In search of a city: a history of Lee Mount Baptist Church, Halifax 1846–1977

Miss J M Crabtree BA and Rev. M V Jackson BA

2 The Sunday School is born and thrives

The very earliest records we have relate to the life of the Sunday School (from 1849) and these are recorded in some detail because the Sunday School was the real strength of the church and enabled the Church to be reborn after its death in 1856. The Sunday School was established on November 30th 1845 through the Christian vision of very ordinary working folk, concerned for the well-being of the children and young people of the area. The minutes are scanty but are concerned with the organisation of the Sunday School — the annual appointment of three Superintendents, Secretary and Treasurer, the provision of supplies for the seasonal ‘Tea parties’ et Whitsuntide, Shrove Tuesday and even on Christmas Day ‘if convenient.’

The Anniversary, held in the Mechanics’ Hall, Ovenden, was a highlight of the year, even in those early days; it was quite difficult to secure the services of a visiting preacher. The children were trained to sing on these occasions; once Robert Townsend, a Superintendent, was paid 10d. for having done this. An important side of the Sunday School work was the Library — not only of religious books; a large proportion of the income was used to buy books. The scholars had opportunity of a little basic general education in Sunday School in these days before free State education. One minute resolves ‘that the treasurer buy 7 Testaments and 2 spelling books, the spelling book(s) to be of best quality.’ Prizes were awarded on rare occasions. ‘Agreed that Alfred Lockwood be presented with a volume of Pilgrim’s Progress for reading the Bible thro’ in one year.’ The book eventually presented was a ‘Bible Companion.’

In July 1858 it was ‘agreed that a select Young Men’s Class be formed and that William Leeming be kindly entreated to teach the same.’ So the ‘Church’ continued to meet needs of the community.

The Sunday School occupied Jeremiah Stead’s Moorside School (‘Jerry’s School’) from, 1856–1872. These were hard and difficult years as can be seen from the minutes of the Sunday School Meetings. The main reason for this was trying to house around 100 scholars and 20 teachers in inadequate premises (see photograph). The picture we have is of a spartan, candle-lit existence warmed by the enthusiasm and dedication of the Sunday School officers and their staff. Among these early pioneers must be mentioned Thomas Clegg and William Wilson, joint superintendents, the latter serving 42 years as a teacher, and Henry Townsend, secretary and a teacher for 57 years. These mid-Victorian Baptists, who also served as deacons of the church, were marked by their implicit belief in what they were doing and their great faithfulness to the work of God.

Jeremiah Stead’s school
Jeremiah Stead’s School, Ovenden: the home of Church and Sunday School 1856–1872

Because the one-roomed building was used for both church and Sunday School the latter met from 9.30 in the morning until 11.00 a.m., so that the church service could be held in the afternoon. The Sunday School teaching was very formal by today’s standards with the teacher imparting Biblical knowledge to a largely passive class of scholars who would be sitting in long rows. However, the Sunday Schools of the day felt it to be their responsibility to give their children and young people a basic education in the ‘3Rs’ as well. This was because education was not, until 1870, the responsibility of the state. It was in the hands of private individuals, societies and the churches. As a result children only received 2 to 3 years in full time education. So we find a Sunday School minute which refers to ‘two alphabet sheets’ being purchased. Learning from this would be very biblically orientated, for example: A is for Angel who praises the Lord, B is for Bible, God most Holy Word, C is for Chapel where the righteous resort, etc.

Even in those far off days the Sunday School was concerned to improve the quality and educational standard of its teaching. This is indicated by the fact that in 1861 it resolved ‘to commence the training of teachers’ and later in 1865 it was decided to ‘separate the young from the older ones so as to give better effect to teaching,’ (an early attempt at grading).

Highlights of these days included the ‘Sunday School Anniversary,’ often held in Providence Chapel, for which 1,000 tickets were regularly printed and for which much preparation took place. Then there was the ‘Whitsuntide Treat’ which consisted of games and ‘sweet meats’ after processing to a field under the banner. And finally the ‘Annual Tea and Meeting’ often held on Shrove Tuesday. These became part of the Free Church tradition and were very enduring, the Sunday School Anniversary, of course, surviving to the present day. In addition, the Sunday School took part in the great ecumenical ‘Sings’ at the Piece Hall (1831–1890) when thousands of scholars from all the Sunday Schools gathered together.

In addition to the strictly religious work of the Sunday School other important aspects must be noted, namely the social and charitable. Life for the working people of that day was very hard. Many were chronically poor (the average wage £1 per week), even destitute, and there was little social life to redeem the heavy 16 hour working day. Given this situation the Sunday School decided ‘that there be a collection in our school in aid of the distressed in the surrounding district. Cast off clothing is to be collected’ (Minute 1862). It also decided in 1868 to form a ‘Cricket Club.’ Clearly the Sunday School was determined to meet the need of the whole man in the name of Jesus Christ.

1868 saw two further organisations form within the Sunday School. One was a ‘Foreign Mission Society’ with John H. Hooson as secretary, a man who gave great service to the church over many years. The other was a ‘Band of Hope,’ a temperance movement rapidly gaining ground among the non-Conformists. Earlier in the century the Free Churches had not been teetotal as evidenced by the beer served to singers at the Piece Hall ‘Sings.’

Three attempts at expanding the work and range of the Sunday School obviously flew in the face of the grave uncertainties over its very existence. In January 1863 we find a minute stating that the preachers from North Parade Baptist Church, on whom the church depended, had discontinued their services. This was followed by a statement delivered to North Parade which stated that ‘it is the unanimous opinion of our teachers that our labour in this room is almost in vain, and to ascertain whether it is their intention to build a new school at Ovenden or not, either now or at any future time.’ Clearly North Parade declined to further support the Ovenden course, and so an appeal was made to the local Sunday School Union. Encouragement seems to have been given from this quarter for shortly afterwards (September 1863) it was decided ‘that we carry on our school with the intention of procuring a new one.’ This brave decision required enormous faith and to it can be attributed all that has been achieved since.

Soon fund-raising began in earnest, at a minimum of 6d. per week per person. It took about nine years before the dream of new and adequate accommodation was realised. This is a measure of the meagre resources to hand. The Church had no rich benefactors, mill owners and the like in its membership. The minute for March 24th 1872 says ‘the school was conducted in our old school at Moorside on this day for the last time.’ On April 14th the Sunday School met in the new premises at Lee Mount of which it was said ‘this is the desire of many years. We are grateful for the opening of a new beautiful and commodious, well adapted schoolroom. What a change has come over us. Instead of being cooped up in the ‘little oven below’ we have this ample room, accommodating 300 scholars and 4 classrooms. Scholars are greatly increasing faster than the recruitment of teachers.’ Between 1871 and 1872 the Sunday School doubled in size with 130 attending in the morning and the same number in the afternoon. By 1873 the school had grown to 368 scholars, 26 teachers. What is impressive is not just the numbers but the fact that in those days, if not in these, the Sunday School really was ‘the nursery of the church,’ that is, significant numbers of the scholars were baptised and joined the church.

On this hopeful note we turn our attention to the earliest days of the Church which, as we shall see, was not so well-founded as the Sunday School.