The present church of St Peter, originally dedicated to St Peter and St Paul, is the fourth stone church to occupy this site. No proof exists but it is probable that a Saxon church or at least a preaching cross was here before the Norman Conquest. The Saxon settlement of 'Burg-Steall' (which evolved into Birstall) means the 'place of the fortified homestead'. The settlement was fortified, no doubt, against the heathen King Penda, and this indicates that it was a Christian settlement and this would account for the stone base of a preaching cross carved with a Saxon tree pattern to be found in the church today. In the church there is also, what is believed to be, a Saxon grave slab.
The first stone church was built around 1100AD. The lower part of the tower is all that remains from that building. It was extended in 1200. In 1301 the community of Nostel Priory were appointed Rectors of the Parish and under their auspices the church was rebuilt between 1320 and 1390. From that period we have a Norman font, holy water stoops, part of a grave slab and three Knight Hospitaller tombstones.
In 1490 the church was rebuilt again and it is in this era that St Paul was dropped from the dedication. This Tudor church was changed and added to during its 375 years. We have some remarkable carved pew ends and a unique memorial brass from this church.
Between 1865 and 1870 the present church was built, the previous one having become too dilapidated to repair. The architect was a Mr W H Crossland who incorporated into his design all the best features of church architecture over the centuries, but retained the Norman tower.
In 1997 a narthex wall was added to create a kitchen and fellowship area. In 2000 the side aisle were cleared to create adaptable space where exhibition, meetings, suppers etc. are now held. Plans are in place to create a room for the church Youth in the ground floor area of the tower.
The Frampton Mural
In 1901 Reginald E Frampton (1872-1923), the Pre-Raphaelite artist, was commissioned to paint a mural above the chancel arch. It shows Christ in Majesty surrounded by angels. It is one of the few surviving mural paintings by Frampton. It has become seriously damaged in some areas by rainwater infiltration and visually marred by localised repainting and above all by the darkening of an unevenly applied coating. It is the subject of a conservation programme to protect it for the future.
The church is the home of some beautiful stained glass windows including the work of Charles Kempe, who was of Munich, designer to the Royal Court of Bavaria.a famous glass designer of the 19th century, as well as that of J B Capronnier of Belgium, F X Zettler.
Ellen Nussey, lifelong friend of Charlotte Bronte lived her life in Birstall and worshiped in the church. It is through the correspondence they exchanged that we know so much about Charlotte. They attended school together nearby and later Charlotte visited Ellen many times. It is said that she checked the proofs of Jane Eyre in the garden of Ellen's home and we know that ‘Briarfield Church’ in Charlotte's novel Shirley is modelled on Birstall church. Ellen's grave is one of the few remaining tombstones in the churchyard.
John Nelson, who was born in Birstall in 1707, was converted to Methodism after hearing John Wesley preach whilst he was in London, where he was working. They became friends and Nelson became a helper, faithfully declaring and preaching the Gospel in many parts of the country. His tombstone is in the churchyard opposite the Vestry door and a memorial plaque in mounted on the wall of the south aisle.
Joseph Priestley is always worthy of a mention. He was born in Birstall in 1707 and went on to discover oxygen. His statue stands in the Market Place and a family gravestone lies near the main door of the church. The Ancient Parish of Birstall
The parish of Birstall (or Birstal as it was used to be spelt) covered a significant area of the local countryside. At one time it included the whole area now sub-divided into the parishes of Tong (1727); Whitechapel (1732); Birkenshaw, Drub, East Bierley and Hunsworth (1842); Heckmondwike (1842); Cleckheaton St John (1842); Gomersal (1846); Wyke (1847); Roberttown (including Norristhorpe) (1847); Drighlington (with Adwalton) (1847); Liversedge (1860); Brownhill - formed partly from Birstall and partly from Batley (1871); Oakenshaw (1877); Cleckheaton, St Luke (1878); Heckmondwike - St Saviours (1872); Hightown (1911); and Scholes (1929). It is for this reason that the Birstall Parish Church records are so significant for the whole of this area and many wish to consult them whilst researching family history.
Access to Parish Records
Since 1538 every parish has been required to keep registers of baptisms, marriages and burials. Very few of the very earliest have survived. Ours, from 1558, are among the oldest surviving in West Yorkshire. Our oldest registers are deposited at the Diocesan Record Office in Wakefield for safekeeping under controlled conditions. Microfi che copies may be viewed there (see Note 1) and also at reference departments of the public libraries in Batley, Cleckheaton and Huddersfield.
Transcripts from the registers have been published by the Parish Register Section of the Yorkshire Archaeological Society. Most usefully these volumes have an index by name. There are copies at St Peter's church and in the reference sections of the public libraries of Batley, Cleckheaton and Huddersfield. Alternatively, the volumes may be bought from the Y A S. (See Note 2).
It is important to remember that nonconformity flourished in this area from the eighteenth century. For instance in 1825 there were 5 churches in the old parish of Birstall but 19 'dissenting' chapels. Chapels kept their own records, many of which have been deposited in one of the county archives. (see Note 3). Until 1837 a marriage was only legal if it took place in a parish church.
More recent Birstall registers (from the early 20th century) are retained in the church safe and may be consulted by appointment with the Verger. In the first instance contact the Vicar. A search fee is chargeable.
Gravestone inscriptions are another useful source of information as they sometimes record the names of more than one generation. An indexed transcription of Birstall gravestones prior to about 1940 may be seen in the Local History Section of Bradford Central Library. They also have a consolidated index of the names appearing on gravestones in 120 graveyards in Bradford and the surrounding area.
1Wakefield Registry of Deeds and Wakefield Diocesan Record Office, Newstead Road, Wakefield WF1 2DE. (Tel. 01924 305982 - Fax. 01924 305983) is open for limited hours, and enquirers are advised to telephone before visiting.