A vision to breathe new life into a parish church and create a community hub fit for the 21st century is gradually taking shape in Wortley where a chapel in the village can be traced back as far as medieval times. While proudly celebrating its heritage and fulfilling its primary purpose as a place of worship, St Leonard’s is an institution that is very much looking to the future.
Piecing together the history of this Grade II listed church has been an ongoing challenge for researchers as records have inevitably been lost during the passage of time since its early beginnings as a chapel during the reign of Henry III (1216-1272) to the present day sandstone building.
Early records are scant but careful research has found fascinating evidence of a dispute in 1268 between a Nicholas de Wortley and Henry, `Parson of Wortley’ about right of common pasture. An undated deed which has been ascribed to Henry III’s reign also states that a certain Alan Alemote was to give £2 yearly to the Chapel of St Leonard’s of Wortley, indicating that there was a church in this Barnsley village at least by 1268 and probably even earlier.
Since those dim and distant times, the church has carried out a crucial role in community life over the decades as a welcoming place of celebration, contemplation and comfort. As recently as 2015, it managed to raise vital funds of £53,000 via donations, events, grant and other support to carry out a major overhaul of its eight bells. Work took place the following year when the entire installation was restored and the bells retuned to ensure their safety and working order well into the future.
The focus now is to strengthen the role of St Leonard’s in the everyday life of Wortley through both structural alterations and increasing local links, both ecclesiastical and non-religious.
Acknowledging the need to broaden its scope yet further, the parochial church council is now hoping to repeat its previous, though challenging, fundraising success and secure money to repair the building’s old and storm-damaged roof and carry out internal alterations with a view to creating a much-needed community hub and accessible space for local residents to meet.
The wider project includes levelling out the floor, re-routing central heating pipes and replacing some rear pews to free up an area for public use with the aim of attracting local groups and holding regular community events.
Of course, it’s all too easy to take such a long-established and familiar local landmark for granted but, for those who haven’t stepped inside recently, St Leonard’s houses a wealth of treasures charting the history of this South Yorkshire hamlet. Among them is the Bishops Chair, an item on perpetual loan from the Wharncliffe Estate and on which is carved the date 1687 and the initials RC, believed to be those of Richard Copley, a local carpenter. The font was gifted by the Hon. Caroline Talbot in 1845 and the organ dates from 1820 and is only the second one known to have been installed in the church. This still has a visible lever for the original hand pumping bellows which were replaced by an electric blower around 1939.
The exterior is well worth a look too and, just last summer, some intriguing discoveries were made in the churchyard when notable gravestones were uncovered during gardening work by the church friends’ group “Len’s Friends”. One was identified as that of Beatrice Trollope, niece of the 19th century novelist Antony Trollope. Others were found to be those of the niece and brother of John Nevison, a notorious 17th century highwayman who was believed to have been born in Wortley.
Nevison was reputedly dubbed `Swift Nick’ by King Charles II apparently after completing a 200-mile dash from Kent to York in a single day to establish an alibi for a robbery he had committed. A similar exploit was attributed to fellow highwayman Dick Turpin who allegedly followed in his footsteps a century later.
The dubious activities of Wortley’s own gentleman rogue certainly stand the test of time as he will again be a local focus when pupils at Thurgoland Church of England Primary School produce their entries for an artwork competition this spring under the theme `Highwayman of Wortley’. The contest will be judged by Lady Rowena Stuart Wortley, whose family once owned Wortley Hall and who still lives in the village. The Stuart Wortley family ties to the church remain and Lady Rowena’s daughter is due to marry there this summer.
As well as extending a warm welcome to local families and individuals, resident schoolchildren are also among the new generation of visitors that St Leonard’s wants to attract and it welcomes school visits by arrangement.
The church is also open on Wednesdays between 11am and 3pm and on Saturdays between 11am and 1pm when people are welcome to pop in, look around and enjoy a chat and a cuppa. Visits to the bell tower and bell-ringing demonstrations are possible as well if organised in advance by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com