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Primitive Methodism in Totternhoe

The site of the first Primitive Methodist chapel February 2010
The site of the first Primitive Methodist chapel February 2010

Totternhoe had chapels belonging to both the Primitive and Wesleyan Methodists. The former had their chapel in Church End, whilst the latter had their chapel in Lower End on the corner of Chapel Lane and Castle Hill Road. The Primitive Chapel formed part of the Luton Primitive Methodist Circuit in 1845, meetings were, presumably held in a private house or barn, as the first chapel, in Church Road, was not built until 1861.

The Dunstable Methodist Circuit: One Hundred and Fifty Years of Witness 1843-1993 quotes a history of 1863 about the early history: "Before the year 1840 the Totternhoe Wesleyans belonged to the Eaton Bray Society, but about the time the Primitives came to Totternhoe and tried to establish a cause by getting the members of the Wesleyan Society to join them".

Volume 110 published by the Bedfordshire Historical Records Society in 1996 and edited by Edwin Welch contains registrations of Bedfordshire nonconformist meetings drawn from a number of sources. On 22nd February 1864 the Primitive Methodist Chapel was registered by circuit minister James Langham from Hightown, Luton. In 1866 Totternhoe moved into the Dunstable Primitive Methodist Circuit.

By the early 1920s the Church Road chapel was in a neglected state. A note of December 1927 [MB384] records that at that date the Primitive Methodist Society in Totternhoe had eight adherents, seven members ("All elderly save two") and ten scholars ("Six in one Family"). The chapel was described succinctly as "Structural Condition Dangerous". It was noted: "Totternhoe is 2 miles from Dunstable and therefore can be easily worked by the head Church". The Circuit officials received a motion to "close Totternhoe Chapel on account of its dangerous condition and the difficulty of raising the £200 necessary to put it in good repair" [MB384].

Nevertheless in March 1928 the church nationally resolved to grant £75 to Totternhoe towards the outlay of £250 "in order that the chapel at Totternhoe might be better equipped to serve the needs of this growing village and ultimately prove an addition to the strength of this limited circuit" [MB384]. Correspondence around this issue shows that by September 1928 it had been decided locally to open a new chapel [MB384], as the District Building Committee was anxious "that we should not withdraw from Totternhoe but renovate the chapel. If therefore a New Site & Chapel is possible at cost you mention £400, or £450, I do not anticipate any objection but rather commendation" .

The Trustees Minute Book beginning in 1928 [MB1664] gives the names of the new trustees of 1928, presumably elected with the new building project in mind. Trustees were:

  • George Jackson of 17 Victoria Street, Dunstable;
  • Harold Pickering of West Parade, Dunstable;
  • F. G. Keep of Sladen House, 126 Luton Road, Dunstable;
  • George Parker;
  • William Small of 60 Chiltern Road, Dunstable;
  • H. Darby of 82 Victoria Street, Dunstable;
  • A. Knott of Burr Street, Luton;
  • C. Kitty of 3 High Street North, Dunstable;
  • B. J. Gange;
  • C. Munday of Totternhoe;
  • W. Fountain of Totternhoe;
  • W. T. Hill;
  • W. Connett of 38 Kirby Road, Dunstable;
  • H. Small of Chiltern Road, Dunstable;
  • A. Rollings of Totternhoe Road, Dunstable;
  • R. Kirby of 5 Icknield Street, Dunstable.

Land was obtained in Furlong Lane. The foundation stone of the new building was laid on 20th May 1929 [MB1838/2]. A leaflet appealing for funds [MB1838/1] stated: "Thirty-five years ago we Primitive Methodists had a flourishing cause there. Then, in the movement away from the villages, many families migrated, some to strengthen the Dunstable Society, others settling elsewhere. Meanwhile the Chapel, built in 1861, became more and more dilapidated, until, owing to its unsafe condition, it had to be closed at the end of 1927. Its repair is impracticable, and our people are hiring the Village School for worship".

"During the last few years forty Council houses have been erected in the immediate neighbourhood of our building. The nearest NonconformistChurch [the Wesleyans in Lower End!] is three-quarters-of-a-mile away. Impressed by the opportunity, a Deputation of the Home Missionary Committee, visiting the spot, strongly advised the continuance of the Cause. It was recognised that owing to heavy Trust liabilities Dunstable can render very little financial assistance".

"With the hearty sanction of the Home Missions Secretary, and the District Authorities, it has been decided to erect a Chapel on a better site, to accommodate 100 people. This will cost £550, inclusive".

The District Missionary Committee Secretary opined: "The situation at Totternhoe is such an opportunity for aggressive work in the interest of Village Methodism that we can heartily press the claim for financial help throughout our District. Dunstable has done splendidly. Shall we recognize the heroic effort now being made and render the best possible help!"

The debt for the new chapel was paid off by selling the land on which the old building stood; it stood on the road to the north-east of 4 Church Road. A letter of October 1929 read: "The building is unsafe and has to be taken down. The contractor has offered £20 for the site, plus any profits he may make on the purchase. There is a debt of £25 on the property and the proceeds of sale will be used to clear this off and any balance devoted to the new church Building Fund" [MB384]. The site is now part of Green Farm.

A letter of 1930 [MB384] notes of the new building: "This church has cost altogether £611, leaving a debt of £251 which it is felt is more than this small society can carry. The church is growing slowly, congregations, school and week-evening meetings are steadily increasing, but the financial resources are very restricted and the circuit is having a struggle to carry one".

In 1932 three main strands of Methodism, Primitive, Wesleyan and United came together to create the Methodist Church of Great Britain. This did not mean the immediate closure of one of the two chapels in Totternhoe, presumably there were sufficient differences between the two to maintain two quite separate congregations. Similarly both the Dunstable Wesleyan and Dunstable Primitive Circuits remained.

Unfortunately the new chapel had not been well built and by 1939 it was obvious that repairs were needed and to finance these and so part of the site was sold off in 1943. A letter of November that year [MB385] states: "I wish you would put this application for permission to sell this bit of land at Totternhoe through at your earliest convenience. There has been considerable delay, and I am very tired of the matter myself, even apart fro ma bit of feeling it has caused. The Chairman came along to look into several of these matters with me, so he knows about them. They are all part of a resolute attempt to get rid of the horrible burden of debt that has weighed down this little circuit apparently all through its years". The Trustees Minute Book [MB1664] notes that the ground was sold to a Mr. Boskett for £40. The debt was finally paid off in 1944 via a grant for £25 [MB386].

In the 1950s the trustees of the former Primitive chapel looked to build a new Sunday School, as theirs was over-subscribed. However, cost and falling rolls meant that the new Sunday School was never built and in 1963 Church End sent a letter to Lower End [MB1664]: "At a meeting of the Leaders and Trustees of Church End Methodist Church at which the Chairman of the District, Rev. A. Kingsley Turner was present, it was agreed that before anything further was done in regard to building programmes at Church End, an approach should be made to our sister Society at Lower End to suggest that we should discuss together the future plans of Methodism in the village of Totternhoe with a view to our working together more closely and perhaps uniting our two societies so that the work of the village might be made more effective".

"May we extend to your Leaders an invitation to meet with our Leaders for such discussion at Church End Methodist Chapel. We would suggest that you select one of the following dates; - August 2nd, 28th, or September 11th. If none of these dates is convenient then will you please suggest alternative dates for our consideration if you are willing to join us for such conversation". The meeting took place on 11th September and the minute book recorded: "a very pleasant discussion took place and it was left that Lower End members have a further discussion between themselves in their own church. No further news have heard [sic] of the meeting".

The Furlong Lane chapel proved too expensive to maintain and it closed on 23rd April 1975, with only 19 members, 17 of whom transferred to The Square Chapel in Dunstable. The building was then sold. The final minute in the Trustees Minute book [MB1664], of 5th march 1975, reads: "As a result of the Society meeting on the previous evening and acting upon the recommendation from that meeting Mr. King proposed and Mrs. King seconded the motion that owing to the exorbitant price of renovations and improvements and owing to the ruling from conference on capital expenditure it was decided to close the chapel for public worship on Palm Sunday 1975. It was agreed that when finances were settled and obligations to the circuit met a donation from funds remaining should be made to Totternhoe Old People's Welfare and the Scout and Guide Building Fund. There being no other business the meeting closed with Prayer".