Thornton Bell Chapel

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Thornton is a delightful old township outside Bradford whose moment of fame came in 1815 when Patrick Bronte was appointed its perpetual curate. Charlotte, Emily and Anne, together with their brother Branwell, were actually born in Thornton as a local plaque reminds visitors. For some reason it has never attracted the tourists in the way that Haworth has, although Thornton has many beautiful eighteenth and nineteenth vernacular buildings which are well worth visiting. Those interested in industrial archaeology will be drawn to its tremendous railway viaduct, built by John Rowlands, across which you can now walk. If you live anywhere near Thornton I can thoroughly recommend a visit.

The parish church of St James is a late Victorian construction (1872) which has a permanent exhibition of Bronte memorabilia. Patrick Bronte’s own church, where the four children were baptised, is now a ruin across the main road as you can see from the first image. Many local people have worked very hard to maintain the remains in a fit state for inspection. Please look at their website:

http://www.brontebellchapel.co.uk/

For most of its life the chapel was also officially dedicated to St James but it is widely known as the Bell Chapel which is the name I will employ. In the past it functioned as a ‘chapel of ease’ for Bradford parish church (now Bradford Cathedral) along with similar chapels at Haworth & Wibsey. People from Thornton itself worshipped there but also their neighbours from Wilsden, Clayton, and Allerton. Today only the east end of the original building remains, together with a stone cupola which was added to the Bell Chapel in 1818. At that time the chapel was also re-fronted on south side and re-roofed. It was said to have been ‘beautified’ in this way by Patrick Bronte who left Thornton for Haworth two years later. The areas both within and outside the chapel ruins are covered by many beautifully cut grave-stones. Among the internal monuments are those to members of the Firth family. Elizabeth Firth of Kipping House, Thornton, was godmother to some of the Bronte children. On my first visit my attention was caught by a series of date stones incorporated into the standing east wall. These are probably not in their original positions but ostensibly indicate the dates: 1587, 1612 and 1756. These stones puzzle me, but it might first be worth looking at what the two great nineteenth century Bradford historians have to say on the subject of the Bell Chapel.

John James (1841) notes that at the western end of the building was the 1612 inscription. Did he mistake his compass points or is this statement evidence of its re-positioning? He also mentions the 1587 stone which he supposes is when the most ancient part of the present chapel was built. He notes the existence of a chapel bell dated 1664, and the fact that in 1678 chapel registers commence. James noted that substantial work was done in 1756. The roof was taken off, the north side wall was demolished, and the west end wall demolished to within a yard of the ground. The south & east walls were also rebuilt. In 1793 the pews were repaired and a gallery for an organ loft erected. Even after Patrick Bronte’s work in 1818 the chapel was ‘considerably altered and repaired’.

William Cudworth, writing at the end of the nineteenth century, states that there was no pre-reformation church on the site. He also noticed the date stones and inscriptions which he must have seen in the same form as they are today. He describes how the chapel had seating for 600, which is a little hard to believe, since by his own account the Bell Chapel was low, dark and damp! He generally accepts James’ dates, and may well have used the earlier historian as a source of information.

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The first OS map of the area, surveyed in the late 1840s, shows the chapel and the nearby Thornton Hall. Neither building is aligned on the Bradford & Thornton Trust turnpike which was 20 years old at most. Did Charlotte have the hall in mind when she described Thornfield Hall in Jane Eyre? The hall is said to have been rebuilt in stone in 1598 when owned by the Tempest family, and then extensively renovated in the late nineteenth century by the then owner, John Foster of Black Dyke Mills fame. Thornton is a good place for seeing date stones. They must always be treated with some care since they can be moved from an older building, or carved with a year which pre-dates the erection of the stone. The oldest at the chapel site is of 1587, the year before the Spanish Armada. There is nothing impossible about the date which fits well with the work on nearby Thornton Hall. I’m simply puzzled that the stone carver seems to have used three different fonts for the numerals 1 & 8, 5 and 7. It’s not impossible of course that the masons involved were given the privilege of carving a numeral each. The 1756 date fits well with the eighteenth century work on the chapel. The carving just looks a little amateurish when compared with contemporary date stones in Thornton itself.

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The 1612 inscription is beautifully carved and has been universally accepted as accurate. It would certainly seem to indicate that the chapel was built or rebuilt by a freemason in that year. Yet there are several puzzles. Firstly 1612 seems an early year for English freemasonry. The Freemasons themselves state that their early history is a subject of speculation. The United Grand Lodge was founded in 1717 and the earliest date for an English freemason that I can locate at present is Elias Ashmole in 1646. The task of identifying the builder would be a great deal easier if the name was still present but this has been obliterated for no reason now known. Finally the technique of the inscription is essentially that of the cameo. The surrounding stone is removed to reveal the lettering in relief. This is a far more difficult than simply carving the lettering and does not, in my judgement, produce a particularly beautiful result. The technique has been adopted for the dates in a local tombstone, and I have been trying to compare the letter forms with other local seventeenth century stone inscriptions. The bar over the capital A is one such peculiarity and the V replacing the harder to carve U is another. The Ys that look almost lower case would also fit although I cannot yet match the ligature between the H & E or the final E in LORDE.

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So can anybody help me? Is this inscription truly from the year 1612? If it were carved a century later with a spuriously early date I would be less puzzled, but I may be quite wrong to be suspicious. A comment from a historian of English Freemasonry would be especially welcome.

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