St John's Tottington Free Church of England

St John’s Church, Tottington is a building of some historical significance. It is the home of one of the oldest congregations of the Free Church of England.

The actual congregation at Tottington was formed in 1853 and for some years worshipped in the Croft Bleachworks, owned by Messrs Hugh Roberts & Sons. A Sunday School was also held in the mill, and a Day School functioned in a cottage in Garden Street. The foundation stone of the present Church building (with a school adjacent to it) was laid in 1867, and the building was consecrated the following April by Bishop Benjamin Price. St John’s is the oldest Free Church of England congregation in the North of England, and the second oldest in the entire country. It is unique in the Free Church of England in having its own graveyard. Its historic status and architectural merit have been recognised by its Grade II listing by English Heritage. 

The first full-time incumbent was the Revd John Brunskill, who arrived in 1866 and ministered faithfully until his death in 1887. He is buried in the Churchyard. His successor was the Revd F.M. Chetwynd, a brilliant young Minister, who died in 1906. There then followed the Revd George Spencer, under whose ministry the Church and School were extended.

For well over a century the Church and school on Kirklees Street have been the focus of many activities involving the local community as well as the congregation. St John’s, for example, had special events to welcome home the troops from both World Wars. Its members were always regular participants in the annual ‘Church Walks’. Another major community involvement was the St John’s cricket team, which still plays in the local league. The congregation also ran a whole range of organisations – Bible Classes, Sunday Schools, meetings for men and women, and the like – in which many of the people of Tottington were involved.

St John’s was also an important centre within the Northern Diocese. It acted as a Mother Church to a number of other congregations in the years after they were planted. Bishops were consecrated here in 1950 and 1963. The Church also hosted various meetings in the run-up to the united of the old Free Church of England and the Reformed Episcopal Church in 1927.

From 1869 to 1975 St John’s Primary School educated thousands of young people in the village. In the latter year the school closed, after which the building was used by the congregation until the year 2000 when it was sold and converted into flats. The proceeds of the sale have been used to combat the dry rot which had appeared in the Church and to ensure that the building is sound. The archives of the School and Church have been deposited with Bury Metropolitan Council, and form a rich resource for local history.

Despite the challenges posed by the condition of the building and changes in patterns of churchgoing, the congregation at St John’s remains committed, not just to the structure of the Church, but to finding new ways of reaching out and benefiting the local congregation.