Chowbent Chapel is an active Unitarian place of worship in Atherton, Greater Manchester. It was built in 1721 and is the oldest place of worship in the town. It is a member of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, the umbrella organisation for British Unitarians. The chapel was granted Grade II* Listed status in 1966.
The chapel was built by Minister James Wood and the congregation in 1721. They had been expelled from the old Atherton Chapel in 1715 by Richard Atherton in response to their defence of the bridge at Walton-le-Dale and the ford at Penwortham near Preston while repelling the supporters of the Old Pretender, James Stuart during the Jacobite rising.
The origins of Chowbent Chapel[a]Chollebynt or Chowbent, shortened by locals to Bent, was the name given to the built-up part of Atherton from the mid-17th century for at least 300 years. are a consequence of events that happened in 1715. The first chapel in Atherton, a chapel of ease[b]A chapel of ease or daughter church is an additional Anglican church other than the parish church within a parish. to Leigh Parish ChurchAncient parish church that served six townships. was a “small brick edifice”, dedicated to St. John the Baptist at Chowbent. It was built in 1645 “on land owned and loaned by “Ye Lord of Atherton”, John Atherton, a supporter of religious dissent. Sometimes referred to as the Old Bent Chapel, it was not consecrated and used by a Presbyterian congregation. The chapel was also used by the vicar of Leigh, who used a Bible and Book of Common Prayer kept there for his use.
The old chapel was a long, low building having three windows and a porch on the south side and a large window in the east gable. The pulpit was of the old-fashioned Puritan three-tier style.
During the 1715 Jacobite rising, its fourth minister, James WoodPresbyterian minister of the first Atherton and Chowbent Chapels in Atherton, Lancashire, England. and members of his congregation were asked to guard the bridge at Walton-le-Dale and the ford at Penwortham near Preston against the supporters of James Stuart, the Old Pretender, who were marching on Preston. The Chowbenters were successful, but in doing so offended Richard Atherton who would inherit the Atherton manor and on whose land the chapel was built. In 1721 after Richard Atherton, a staunch supporter of James II, had inherited the estate, he expelled the congregation of the old chapel on political grounds.
Wood and his congegation built a new chapel in 1721 on land donated by Nathan Mort who lived at Alder House. When newly built, the chapel’s oak rafters and trusses were open to view, its walls were whitewashed and the windows contained leaded panes of clear glass set in a lozenge pattern. An organ was installed in 1806; until then the only music was the chanting of psalms. An organ by Young of Manchester was installed in 1901 when the chapel was enlarged.  The chapel was granted Grade II* Listed status in 1966.
Chowbent Chapel is built of rustic brick laid in Flemish bond on a rubble sandstone plinth, with stone quoinsAny external angle or corner of a structure., an eaves cornice and a slate roof. The side elevations have three bays and the rear four bays, both with round-arched windows. On the roof is a small cupola housing a single bell. A two-storey extension was added on the south side in 1901. Its facade has a gable pediment with an oculus within the tympanum. There is a fanlight above the double doors with a sundial above and a commemorative plaque above that.
Nikolaus Pevsner considers the chapel “has the best-preserved C18 ecclesiastical interior in South Lancashire”. The original box pewsType of church seating with enclosed sides. are in place upstairs and down and a three tier pulpit stands against the north wall. Galleries on the east, south and west sides are accessed by staircases with turned balusters. The galleries are supported by six turned oak columns with Doric capitals which continue through the gallery to support the plaster ceiling. A nail-studded oak door separating the chapel from the vestry is thought to be from the original 1645 chapel. Other surviving artefacts brought from the 1645 building are the communion table and two Commonwealth silver communion cups gifted by Robert Mort in 1654. The cups are not kept at the chapel and are rarely displayed. Some of the stained-glass windows are by Shrigley and Hunt.
A schoolroom was opened in the minister’s house shortly after the chapel opened. It was extended in 1860 and again in 1890. Before 1900 a library provided by the chapel was opened in Chowbent School for the inhabitants of the town. Its collection of 4000 volumes was donated to Atherton’s Carnegie library when it opened in 1905.
Ministers and congregation
Apart from Wood, other notable ministers of the chapel included Harry Toulmin (1766–1823) who moved to America and became Secretary of State of Kentucky and Thomas Walker Horsfield (1792–1837) a historian and topographer. Caleb WrightFactory owner and Liberal Member of Parliament, was born in Tyldesley, Lancashire., millownerFormer complex of six cotton spinning mills, known locally as Caleb Wright's, on either side of Union Street in Tyldesley. and first Member of Parliament for the Leigh constituency was a life-long member of the congregation.