Belgrave Meeting House, Darwen: A Warning

I recently visited Darwen. It’s a queer place with young men huddling together on street corners and old men wandering aimlessly. Architecturally, it’s magnificent. One of its churches at first appeared to me like a ruined abbey. Upon closer examination, I realised it was not ruined at all, but had been designed to evoke that lost world of gothic arches and soaring spires. There was no sign without, offering explanation, so I looked it up when I returned home. In fact, it was a Congregational church, just like ours. Oh, how the simple country folk of Martin Top must have marvelled at the Darwen sophisticates’ choice of architect and style! A right bunch of yokels they must have felt, had they attended its opening service in October 1847. Well-heeled manufacturers and Liberal politicians no doubt constituted its wealthy and urbane membership.

Why, though, did they desire their new church, Belgrave Meeting House, to resemble an old abbey? The medieval abbots of old would have burnt these Congregationalists to a crisp had they got their way. I propose this church was rather too proud of itself. 

The Rev Henry Townsend in 1806 built a chapel, which he named after himself when he resigned from Pole Lane Chapel. Pole Lane Chapel and Townsend Chapel then joined congregations and became Ebenezer Chapel. This Chapel closed in 1840 when the congregation became too large, so they built Belgrave Meeting House. Perhaps attempting to out-do the Anglicans, they built in the most fashionable style, gothic revival.

Sadly for them, the congregation couldn’t afford to maintain its magnificent temple-like premises, and the roof became too dangerous to be under by the 1970s. Twenty years later, it was converted into flats. That company of God’s people are long gone, but the simple folk at Martin Top with their plain chapel continue to meet- under a safe roof.

There’s a lesson here. Today’s churches which follow the latest styles and have the largest congregations are often the first to disappear. We old-fashioned, creaking gates often out-live them.