Parish spotlight: St Mary's Cromford

St Mary's Church, Cromford St Mary's Church, Cromford

Once described as a “stone-built preaching box” St Mary’s in Cromford has evolved into a uniquely decorated Derbyshire church.

“Wow! Really impressive”, reads a comment in Cromford St Mary’s visitors’ book. It’s not untypical of the many remarks.

They are, no doubt, referring to the collection of magnificent murals painted around the inside of the church.

And a glancing at some of the other entries in the book, one name will be very familiar.

The Arkwright family name is one of the most famous in Derbyshire – a name associated with the establishment of the modern factory system, particularly Cromford Mill. St Mary’s is nestled between the River Derwent and the Cromford Canal.

Quaint and colourful – some would say ‘unusual’ - this was Arkwright’s place of worship, built by Sir Richard to be a private family chapel after he came to Derbyshire in 1771 and began building the nearby Willersley Castle.

Sir Richard, having died in 1792, never saw the completed church, nor did he ever live in Willersley.

And even if he had lived to see the church consecrated in 1797, he wouldn’t have seen the murals as these were added to celebrate the church’s centenary and Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1897.

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So where did the idea for murals come from?

Church warden Tom Bradley has looked into the church’s history from many angles: “The short answer is that nobody really knows.

"It may simply be that Alfred Hemming (who painted the murals) had seen something on his worldwide travels and decided to imitate them.”

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These biblical images seem to have been chosen to convey the revelation of God through both the Old and New Testaments and through Jesus.

The long walls have paintings of four Old Testament prophets: Isiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel, and the writers of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

The east wall of the nave depicts the assumption of Elijah in the chariot of fire and the ascension of Christ they are what really grab your attention as you enter the church.

The many murals in the chancel include Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, the crucifixion and the resurrection – as well telling other stories of the life of Jesus.

St Mary’s, which thanks to interest in the mill and the canal gets a lot of visitors during the summer months, has undergone a number of restorations along the way - Tom Bradley knows the history well: “Back in 1838, St Mary’s was also the church for Matlock Bath, which was growing, so balconies were added to accommodate the ever-increasing size of the congregation.”

It became the parish church for Cromford in 1869.

But they only lasted 20 years before they were removed during major works to add the chancel, vestry and portico – and to raise the tower and change rows of two small windows into rows of one large one.

Tom smiles wryly as he decants more of the church’s history and an all-too-familiar scenario: “In the 1960s, someone borrowed lead from the roof!

“That led to water damage to some of the plaster and murals.

"So there was a big money-raising campaign and the roof was replaced with stainless steel and the murals restored.”

Was Sir Richard Arkwright buried in his own chapel? “He wasn’t originally,” said Tom.

“But after some years his son brought him back to Cromford and he was interred in a vault at the front of the nave.

“In recent years, we uncovered a trap door which we think was once the entrance to the vault, but it had all been filled in.

“As far as we know, Sir Richard is still there.”

And it seems that other Arkwrights are still here, too – albeit fleetingly for some.

Apart from those who may also occupy space in the vault, the visitor’s book contains comments from Arkwright descendants in London, Ireland and Australia.

The most recent come from ‘an eighth generation Arkwright’ who visited from New Zealand in 2007, and Miranda Arkwright and Jacob Arkwright Evans in 2011.

The murals, the Arkwrights and Sir Richard’s factory system live on!

St Mary’s is open 11.30 am – 2.30 pm on Saturday’s between May and September, and also to coincide with heritage and discovery days at Cromford Mill. The church is available for weddings and baptisms.

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