A Short Stroll in Todmorden Town Centre

Wherever you look in Todmorden you seem to be confronted with a wealth of history.  Apart from the Fielden sponsored Town Hall and Unitarian Church, there are a number of other interesting sights.  Just a short stroll one Saturday afternoon revealed evidence from many different times giving an insight into the lives of many of our common ancestors.

The start point of the walk was Fielden Square next to the canal and the Golden Lion.  This building once housed Todmorden's first Post Office and was also the place where coaches stopped on their way to Manchester and other destinations.  Though it has suffered in the recent floods in Todmorden, it is good to see it back in business again.  

In contrast, the other building of note is the former Fielden Coffee Tavern, which as reported below, opened in 1880.  It had cost John Fielden £4000 and was built to honour his second wife Ellen, who was a dedicated fan of the Temperance Movement.  It did not prosper and after only four years was rented by the Conservative Association who eventually bought it in 1913 when it became the Conservative Club.

The Todmorden almanac reported on 30th December 1880:

"The Fielden Coffee Tavern, Pavement, Todmorden, was opened by the Bishop of Manchester. He and Mrs. Fraser were met at the station by John Fielden Esq. of Dobroyd Castle, at 12-05pm. After inspecting the tavern and declaring it open, the Bishop gave an address in the Town Hall on the advantages of coffee taverns."

The top floor of the building is now a dance studio.  Would Ellen have approved of that?


Leaving Fielden Square, Shoebroad Lane starts to climb the hillside .  The next building is of huge significance in Todmorden's history- The Unitarian Church.  It is a huge building that was paid for by the Fielden Brothers from the Textile side of the family.

Prior to the building of the church, there was a cornfield.  In a series of articles in the Hebden Bridge Times and Calderdale Gazette from March to May 1882, an unknown author recalls the landscape of Todmorden in the 1820s and 1830s and states that 'beyond the cornfield was a small cottage and on rising ground towards Wellfield was a firwood.'  Also 'to the right of the cornfield was a wood of stout timber in which bluebells flourished.'  The scene is one of pastoral delight but he goes on to lament "that the wood has been destroyed in more recent times by the smokey fumes of the chimneys of Waterside Mill."  (Which was of course a Fielden mill,)

However the wealth created by the industrialisation of Todmorden and the attendant smoke and grime led to the building of the Unitarian Church.  The original plan of 1864 was to create a church, which was to be for 500 people and cost no more than £6000. The three brothers Samuel, John and Joshua were to share the cost equally between them.  It was to be a project in memory of their father John Fielden M.P.  John Gibson was engaged early in 1865 to build the church and by the end of the year the first stone was laid.  At this event Gibson did say that the estimated cost would be £12000.  By the time that the church opened in 1869 the cost had risen to £35835.  Escalating costs on major projects are nothing new then.

Luckily for us, this huge monument to the Fielden Brothers is still in beautiful condition.  The best materials were used to construct it and it has stood the test of time.  Instead of falling into disuse and disrepair, it is used regularly for a variety of events and services.  The Historic Chapels Trust has taken the responsibility for its maintenance and even from the outside it looks to be well cared for.  Local volunteers help to maintain the surrounding gardens in beautiful condition.

Continuing on from the church, Shoebroad Lane climbs steeply away from the valley towards the higher pastures. In the late 1600's the Todmorden Society of Friends purchased land on the right hand side of the lane to be used as a burial ground. 
Burials commenced in 1690.  As is the way in Quaker burials, there are no headstones or indeed nothing to mark the
site of a grave.  Many of the early Fieldens are buried here because the Quakers kept detailed records and there are also records of burial places in some of the censuses.  In the vicinity there was also a purpose built Meeting House at Tentercroft which opened in 1696.

The Quaker burial ground at Shoebroad probably looks like it always has. It is just a walled in area of the hillside surrounded by trees that sway and rustle in the wind. It is far away from the traffic and noise of the valley below and retains its aura of tranquillity, as was likely the original intention.   The engraving on the stone by the gate simply says "Shewbread Quaker; Burial Ground, c 1668."

Descending the slope of the lane a final visit must be made to the original Unitarian Chapel, which was used as a Sunday School after the building of the Church.  This building was a result of John Fielden MP being drawn towards a different religion than the Quakerism he had been brought up in.  He had come into contact with Joseph Cooke who had broken away from Methodism and formed a sect called Methodist Unitarians which was attracting many members in the Rochdale area.  John Fielden found that this new sect very attractive and supported its entry into the Todmorden area. 

In 1822 the Todmorden Unitarian Society was formed and in 1824 built a Chapel and school at a cost of £990.  In order to do this they had to take on a large debt.  In the end they could not repay this in full and so John Fielden repaid it for them.  He was closely involved for years and now is buried in the tiny cemetery that is adjacent to the Chapel.  The building has now been converted into a number of dwellings.

So a short stroll on a Saturday afternoon has taken us back to a time when religion played a much stronger part in people's lives.  From the Quakers, who purchased land for a Meeting House and a burial ground, to the Methodist Unitarians, who built a chapel and a church, a lasting legacy of buildings and sites have been left to us.  Religion and the betterment of mankind was their motivation.  Luckily their efforts have stood the test of time, over 140 years or more, and are revealed on this walk on the slopes of Todmorden.


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