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Baptists in Heath and Reach

 The interior of Heath Baptist Church in 1963
The interior of Heath Baptist Church in 1963

Heath and Reach had a Baptist meeting in 1706, as reported to the Bishop of Lincoln in his visitation of that year. This was probably a private house or barn rather than a purpose built chapel. The Baptist chapel in Heath & Reach was founded as a daughter chapel of Lake Street Baptist church in Leighton Buzzard and was registered on 24th September 1822 by the minister, Thomas Wake and Thomas Matthews, John Matthews, William Paragreen and Joseph Carpender [ABN1/2, ABN2/190, ABN3/3, 42]. The Baptist Magazine of 1823 recorded: "In the vicinity of Leighton Buzzard, Beds, in the hamlet of Heath, a new meeting has been built for religious worship on Sunday evenings, and lectures on other evenings, by a branch of Mr.Wake's church and hearers residing there; which place has been occupied as a post of importance for several years, and where a congregation of about 150 persons regularly assemble. Considerable good has been effected there".

The chapel could seat 180 and cost £138 to build, of which £73 remained outstanding. A number of the congregation contributed a penny a week from May 1822 to try and pay off this debt, families included: Arnold [presumably the family which later began the sand quarrying business called J.Arnold & Sons Limited, a son of the founder, John Arnold, was a Baptist missionary]; Adams; Burrows; Bailey; Clark; Ellis; Inwards; Kempster; Nash; Paragreen; Swinstead; Stevens and Webb.  Ten years after its foundation the Baptist chapel in Heath & Reach became independent of the Lake Street meeting. The chapel in Heath & Reach practised open communion, in other words, one did not need to be a member to receive.

The Baptist and Wesleyan chapels in 1901
The Baptist and Wesleyan chapels in 1901

On Sunday 30th March 1851 a census of all churches, chapels and preaching-houses of every denomination was undertaken in England and Wales. The local results were published by Bedfordshire Historical Records Society in 1975 as Volume 54, edited by D.W.Bushby. The return for the Baptist chapel was made by Thomas Swinstead, the deacon, who noted that it had been opened in 1822 and had room for 150 sitting and 15 to 20 standing. The general congregation had been 113 in the afternoon and 55 in the evening. The average: "varys [sic] sometimes more or less than stated above". There were about 30 Sunday Scholars and the afternoon congregation included 24 children of the Sunday School who had been instructed in the morning.

In 1954 the chapel once more became a daughter church, this time of Hockliffe Street Baptists in Leighton Buzzard. From 1955 to 1962 the chapel was renovated with a new ceiling, pulpit and kitchen, electric lighting and mains water were also laid on, the total cost being around £1,000. A new organ was installed in 1960.

Falling numbers, perhaps linked with increased mobility meaning members could easily attend Hockliffe Street, resulted in the chapel ceasing to be viable. It closed in 1978. In 1986 the chapel was partially demolished until the walls stood at six feet. The space then became an enclosed garden of a private house but the old committee room, toilet and kitchen were left standing.

H.G.Tibbutt included a partial list of early pastors in his The Baptists of Leighton Buzzard of 1963. They include:

  • 1843: Mr.Barnes;
  • 1844: Mr.Dumbleton of Winslow [Buckinghamshire];
  • 1844-1848: Mr.Mason of Northampton;
  • 1850 onwards: William Payne of Hockliffe Street Baptists;
  • before 1861: Samuel Cowdy of Lake Street Baptists;
  • 1867-1874: Samuel Rowe
  • 1879: George Durrell of Hockliffe Street Baptists

Bedfordshire & Luton Archives & Records Service has an archive for Heath and Reach Baptist church where the history of the chapel may be researched in some detail. The catalogue is as follows:

  • X305/1: Minute book including baptisms 1891-1936, alphabetical register of members 1842-1936, donations to the building fund in 1822 and accounts 1822-1824: 1822-1936;
  • X305/2: Minute book: 1891-1901;
  • X305/3: Minute book: 1901-1919;
  • X305/4: Minute book including details of preachers: 1919-1960;
  • X305/5: Church rules: 1962;
  • X305/6: Diary of chapel groups, visits of preachers etc.: 1977;
  • X305/7: Diary of chapel groups, visits of preachers etc.: 1978;
  • X305/8: Account book: 1977-1978;
  • X305/9: Dear Friends Hockliffe Street Baptist Church weekly newsletter: 1978;
  • X305/10: List of preachers: c.1978;
  • X305/11: Letter from Reverend Norman C.Barr announcing the closure of the chapel and inviting people to a service of thanksgiving: November 1978

Modern houses built on the site of the Baptist chapel in Gig Lane June 2008
Modern houses built on the site of the Baptist chapel in Gig Lane June 2008