A ONCE shabby Victorian church has a new roof, and its community now has a modern purpose-built doctor’s surgery, thanks to one woman’s four-year trawl through a mountain of historical records.
In 2015, Anne Harris took on the task of unravelling the tangle of legal documents surrounding ownership of the parish hall beside St John’s, Whittle-le-Woods, in Chorley, Lancashire. If it could be sold, the money would fund vital repairs to the Grade II listed church.
But it took countless visits to the Lancashire county archives, and some legal manoeuvring, before the site could be sold for £500,000 to Chorley Council. St John’s immediately used £100,000 for urgent repairs to dry rot in the roof, and put the rest towards a six-figure reordering. At the same time, the council was able to fulfil a long-standing desire to replace Whittle’s ageing surgery.
The hall, known as the Parish Club, had been a gift to the church in the late 19th century from a prominent local family, but no legal proof of its ownership could be found. It, too, faced an unaffordable repair bill.
Mrs Harris, a PCC member at St John’s and a regular member of the congregation for 30 years, took up the challenge to discover the building’s history, but tracing the original title deeds proved to be a complex and time-consuming affair. “There was a mountain of material — records of meetings, etc. — but tracing the title deeds was really difficult,” she said. “I can’t count the number of trips I made to go through the files. Once I started I was determined not to let go.
“The church is part of the community, but it needs so much doing — new toilets, kitchen — plaster was hanging off the wall. Then, I found a document dated 1898 saying if the club ever became untenable it should be sold and the proceeds should go to maintain the church.”
But things became complicated when she discovered that several small parcels of land had been rented out to neighbours, some even becoming parts of their gardens. “Lot of houses surrounded the land, and paid token rents like £15 a year,” she said. “I had to go out and check boundaries; once I even had to go out with a stick and thrash down brambles to find the boundary.”
With the help of a solicitor, she was able to track down all the agreements. “The first thing I did was to bring the rents up to a modern rate. Only one person was difficult about it.”
Finally, ownership was recorded with the Land Registry, and the new surgery, which has ten consulting and two treatment rooms, has been formally opened.
The Vicar of St John’s, the Revd Philip Venables, said: “It has been a long road to get to this point. We at are delighted to have played a crucial role as a church in the creation of such an important new facility for the local community we also serve.
“There is now a further mammoth task ahead for us at St John’s. We are excited at the prospect of our beautiful church building — so important to the parish and approaching its 200th anniversary — being restored and made fit for a continued Christian presence into the 21st century.”
Mrs Harris has decided against any further historical research. “It was a steep learning curve,” she said. “I was very interested by the amount of information in the archive, and I do like to keep busy; but it was just a one-off.”