The original idea for establishing an association for missionary purposes came from Mr H A Bright of LV, through the Provincial Assembly of Lancashire and Cheshire (PA) in April 1858. But by the beginning of 1859 the PA had done nothing to take this idea forward. So, the minister at Old Chapel, Dukinfield, Rev John Gordon, called a meeting at his home on 22 February 1859. The 11 people at the meeting agreed unanimously that it was ‘expedient to form an association of Free Christian Churches in the district in and around East Cheshire.” Thus, the East Cheshire Missionary Association was founded. Present at the meeting were representatives from Gee Cross, Dukinfield, Mottram. and Ashton.

A further meeting of representatives was held on 5 May at Dukinfield to adopt rules, and attending, additionally were members of Dean Row, Styal, Oldham, Macclesfield (Parsonage Street) and Congleton. Oldham later withdrew and King Edward Street Macclesfield preferred to wait until the PA acted, and joined later that year.

It wasn't until 30th June 1859 that the PA decided to constitute a missionary branch of the Assembly in East Cheshire. Then later in the year came the Manchester District Unitarian Association, East Lancashire Unitarian Mission, and an association for the West Riding of Yorkshire, the North Midland Unitarian Mission and one or two others. The Liverpool District Missionary Association was started in 1860.

Four years later the East Cheshire Missionary Association changed its name to The East Cheshire Christian Union for Missionary Purposes. It was not until 1952 that it became known as the East Cheshire Union of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches

An essential feature of the Association was to provide a preacher for most of the congregations in the area. A Preachers' Plan was agreed in September 1859 which continued to operate for nearly 40 years. Ministers settled in the district , lay preachers, students of the Unitarian Home Missionary Board, founded in 1854, ( now known as Unitarian College, Manchester), co-operated in maintaining services in various churches. The Plan included Heyrod and Flowery Field and from 1860 Stockport. At a quarterly meeting in Sept 1861 Stalybridge appeared on the Preaching Plan for the first time and Glossop was first mentioned in the minutes.

In the first year of existence the Union mainly concentrated its energies to bring additional strength to the groups which had no ministers. For example, the Union decided to help the congregation at Parsonage Street, Macclesfield, to find a minister and promised financial help from its modest funds. At this time the Staffordshire congregations of Newcastle, Longton and Red Street were included in its preaching plan. Although outside the Union's geographical limits it was felt that these isolated congregations deserved help. And Newcastle is part of the Union today.

The generosity of a Northwich resident in 1872 was useful in providing services for a time with the help of the minister at Knutsford. In 1879 these services were unfortunately discontinued and by 1910 the Union finally gave up on Northwich. There were 160 people present at the inaugural service at Marple in 1908 and from 1912 to 1916 they had a fulltime minister. This was made possible by generous grants from the Union and the British and Foreign Unitarian Association (B&FUA) However, in 1917 the congregation disbanded. Interestingly, in 1948 it was revived in a shop converted into a place of worship. Alas it has now closed.

I should remind you that the B&FUA started to make grants to the Union before 1874 and continued to do so to help congregations to pay ministers´ stipends. The role of the B&FUA has changed over the years and it does not now make grants. It is mainly concerned with managing funds from legacies left to churches and being Custodian Trustees.

The Buxton Trustees first received help from the Union in 1883. For many years the Union´s Annual Report included the work of the Rev George Street, minister of Buxton from 1898 to 1928. He began Bible classes in the three Peak villages of Flagg, Pomeroy and Litton Mill. At first he paid his own expenses until the Union made him a small annual grant.

Other towns and villages outside East Cheshire witnessed missionary activity; with various degrees of success. They were: Hanley, Cheadle (Staffs), Whitchurch, Boston Mills, Middlewich, Biddulph, Hadfield, Bollington and Congleton - all now closed.

The Rules of the ECMA stated that funds for its activities were to be raised by annual collections and private subscriptions. In the first year 10 churches gave £51. For the year 1861/2 total receipts were £171. By this time the Union had made itself responsible for the stipend of the minister at Flowery Field amounting to £120 per annum. In 1867 the Union appointed a second missionary minister at Stalybridge and Mottram increasing the liabilities by another £100 pa. In 1868 the Union was £40 in the red. Arising from this an annual grant was arranged from the B& FUA. In 1872 the PA gave the Union £50 to clear a deficit of £20. By 1898 the deficit was £300. Six years later the Union had a cunning plan. Inspired by the Manchester District's Bazaar the Union decided to have a Bazaar of its own in Manchester in 1904 to raise £5,000. They did not achieve this but, over £2,500 was raised with support from the PA Stall and the London Stall. £1287 of the proceeds was invested, £168 was used to clear the Union's debt, £948 was paid for the new building in Ashton and £175 was allocated to Denton, Glossop, Buxton, Mottram and Congleton.

At the time of the Union's Centenary in 1959 there were 22 churches in the ECU. The congregations of Knutsford and Macclesfield migrated to the Manchester District Association in the 1990s. The congregation at Glossop when they decided to close in the late 1980s, kindly agreed to transfer the proceeds of the sale of the church building to the B&FUA for investment. Interest from the capital is credited to the ECU account. Since then 75% of it has automatically been distributed to each congregation totalling about £65,000 The remaining 25% is put in the general account for major surveys/church repairs etc and grants for children among other things.

Currently there are seven churches in the ECU including: the Unitarian and Free Christian, New Chapel, in Denton; Old Chapel,(Unitarian) Dukinfield; Flowery Field, Hyde; Gee Cross, Hyde; the Christian Unitarian Church, Mossley; the Old Meeting House, Newcastle under Lyme; the Unitarian Church, Stalybridge and the Unitarian Fellowship Hyde.