Built on the ridge of a rising eminence, Sowerby Church, with its massive masonry, is a prominent object from many points of view. Being equidistant from the converging valleys of the Calder and of Ryburne, whose waters join about a mile below in the rising "Venice of the Vale", the lofty fabric stands like a sentinel, guarding these two approaches to the neighbouring town. The position is commanding. Looking eastward is a long stretch of diversified scenery. At the foot of the hill is the prosperous town of Sowerby Bridge, where woollen, cotton, worsted, iron and other raw materials are worked up and adapted for the wants of man in many parts of the world. And beyond its boundary, marked by clusters of mill chimneys, the Calder is seen as it escapes into the green fields, and leaps over the dam stones, passing by the old corn mill, near which Laurence Sterne passed a portion of his youthful days; onward by the model village of Copley, with its Gothic church, winding by North Dean Wood till the hill in front prevents a further view. Standing in the churchyard, to the right is seen the rugged heights of Norland, and the church at Greetland; to the left the fairest portion of the "good old town," with the Ocatgon Tower in bold relief; and the Crossley Orphan Home in its fair proportions is distinctly seen. Looking westward, wild moors, covered with heather bound the horizon, whilst a nearer view to right and left reveals the grassy slopes of cultivated farms, belts of woodland, with here and there some ancient mansion. Such are the surroundings, though faintly portrayed, of St Peter's Church, Sowerby. Before dealing directly with the Church, it may not be uninteresting to mention some facts connected with the locality, as it is intimately associated with the history of the district.
It may be that the inhabitants of this wild district had a name and habitation even in Roman times, for in a letter printed in the second edition of Leland's Itinerary are mentioned several Roman coins discovered at Sowerby, a little above the town, nigh the highway, and some of them were given to Mr Richardson, of North Bierley, the author of the letter, viz., one of Nerva, one of Vespian, one of Trojan, and one of Hadrian, all of silver, and well preserved. Watson, in his History of Halifax, says that "the late Mr Richard Cooke, of Halifax, showed me a silver coin, in good preservation, which his father has told him was found at Sowerby." Watson thinks these coins were found a little below the town, in a place ever since called the Silver field. The site of an old fort or castle at the head of the village has been thought to be Roman, though it is not known when it was built or destroyed. On its site Castle Farm is yet standing. The road leading from Sowerby down to the Calder near Luddenden Foot is called Finkle street, a name common enough at Roman stations. Part of the old road from Sowerby Bridge to Sowerby is called Sowerby street. The following is a memorandum made in 1831, by the Rev. W. H. Bull, a former vicar of Sowerby;-
There is no doubt the old Roman road from Manchester over Blackstone Edge (part of which still remained paved) passing through Sowerby, down Sowerby street, up Bolton Brow, called the Causeway, through Halifax, passed by Lightcliffe on to other Roman stations in Yorkshire. W H B
As additional evidence the Rev. W H Bull gives the following:-
In a field opposite this chapel (Lightcliffe Old Church) in 1827, as a labourer was digging for stone, he found a Roman urn containing several hundred Roman Consular coins of Julius Augustus, and Caius Ceasar, &c., and several British coins of Boadicea. About forty of these are in my possession. W H B
N.B. - Several of the same consular coins, with the same reverses, were found in 1832 at Felix Stow, in Suffolk, now in the possession of Mr Fitch, Ipswich.
It is known from old records that soon after the Conquest, Sowerby was a manor, forest, or free chase, severed from the manor of Wakefield, and part of the possessions of the Earls of Warren. It had a castle therein and contained "many great wastes, woods, mountains and hills, stored with wild and savage beasts, stags, bucks, does, wild boars, and other beasts of venerie". The forest was confined to what is now Sowerby, Erringden, and probably Warley; but the Earls of Warren had also a right to hunt in the neighbouring townships. The lords of the manor appointed foresters or keepers for the preservation of their game and wild beasts, and often went there for the pleasure of hunting. It appears, from a manuscript in Watson's possession, that in 1287 (16 Edward 1.) Geppe de Dene was elected forester in Sowerbyshire. The same years divers men were taken and imprisoned for beating and wounding Ralph, one of the foresters, in Sowerbyshire, and were fined 10s. 6d. and found sureties body for body, if the said forester died before the arrival of the earl. Several men in Sowerbyshire were present when the forester was wounded, but they pretended not to know who wounded him, therefore they were all attached. Two men were fined because they refused to be foresters in Sowerbyshire. In 1306, Roger, the Vicar of Rochdale, was amerced in 20s. for hunting and killing deer in Sowerbyshire. What a contrast between the Sowerby of today and Sowerby of the Conqueror's time, when these tracts of forest land were the resort of the wild boar, the stag, and other beasts, when only a few cleared spaces were cultivated, and when the people lived in comparative seclusion in wood huts, and managed to grow a few oats, which they made into bread. Before the Norman conquest, the houses contained, as a rule, but one room, spacious, but scantily furnished. There was little in them besides a few benches, some wooden chests, and a heavy table, used as a bedstead at night. The beds were bas stuffed with straw. The fire was placed in the centre of the floor, and logs of wood were used for fuel. The smoke had to get out as best it could, for there was no chimney. Drinking horns and wooden spoons were then used. But as the Normans settled in different parts of the country, many improvements were introduced, and Sowerby became an important place, and the ground was gradually cleared and brought under cultivation. Erringden was a park belonging to the lord of the manor, and taken out of Sowerby, and when Erringden began to be inhabited, there was no church at Sowerby, so that it was included in the parochial chapelry of Heptonstall. In 1314, there were 40 officers or servants of the lord of the manor in Sowerby, called graves, and these 40 graves were appointed to collect the lord's rents. So that even at that early date, there must have been a considerable number of occupiers of land and buildings, to have found work for forty such rent collectors. The survey of the manor in 1314, says that in the graveship of Sowerby, Will. De Towend, for his lands was bound to grind at the mill of Soland (Soyland), at the 20th vessel, to assist in making the eldest son of the lord a knight, in marrying his eldest daughter, and shall go out hawking with the lord as often as he shall come thither. There was in the forest an iron forge.
As to the religious worship in the forest of Sowerbyshire in ancient days, not much is known. There formerly was in existence a rough stone pillar, nearly six feet high, called the Standing Stone. Watson mentions this pillar and says it might have been an idol of the heathen inhabitants, or the burial place of some great person. This remarkable specimen of antiquity was ruthlessly destroyed and broken up within the last 50 years and the stone was used for two cottages, which were built on the site.
It is not positively known when the first church in Sowerby was erected. The present fabric was built in 1762 - only 117 years ago - when a former church had become very dilapidated. The former was not the earliest place of worship erected by the Church of England, for, (says Walton) "At White Windows, in Sowerby, is an original agreement, dated May 25th, 1622, to tax Blackwood, Sowerby; and Westfield quarters, £40 each towards enlarging, re-edifying, and beautifying the chapel at Sowerby Town." Wright, in his history of Halifax, says this chapel is of no older date than the latter end of Queen Elizabeth's reign. But this statement is shown to be incorrect by Watson, who remarks; "It is certain that it was in being before December 30th 1592, 35 Elizabeth for one Robert Wade, of Sowerby, whose will bears that date had surrendered £4 yearly out of his lands, to feoffees, in trust, that the same should be distributed to the poor of Sowerby, by the minister for the time being." It is also reasonable to suppose that in 1622 the Church must have been a moderately old one, or it would not have been found necessary to enlarge and rebuild it so soon. A deposition extracted from Dod's MSS, states that on the 1st day of July, 1580, "Edward Firth, late of Toothill, born at Ryponden, of the age of 93 years, saith that he hath seen Sowerby Church and Ryboden Chapel to build". One Adam Morris, is said to have been curate in Sowerby in 1572, and the probability is that the church had not been in existence many years before that date, because in the first license for the celebration of masses and other divine offices in St Mary chapel, Luddenden, it is stated that the inhabitants of Midgley, Sowerby and Warley erected at their own expense a chapel in the vale of Luddenden. The license is dated 1496. It is not likely that a church had been erected at Sowerby at that time, or it inhabitants would not have shared with Warley and Midgley the expense of building a chapel in Luddenden. Therefore, Sowerby Church would be erected about the middle of the Sixteenth Century.
In January 1626, the inhabitants of Sowerby made an application to have their chapel endowed with parochial rights, so that they would not be compelled to come from the top of Sowerby to the Halifax Parish church, when a couple wanted to be married, or for the purpose of a christening or burial. The original paper declares that the chapel of Sowerby was situated in a mountainous country, above three miles from its Parish church, at Halifax, by reason whereof some of the inhabitants of the same chapelry, dwelling five or six miles off (through foul and craggy ways) from the said church, were upon occasions of christenings, weddings and burials, put to great and extraordinary pains in travelling to and from the said church, which labour they might well be eased and much expense saved, if the said chapel could be procured to be a district parish church of itself, and endowed with parochial rights. But these efforts of the Sowerby people were not successful, and for another half century had the people to go over the foul and Craggy ways to Halifax, to christen an infant or bury the dead. The roads of those days would bear no comparison with the modern turnpike, and were not at all adapted for vehicular traffic, which would be a lot unknown in Sowerbyshire though a fair amount of business was done, carriage being effected by means of pack horses. The first coach used in England was in 1585. In 1639, John Taylor wrote a book under the title of "News from Hell, Hull, and Halifax." In which he tells us that having left Halifax "he rode over such wayes, as were past comparison, or amending, for when he went downe the lofty mountaine called Blackstone Edge, he thought himself in the land of Break Neck." No wonder he thus wrote, for the roads were narrow and rugged, often taking up the steepest part of the hills, and Sowerby could show several examples. Well might this traveller in later days make use of the couplet:-