The Heckmondwike Wesleyan Disaster of 1829

The First Wesleyan Chapel of Heckmondwike

From the great religious conflicts of the 17th century to the present day, Heckmondwike, and the wider Spen Valley, has a proud tradition of dissent and non-conformism – religious or otherwise. Religious non-conformism can be traced back centuries, becoming especially prominent in the 17th century. In 1689 after the passage of the Toleration Act, local non-conformism flourished – the ‘metropolis of dissent’ as Frank Peel put it in 1891, was born.

A strong congregationalist tradition was established in Heckmondwike in the early 18th century, which espoused stringent Calvinist views, believing firmly in fatalism – the idea that everything is already pre-determined by God. They did not welcome the ideas of John Wesley, whose more liberal views began to be introduced to the area, spreading rapidly throughout Birstall and Liversedge. Methodist “Classes” were held in both Heckmondwike and Cleckheaton, much to the discontent of the Congregationalists, who tried their best to slow and disrupt its spread.

Still, the first services were held in the “old houses” on Walkley Lane, opposite Walkley Cottage. At the time, the leading man of Methodism in Heckmondwike was a bookkeeper, Mr. J Wilkinson. He helped to establish a Sunday School, which Peel describes as one of the first in the Spen Valley. It was situated in Wilkinson’s house on the banks of the Spen Beck. He was aided and then followed by Mr. Benjamin Holdsworth, who carried Methodism forward a generation. In 1810, a Methodist Chapel was erected near the town’s green. It was situated on the grounds of the Co-operative Funeral Directors at the time of writing. Holdsworth was essential in its foundation, and by 1811, the Chapel had opened.

Where the entrance of the Heckmondwike Old Wesleyan Chapel once faced

In spite of deep religious tension, the Chapel progressed favourably, and by 1829 Methodism was thriving in Heckmondwike, considering its slow but steady foundations. The town itself was steeped in poverty, political radicalism, and tension. The Luddite Attack on Rawfolds Mill had happened only seventeen years earlier, and the radicalism did not end with its failure. An infamous article in 1826 discussed how a gentleman had seen children eat out of a pig’s trough due to a lack of food. Furthermore, in April 1829, trade was in a ‘lamentable depression’, with the trade of blankets in both Dewsbury and Heckmondwike being the worst the Leeds Mercury Reporter had seen across the region. Employment was low as the blanket industry declined, with over a quarter of weavers being unemployed and quite literally starving. Considering then that some describe Methodism as a ‘working-class’ religion which is perhaps more hopeful than the contemporary hard-line Calvinist independents, one can see the excitement behind it and why it becomes more entrenched in Heckmondwike.

A photo which is likely Mr. William “Billy” Dawson

A new Methodist Sunday School had, at some point, been established. On Sunday, 12th April 1829, popular preacher Billy Dawson was to preach the anniversary sermons of this Sunday School. Dawson was at the height of his popularity, and much excitement and anticipation was held around his attendance; therefore, a collection was also to be held for the Sunday School, perhaps taking advantage of this. The day came, and, in the evening, vast throngs of people flocked to hear Dawson preach. The Chapel was quite literally packed to its capacity. Dawson preached in his usual engaging and eloquent manner from John IX 4. Finally, at around quarter past seven, the Congregation arose to sing. Little could they consider what calamity was to follow.

The force of the people arising knocked the stove in the Chapel’s body near the gallery. This caused the stove’s pipe to fall, causing a noticeable noise. Nobody was injured, although many were alarmed, and some began to leave the Chapel as a cloud of dust and soot arose. Panic began to spread. As this panic spread, a young lad overheard one of these people leaving saying that, at first, he thought the Chapel was giving way. This lad then ran outside and broke a square in one of the windows, perhaps with an umbrella, and shouted words that caused turmoil – “The chapel is falling!”.

Almost instantly, the Chapel, full to its brim, became a scene of a most terrible disaster. People from the gallery and the body of the Chapel made a near-simultaneous rush towards the nearest exit. There were two doors – an East door partly shut and the West door fully open. The rush was mainly focused on the latter. The Chapel’s narrow passages were inadequately designed to handle the crowds of people trying to escape. The staircase from the gallery ended in a vestibule – a lobby of sorts – from which those leaving hit the crowd from the body at a right angle. The consequence of this was a very sorry, near indescribable sight.

The two opposing streams nearly closed up the small passageways causing those who were at the front to be thrown down by those behind, who were themselves also thrown down and covered those coming down from the gallery. The staircase from the gallery itself was literally full of people trying to escape. Amid this, Dawson and other preachers attempted to quell the disorder, but their pleas were quite literally drowned out by the ‘shrieks of the terrified, and the groans of the dying’. Moreover, the force of the crowd in the gallery caused someone to be thrown over it into the body of the chapel, luckily falling on another person’s shoulders and escaping injury.

This chaos and terror reigned as a young boy, who was aged just 6 years, held onto his father’s hands. His father was Timothy Rothrey, a local Clothier, and his mother was called Ann. This little boy held on tight, but the velocity and force of the terrified crowd overpowered his father’s strength. Torn away from his helpless father’s side, he was very quickly trampled upon as his father watched on, unable to do a thing.

The baptism of Rothery’s son

The desperate preachers realised their own cries and commands were doing nothing to quell the crowds. The Chapel’s band soon began to strike up a hymn which was also sung by the Chapel’s signers and perhaps joined by the scholars of the Sunday School. The children were instructed to remain seated, and thanks to this action from their teachers avoided injury or death. However, the Hymn did not overpower the chaos – screams, the crashing of those trampling over the fallen pipe, and the creaking of the Chapel’s woodwork. To the alarm of Heckmondwike’s population, these noises of terror, death and chaos were heard for several hundred yards outside the chapel.

It took a quarter of an hour for the crowd to begin to calm and the difficult process of extracting people began. People were piled upon each other to the height of four or five feet, and it was necessary to drag people into the body of the chapel in order to free those at the bottom of the pile.

The scale of the disaster became apparent very quickly – five people were dead, mostly young people. At least 20 were injured in some form, with an extra 6 or 7 appearing in a near-lifeless state. Alarm had spread around the town by this point, and crowds gathered outside the Chapel to help and also ensure their loved ones were alive. The earlier mentioned little boy, son of Timothy Rothery, was found alive but with both his shoulders dislocated and heavily bruised. His name was Henry Rothery, and he was dead, aged just 6, the following day. This made the death total increase to six.

The Town much later in the 1870s

There was an outpouring of support from all walks of life across Heckmondwike and its surrounding towns. Heckmondwike’s inhabitants raised a subscription to aid those wounded and cover the funeral expenses of those who died. Many, if not the vast majority, of the aforementioned people were towards the bottom of society and therefore needed as much support as necessary. The following Tuesday, an inquest was held. Furthermore, Peel later reports that purportedly the lad who shouted that the chapel was falling and arguably increasing panic amongst the Congregation was killed on Walkley Lane by being knocked down. There is no other mention of this elsewhere.

The New Chapel built in the 1860s, closed in 1959 and eventually was demolished. Photo taken circa 1913.

This accident marked generations of Heckmondwikians, being mentioned years later in two descriptions of the town in the 1830s and 1860s. Those born as late as the 1820s died likely in the 1880s and 1890s, but some, like Ceneterain Mary Buckley, who was born in 1810, lived many years longer than this; the memory, therefore, lagged on. Despite this being such a traumatic event in Heckmondwike and the wider Spen Valley’s history, it seems to have been so easily forgotten. This may have been aided by the demolition of the old Chapel and its successor, but still, this event should be remembered. Six people died, and many were injured, never mind a whole town traumatised.

Let us take a moment then to reflect on and remember the terrible events of 12th April 1829.

In Memory Of:

  • John Leeming, aged 14. Apprentice to a shoe-maker at Swithenbank.
  • Emma Whiteley, aged 13.
  • Betty Oxley, aged 33, unmarried.
  • Ann Heald, aged 14.
  • Henry Rothery, aged 6, who died the following day.

The following were considered dangerously injured but made a recovery:

  • Mrs. Susannah Thornton of Liversedge
  • Law Swithenbank of Staincliffe, aged 13
  • Sarah Naylor of Heckmondwike, aged 14.
  • Hannah Ineson of Heckmondwike, aged 12 years
  • Eliza Heald of Heckmondwike, aged 16 years
  • William Blackburn, married man, of Heckmondwike

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4 responses to “The Heckmondwike Wesleyan Disaster of 1829”

  1. I found this absolutely fascinating- my family went to the Chapel at the top of Union Street, with family involved in building a new chapel in the 1800s for much more freedom to practice their faith!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There was a split in the Methodist movement, I think in around 1850, which led to the near collapse of the movement in the Spen Valley, but also the eventual erection of the Chapel your family attended. Fascinating the rise and then sad fall of these great and beautiful buildings, which frankly without a knowledge of local history, you wouldn’t know ever existed.


      1. I totally agree with you – some towns have kept their Chapels but not many are left in Heckmondwike !
        My Gt Gt Uncle John James Stead was involved in the new chapel being built and the old one demolished- I did not understand why the old Chapel was not suitable anymore at that time and a new one built? Maybe you can tell me George? Thanks a lot – Jan

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Hi sorry missed this! From memory, it was numbers! They’d simply outgrown the old chapel and needed to be built a new one. I seem to think John James Stead was involved in both the School Board and the Antiquarian Society. I am looking into both more deeply when I have done my A Levels so if I do come across stuff to do with him, I could send you if you don’t already have it, if you’d like?


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