AN IMPORTANT milestone in the history of Otley’s Bridge Church has been reached this year as it celebrates its bicentenary.

Although many of the planned events have had to be cancelled because of the pandemic, the slimmed down celebrations began with a display of historical items, including photographs and other artefacts, in the church on Bridge Street.

A book on the history of the church has been written by treasurer, Andrew Howard, whose own family involvement with the church goes back to the days of Salem Chapel.

The church's history is also described by Mr Howard in the following article, which is accompanied by photographs.

He said: "This year, Otley’s Bridge Church is 200 years old and is celebrating this important milestone. The church was originally formed in 1821 when they met in the upper room of the Assembly Rooms on Bondgate – the building which now houses the Bowling Green pub. They were called the Society of Independents – the concept of an Independent or Congregational church was formed during the Reformation of the 16th century.

"Those early Independents included many Otley businessmen such as William Ackroyd, Robert Barker & William Garnett, together with many of the Scottish drapers who had settled in Otley at the beginning of the 19th century including Thomas Duncan, Alexander McTurk and David Johnston.

"When the Assembly Rooms closed in 1825 they moved for a short time into a room behind the Black Bull pub in the Market Place before building their own ‘Salem Chapel’ in Bridge Street which opened the following year. This was a plain building, typical of chapels built by those early dissenters who felt unable to conform to the ways of the Church of England. In 1829 they called their first minister, Rev. James Swift Hastie who remained their minister for nearly 50 years and was buried at the side of the chapel. As the church expanded, a Sunday School was built in 1835 and the chapel extended in 1856.

"The development of the printing machine industry in Otley from the 1850s, with many new people moving to the town, put further pressure on the ageing buildings. The founder of that industry, William Dawson was a prominent member of the Chapel. At the end of the 19th century these buildings were all swept away when the new Sunday School was built in 1882 to the rear of the chapel. The chapel itself was replaced by the new Congregational Church in 1899 at a cost of £8,300, and these are the much-admired buildings that can be seen today. The lintel from above the door of the old chapel was built into the boundary wall on Bridge Street. The design of the new church was Victorian Gothic and a very unusual design for a Congregational Church. It is now Grade 2 Listed.

"The 20th century brought many challenges, particularly with the First World War, when the hall became the Congregational Soldiers Institute, open to all the troops based at Farnley Camp. Despite many church members serving in the forces or undertaking war work in the town’s factories, the members still supported the men in the Institute, and provided a listening ear.

"Over the years many organisations within the church provided the means to talk about faith, explore concerns of their age, educate, provide pastoral care and support, and lots of opportunities for social activities and having fun.

"In 1972 the majority of Congregational churches united with the Presbyterian Church of England to form the United Reformed Church and the Otley church adopted the name of ‘The Bridge Church’."