Religion in Leeds is put in its place by new study

By agency reporter
29 Nov 2007

A small Leeds church designed in 1932 and described as a "gem" when it was built has been "rediscovered" and given a Grade II listing on the advice of English Heritage - which has also produced a new publication reflecting on the way churches and faith have helped shape the city historically.

St Mary’s Church on the Hawksworth Wood estate in Kirkstall was designed by WD Caröe who was inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement, and possesses what experts have described as a superb interior.

For decades its historic importance had gone unrecognised. However, it has now been given the added protection of "listing" as a result of research undertaken for a new book published today (29 November 2007) by English Heritage.

Called Religion and Place in Leeds, the English Heritage publication sheds light on how the various dominations and faiths have shaped the city’s religious architecture over the past 200 years, with the emphasis on lesser known – yet fascinating – places of worship.

Armed with a battered Leeds A-Z, author and English Heritage expert John Minnis spent a year touring the hundreds of churches, chapels, mosques, synagogues and temples that symbolise the city’s mosaic of beliefs and cultures. While on his travels he visited St Mary’s, instantly realising its significance.

He explained: "There’s been very little alteration to the interior which really adds to its outstanding historical value. WD Caröe was a major figure in 20th century British architecture and he built the church for a wealthy local industrialist to serve the Hawksworth Wood estate. However, it is rather tucked away, which partly accounts for why it has been overlooked. Yet its fine detailing, rood screen and choir stalls deserve wider recognition."

Although St Mary’s is an Anglican church, much of the book serves as a reminder that for much of the 19th century non-conformism was the "established" faith of Leeds – a city which uniquely for its size has never had an Anglican cathedral.

In the mid-19th century, the Rev Walter Hook, who although only a Church of England vicar wielded tremendous power, tried to stem the mainly Methodist tide by establishing 20 new churches. Catholicism was also making inroads and the city was the first in England to appoint a Catholic mayor, mirroring the fact that by the 1860s about 12% of the population was Irish.

More migrants brought their own faiths and architecture to Leeds, including Jewish people in the 19th century and African-Caribbeans, Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims in more recent times.

John Minnis adds: "Leeds was a multi-cultural city long before the term was invented and this has resulted in the building of many fine churches, chapels and synagogues. These are now joined by mosques, gurdwaras and a mandir. These buildings are an important contribution to the cityscape of Leeds and their arrival needs to be recorded. Shifting populations and the drift to the suburbs also left many inner city places of worship bereft of congregations and sparked a wave of church building elsewhere. This book is a chance to take stock, but also a tool to help conserve our places of worship."

Despite this rich legacy, the book warns that many places of worship in Leeds have already been lost and others face an uncertain future. In 1905 there were 129 Methodist chapels in the city, but by 2006 just 35 survived, along with a further 22 converted to other uses. Many fine Victorian Anglican churches have also tragically been demolished, principally St Clement in Sheepscar, a church conceived on a grand scale but pulled down in the 1970s in an area since decimated by road schemes.

The book’s co-author, English Heritage expert Trevor Mitchell, notes that the bulldozing of historic places of worship became a cause celebre in the city in the 1980s. Thanks to the efforts of campaigners, the last significant demolition was of the Brunswick Chapel, just north of the city centre, in 1984.

But the future of many redundant churches still remains in doubt, while others struggle to cope with crippling repair bills. Their plight prompted English Heritage to launch its "Inspired!" campaign last year to alert the Government and the public to the problems they face.

Trevor Mitchell said: "Places of worship in Leeds have a significance even for those who have no religious faith. They are landmarks on the skyline, serve as hubs for the community and crucially provide local distinctiveness and visual interest, marking one place from its neighbour. They deserve to be cared for and enjoyed."

Inspired!, which has the support of all the faith groups with listed places of worship in England, reveals the full extent of the threat facing our historic places of worship and sets out proposals to help solve the problem. It estimates that the cost of repairing all of England’s listed places of worship is £925 million over the next five years - or £185 million a year. For more information about the campaign, see www.english-heritage.org.uk/inspired.

Religion and Place in Leeds is published by English Heritage and costs £7.99 (ISBN 9781905624485). It is available by calling 01761 452966, emailing ehsales@gillards.com or by visiting English Heritage’s online books and gifts shop at www.english-heritage.org.uk/shopping. The book is part of an English Heritage project investigating the impact of church and other faith architecture on Leeds, Woking, Tower Hamlets, Coventry and Liverpool. For more information visit www.english-heritage.org.uk

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