The parish of Over comprised three townships, Over with the hamlets of Swanlow and Winsford, Oulton Lowe and Wettenhall. The area of Whitegate was arguably part of the parish, but within the demesne of Vale Royal Abbey. When the Abbey was dissolved in 1538 the vicar of Over claimed that Whitegate was a chapelry of his parish. The controversy was ended by an Act of Parliament in 1542 which confirmed the position of Whitegate as a parish, separate from Over.
The parish was granted to the nuns of Chester by the earls of Chester in the late 12th century, but although rights to the tithes had passed to Vale Royal Abbey by grant and lease by 1475, the nuns retained the right of presentation. Following the surrender of the convent in 1540 the appropriation of the parish passed to the bishops of Chester.
The parish church of Over, dedicated to St Chad, is situated in a ‘retired glen’ near the banks of the River Weaver set back from the road. It is still almost entirely surrounded by fields apart from a timber-framed building near the gates. This was once the Blue Bell Inn. The church is unusual in being so secluded as parish churches were more often situated on high ground in a prominent position.
This remote position gave rise to a legend that the church was originally built in the middle of Over but Devil seized it and was carrying it away when the monks of nearby Vale Royal Abbey heard what was happening and began to ring their bells. This caused Satan to drop the church which drifted to earth and landed without damage in its present position.
Despite this unusual episode the building has undergone much reconstruction work over the centuries of its existence and is basically a 15th and 16th century structure, having been comprehensively rebuilt by Hugh Starkey of Oulton in the mid-16th century. In common with many churches, it underwent extensive repairs and was extended during the 19th century and in 1904 the north wall was rebuilt in line with the 1894 vestry extension. The churchyard was extended at about the same time.
The parish now forms part of the town of Winsford, formed in 1894 by combining Over and Wharton. An unusual Boer War Memorial, now housed in the shopping centre, reflects Winsford’s growing civic identity.
The salt mining industry developed in the area from the eighteenth century and Winsford is currently the site of the largest rock salt mine in the country. Other industries, such as engineering, developed during the nineteenth century and after the Second World War large housing developments were built and the population grew rapidly, leading to increased demand for jobs. A development just outside the town proudly advertises itself as ‘Britain’s FIRST industrial Business Improvement District’.
The image of the Devil and Over church is from Egerton Leigh, Ballads & Legends of Cheshire (London, 1867) courtesy of HathiTrust. My thanks to Stuart Allen for drawing my attention to this image.
Tony Bostock, Winsford: a History of a Cheshire Town and its People (Northwich, 2016).
George Ormerod, The History of the County Palatine and City of Chester, vol. 2 (second edition, revised and enlarged by T. Helsby, London, 1882).
Victoria County History online