History

THE HISTORY OF OUR CHURCH
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HOW IT ALL STARTED

Towards the end of the Great World War (1914/1918), the Coalition Government of David Lloyd George coined a phrase: “Homes fit for heroes to live in”. It was not before time. Many of the great industrial cities of the nation were blighted with dreadful housing - the slums. Rows of back to back houses, often one up and one down, sharing sanitation - as many as ten households to a privy or WC. No wonder typhoid or cholera plagued communities, even in the early 20th Century.

The slums of Leeds were notorious; Hunslet, Holbeck, Richmond Hill and The Bank were dreadful. In the early years after the war Leeds was slow in slum clearances, believing that huge road schemes like York Road and Dewsbury Road would cut through the slum areas causing them ‘to whither off the vine!’ The Corporation of those days was reluctant to adopt a policy of municipal housing. It needed a strong letter of censure from the Ministry of Health to get the ball rolling. Even then the Leeds housing schemes were small scale and you can still see small developments of council houses dating from 1920 in Dewsbury Road, York Road and Meanwood. There are little over 20 of these small estates, not enough to house over 100,000 from the slums of Leeds. Again Central Government inspectors reported Leeds and a severe rebuke of the City Council ensued and the great developments of ‘townships’ on the outskirts of the city were planned. Middleton and Crossgates were the first two of these.

Work commenced on house building on the Middleton Estate in 1922. Amongst the first houses built were those on Middleton Park Avenue, Middleton Park Mount and Acre Road East. Often the streets were named after the farms whose fields they now over-ran; the Sissons, the Acres, the Throstles and Lingwells. You could buy your house (over 25% of the housing stock built was for private ownership). The City entered into agreement with the Leeds Permanent, Leeds and Holbeck and later the Halifax Building Societies to guarantee the mortgages of the would-be house owners. If you hadn’t enough for a deposit you entered into an agreement with the City’s Housing Department and for up to five years paid an additional premium on top of your rent, eventually securing the necessary deposit. House prices ranged from £350 to £420.

So much for the betterment of physical and material needs. However, what of the spiritual needs of Middleton folk? Of course, Middleton’s name was not new. There had been a community here for centuries, though its parish church was four miles away at Rothwell. A traveling curate would occasionally come and serve the farming and mining villagers. 155 years ago the parish of St Mary, Middleton was created. It was huge, taking in Stourton, Belle Isle as well, as Middleton. Just over 100 years ago, the Methodist Chapel was built but there had been a Methodist society meeting in cottages near the park gates from the late 18th century. However, these two Christian churches (very much rivals in those early days) would be unable to cope with the huge population explosion in the 1920’s.

In 1923 the Yorkshire Association of Baptist Churches and the Leeds Churches Extension Society (Anglican) both applied for sites for what was to be Middleton Park Baptist Church and St Cross (then known as Holy Cross) Mission Hall, a wooden utility building, later to have the handsome building we now know.

 

 

Both prospective church building groups were offered approximately 1.86 acres of land on the Middleton housing estate. The Yorkshire Association of Baptist Churches offer stated that it was for the erection there-on of a building for religious or education purposes for the sum of £550, subject to approval of the Ministry of Health and to a contract to be approved by the Town Clerk and that the Common Seal be affixed to the necessary documents”.

In 1924 the Yorkshire Association of Baptist Churches reported in their Year Book the generous foresight of the Leeds South Parade Church Trustees in setting apart one-third of the proceeds of the sale of their premises for new work “that will enable us to enter into the most promising of openings at Middleton and plant a church there.” In this, it could be considered that Middleton Park Baptist Church entered into the patrimony of the mother church of Leeds Baptists, the Old Stone Chapel, St Peter’s Street, which moved to South Parade near Leeds Town Hall. Originally founded in 1779, it closed in 1909 and with the proceeds allowed Harehills Lane Church (1907), Headingley Lane, the present South Parade (1909) and Middleton Park (1925) to be built.

The formation of Middleton Park Baptist Church didn’t follow the usual pattern of a larger church planting a group of its members in an un-churched area, eventually ‘dismissing them’ to be an independent church. The Middleton Church was a direct initiative of the Yorkshire Association of Baptist Churches, who at the same time was involved in other Discipleship and Extension Campaigns after World War 1, particularly in the South Yorkshire coalfields. The Association set-up a buildings committee and it chose Messrs T Wills, architects of Derby and Skegness to design a school chapel for the Middleton site. Soon after the same architects designed a similar building for the Manor church in Sheffield and after that Cottingham Road church in Hull. Deacons and church members, still have course to rue the architects liking for flat roofs! The weather and vandals of Middleton liked them!

As Middleton folk see every Sunday, Cllr. J.W. Dawson (a member of the Blenheim Baptist Church family) and Alderman Brow Dickinson JP (a member of the Leeds City Council Improvements Committee) laid the foundation stones on 19 September 1925.

In that year, 1925, the YBA Yearbook, Council and Secretary’s Report “welcomes G.C. Matthews to the new Middleton, Rothwell and Ardsley Group’. It also reported, “Plans have been accepted for the premises at Middleton”. The Rothwell Church was a planting (1924) by the Hunslet Baptist Tabernacle church. Ardsley seemed to remain just an idea. The Rev. Gerald Charles Matthews had been trained at the Regents Park College, London. He was two years at the High Street Baptist Church, Boston, Lincolnshire, before being appointed to Middleton by the YBA. His ministry was barely three years here, though it seemed to open with great promise. The 1926 YBA Report mentions the new churches; “Encouraging commencements have been made. Sunday Schools have been formed which already promise to fill the buildings and with G.C. Matthews at Middleton, they are full of enthusiasm and hope for really great things.”

In that same Year Book, the accounts for Middleton’s building are recorded. The South Parade Trustees were the largest con­tributors with £1,600 and a year later another £400. Another benefactor was the Keighley industrialist Heaton Hall (1839 - 1916) who left most of his wealth to the YBA for the purposes of helping Yorkshire Baptist churches. Thousands of pounds have come to our churches from the Trust he set up and Middleton had over £500 from it, but initially it was reported “£194 5s 2d for Middleton buildings”. Members will remember the two brass plates above the doors either side of the rostrum, which commemorated these two major gifts. (They are now displayed in the church Vestry). At the stone laying ceremony, the collection was £45 16s 0d in addition, the tea after­wards raised £4 6s 5d! The 1926 YBA Report gives indications of the outgoing payments: Purchase of site £569 17s, contract on new building £800, architects fee, on account, £60 and various other expenses such as for the stone laying £8 7s 7d Interestingly the Manse was a council built house, No. 26 Middleton Park Avenue bought with a mortgage for £480.

The 1927 YBA Yearbook records “Three new churches were received into the Association’s membership…. one on the extensive housing estate of Middleton”. It goes on to report overflowing Sunday Schools. “The Middleton church was so embarrassed by a Sunday School too numerous for successful working that your Council, with the aid of the South Parade Trustees have added a capital Primary Room which immensely helps the whole work”. The Leeds City Council Improvements Committee also provides an insight of Middleton’s success with young people; “Minute; A letter was submitted from the Secretary of the Middleton Park Baptist Church asking for permission to erect a temporary wooden building for a Sunday School on the site for a church on the Middleton housing estate”. “Resolved - That permission be granted subject to elevation”.

From the YBA accounts, further sums for Middleton’s buildings are reported, receipts –

Heaton Hall’s Trustees provided another £500, Yorkshire Chapel Loan Fund £500 and another £100 from the YBA Building and Extension Fund. Collection and Tea at the official opening yielded £61 14s 8d. Further outgoings included: Contracts on the new building £1603 13s 4d, furnishings £196 16s  9d, gas and electricity connection £10 18s 4d, architect’s fee £83 8s 3d, opening expenses £2 1 7d. The South Parade Trustees’ additional contribution for the Primary Room was £1,000.

Whilst the date and details of the first church service cannot be found the first recorded Church Meeting was held 20 January 1927 under the chairmanship of the Rev. G.C. Matthews with 24 present. Business procedures were determined and the officers were appointed; “Secretary - Mr. H. Walpole; Treasurer - Mr. B. W. Sewell; Financial Secretary - Mr. F. Brookes; Sunday School Superintendent - Mr. H. Ballard; Primary Leader - Miss J. Hainsworth and Sunday School Secretary - Mr. H. Hethrington. A Church Council was elected. Little seems to have been mentioned about Christian commitment nor Baptist faith and principles.

 

Text Box:  Writing a church history, particularly of a ‘working class’ church similar to our church at Middleton the writer must always be aware that it is not just the ministers who made things happen. It seems as though in the past hundred years or more we Baptists have forgotten that Protestant doctrine that was once held so dear… the priesthood of all believers. Sadly, because minutes in Church Books are brief, even sketchy, the researcher has difficulty in determining the motivation of church members and church officers in taking the actions they did and who it was that took the lead and why. Again, another basic tenet of Baptist belief is the sovereignty of the Church Meeting under God. We pray at the beginning for the guidance of God the Holy Spirit that all that is done may be to the glory of God the Son and at the meetings conclusion we pray that grace, love and fellowship from God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit may over-rule and abound within the Church.

The Middleton Park Baptist Church record of its first 75 years has many gaps and sadly there are few older members, whose memories can fill these gaps, perhaps remembering comments and nostalgia of their seniors. Nor does there appear to be a rich collection of correspondence to supplement the narrative record. Like the Apostle Paul of old, ‘we see through a glass darkly…we know in part…

Having stated the above we know that Middleton Park Baptist Church's first minister was appointed by the Yorkshire Association of Baptist Churches as the church building was being constructed in 1925. He was the Rev Gerald Charles Matthews and would have been 26 years of age when he took up the Middleton appointment, which was a joint-pastorate with the Rothwell Baptist Church. It was his second pastorate; he had been at Boston, Lincolnshire, a very much more established church dating back to 1651. Prior to his college training at the old Regents Park College, London, the church of his youth was East Finchley, London.

Certainly, those early days at Middleton appear to have been very promising. The Year Book of the Yorkshire Baptist Association, 1927, records the church’s reception into the Association’s membership and again recording the ‘overflowing Sunday School’. That year’s statistics records the church membership with 46, all by transfer, though there is no indication from where. There were 350 sittings in the chapel. The Sunday School numbered 270 scholars with 23 teachers.

It was in 1927 that the first baptisms were recorded, the only ones conducted by Rev G C  Matthews. They were Hubert Walpole of 35 Middleton Park Avenue, the church’s first Secretary, who was described ‘previously a fellowship member’. The other was Jack Atkinson Hainsworth of 4 Thorpe Road ‘from Sunday School’. The baptisms were on the 6 January 1927 and the candidates were received into ‘full’ baptised membership three days later at the Lord’s Supper.

Here an amusing anecdote might be appropriate. The baptistery was, as is now, under the floor of the rostrum pulpit. Older members may remember that the form of heating the waters for baptisms was rather ‘Heath Robinson’ involving a brass gas hot water ‘Jackson’ geyser in the kitchen and a complicated set of pipe work to fill the baptismal pool with over 2,000 gallons of water. This process took from morning to evening for an evening baptism or overnight if the baptism took place in the morning. Some of us may remember the system did have its whims and fancies. Often the waters were distinctly chilly but occasionally the old boiler really did its stuff and there was a steamy haze in the chapel. The system eventually broke down to be replaced by an immersion heater.

The church’s first anniversary weekend was held on the 12 and 13 November 1927 with the following report appearing in the Wakefield Express:

BAPTIST ANNIVERSARY – The first anniversary of the opening of the Middleton Park Baptist Church was celebrated last weekend. A good number attended the public tea on Saturday afternoon, and this was followed by a public meeting. Mr W N Town of Headingley presided and paid high tribute to the resident minister, the Rev G C Matthews, to whose activities the year’s progress is mainly due…. Mr Matthews prefaced his address with thanks to the Church’s Council and other members, without whose support very little progress would have been possible.

Mr Matthews hoped that more advantage would be made of his services and that members would bring forward suggestions for the carrying on of the church work; It was customary at an anniversary, said Mr Matthews, to consider what progress had been made, but it was useless talking about progress unless some standard by which to measure that progress was kept in view. People could be drawn to churches by various attractions, but more emphasis should be placed upon the vital things, and the first essential was for the individuals to take the life of Christ as the standard by which to measure their own lives. Church life should be built up not on tradition but on personal experience. Speaking of the unity of the churches, Mr Matthews said he longed for the day when there would be one Holy Catholic Church. That, however, would not come from conferences of the heads of the churches, but from the personal sympathy of all fellow Christians. The anniversary services were continued on the Sunday when Mr Matthews preached to good congregations.

Obliviously Mr Matthews was an early ecumenist!         

The Church Book recorded the church’s annual statistics: Membership 22, Fellowship Members 28. Average congregations of adults - morning 20 and evening 65. The weeknight service attracted 8. The Sunday School had on register 360 scholars with an average attendance of 230. There were 20 teachers. The Young People’s Bible Class numbered 8. There were 18 members of the choir. The Women’s Meeting had 64 members with an average weekly attendance of 30.

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