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Bunyan Meeting in Stagsden

Bunyan Meeting taken by Cyril Hargreaves before 1964
Bunyan Meeting taken by Cyril Hargreaves before 1964 and published in the Bedfordshire Magazine; the building in the background remains

The house of Samuel Ward was registered in 1768 by Joshua Symonds, Thomas Woodward, Thomas Kilpin, Thomas Rush and Ward himself [QSP43/7]. It is likely that this was Bunyan Meeting as Symonds was minister of the main meeting in Bedford.

The Bunyan Meeting chapel was first registered as such in 1860 by John Jukes of Dame Alice Street, Bedford, the senior minister. The chapel had been built forty years before; Bedfordshire & Luton Archives & Records Service has a number of records from the Stagsden Meeting [BY16/1/1-19]amongst the archives of the Bunyan Meeting. It was a Bunyan Trustees meeting on 9th May 1820 which resolved to build a place of worship in Stagsden [BY16/1/2]. The chapel lay between Bunyan Farm and the High Street; most of it was demolished in 1964 but part remains as the photograph at the bottom of the page shows.

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 "Independent Chapel" was made by Thomas Whitmee, the superintendent. He recorded that there was seating accommodation for 250 and that 123 had attended in the afternoon and 146 in the evening. The averages for the previous twelve months were 140 and 160. The weather on 30th March was wet and cold and did not entice people to travel.

A printed report of the Bunyan Meeting Sunday Schools of 1882 [BY16/1/3] reports that a Sunday School commenced in Stagsden in that year. Evidently the Sunday School was in the existing premises as three years later a subscription list was got up to build new school buildings in Stagsden [BY16/4]. An ornamental text [BY16/1/5] indicates that a Christian Endeavour Society was established in 1897.

The Bedfordshire Magazine printed an article by H.G.Tibbutt in 1968 [Volume XI Number 85] about Stagsden resident Samuel James Whitmee. He was born in the village in 1838 and became a missionary in Samoa from 1863 to 1876 where, amongst other things, he taught poet and novelist Robert Louis Stevenson how to speak the local language. He was also a noted naturalist. He again undertook missionary work in the South Pacific from 1891 to 1894. He died in Barnet [Middlesex] in 1925.]

Whitmee wrote a manuscript autobiography which he entitled Recollections of a Long Life and wrote the following about the Bunyan Meeting in Stagsden: "Our chapel, situated in the village, was well attended…There were four services every Sunday. The 7 a.m. prayer meeting seldom was attended by more than a dozen, all men. At 10.30 there was a service almost always led by my father, who read a printed sermon…The number at this service was much smaller than at the other services, but ran 40 or 50.

At 2.30 the chapel was usually fairly occupied, but not full to its seating capacity unless it was known that a favourite preacher would be in the pulpit. At the 6 o'clock service the place was full, and often overcrowded. During my youth an end gallery was erected, and although its occupants were very near the roof, and it was very hot and stuffy, it was always full to its utmost capacity. I often saw all standing space in the chapel occupied.

I do not remember any bitter antagonism between the Church and Dissent in the parish. The living was held by a non-resident pluralist, and a curate, an Irishman, did all the work of the Church during the time of my recollection. He was very friendly towards my father. Three times he tried to induce him to become his church-warden…A number of the Church people went to the parish Church in the morning on Sundays and to chapel in the evening".

Whitmee went on to note that one of the visiting preachers from the Bunyan Meeting in Bedford was William White, the father of William Hale White, who wrote novels under the pseudonym Mark Rutherford.

Chapel December 2007
the surviving part of the Bunyan Meeting December 2007