Early Methodist meetings were not actually regarded as “churches” as the Methodist movement was still within the Church of England. Chapels or meeting houses were not even licensed in the way that the law required of nonconformist meetings, as members were expected to show loyalty to both the Methodist meeting and the Established Church.
Rather than being a “church” the High Legh meeting was a “society” (in common with all Methodist groups). Betty Okell was a widow at only 39 years of age when she first opened her home to the Methodist meetings in 1783. These “Northwood” meetings were hosted by Betty Okell for five years before she died in 1788.
In the early years of the Nineteenth century, the meeting welcomed a young worshipper who was destined to become one of the greatest Christian missionaries of the nineteeth century. Robert Moffat was a gardener at the East Hall, High Legh. After training for missionary work in Manchester, he went to South Africa, where he founded a major mission centre and went on to make the first translation of the Bible into a sub-Saharan language. Moffat was the inspiration for David Livingstone who became his son-in-law.
When the Okell family home had to be demolished in 1873, services transferred to Northwood Lane Farm about a hundred yards away. It was here that the Sunday gatherings were known as “the Okells’ meeting”. All those attending were farmers and their workers. The dairy was full every week and an overflow “sitting” was held in an adjoining room. Finally, in 1921, the present building was bought and this became the church’s home until 1996.
In 1919 the cottage and land became available for purchase due to the general reduction in size of many country estates after the First World War. Councillor Robert Henshall led a group of people in buying the property with a view to converting part of the cottage into a chapel. And so, for £195 the property was bought, with Mrs H Okell taking the position of resident caretaker, and therefore maintaining the Okell family connection to High Legh.
Since that date, many people have worshipped God under the roof of High Legh. It has undergone renovations, expansions and updating to be what it is today. As recently as 2006, disabled facilities and a further meeting room were added to the chapel and cottage, bringing a modern addition to the building’s timeline. Although there is no longer a regular Sunday service held within the chapel, it is now used in a variety of ways by God’s people, but the presence of God is as evident now as it was when the farmers first met here in 1873.
A book entitled “The Northwood Story” is available, costing £3.50. Written by John Dolan, it traces the involvement of the Okell family in detail and highlights the key events and personalities in High Legh’s history.