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THE FIRST CHURCH AT HARROGATE 

St John's Chapel and its Wardens 

The year before Queen Anne died, a certain Roger Clarke was Churchwarden. "for Bilton-with-Harrogate," at that time one of the five townships making up the parish of Knaresborough. There was then no church in the township. Its people had long been independent in their civil or week-day affairs, but when they attended their Parish Church they had a tiresome journey of two miles - some of them even three - along a forest track. 

The inhabitants of Sulphur Wells (the part of Low Harrogate that lay in the township of Pannal) had to make a similar journey to their Parish Church, St. Robert's. This church at Pannal has long had close links with Harrogate. The whole of the two parishes of St. Mary's and St. Mark's have been taken from the area that it then served, and the church of All Saints, at Harlow Hill, which was built in 1870 as a chapel-of-ease of St Robert's, still so remains. Also, it happens that the oldest church document in the Bilton-with-Harrogate township records is the copy of an Act of Parliament of 1713, which enabled vicars with a stipend of less than £40 a year to convert into glebe up to sixty acres of waste land. The enclosures made, in the following year, by the Vicar of Pannal are now in the Borough: they were at "Rosset, Leadhall. Birkcragg," and "at the cold well house" (in the present Cold Bath Road). Pannal parishioners in Low Harrogate continued to attend St Robert's (where once Joseph Thackwray, landlord of the Crown and proprietor of the Montpellier Gardens was churchwarden.) until 1824. The first St. Mary's Church was then built, as a chapel-of-ease of the mother church. In 1839 it itself became a Parish Church.. It was not till 1898 that St. Mark's parish was formed, for that district was sparsely populated until the later nineteenth century. 

Bilton-with-Harrogate had its first church planned in 1743 - and built two or three years later - to serve the needs of the township and the visitors "taking the waters," who already flocked there during the months of July, August and September. This was the St. John's Chapel, in High Harrogate. It was a chapel-of-ease of Knaresborough Parish Church and was under the care of a perpetual curate. It was to stand until 1831, when it was pulled down to provide a site for Christ Church. 

For more than half its existence its Curate was the Rev. Robert Mitton, who appears to have been an able, friendly, and popular person. He, came to it in 1769, and died in office in 1825. Though his official stipend was only £30 in 1783, and cannot have been much more at any time - for his successor, the Rev. Thomas Kennion, B.A., was appointed at £50 a year - his income must have been greatly augmented by the donations of summer visitors. In the latter part of his time he lived in the Old Parsonage in Park Parade, and in 1818 he got his brother, the Rev Henry Mitton, M.A., appointed as curate (in the usual sense) at £75 a year. 

The tithes of the chapelry belonged only partly to the patron of the living, the Vicar of Knaresborough, for Alexander Wedderburn bought a half-share of them about 1770. This Vicar was named the Rev Andrew Cheap from 1788 to 1851, but there were two men, uncle and nephew, the former dying in. 1804. 

From Roger Clarke in Queen .Anne's time, down to 1832, when the chapelry became the Parish of Harrogate, there seems to have been only one Churchwarden appointed each year. So long as St. John's existed, he was usually described as Chapelwarden. During the whole of this period, some ninety years, only 35 Wardens have been traced - through signatures on township papers and from the few remaining Chapelwardens' Accounts. But several of these held office for two, three, or even four years: Thomas Emmatt, the builder, for example, 1808-1812; and numerous .innkeepers:óJohn Dearlove, of the Salutation (County) 1783-85; William Thackwray, of the Bay Horse (Empress) 1786-88; Jonathan Shutt, of the Swan (Old Swan) 1795-97; Joseph Waite, of the Black Swan 1815-17; and Thomas Frith, father of the well-known artist, of the Dragon (now demolished) 1827-30. 

It was the duty of the Wardens to make their lay each year - as the Overseers did theirs for the Poor - and to collect the Church Rate. A good half of this, about £20 a year from 1790, was paid to Knaresborough for the repairs of the mother church. Only the remainder was available for the upkeep and furnishing of St. John's and the wages of its clerk. This man received only £2 a year in 1783, but William Pullan, clerk from 1797, got £10, and his successor, Robert Wray, whose service extended into the Christ Church period, had a wage of £12 10s. This was good money in those days for what was never a full-time occupation. Besides, both these clerks were paid in addition for acting as verger and sexton and occasionally even beadle. For sweeping the Chapel they had 1s each week, and for washing a sircloth (surplice) 2s. They were also paid for providing greens at Christmas and "pricking" the Chapel with them. The official pay (in 1804) for digging a grave was 1s, and the same for tolling the passing bell; but the burial fees at this time were almost invariably 5s. 4d, and they were paid to the clerk. He may, of course, have acted as collector for the officiating clergyman; but there is no clear indication of this. Pullan, in 1797, received a fee of 1s for Cries: in acting as town-crier he had become, for the time being, also a beadle. 

Some details of the interior of St. John's can be gathered from the Chapelwardens' Accounts. The walls were given a coat of whitewash in 1786. In 1823 the Chapel was expensively re-decorated, and painted in white, oak and "merhoegny." In 1802 the "Lords prayer and Creed" were removed from the wall, and the Commandments put up. The choir apparently used a "Singing Loft," for a table and- metal stands were supplied for it in 1802. The only record of a choir treat is in 1785, when the Warden "paid to the Singers 2s. 6d." There was an organ before 1809, for there are repairs to it in that year. The heating was provided by two stoves; a new one costing fifteen guineas was fitted in 1809, the clerk charging an extra 1s for sweeping the Chapel when "old Pipe fell . . . " In 1823 printer Langdale supplied expensive Service-books costing nearly £10; a Bible and. Prayer Book, both demi-folio, in rough calf, and two Books of Office's, in purple morocco. For the Curate's use also, possibly, an almanac was bought each year. In the Chapel was kept the Chest in which important township documents were kept. Two locks were bought for it in 1787. At the same time there was obtained a "rod for the Chappell Warden." Apparently the proverbial church mouse existed, for in 1783 there is the item: "Mouse trap 6d." 

The duties of the Warden seem to have overlapped a little those of the Constable. At various times in the 1780's Wardens paid for the destruction of a number of "foul Marts" (polecats), and once for a fox. On the other hand it was the Constable, in 1797, who paid for "Printing Bills For keeping the. Sabbath day Holey." 

A minor but certainly not negligible duty of the Wardens was to distribute various Charities. The Charity Bread, collected by St. John's clerk from Knaresborough (for which he got an additional 9s. a year), was Harrogate's share of a Parish benefaction. The Report of the Charity Commissioners in 1820 states that 37 two-penny loaves of wheaten bread were distributed at St. John's on the last Sunday in each month to such of the poor as were not receiving relief out of the Rates. For other Charities, the oldest evidence is a small book (with a sewn-on brown-paper back, then commonly used), which records money grants made by Wardens between 1774 and 1783. The distributions took place on Good Friday, or on St. Thomas' Day (December 21st), in some years on both. The collection taken at the Sacrament - usually some two or three pounds - was added to the Charity. The Body, Roundell and Baxter Charities yielded between them £4 a year from rent-charges on local field's. There was also a "Jeffrey" Charity, producing, in these years, from 10s to 30s and, lastly, a "Benson" Charity, giving a regular 15s a year income, during the same period, but of which no later information has been discovered. 

Even in the relatively short period covered by the book, there is a noticeable reduction in the amounts distributed. In the 1770's, more than 30 poor people received from 2s to 6s each, but without any increase in the number of recipients, the grants had dropped to 1s - 4s in 782, and next year to 6d - 3s. 

The Curate of St. John's, in addition to his customary occasional fees, received from the Wardens a fee of 1s or 1s 6d for prayers at special times, like the "Prayse" for the Peace of 1783. There were prayers for the King in 1786 and 1788, and a "prayer and Thanksgiving for the Kings Recovery" in 1789 - pathetic reminders of George III's mental illness, which proved to be incurable. In 1797 there was a "prayer for our Fleet under Sir Jno. Jervis," a month after his famous victory at Cape St. Vincent over the French. 

By 1811, the population of the chapelry was nearly 1,600 and several thousand visitors came in the summer. The Chapel being far too small for the numbers who wished to attend it., at least during the season, serious consideration was given to plans for its enlargement and even its replacement by another building was mooted. Possibly the difficulties of the war period explain the deferment of the latter. But it is strange that a good fifteen years were allowed to elapse after the Battle of Waterloo before St. John's Chapel was dismantled and the erection of Christ Church began. Robert Mitten did not live to see his cherished scheme realised. The new church was consecrated in October 1831 and its dedication, to Christ, was the one that had been first proposed in 1743. The fact that the Chapel had been dedicated without explanation to St. John tends, perhaps, to support the theory that the Harrogate medieval chantry chapel had been in its immediate neighbourhood. 

The building of Christ Church seems to have caused no serious financial difficulty, for in 1839, on a church insured for £4,000, the debt outstanding - to the Knaresbro and Claro Banking Company - was only £500. The material of St John's had been sold to the Independents, who re-erected it, recognisably in its old form (we are told), on Prospect Hill, where it was to serve them, as Providence Chapel, for the next thirty years. Present-day Congregationalists (the modern name of the Independents) are still summoned to services in their Victoria Avenue chapel, built in 1862, by the bell of St. John's. It bears the date 1812 and the name, "Thomas Emmatt, Chapelwarden." 

Out of the Parish of Harrogate, formed in 1832, there were destined to be taken, at various times during the following eighty years, no fewer than five others: St. John's, Bilton (preserving the old name), in 1857; St. Peter's, in 1869; St. Luke's, in 1898; St. Wilfrid's, in 1904; and St. Andrew's, Starbeck, in 1911. 

During these years, the centre of town life moved away from Christ Church. But this fact has its compensation: it has helped to preserve its fine and peaceful setting. 

 

 

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