The religious festival at the heart of Christmas has very old roots, long before Christianity spread from the Middle East across the globe. As a time for celebration, hope and renewal it is as old as the Earth, with many cultures in the northern hemisphere celebrating the winter solstice on the 21st December. Light and birth were venerated from the perspective of the longest day, when better times would return with the sun. In Roman society, the festival of Saturnalia was celebrated with feasting and merriment and much rambunctious behaviour. Sound familiar?
The Christian festival of Christmas was believed to be an appropriation of Saturnalia and was means to encourage people to adopt what was effectively the new religion. In the fifth century, Pope Julius I selected 25 December as the day of Christ’s birth, and by the seventh century the practice of Christmas as a holy day was established in the UK. The rest is, as they say, history.
Consett’s religious heart has always been a significant feature of the town, with strong Protestant and Catholic communities bringing people together. The Works had a chaplain throughout its history; in December 1967 it was Rev. Gwynne Richardson. The religious makeup of the town is a strong reflection of its industrial basis, with people coming to Consett to work from all areas in the UK and Ireland and bringing with them the religions that sustained them. Tommy Moore, in his book Consett: A Town in the Making, tells us that the Quakers were the first people to hold organised worship in the area as early as 1653, initially at the Quaker Meeting House in Snows Green. Quakers and industry have a long tradition and Consett was no different: Jonathan Richardson, one of the founders of CIC, was a Quaker.
Methodism also had a significant presence on Derwentside, with the doctrines of sobriety, abstinence, hard work and community care finding favour in the emerging industrial society of Consett. They provided education and a social focus, as well as help in times of need.
The Roman Catholic faith flourished in the UK following the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829. With labourers from Ireland making up a significant percentage of the total workforce in the early years of the Works, the number of people practicing the Catholic faith grew throughout the nineteenth century. In 1857 St Mary’s RC church in Blackhill, officially the Church of Our Blessed Lady Immaculate, was opened, and its gothic spire has been a distinctive feature of the Consett skyline ever since. More information can be found in this article in the Consett magazine.
Once the various communities had settled down together, and following early skirmishes culminating in the Battles of the Blue Heaps in 1847 and 1858, there was little sustained religious or racial tension amongst steel workers. It would be great to find out more about the religious life of Consett and how churches worked in the community and together to improve the working life of Consett people; if you have a story to share we’d love to hear from you, so please do get in touch.