In the 18th and 19th centuries many of the children in Macclesfield would have been working in the silk mills from the age of 6 years, and Sunday School would have been their only chance for education. It provided the main opportunity for children to learn reading and writing, as well as scripture. The Large Sunday School was established by John Whitaker, a local Alderman and Magistrate. His aim was to teach religious knowledge and learning to the ‘lower classes of society’; ‘to lessen the sum of human wretchedness’.
From 1796 the Sunday School operated around the town from a number of rented buildings. Numbers grew steadily and by 1812 the management committee decided it was time to provide a purpose built Sunday School. In 1813 a committee of Friends was organised to create a school which would serve as both a Church of England Day School and a Sunday School. Whitaker wanted the school not to be linked to a particular church; the two groups soon fell out and eventually two separate schools were built.
Despite the setbacks £3,000 was quickly raised, a site on Roe Street was chosen and the building was completed and opened on 10 April 1814 at a cost of £5,639. There were 1127 boys and 1324 girls on the register paying a subscription of 1d per week.
Each Sunday the children would attend the school. If they missed two Sundays without good reason, their names were struck from the register. The younger scholars were taught how to read and the older children also had writing lessons. The most able boys were instructed in simple arithmetic. In the afternoon the scholars attended their own church or had bible readings in the school.
Children who attended regularly and punctually for 5 weeks were given Honours Cards; a certificate was awarded if you earned 3 Honours Cards.
By 1865 the number of Sunday Schools in the town had reached 26; increased competition meant a drop in attendance and the building took on a more social role as a centre for clubs, societies and events.
Today it carries on this tradition as a community hub with a shop, café, meetings rooms, Makers’ Place of craftspeople, cinema and auditorium; the Cheshire home of the Northern Chamber Orchestra.
The Old Sunday School also houses displays interpreting the building and the town, with a small temporary community display and workshop area. The Brocklehurst family were major Macclesfield philanthropists, giving a number of donations to the Sunday School over the years. This building now has a special exhibition about one of the most exciting members of their clan, Marianne Brocklehurst, a Victorian explorer and collector. MBs’ Trip Up the Nile uncovers her visit to Egypt as recorded in her diary and through her watercolours, alongside her Egyptian collections, including the mummy case of a dancing girl, which she later gave to the people of Macclesfield.
Access: Step free access to the ground floor, lift to first floor meeting rooms and second floor Cinemac, stairs to basement displays, accessible toilet.
Location: The Old Sunday School is located off the main road into Macclesfield, Churchill Way. There is no on-site parking, but lots of public parking is available behind the building on Exchange Street, parallel to it on Duke Street or across the road on Churchill Way.