Friends of Chesterfield Parish Church

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Notes on the church

Because all the work that the Friends do is for the benefit of the church, it seems appropriate to include on the website some information on the church fabric. “Notes on the Church” will feature an occasional series of articles on the more unusual aspects of the Crooked Spire.

The Fire of 1961

Having withstood the underground activities of both railways and the coal mining industry, and survived two world wars relatively unscathed, the church’s nearest brush with disaster occurred in 1961, when a serious fire broke out in the organ loft, and nearly destroyed the whole of the East end, including the spire.

The following account is taken from “The Crooked Spire” (reproduced by kind permission of The Derbyshire Times) and gives a vivid picture of the near disaster:-

“This terrible fire swept the North transept of the church of Our Lady and All Saints on December 22nd, 1961, destroying the famous Snetzler organ, one of only six extant in the world, three days before Christmas. The Church was only saved by super-human work on the part of the firemen. By turning a series of jets onto the belfry immediately under the spire, they saved, by 10 minutes only, the threat to the steeple and brought the flames under control.

The fire alarm was raised by a clerk at the Town's Library at 9-25 a.m. on December 22nd, 1961. Smoke was seen rising from the large window in the North Transept. As the heat melted the glass in this window, tongues of flame leapt to the roof and the organ and the choir robing room were soon a mass of flames.

Clerks from the Library and Church officials dashed in to save all that was possible in the way of Church ornaments and furniture. More and more fire engines ran out hoses and played on the flames. For a time it did not seem that much progress was being made, but gradually the firemen got on top and the belfry and the spire were saved. The Ven. Archdeacon, Dilworth Harrison, said when he saw the fire at 9-30a.m. he thought he had lost his Church, and he did not think a stick would be saved, but the registers and other valuable books and ornaments were got away and stacked in the Library. Everyone worked with energy and risked danger from the falling roofs and timbers.”

The damage was repaired, and the organ replaced, and today the only evidence of the fire is the smoke blackened walls of the church-and a smoke detector system in the tower!

North Transept Ablaze
North Transept ablaze
Smoke and Flames envelop the Spire
Smoke and Flames envelop the Spire


Churchyard Curiosities-Part 1
Churchyard CuriositiesFrom the 10th century, it was the practice to ‘consecrate’ (bless) one acre of land around a church for burial purposes. “God’s Acre” came to be regarded as a reminder of our physical mortality and at the same time evoke prayers for the faithful departed.

It was usual for burials to take place on the south side. The banking of the ground in this part of the churchyard provides evidence of the numerous burials which have taken place here over the years.

The number of burials in Chesterfield churchyard is estimated to be as many as 20,000 on the south side alone. The ground level became raised as additional graves were superimposed upon pre-existing ones. This led to the inner floor of the church lying lower than the ground level outside. In 1843, such differing levels necessitated the excavation of a small ditch (sough) outside the building to protect the outer walls of the church from damp. Notice this feature on both south and north sides of the church.

In this churchyard it is estimated that 75% of the grave plots were concentrated on the south and west sides.

There were no further burials after 1930 and in 1932 the Borough Council took responsibility for churchyard maintenance. In about 1934 all gravestones to the South and West of the church were removed and re-positioned at the periphery of the churchyard for ease of maintenance, (though perhaps an unhelpful arrangement for 21st century genealogists!)

The Frenchman's Grave
Frenchman's graveOn the North side of the churchyard, there is a small area where the gravestones have remained in position, and one of these is an historical curiosity. To find it, walk along the path on the North side of the churchyard (cut through in 1914) towards the War Memorial. At the far end of the low wall on the left, walk up on to the graveyard banking and back along the outside of the wall for about 20 paces until you come to a vertical tombstone. Turn right and the memorial detailed below is the leaning, third vertical tombstone away.

This is a memorial to Francois Raingeard, a French Officer from the Napoleonic War, who was a prisoner in Chesterfield. He died in 1812 and his memorial is inscribed in three languages : English, French and Latin.

The text, though now indistinct, reads...
En memoire
age de 30 ans
Le 10 Mars 1812
Stop traveller!
If, in life’s journey,
Sympathy has found a seat in thy breast;
Thou’lt drop a pitying tear,
To the memory of one, who fell.
A sacrifice in friendship’s pious cause


Chesterfield was used as an internment camp for Napoleonic army and navy officers from 1803. They had freedom to walk the town and converse with their fellow officers. One condition however, applied - they must return to their lodgings on the ringing of the Parish Church “curfew bell”.


Chesterfield's first Gas Lamp
Chesterfield's first gas lampOn the South side of the church, beside the main pathway from the church porch to the South East corner of the churchyard, stands the town’s first gas lamp with the date 1824 at its base. Originally this lamp stood on the SE corner of the town Market Square. The lamp was manufactured by Joseph Bower who also re-designed the copper ‘Weeping Tree’ fountain in the garden at Chatsworth House.  In his Chesterfield premises Joseph Bower built a gas apparatus to supply the lamp outside his shop with gas for 7 months of the year. This he sold to the town council. Quite the entrepreneur!

In 1974 the lamp was moved to the churchyard where it was converted to electricity.

In February 2014, the lamp was severely damaged by a falling tree, blown over in a gale, and was removed by Chesterfield Borough Council. It is hoped that the lamp can be restored and replaced in the churchyard in due course.


Update March 2016

The good news is that on 27 January 2016, almost exactly 2 years later, the lamp was re-instated in the churchyard, and 2 days later, the lantern was added to complete the restoration. Visitors with very good memories, and an eye for detail, will note that the lamp now stands about 300mm taller, as the whole of the base is above ground.

Since this news item was first put up we have received the following account of the history of the gas lamp, and of its creator, Joseph Bower, from his great, great, great grand-daughter, Rowena Turner. We hope that readers enjoy this fascinating piece of social history, from one of our newest Friends.

Restoration of the Lamp in our Churchyard

Finally … the Bower lamp, damaged during bad weather in February 2014, has been restored to pristine condition and replaced in the churchyard. It bears testament to the enterprise of Joseph Bower, a brazier and coppersmith who was living and working in Chesterfield around 200 years ago.

I am one of the newest members of The Friends of Chesterfield Parish Church, taking over from my dear mother Margaret Alvey (nee Bower) 1922 – 2014. It is thanks to my mother and grandfather, that I have in my possession, several artefacts and primary resources, which have given me a valuable insight into the history of my family, as far back as my great, great, great, grandfather - Joseph Bower.

Joseph lived and worked as a brazier on the east side of Market Place close to The Shambles. He was born in Chesterfield around 1780 and married in 1803. In the 1841 census he is recorded as living with his wife and his youngest two children John and Eliza. John Bower followed his father into the business as a brazier. References to the business are to be found in the 1857 White’s History, Gazeteer and Directory of Derbyshire and Sheffield and the Pigot’s trade directories.

In 1824 Joseph built a gas apparatus and manufactured gas in the cellar of his own premises. At the time it was written and later recorded by Rev. George Hall, that he did so ‘at his own personal risk and expense and it was feared that his devotion of genius to his profession much impoverished his resources.’ He supplied gas to the lamp standard in the Market Place and undertook to supply gas for sixteen nights in each month, taking into account the phases of the moon. The lamp was lit from dusk until 11pm. Later the lamp, then electrified, was moved to the bottom of Packer’s Row and finally situated in the churchyard.

The Bower father and son partnership was also noted for work in the gardens at Chatsworth. They copied and replaced a copper weeping willow tree originally built under the direction of Joseph Paxton with hollow trunk, branches and leaves. The exact dimensions of the tree and details of expenses were passed down by my grandfather. It was 14 ft. high, 16 ft. in diameter and 48 ft. in circumference. It was composed of 8,000 different pieces and discharged water from about 800 jets. It was described as a ‘squirting tree,’ for a tap could be turned on secretly, taking spectators unawares, completely drenching them. It apparently captivated the young Princess Victoria when she visited Chatsworth in 1832. The total cost of the tree is recorded as £74 4s 4d. The Duke of Devonshire was so pleased with the result that he paid Joseph Bower the high honour of visiting him in his shop and presented him with a cheque for £50.

John Bower died in 1863 leaving a widow, Annis, and four young children. Annis later married a Chesterfield ironmonger, George Alvey with four children of his own. They combined their families and businesses, becoming known as ‘Alvey and Bower.’ Several children from this marriage became involved in the business in some capacity, either as braziers, electricians or working in their shop on Packers Row.

The youngest son George Henry Bower (1861 – 1915) was my great grandfather. He worked in the Alvey – Bower business alongside his brother John Herbert Bower. After John Herbert tragically died in a work-related accident in The Shambles, the business ceased trading.

George Henry Bower had two children Jessie and William Kenneth. My grandfather William Kenneth Bower (1894 – 1982 ) worked as an electrician in Chesterfield but in his spare time made many beautiful pieces of jewellery and ornamental work from silver. His sister Jessie Bower, (1890 – 1971) a gifted artist painted scenes and landscapes using oils and watercolours. Their early life was spent happily at Siscar House in Unstone. Joseph’s creative flair seemed to have passed down the generations and I remember clearly my grandfather ‘Ken’ making missing jigsaw pieces for me in impressive detail.

There is an unusual twist in the family ancestry tale that occurred in 1940 when my parents met and later married – Margaret Bower great, great granddaughter of Joseph Bower and Jack Alvey the grandson of George Alvey. They had two daughters – Beryl and myself Rowena – descendants of both Alvey and Bower families.

As his great, great, great granddaughter, I am very proud of my connections to Joseph Bower. He was creative, ingenious and clearly had a good head for business. In addition however I feel a strong connection through his association with the church. Joseph was baptised and married at the church. He was a regular worshipper with his own designated pew in the west gallery from 1843. In 1853 he died and was laid to rest in the churchyard.

Could there possibly be a more fitting tribute to Joseph Bower than his contribution to early 19th century modern life – the first street lamp to light the streets of Chesterfield.

Rowena Turner (nee Alvey)

March 2016

News & Events

News & Events

The “Imp” in Chesterfield Parish Church
This note is about a feature of the church which, regrettably, was lost after the fire in December 1961 which destroyed much of the North Transept of the church.  Although the Imp was not lost in the actual fire (as photo no. 2 demonstrates), it disappeared in the demolition and rebuilding work required after the fire.

An early photograph taken by C.H. Nadin (c 1906) - a well-known local photographer. (Photo courtesy of Chris Goodlad collection)
A post card of this imp - dated Sept.15. 1908, carried the following message:

Isn’t it pritty” [sic]. “This lovely specimen is to be found behind the organ in the choir vestry in our dear old church.”

(Photo courtesy of Chris Goodlad collection)

Click to see larger version
Please click to enlarge

Taken from a recently discovered (1961) photograph. It is dated 22.12.61 and was taken from inside the roofless, fire-ravaged choir vestry. The figure was originally situated about 9 metres (30 feet) from the ground, on the inner face of the east wall of the north transept of the Parish Church. High in the wall above the choir vestry.

It is presumed that such copies were made by a Chesterfield
pottery as a record, after removal of the corbel figure from the
church following the fire. A copy of the cast is on display in the
church. There is also one in Chesterfield Museum.

A.J. Hallam June 2012

Click to see larger version
A plaster- cast copy of the above image.
Please click to enlarge

The Spire ‘story’

The wooden, eight-sided spire, is thought to have been added to the 14th century tower about the year 1362. This date is supported by dendrochronological (tree-dating) evidence. The timberwork comprises 150 tons of wood, but not until 1639 was the exterior protected by 50 tons of lead sheeting. The original spire was probably covered in oak shingles.

The structure is an oak frame, clad with lead, and an interior view of the timber frame is one of the most remarkable sights in the entire church. Where the top of the stone tower and base of the wooden spire meet, no fixings are apparent. The spire merely ‘sits’, with its low centre of gravity, balanced unattached on the top of the tower.

It rises to a height of 77m (228’) above the ground and leans 2.89m (9’6”) to the south-west. The spiral twist at the base is about 45° from west to east.

Interior of the SpireWhy is it crooked ?
It is important to distinguish two elements in the spire’s ‘crookedness’:
1. The inclination and 2. The spiral twist

It is unfortunate that most people use the word ‘crooked’ unhelpfully, combining the above two features.

The inclination (lean) is due to a number of factors: the use of unseasoned (‘green’) timber, the absence of skilled craftsmen (‘Black Death’) and the neglect of cross-bracing. Timbers on the South (warm) face have shrunk more than those on the North.

The spiral twist is considered, by some observers, to be there by original intention and not by accident. A number of European spires have the same form, based upon this ‘twisted’ design.

Why was the spire built from ‘green timber’?
The use of ‘green timber’ was a normal art of medieval carpentry, owing to the fact that it could be bent and shaped during construction, with wooden pegs used to draw timbers into alignment. Movement was expected and allowed for. Such fresh timber was also less wearing on tools.

Recent examples of the use of ‘green oak’ are to be found in York Minster, Windsor Castle and the Globe Theatre in London.

Spire visits
Church Open Days are held each bank Holiday Monday between Easter and August with guided tours up the tower throughout the day. Tours are available at other times and by prior arrangement with the Parish Office [01246 206506]. Tower trips are also conducted by the verger on most Saturdays.


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