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TALBOT LANE - THE HISTORY OF THE SITE

 Let us go back to the beginning, to a time in the eighteenth century when local worshippers decided, under the guidance of a certain William Green, that a ‘proper’ place of worship should be built. They decided on a style that the increasingly popular and dynamic preacher John Wesley (1707 – 1788) recommended as being right for his missionary work. A handful of these octagonal style chapels still exist, a fine example being found at Heptonstall near to Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire.

octagonal churc

The chapel built on this site was not a huge construction, nor would it have been anywhere near as solid as the one still used at Heptonstall. It would often have been rather crowded for worship, not least when John Wesley came to Rotherham during his many years of riding on a horse or in a carriage all over Britain. He had, it needs to be said, what we call a soft spot for the Rotherham Chapel and its folk. It was known, by the way, as Bunting (or Buntin) Croft by the locals.

 The Chapel that was built to replace it was designed to cater for a rapid growth in numbers. Wesley’s influence continued to grow after his death in 1788, and within two decades the Octagonal Chapel was superseded by a place of worship in the Classical style. It was a huge structure some 4,000 square feet in area. Made out of Rotherham red sandstone from a quarry where nearby Wilfrid Street now runs, it was an imposing example of ecclesiastical architecture fronted by Greek-style columns and topped with a large triangular pediment. After just twenty-five years of life, in 1832,  the chapel was extended, from which time it could accommodate 850 people. Such was the call on churches in those days! There was also a large gallery for worshippers inside the chapel.

new church 1807

 A complete renovation took place in 1856 and the new pews were considered among the most comfortable in the area. In terms of the seating available, there were pews in the nave and in the gallery, a pattern which was fairly closely followed when the church replaced it early in the twentieth century. A splendid pulpit stood in the centre front of the chapel, while behind it was a spiral stairway that took the Minister up to the Vestry and to the adjoining Sunday School. Up against the wall behind the spiral stairway was the organ housed in its recess. The Choir Members were accommodated either side of the organ, forming virtually a semi-circle at the centre of which stood that imposing pulpit of Spanish mahogany. Just behind the pulpit was a decorated screen strategically placed to hide the stairway. As the Minister viewed his large and faithful congregation from the pulpit he would see the nave and a gallery supported by iron pillars along both sides and at the front and back of the Chapel.

 At the time of the 1856 renovation the Chapel Organist was Edward Nightingale. It was the same man who, still the official organist, played at the very last service before the 1901 fire. He served Talbot Lane in that capacity for fifty-three years, so it must have been a heart-rending experience for him when his cherished organ was accidentally destroyed along with the Chapel on the 15th of November 1901. Visitors will see the family name Nightingale if they look closely at the stained glass window in today’s Church.

 On that fated Friday, the 15th of November 1901, an Organ Tuner named Lowe had come to the Chapel to carry out his work. Sadly, as he went about his task, his lighted candle fell amongst the ‘stickers’, which connected the organ to its blowers and, being made of a flammable material, they at once ignited. How he must have tried to act quickly and positively, for the Chapel was a hive of activity that evening. The time was 7.15 p.m. and a Band of Hope meeting was in progress in the Schoolroom. These meetings were very popular in those days and it was nothing unusual for there to be upwards of a hundred people present. This meeting, as well as a routine Class Meeting, had to evacuated at once, fortunately without mishap. The Minister, the Reverend W Slack, acted promptly and dutifully, and it is thanks to him that the Chapel Bible was rescued, if somewhat damaged by the flames. Little else of a material nature survived except a few documents, despite the efforts of several people who speedily equipped themselves with buckets of water. The fire took hold very quickly and the building was completely gutted within three-quarters of an hour.

 While we can only imagine the terrible torment that Mr Lowe, the Organ Tuner, must have experienced for the rest of his days, we may also spare a thought for a frustrated Mr C N Hodgson who saw the fire from the street at an early stage. He warned the local fire fighters by telephoning from the nearby Gill’s Livery Stables. The firemen arrived within a commendable fifteen minutes but unfortunately they were too late to save the well-known Rotherham place of worship. Mr Hodgson had to stand nearby in his frustration and watch the Chapel disappear in flames. Equally aghast and frustrated were the many youngsters who had been inside the Chapel or the Schoolroom that evening. They must have watched the tragic fire destroy their Chapel with pounding hearts, and no doubt many of them would never again see a building or even a haystack on fire without thinking back to the destruction of their Chapel on the 15th November 1901.