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Cleckheaton, Yorkshire, West Riding

(53°43′45″N, 1°43′48″W)
SE 179 259
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Yorkshire, West Riding
now West Yorkshire
  • Barbara English
  • Rita Wood
06 Nov 2010

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Cleckheaton is half way between Bradford and Dewsbury. The White Chapel is at Heaton – high above the modern centre of Cleckheaton a mile away. The present building is a rectangular preaching box (Pevsner 1967, 163; see Comments for date); previously there had been rebuilding of the medieval church, for example, in 1706 and 1782 (guide). The church was re-roofed and its truncated tower rebuilt in the early 21stc. (Wakefield diocesan website 2010).

The earliest illustration of a church on this site is by Samuel Hieronymous Grimm and dates from 1773 (BL Kaye Collection, fol. 97). This drawing shows a low rectangular building with no distinction between nave and chancel, and straight-headed windows in a late Gothic style. It might perhaps have been the modified remains of a 12thc. chapel.

Remains relevant to the Corpus are the font, and probably a grave slab in the porch.


There is a Roman site nearby (Pevsner 1967,164).

Cleckheaton is recorded in Domesday Book as ‘Hetone’ or ‘Hetun’ (Williams et al. 1987-1992, f.318), and was part of the Lacy fee, but waste, with no reference to a church or priest.

It was a chapel of ease to Birstall throughout the middle ages. In earlier records it may be called White Chapel, the old White Chapel in the North, or Heaton Chapel. No medieval dedication is known; Lawton (1842, 111) gives no dedication but says: 'The old chapel [White Chapel] was enlarged, Fac. dated 26th February 1820, but a new chapel [St John the Evangelist] has been built under the Parliamentary grant, architecture Gothic, with a tower, begun in 1830.'




Loose Sculpture


The building has no known dedication and is commonly called Whitechapel though no longer white or chapel: the name suggests that an earlier building may have been whitewashed. It is likely that the area around the Whitechapel, at the higher end of town and now peripheral to the modern centre, is the original settlement, Domesday’s ‘Hetone’ or ‘Hetun’. Cleckheaton means Cleggy or Muddy Heaton, and the modern town centre is in the valley; it has a Commissioners’ church, St John’s (consecrated 1832).

A. H. Thompson (Fallow 1909, 110) says ‘the “White Chapel” at Cleckheaton, originally in Birstall parish, has been twice rebuilt, in 1706 and 1831, and twice restored in the last thirty-one years’, Pevsner also says 1831 for the present building. Morris 1919, 154, says the [original] church was possibly 13thc., rebuilt 1821; the church guide says ‘by 1820 the church as not big enough and it was again rebuilt – this is the building we see today.’ The date on an inscription over the door is 1821. There may have been confusion with St John’s, which was being built 1830-32.

The cylindrical font was used as the base of an early 18thc. font, the ‘Richardson font’, now preserved in the church porch. The old font is shown in another 1773 drawing by Grimm (BL Kaye Collection, fol. 99), with the basin filled in and a rectangular socket made for the narrow, upright 18thc. font, which the antiquarian artist ignored as an irrelevance. Taylor 1875, 271, says ‘the present font is comparatively modern, but having for its basement the remains of a Norman one.’ The old font seems to have remained in this state until the late 19thc., when it was restored as a memorial to the wife of the vicar, the Rev. Robert Fetzer Taylor (church guide). An inscription in the step of the plinth is too worn to read, but Elizabeth Sophia Taylor died in 1886, and in this year her husband retired; he died in 1888 (information from parish). Morris 1919, 154, records ‘a really interesting Trans. circular font. This has cable moulding round the top, and an interesting arcade, with demi-figures in some of the arches.’

The basin is hemispherical, whereas other early cylindrical fonts have a basin with an approximately flat bottom; the horizontal rim is very wide, as is the overlap of the lead lining: these features suggest the basin was remodelled in the restoration.

The patterns of the arcade, geometric patterns and scrolling patterns (that is, foliage-related stems), carry an association with heaven and paradise; the demi-figures within the arcade would therefore refer to people in heaven or paradise, these would be role-models for the baptized (Wood 2001). The sheela on the SW side of the font does not belong in this context, and it is likely to be a late alteration of a figure which was originally similar to that in the adjacent bay to the R. Other objections to the sheela being original are that it is the only carving which extends into the worn integral plinth, and that the inturned feet are not seen in 12thc. imagery known to the writer (for example, there are none in the Bayeux Tapestry, where feet of both living and dead turn in the same direction). There was time enough while the font was out of use and the building was in decay for someone to carve the vulva and legs on an existing demi-figure.

This is a singular font for the Pennine area in that it is both cylindrical and highly carved, but there are comparisons for its features elsewhere in the county – perhaps in other regions of England too. Cylindrical fonts with arcades are frequent in the East Riding, and the arcaded font at Bessingby has many geometric patterns, also it has subjects in the bays which suitable to heaven, that is, a double-bodied lion and a tree. North Dalton doorway, L capital, has demi-figures in an arcade. The pointed heads of the figures may be compared to a head on the chancel arch at Helmsley (North Riding) where a pointed cap is being worn. The font at Sherburn (East Riding) has double pillars and slab capitals. In the West Riding, Skelmanthorpe and Cawthorne have coiling stems of similar form (though the fonts are square in plan); Birstall (the mother church) has the diamond pattern on a tomb-slab.

The date of the font is impossible to ascertain, but the long narrow forked beard is fashionable in the 11thc. (Dijon crypt c. 1010) and not found in this form far into the 12thc.; there is an example on a voussoir of the S doorway of the church at Great Rollright, Gloucestershire. Forked beards at Brayton or Birkin (on doorways of the mid 12thc.) are fuller, curled (waxed?) and neatly trimmed instead of left to straggle as long as possible. The double cable pattern is used on fonts in the East Riding, where it seems to develop over time from a flat double cable to a rounded one, then to a moulded single cable pattern (the dominant form nationally); at the same time the pattern moves from the side of the cylinder onto the angle, the pattern is on the side of the cylinder at, for example, Flamborough. Each portion of cable at Cleckheaton is rounded, as on the font at Wold Newton (East Riding), where the pattern is cut partly in the horizontal rim. Since the Wold Newton font appears much more proficient and advanced in its entirety than the Cleckheaton font, it may perhaps be that the cable pattern at Cleckheaton was recut to be more rounded and to unite the two sections in a pleasing manner when refurbished in the late 1880s. The fonts in the East Riding, with which there are so many comparisons, are likely to be a project of the Augustinian communities founded from 1114 onwards, but what common source material all churches nationally might have had access to, and over what period, has yet to be examined.


British Library, Kaye Collection, Cleckheaton: drawings by Samuel Hieronymous Grimm dated 1773.

Cleckheaton Whitechapel guide, 9 Centuries of Worship at Whitechapel. No publisher, c. 2005.

T. M. Fallow, Memorials of Old Yorkshire, London, 1909.

G. Lawton, Collectio rerum ecclesiasticarum de dioecesi Eboracensi, London 1842.

J. E. Morris, The West Riding of Yorkshire, 2nd ed, Leeds 1906.

N. Pevsner and E. Radcliffe, The Buildings of England: Yorkshire: The West Riding. 2nd ed. Harmondsworth 1967, 163.

P. F. Ryder, Medieval Cross Slab Grave Covers in West Yorkshire. Wakefield 1991.

R. V. Taylor, The Ecclesiae Leodienses, or Historical and Architectural Studies of the Churches of Leeds and Neighbourhood…, London and Leeds 1875.

A. H. Thompson, “The village churches of Yorkshire”, in Fallow 1909.

A. Williams et al., The Yorkshire Domesday. Alecto Historical Editions. 3 vols. London 1987-1992.

R. Wood, Geometric Patterns in English Romanesque Sculpture. Journal of the British Archaeological Association 154 (2001), 1-39