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Parish History

Christ the King, Alfreton

Before the Reformation, Catholics worshipped in the present Parish Church, St Martin of Tours, on Church Street.

After Henry VIII’s purge of the church, Catholic worship declined rapidly & it is reported that when Fr Nicholas Garlick & Fr Robert Ludlam passed through the town on their way to the gallows at Derby, the few remaining Catholics saw this as the end & Catholicism disappeared. In fact Alfreton became decidedly anti Catholic and within 10 years considered any priest to be a popish traitor.

Then around the mid 1800’s 2 Catholic families appeared in the area. They were staunch & walked to & from Butterley, Ripley, (where there was a very small Mass centre), in order to attend Mass. Secretly, a priest would occasionally come to their houses and say Mass for them but he had to disguise himself. Gradually they became bolder & the priest would then say Mass in the Kings Head.

In about 1880, this small congregation bought a plot of land on Park Street at a cost of £40 & built the tiny church of St Mary’s which opened in 1883. It held a maximum of 90 people. The position 50 years later was that the Catholic population was greatly reduced & there was no resident priest – it was usually a priest from Ripley or Mansfield & very occasionally Clay Cross who came to say Mass. People in the area didn’t help either, Park Street was the poorest part of town & the miners’ families turned out to jeer the papists when they went to Mass. So, when Father Heald was made parish priest in 1922, the church was in poor repair, locked up all week with hardly anybody going to it. He had to rent a room in a house on Park Street, where his only furniture was a table, 3 chairs & a bunk to sleep on. When Father Heald became Parish Priest he brought Clay Cross into St Mary’s Parish.

Within a month Father Heald had raised the necessary money and, with help, he repaired and redecorated the church. There was Mass & Benediction daily and the church became known as “the little white shrine to Our Lady”

In August 1923 he began an appeal to raise £3000 to build a new church on Nottingham Road. Having raised the money, Christ The King church opened in 1927. This was the 1st Catholic church in England named Christ The King but the church was erected to the memory of Pope Pius X & is still dedicated to him. The church on Park Street still stands & has had many uses over the years – mainly to do with cars & garage repairs.

Over the years the church has been altered inside & out. Father Blackwell had the church extended & a new presbytery built (the previous presbytery stood where the corner of the car park is joining North Street & Nottingham Road. The statue outside the church door is the original statue which used to stand on top of the porch. The last alteration to the church was added in 1981/2 when the Parish Social Centre opened.

St Patrick & St Briget, Clay Cross

Although Alfreton and Clay Cross are only 5 miles apart and both situated on the old Roman road of Ickneild (Ryknield) Street, their civic and religious development was very different.  Alfreton was a Saxon settlement that grew into a town during the 18th century linking the mills of Belper to Mansfield and the Dukeries.  It was, as mentioned previously, served by priests from Mansfield and Ripley until 1922, whereas there was a Catholic Church in Clay Cross from 1862 and a resident priest from 1881 to minister to a relatively large Catholic population in comparison to the size of the town.

Clay Cross was a rural hamlet known as Clay Lane until the arrival of the railway in the 1830s. Before 1836 there were only 2 streets in the Parish of Clay Lane: Clay Lane and Thanet Street.  Tupton was a larger village since Saxon times.  Old Tupton was part of the parish of Egstow and Woodthorpe, which extended from Wingerworth, down Ashover Road and across to include the site of the Clay Cross works.  This explains why Clay Cross railway station was built in Tupton, not within Clay Cross.

By the time of the Reformation, nearly all the land between Clay Lane and Chesterfield was owned by the Catholic Hunloke family of Wingerworth, who also owned parts of Morton.  They were among the largest landowners in the county, operated coal mines in Wingerworth and Tupton, iron mines/smelters in Woodthorpe and Wingerworth, quarries at Woodthorpe, Ashover and Egstow, with much of the rest of the land around Clay Cross planted with trees to provide timber.  In the 1700s they re-routed the Roman Road away from Egstow Hall (by then a farm owned by the Hunlokes) to its present course from Clay Cross and built turnpike roads (Queen Victoria Road) through Tupton to Temple Normanton.  The town of Clay Cross spread to the south because the Hunlokes owned the land to the north.

The Hunlokes were unapologetic Catholic Royalists during the civil war and suffered heavily from fines.  After the Restoration, Sir Henry Hunloke IV appears to have come to an arrangement with the local Anglican curate for his workers to 'conform' in name only so they could avoid fines and continue to afford to pay him rent.  Dr. David Edwards in The Hunlokes of Wingerworth Hall (1976) surmises that this was so successful that the Compton Census of 1676 recorded only 4 Catholics in the area, making the parish returns so unusual as to be clearly bogus.  Sir Henry himself was presented as a recusant on at least two occasions in the 1680s and was banned from traveling more than 5 miles from the Hall.  In 1715 Sir Thomas Windsor Hunloke II refused to take the oath of supremacy and allegiance to King George I, oaths which denied that the Pope had any spiritual jurisdiction over Englishmen.

There was a private chapel in Wingerworth Old Hall served by priests from the Jesuit college at Spinkill (est.1633).  Thanks to the Hunloke family, the resident Catholic priests ministered to the Catholics of Egstow, Woodthorpe and Clay Lane to keep the faith alive.  We know the names of the priests who served from c.1730 when Wingerworth Hall was rebuilt and the Catholic chapel extended:

  • Fr. John Stanford, d.1737 at Wingerworth.

  • Fr. George Hardwick, educated at Douai, who served in Wingerworth 1759-1787.  These two are commemorated on a tombstone of black marble which lies in the floor of the Lady Chapel of Wingerworth Parish Church.

  • Fr. Joseph Johnson, Jesuit missionary priest from Lincolnshire, resident c.1788-1817.

  • Fr. George Michael Lacy, d.1837.  By this time, Sir James Hunloke II had unexpectedly succeeded to the estate and baronetcy.  He lived at Birdholme House and built another Catholic chapel there where Fr. Lacy was based.  He was the last Hunloke baronet.

While the Hunlokes tried not to deliberately antagonise non-Catholics, they did use their influence to discourage the spread of other denominations as in this story quoted by Elizabeth Eisenberg in Wingerworth Manor and Estate (1981):  In 1847 Joseph Fletcher, a Methodist, found work at the Wingerworth ironworks.  “I soon found I had pitched my tent in a wilderness”, he wrote, complaining that the rulers of the parish were all Catholics and churchmen and that the Methodists had been driven out.  Sir Henry Hunloke banned him from preaching.  When he later raised funds to build a Methodist chapel, he was refused the use of stone from local quarries. 

In 1837 large coal deposits were revealed during the construction of the Clay Cross Tunnel, and the town of Clay Cross rapidly developed to the south of Hunloke lands.  Clay Cross No.1 Colliery (Egstow) was sunk in 1837; No.4 Colliery (Tupton) in 1850, No.5 (Morton) in 1865.  A substantial proportion of the local labour from the Hunloke estates would have been Catholic, supplemented by Irish labourers who helped build the railway and the Tunnel, so the number of Catholics in the area must have been significant. 

After the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act, Sir Henry John Joseph Hunloke was appointed one of the first Catholic magistrates in Derbyshire, aged only 23, and concentrated his activities on building a Roman Catholic Church in Chesterfield.  The Church of the Annunciation on Spencer Street was completed in 1854, two years before his death.  Inevitably many Catholics from Clay Cross were involved in this project, perhaps at the expense of the development of the Catholic Church in Clay Cross.  It also explains why the Catholic tradition in Clay Cross is more closely linked to that of Chesterfield than Alfreton.  Catholicism may have disappeared in Alfreton in the period 1640-1860, but it would be wrong to say that it had vanished from the area that became Clay Cross.

After a long period of dispute, the Hunloke estate passed into the hands of more distant relatives who were less interested in the area and its history.  A room above a butcher’s shop on the corner of High Street and Park Street served as a Mass Centre.  Clearly, a more substantial permanent place of worship was needed.  Consequently, the land was acquired, on what is now Thanet Street, where a basic building was erected, which was served by clergy from Ilkeston, Chesterfield & Mansfield.  St Patrick & St Brigid was consecrated by the Bishop of Nottingham on June 1st 1862, dedicated partly in recognition of the Irish Catholics who had contributed so much to the development of Clay Cross.

In 1881 Father Daniel Meenagh was appointed Parish Priest and in 1882 he extended and refurbished the church, which consisted of a chapel, nave, and Lady Chapel, he also restored an attached cottage to serve as a presbytery. In addition to the Chapel at Clay Cross, there was also a Chapel of Ease at Heath, but nothing remains of that building.

Father Meenagh quickly established himself and the Roman Catholic Church as integral to the life of Clay Cross. The Catholic population continued to grow and in 1883 the local newspaper reported that 150 adults and children had received Holy Communion at the 8.30 am Mass and in the evening of the same day approximately 100 people were confirmed.

Sadly on October 21st, 1915 Father Meenagh took his own life. He was found by his housekeeper, Margaret Divine, the following day. This tragedy put the parish in turmoil and in the following months the townspeople provided a stained glass window and a font in his memory, both of which can still be seen in the church.  From 1915, until the amalgamation with St Mary’s Church, Alfreton in 1922, Mass was only available spasmodically, served by priests from other local parishes.

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