style prevails most in it, and how to make everything round or half-round seems to have been the supreme job of the designer. The gallery above, the seats below, the platform, the pulpit on which it stands, the chairs behind, the orchestra and its canopy, the window-heads, the surmountings of the entrance screen, the gas pendants, and scores of other things, have all a strong fondness for circularity; and the same predilection is manifested outside; the large lamps there being quite round and fixed upon circular columns.

The pews in the chapel are very strong, have receding backs, and make sitting in them rather a pleasing, easy, contented affair. The highest price for a single seat is 3s. 6d. per quarter; the lowest 1s. There are a few free sittings in the place, and although they may seem a long way back – being at the rear of the gallery – their position is not to be despised. They are not so far distant as to render hearing difficult; and they obviate that unseemly publicity which is given to poor people in some places of worship. How to give the poorest and hungriest folk a very good seat in a very prominent place – how to herd them together and piously pen them up in some particular place where everybody can see them – appears to be an object in many religious edifices. But that is a piece of benevolent shabbiness which must come to grief some day. In the meantime, and until the period arrives when honest poverty will be considered no crime, and when a seat next to a poor man will be thought nothing vulgar, or contaminating, whilst worshipping before Him who cares for souls not lucre, hearts not wealth, let the poor be put in some place where they can hear fairly without being unduly exhibited.

The chapel we are noticing has a spacious appearance within, and has none of that depressing dulness which makes some people very sad long before they have been ministerially operated upon. From side windows there comes a good light; and from the roof, which has a central transparency, additional clearness is obtained. The light from the ceiling would be improved if the glass it were kept a little cleaner. The congregation is neither a very large nor a particularly small one. It is fairly medium – might be worse, and would in no way be hurt if it were enlarged. The “members” number about 120, and they are just about as good as the rest of mortals, who have “made their calling and election sure.”

The congregation consists almost entirely of middle and working class people. There is not so much of that high, gassy pride, that fine mezzotinto, isolated hauteur and self-righteousness in the place which may be seen in some chapels. Of course, particles of vanity, morsels of straight-lacedness, lively little bits of cantankerousness, and odd manifestations of first person pronoun worship periodically crop up; but altogether the congregation has a quiet, unassuming, friendly disposition. Nobody in it appears to be very much better or worse than yourself; there is an evenness of tone and a sociality of feeling in the spot; and a stranger can enter it without being violently stared at, and can sit down without feeling that his room is nearly if not quite as good as his company. The music is fairly congregational; individuals in various parts of the chapel have sufficient courage to sing; and the choir is moderately harmonious; but the melody one hears in the place is rather flat and meagre; it lacks instrumental relief; and it will never be really up to the mark until an organ is obtained. The first regular minister of this chapel was the Rev. G. W. Clapham; he was connected with it for some years; then had a “difficulty” with certain parties – deacons amongst the rest, of course; and afterwards left the place, uttering, in a quiet Shaksperian tone, as he departed, “Now mark how I will undo myself:” He threw to the winds his Congregationalism, and a few months ago joined, in due clerical order, the Church of England.

The present pastor of Lancaster-road Congregational Chapel is the Rev. E. Bolton. The “church” tried the merits of about 30 ministers before making a selection. The height, depth, weight, tone of voice, matter, manner, theology, brains, and spirit of that band of 30 were duly weighed, and finally, Mr. Bolton was picked out. A salary of £300 was offered him. He might have got other places, and if he had followed the clerical wisdom of his generation he would have tried to secure one of them; for they all, more or less, implied a better salary than that which the Preston people offered him. But he fixed upon Preston just because he fancied more good might be done therein than elsewhere. A trick like this – a generosity so distinct as this – is a real oasis in the ecclesiastical desert. Few parsons would imitate it. How to get the biggest salary, and lug in the “will of the Lord” as an excuse for changing to some locality where it could be snugly got, is the question which many pious men seem desirous of solving. Mr. Bolton has different ideas, and finds some compensation in goodness achieved as well as in money pocketed. He has been at Lancaster-road Chapel three months, and, unlike many new parsons, he had more sense than preach his best sermons first – than make a grand pyrotechnic dash at the onset and settle down into a round of prating mediocrity afterwards. When tried he gave the people a fair average specimen of what he could do – did not say his best nor his commonest things; began with a fire which he could keep up; and the result is not disappointment, but an increasing relish.

Mr. Bolton is a plain, dark-complexioned, clear-headed man – rather clerical in look; well-built; married; about 38 years of age; fond of a billycock; teetotal, but averse to drowning other people with water; doesn’t think it sinful to smoke just one pipe of tobacco after he has done a day’s work; had rather visit poor than rich people; dislikes namby-pambying and making a greater fuss over high than low class members of his church; thinks that those in poverty need most looking after, and that those with good homes and decent purses should try to look a little after themselves; believes in working hard; cares precious little for deacons – we rather like that, for deacons are queer birds to encounter; is original in thought, fairly up in theology, and straightforward in language. It is rather a treat to see him preach. He does not, like the bulk of parsons, solemnly work out all his divinity in the pulpit: preaching is not a sad, up and down, air-sawing, monotonous thing with him; he steps out of the sacred box when his feelings begin to warm up, moves to one side of it, then round the back of it, and then to the other side of it; talks to you and not at you; is quite conversational in style, and ignores everything conventional and stereotyped in manner. He exercises his lungs with considerable force at times; but he never tears nor disturbs the circumambient air with religious agony. It is as pleasant to hear as to see him. Good sound sense, neatly adjusted argument, newness of thought, and clear illustration characterise his expressions. He is liberal and independent in tone; speaks easily, and if he now and then wanders a little he always returns to the question with vigour, and freshness.

He has no written sermons; a few notes are sufficient for him; he does not believe in long discourses; he has an idea that it is better to say a little and let it be well understood than float into immensity, let off fireworks there, and dumfounder everybody. But he has his faults. He has quite as much confidence in himself as is requisite for the present. He is rather too impervious and too oracular; but then who would not be if they had the chance? We like him well on the whole, and as he is new amongst us, it is but right that we should deliver him with charity. Adjoining the chapel there are many class-rooms, and a fine school. Boys, girls, and infants are accommodated in them. The average Sunday attendance is about 200. We believe Mr. Bolton will add numeric strength to both the chapel and schools. And if he does, let no one make the least conceivable noise, for there is room enough for all in Preston. The town isn’t a quarter as virtuous as it should be; the bulk of us are scarcely half as good as we ought to be; and if anybody can do any good in any way let it be done without a single whimper.