A hundred years before the Normans invaded England in 1066, Dewsbury Minster was already large by the standards of the time and important in the region. It was the Mother church for over 400 square miles stretching from east of Wakefield nearly to Burnley and it was responsible for sending missioners out into the whole of this area.
The first church on the site was probably built in the eighth century in wood. Quite a small stone church would probably have replaced this soon after.
If you stand in the northeast corner of the Worship area and look high above the last arch, you can see the earliest stonework in the Minster dating from this Anglo-Saxon period (about 980 AD). Taken with the shape of the high-pitched medieval roof which can be seen above today’s altar, we can deduce that the building at that time was very high and stretched from today’s altar at one end to the font at the other with side walls on the line of the present arches [ Plan A ]. The size of this building confirms its importance.
The windows were probably quite high up, narrow and in pairs, creating a fairly gloomy interior. We know that by the Norman period at the latest, a tower was built behind where the altar now stands, as the tower steps and a Norman consecration stone survive within the present 1767 tower. In the Anglo-Saxon and Norman times the altar would have stood symbolically at the eastern end of the churchin a small chancel, close to where the font is now. Records suggest images or statues of the Saints surrounded it.
Enlargement In The 12th & 13th Centuries
In 1170 the Minster was enlarged by the construction (on the south side) of a fairly small aisle with four arches. The northern arches and aisle were built in 1220 and are the most outstanding architectural feature in the Minster by reason of the four detached shafts in each pillar [ Plan B ].Both aisles were enlarged with new outer walls and windows in the eighteenth century [ Plan C ]. The roof bosses have been preserved from the fifteenth century but the Chancel of the same period, which housed the altar, has now vanished.
Moot Hall & Vicarage
Close to where the refectory is now, northeast of the Minster, stood a two-storey Moot Hall. It was built at the end of the thirteenth century as part of the Rectory Manor House and was probably surrounded by a moat. It could be regarded as Dewsbury’s first “Town Hall” and was also used as a Courthouse. Beyond and to the east of the Moot Hall stood the Vicarage, which was built about 1350. The Vicarage was demolished in 1884 to allow enlargement of the church and the Council demolished the Moot Hall in 1962 to widen the Ring Road.
1750 – 1850
The Minster was in a very poor state of repair by 1764. By then it was also too small for the expanding town of Dewsbury. Permission was granted for collections throughout the county of York to pay for the enlargement and rebuilding of the Minster, the design of which was entrusted to the highly regarded architect John Carr who hailed from Horbury. His work in Georgian style can still be seen in the design of the walls in the North Aisle and in the tower dating from 1767. (Unfortunately his matching South Aisle was demolished and rebuilt in 1895 in the Gothic Style which had become more fashionable.) In 1850, the roof of the Nave was raised so that an organ and “singing loft” could be installed above where the altar now stands, galleries were built along the walls above both aisles, a 3-decker pulpit was introduced and box pews were renewed in oak throughout the worship area. Behind the old altar was installed the magnificent new window in memory of Samuel and Mary Becket and their children. It can now be seen in the refectory.
1880 – 1920
In 1878 it was mooted that the whole Minster should be demolished and a new Victorian edifice should be built as had happened in many other places. However the architect G.C.Street recognised the beauty of the arches in both aisles and persuaded the church authorities not to demolish them. Instead, work started in 1884 on a major extension behind the old altar, which effectively doubled the size of the worship area. The extension turned the worship area into the traditional cross-shape facing east [ Plan D ]. The “foot” of the cross was where the tower is now and the altar was located in a new area that formed the top of the cross. Above the Altar a large beautiful stained glass window was installed in memory of Elizabeth Caldwell. It is still in its original position and can now be inspected closely in the upper room. The two new “arms” of the cross (called Transepts) now contain the Heritage display and the entrance foyer (or Narthex).
In 1884 most of this huge worship area was filled with new wooden pews [ B/W photograph ]. During the rebuilding of the walls in the south aisle, the “lost font” was discovered and reassembled. It is a rare example of a thirteenth century font. The galleries in the aisles were taken down at this time but the line of an old gallery is still visible around the north aisle wall. Several smaller rooms were constructed such as the Morning Chapel (which is now the refectory), a choir vestry (which is now the refectory kitchen), a Lady Chapel and a Vicars’ vestry. The Reredos (a large wooden screen carved with the images of Saints), which is in the Narthex, was constructed in 1913 and installed behind the altar.
The effect of all these changes was to create a church of Cathedral proportions. This may have been deliberate as the Dewsbury and Wakefield Churches were in direct competition as the seat of the Bishop for the new Wakefield Diocese created in 1888. Unfortunately Dewsbury lost and Wakefield became the Cathedral City.
The Last Thirty Years
Perhaps it was inevitable that the Worship area created in the nineteenth century would prove much larger than could be justified. Consequently radical changes were implemented around 1978, 1994 and most recently 2005 to create a more appropriate worship area [ Plan E ] and to use the east end of the building for much needed community, heritage and refectory facilities. Prof. Murta developed the initial 1978 plan. The most radical departure from that has been the conversion of the organ loft of the 1978 reordering, into the 1994 St. Paulinus Chapel. In addition, a Mezzanine floor was added in the east end, to form both an Upper Hall and the Chapel of St Hilda (now the Parish office).
Symbol of the “Wheeled Cross” (From disc but only AD627 across the middle, no other writing) Since November 2005 the Worship Area of the Minster has been upgraded with a new underfloor heating system, floor tiling and lighting. The ageing electronic organ has been replaced by the pipe organ previously in the former St. Marks Church, Dewsbury with an added remote consul. Chairs – each decorated with the Saxon “Wheeled Cross” of St. Paulinus have replaced the old pews.
(The information on this webpage is based on Richard A. Middleton’s book, “The Church at Dewsbury”. 2006. Available from the Minster Gift Shop or by post from the Parish Office).