Church Street: one of Burnley’s oldest roads

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This column, and others I have written, make reference to Church Street, Burnley. It is, as is the case in many other places, one of the town’s oldest highways.

The name has not changed from the Middle Ages whereas other old streets – Fenkin Street, the original Mill Street and Cuckstool Lane – have all have lost their early names to Church Street, Bridge Street and School Lane respectively.

Church St

Church St

Church Street clearly gets its name as it led to the church of St Peter’s. Places of worship of which St Peter is the patron are often among the very earliest of our churches.

It is known St Peter’s existed in the 1120s but it is supposed its foundation is much earlier. However, a definite date for the actual foundation is very problematic.

The churches that claim to be the oldest in our area, the ones at Whalley and Blackburn, are believed to date from the very end of the 6th Century, to the time, before that of St Paulinus who came to England in the early 7th Century with St Augustine at the behest of Pope St Gregory the Great.

It is known there was a church at Whalley by 628AD and the “White Church”, mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, probably relates to another building constructed in the 8th Century.

The Normans built a church, or rebuilt the “White Church”, about 1100AD but construction work on the present church may not have started until c1200.

In the case of the original Blackburn church, nothing now remains but the site is known and it is thought there may be foundations, and possibly a crypt, in the grounds of the present cathedral. It was in c1819 that Blackburn’s medieval church was demolished. The site remained an area for burial within the graveyard of the new church which is now incorporated into Blackburn Cathedral. As a consequence of this, little can be said of Blackburn church.

Whalley is rather different. The present church, dedicated to St Mary and All Saints, still retains elements of earlier buildings, some going back to Norman times. At one time the dedication may have been to St Cuthbert and, if this is the case, the famous Celtic crosses in the church yard can be brought into the story as it is thought they could have been inspired by his influence. Though St Cuthbert lived entirely in the 7th Century he remained popular in England until well after the Norman Conquest in the 11th Century.

Getting back to Burnley, we cannot prove St Peter’s pre-dated 1120. There was a belief, until recently, that the cross in the Old Grammar School Gardens was a Paulinus Cross dating to the 7th Century but it is now supposed it is the Market Cross of 1294.

Then there is the foundation myth associated with St Peter’s. It is not unique. Many churches record similar stories. The one on Burnley is about the first attempts to build a place of Christian worship in the town. The builders engaged on the task were constantly frustrated by goblins who did not think the builders had chosen the site wisely. In the dark of night the goblins moved the stones to the site the church now occupies. The builders were forced to abandon their plans, which had been to build a church on the opposite side of what is now Church Street, and construct the church where it is today.

There are two 11th Century dates associated with St Peter’s. The first, in the 1120s, gives us the earliest mention, so far as we know, of a church in Burnley. This does not mean to say St Peter’s did not exist before that date and it is thought, by some, the Burnley church, in terms of its first foundation, might be as old as those at Blackburn and Whalley. The later date is 1170 and this refers to a document which grants St Peter’s to Pontefract Priory, an important piece of information as it refers to the status of the church.

In fact, the document brings into doubt that St Peter’s was a church at all! This might seem to be a serious matter but, before any of you get worried, the doubt is not about whether St Peter’s was a place of worship, but whether it was a church or chapel. We have used the word “church” for St Peter’s for hundreds of years but the building was not a church from 1170 to 1843 when the Parish of Whalley Act was implemented. St Peter’s became a church when it was awarded its own parish in the 1840s.

As you can see, this is all about status. A church has a vicar but a chapel, in normal circumstances, has a parson. This was the case in Burnley and the town had a parsonage, not far from St Peter’s, in which the parson lived.

Of course there are other terms used as titles for Burnley’s clergymen.

For example, when the Rev. Robert Mosley Master arrived in Burnley in 1826 he was referred to as the “Incumbent” but was really the parson who might also be called “the curate”.

This latter meant the holder of that office had the cure (care) of the souls of the inhabitants of Burnley but that he reported to the vicar who was resident in Whalley. If the curate had the help of another clergyman that individual would be known as the assistant curate and, for long periods of time, especially in the later 18th and early 19th Centuries, Burnley was served by assistant curates, the most well known of whom was John Raws, who was also headmaster of the Grammar School.

We are going to have a look at Church Street. This is clearly going to be Church Street in photographic times so, apart from setting the scene for our inspection of this historic street, you might think the article so far has little to do with what follows. However, I think you will be surprised by the references to ancient times that will be uncovered by our investigation.

Lastly, it is worth mentioning that, given what has already indicated, the highway we now know as Church Street might, with some justification, have been called Chapel Street.