Clover Street Unitarian Church

From the beginning of the 19th century Rochdale was known as a place in which nonconformist churches thrived. By 1848 there were 23 places of worship in the town with the Church of England representing only a third of them offering services. Not only working people, but mill-owners belonged to nonconformist churches, meaning that they had a great deal of power in the town. A little earlier in 1844 when the Pioneers were setting up their shop in Toad Lane at least half of their original management belonged to nonconformist chapels, six of these Co-operators having a connection to one specific church in Rochdale – Clover Street Unitarians.

Nor was this Clover Street’s only historical connection to radicalism. The first Workers Educational Associations (WEA) tutorial class was held in Rochdale in 1908 and many of that class were also members of the Clover Street congregation.  On reflection this might not be too surprising given the tendency for the Unitarians, of all nonconformists, to feed social and political change. Certainly, it tended to be those sects separating from Methodism that carried the liberal cause of reform and in Rochdale as elsewhere, Primitive Methodists, Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers and most of all Unitarians, rose to meet the challenge of the new politics of the early 20th century.

Some have explained such a radical outlook as at Clover Street by identifying a particular set of practices in Unitarianism which encourage habits of close reading, analysis and self-improvement. It meant that Clover Street in the early 20th century was one of the most prominent radical chapels to emerge but it did so from a history which included controversial figures in the town such as William Frend, Benjamin Flower, George Dyer, Dr. Estlin, Gilbert Wakefield, but most of all Joseph Cooke.

Cookites in Rochdale represented an intellectual faith which found a home in Unitarianism with energetic lay preachers such as the woollen weaver John Ashworth, the shoemaker James Wilkinson and the lay preacher James Taylor.Joseph Cooke, an itinerant preacher, looked for an alternative to Wesleyan Methodism in 1805 because he believed it to be anti-intellectual and anti-social. For such views he was expelled from Methodism and so set up Providence Chapel in High Street, Rochdale, taking his old congregation with him. This chapel became the most prominent dissenting body in the town. Not surprisingly, Cooke was a Chartists and a Co-operator.

The Cookites eventually found a home with the Unitarians and a chapel was set up in Blackwater Street which housed their common beliefs. In 1890 Blackwater St and Clover St Unitarians amalgamated but eventually Blackwater Street Church closed its doors. Clover Street Unitarians continued, however, with its lively, family-oriented congregation built around working class communities in Rochdale. From Cookite roots and building on its foundation in radical faith, Clover Street Unitarian Church became an important hub of political change in the town. That combination of social and economic responsibility which sat alongside Christian faith and hope was recognised and replicated in the novel of 1881 ‘Hiram Greg’ by Joseph Crowther Hirst, the chapel at its centre – ‘Heather Street Church’ – being modelled directly on Rochdale’s pioneering Clover Street Unitarians.

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