Nostalgia with Margaret Watson: Christmas spirit was alive and well at Ebenezer Chapel

PAST TIMES The first Ebenezer Chapel, built in 1814.
PAST TIMES The first Ebenezer Chapel, built in 1814.

Mention the name Ebenezer to most people this Christmas and they’ll think you’re talking about Ebenezer Scrooge, the central character in Charles Dicken’s book A Christmas Carol.

But mention the name Ebenezer to people brought up in Dewsbury and they’ll think you’re talking about Ebenezer Chapel which stood on Longcauseway, and which always brings back for me happy memories of Christmas past.

For that was the place where hundreds of poor children from Dewsbury went every Christmas morning to be given a Christmas breakfast they’d never forget.

The church still stands where it was built in 1814 but it has a different name – Longcauseway United Reformed Church.This year the church, which brought so much Christmas joy to so many children, celebrates its 200th anniversary, something which I couldn’t let pass without mention.

It was in the mid-1940s when I first walked through its doors with my older sisters to enjoy this special Christmas treat which the church put on every year. They didn’t arrange it for the children of their own church, but for poor children of all faiths, and some who had none, and some who had never been inside a church before.There were about 300 children queuing outside the church that Christmas morning, all of us clutching in our frozen hands, a tea-cup we’d been requested to take with us. Why we had to take our own cups I never knew, but I suspect it was to save the ladies having to wash up after we’d left because there were no paper cups in those days – or plates. Once inside, we were each given a paper bag containing a potted beef teacake and a currant bun which we weren’t allowed to eat until we’d got ourselves seated on one of the many long tables arranged around the room.

The hall was gaily decorated and a group of little children from the Sunday School put on a concert for us while we had our meal, and then we all joined in Christmas carols.

The morning was rounded off by a visit from Santa Claus, who gave each of us a bag containing an apple, an orange and a new penny piece.

It was a joyous occasion for us all, and one which was repeated for many years after for the poor children of Dewsbury, of which there were many. In 1953 the breakfasts stopped – perhaps by then there were no poor children left.

Looking back I think it was in this church where I first experienced what the true spirit of Christmas was really all about. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I do now. Thank you Ebenezer!

The foundation stone for Ebenezer chapel was laid in 1814 on a piece of land on Longcauseway. It was to be the first of three churches to be built there – the last one still stands there today.

The chapel accommodated 600 and its first minister was the Rev G Waterhouse, whose salary was so small he had to take a teaching job to make ends meet.

In 1822, a new Sunday School was built at the side of the church and another plot of land was bought to provide extra burial space, and in 1838 both the chapel and school were enlarged to seat 800.

Soon, that wasn’t big enough, and in 1855, a second congregational chapel was built in Halifax Road called Springfield, named after the village where I was brought up, which seated 1,000. The Sunday School seated a further 500.

Six years later Highfield Chapel was built in Earlsheaton, but still the congregations at Ebenezer and Springfield continued to grow. Another chapel had to be built. It was built in 1864 at the bottom of Halifax Road and was called Trinity. 
It seated 1,000, but still Ebenezer continued to grow, and In 1884 a decision was made to enlarge it further to accommodate 800. It was Ebenezer’s third chapel – the one that stands today. Many of the congregation of Ebenezer included some of the leading men of the town, prosperous businessmen and mill owners like Sir Mark Oldroyd, who did much to encourage education and social reform in the town.

Ebenezer chapel had a reputation for reaching out to the poor, and in 1834 a ladies sewing society was formed, not only to make articles for their annual bazaars but also to make clothing for the poor of Dewsbury.

The church held many bazaars which went on for days and raised large amounts of money to pay off building debts. Membership continued to grow and by 1870 a Mission Hall had been opened in Batley Carr, later to become a church, and another Mission Hall in Boothroyd Lane. The poor children’s Christmas breakfast was started in 1906 – the last breakfast being served in 1953.

By the early 1900s church attendances in general were beginning to decline, and in 1907 Trinity Chapel closed and merged with Ebenezer.

The empty building was eventually converted into the Majestic Cinema, later renamed the Rex, and was demolished to make way for the new ring road. In 1961, Springfield also closed, and in 1978 Highfield chapel was demolished, and a modern sanctuary developed within the old school rooms, but this too closed several years ago.

In 1962, the Boothroyd Mission also closed, and in 1995, the Batley Carr Congregational Church closed too.

But despite all these church closures and mergers, the Ebenezer Church still remained and does to this day, albeit with a new name.

For by 1972, most of the congregational churches in England and Wales had united with the Presbyterian Church of England to form what became known as the United Reformed Church.

When Central Methodist Church in Daisy Hill closed down some years ago, they too joined with members at Longcauseway. Redevelopment of the town centre brought some external changes to the church, including the demolition of the Sunday School next door and the removal of the gardens at the front of the church, now re-paved. The present church is still very active and continues the old tradition of Ebenezer which was to help the poor, and they raise thousands of pounds a year for charity.

Many of the details for this article comes from a booklet on the history of the church which was researched and written by one of its loyal and devoted members, a lovely lady, the late Doris Gledhill.

l May I take this opportunity of wishing readers a very happy Christmas and a healthy new year – and may your memories and photographs of old Dewsbury keep coming.

l Nostalgia will be back on January 9, 2015.