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Congregationalists in Woburn

The Congregational (Independent) church shown on a map of 1882
The Congregational (Independent) church shown on a map of 1882

In 1672 Charles II issued a Declaration of Toleration for Protestants dissenting from the Church of England; this had the effect of some dissenting meeting houses registering with the Secretary of State. The Toleration Act of 1689 enshrined the right of protestants to dissent from the Church of England and, once again, encouraged meeting houses to register voluntarily with local quarter sessions and Anglican church. Registration provided protection against persecution, laying a duty of protection upon magistrates and so was popular with nonconformists. Most registrations were made with quarter sessions until the middle of the 18th century, presumably due to the mutual antagonism of nonconformists and established Church. However, from that point registration with the Church, via the local archdeaconry began to become the favoured method, because the archdeaconry Registrar would issue a licence at any time rather than during the days each quarter when the quarter sessions met.

Bedfordshire & Luton Archives & Records Service has a reasonable number of registrations of nonconformist meeting houses in both the Quarter Sessions and Archdeaconry of Bedford archives. Registration continued through the 19th century even though persecution faded away - this was because registered buildings were allowed to claim exemption from parish poor rates, were exempt from control by the Charity Commission and were allowed to be licensed to carry out marriages. These things meant that registration became almost compulsory in practice for well established nonconformist meetings. This is fortunate for the local historian because sometimes the only surviving references to a nonconformist meeting occur as registrations. One drawback with the registrations are that they do not usually inform the reader of the particular type of denomination involved, though sometimes it is possible to infer it from other evidence.

The three earliest registrations for Woburn were all for Congregationalist meetings, as follows:

  • 20th April 1789: the house and outhouse in the occupation of Sarah Edmunds in West Street was registered by Joseph Harris, plumber, Robert Carey, surgeon, Joseph Barnes, ropemaker and Samuel Handscomb, watchmaker [QSR1789/200]. West Street is likely to have been Leighton Street.
  • 30th June 1797/15th January 1798: a former plumber’s casting house in the occupation of Robert Carey, surgeon, with the premises of Joseph Perrin of Hitchin [Hertfordshire] on one side, near the garden of Rev. John Scroxton on the other and near the garden of Mr. Cook Wheeler was registered by Carey himself, John Cobb and John Stevens [ABN1/1, ABN2/80]. If John Scroxton was the curate this would suggest a property somewhere near The Old Parsonage in Bedford Street.
  • 7th March/21st April 1804: the building and ground bounded by a close in the occupation of Mr. Fane on the north, a tenement in the occupation of John Keen east, the garden of Goodman south and a close in Mr. Parrot west was registered by Michael Castleden, Robert Carey and John Buttfield.

We know that these were Congregationalist meetings because one man, Robert Carey, is involved in each of them. In 1804 one of those registering was Michael Castleden, the minister. Bedfordshire & Luton Archives & Records Service holds the deeds to the Congregational chapel [Z768]. The deeds begin in 1823 when Susannah Rock conveyed 38 poles of land to the trustees for them to build a chapel vestry. The trustees, at this date, were Michael Castleden, John Circuitt, yeoman, Joseph Circuitt, yeoman, Samuel Handscomb, watchmaker (another name appearing with Robert Carey in 1789), William Cobb the younger, grocer, George Gascoyen, gentleman, James Fowler, brewer, Thomas Loton, yeoman, Joseph Osborn of Dunstable, grocer and Joseph Hill of Potsgrove, yeoman. The church at that date called itself "The Society of Protestant Dissenters of the Pedo Baptists denomination" - pedo baptist meaning that they allowed the baptism of children, unlike the Baptists themselves, to whom Fowler later defected.

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 Congregational church was made by the minister James Andrews. He noted that the building lay "at the back of Chapel Street", today's London End, "in lieu of an old place in another part of the town, 1804". There were 221 free seats "including Sabbath School" and 217 other seats. The turn outs had been:

  • general congregation: 188 in the morning, 220 in the evening;
  • Sunday scholars: 110 in the morning.

Andrews commented: "The evening congregation was below the average attendance by at least 50 persons, many of whom, I know, were at home thro' indisposition".

The chapel was rebuilt in 1854, The Bedfordshire Times of 29th October carrying a piece on the reopening. two years later tenders were invited for the building of a well. The chapel was enlarged in 1899, the old box pews removed and hot water pipes installed. the work cost £250. The last service took place in 1943. The chapel was authorised to be sold by the Charity Commissioners in 1952 [Z768/8] and was conveyed on 12 May 1953 to Aubrey Boutwood of Toddington, retired solicitor [Z768/9]. The building was used as a studio by Derek Greaves, an artist, from about 1959 and was demolished in 1988.

The late H. G. Tibbutt wrote an article on the Congregational church in Woburn for The Bedfordshire Magazine in 1960 (Vol. VII page 179). It reads as follows: “Just off the Leighton Buzzard road at Woburn is the Congregational church. It closed a decade ago after a period of gradual decline, but enjoyed remarkable activity in the nineteenth century when two ministries, those of Michael Castleden and James Andrews, occupied almost the whole of the century”.

“Congregationalism in Woburn dates from the 1780’s. It adherents met first in a thatched barn under the ministry of Samuel Greathead, who had served with an English Corps of Engineers in the American War of Independence. He was a tutor at Newport Pagnell Congregational Academy and a founder of the London Missionary Society”.

“Michael Castleden, a Londoner who had trained at Hoxton Academy, began his pastorate on December 10th 1800 and remained at Woburn for forty years. The thatched barn being inconvenient for his growing congregation, an oval-shaped chapel was built on the present site. It was opened in June 1804 but later in turn proved too small and galleries were added and other additions made. Castleden’s labours in the neighbourhood resulted in new chapels being erected at Hockliffe and Sheep Lane. He resigned January 1st 1841, and when he died in 1848 the Duke of Bedford and Lord and Lady Charles Russell were among the subscribers to his memorial in the church”.

“As a Whig family the Russells had always been sympathetic to Nonconformity, and Castleden’s son George wrote: “In March 1802 my father stood among the tenantry and retainers at the West Front of Woburn Abbey, under the starry sky, when the coffin of Francis, fifth Duke of Bedford, was brought out, and by torchlight shut up in the hearse; and in his thatched meeting-house he preached a funeral sermon to his little flock on the death of that lamented nobleman … Nigh forty years after, with his locks silver, he stood among a large concourse of mourners in the Chenies mausoleum and saw go down into the chambers of the dead, all that was mortal of John, sixth Duke of Bedford: in this first and last visit to this tomb he laid his hand upon the coffin of the civil martyr, Lord William Russell” [executed for treason by Charles II in 1683]”.

“In 1845 James Andrews, who had trained at Hackney College, succeeded to the Woburn pastorate. He was descended from an old royalist family which had aided Charles II after the battle of Worcester in 1651. A good classical scholar, he was familiar with Hebrew and Syriac and acquainted with the rudiments of Arabic. The ordinations services were held on July 9th, and the contemporary account records that “after the morning service the ministers and deacons retired to the school-room of Woburn Academy, which was tastefully made up for the occasion, and partook of a cold collation. Friends from a distance also regaled themselves under a marquee pitched in the chapel yard””.

“Andrews’ ministry met with success and on October 26th 1854 the church was reopened after it had been lengthened by 32 feet, the old galleries had been removed and a new one for organ, choir and 120 children had been provided. During the six months of the reconstruction period the congregation worshipped in the town hall, by permission of the Duke of Bedford”.

“Andrews was prominent in Woburn affairs and from 1848 to 1896 was both chairman and secretary of the benefit charity. When a school board was formed in 1871 he was a member, and he also served on the Board of Guardians and was president of the local Liberal Association. Among the members of his church was Henry Gee who, after training at the Bedford Theological Seminary was on August 31st 1859 at Woburn Congregational church set apart for the work of a missionary in Samoa. After little more than four years of missionary service Gee returned to England because of ill-health, and later took charge of the Congregational church at Chatteris [Cambridgeshire]. Andrews retired in 1896 and died in 1900”.

“The century of prosperity was followed by years of gradual decline and in 1943 the small remaining congregation began to worship with the Methodists and have done so ever since. The last service of public worship was held in the church in April 1943, the last funeral took place in November 1946 and the last wedding in March 1948. The building was sold in 1951[actually 1952 as noted above]. In its burying ground is a tablet stone to James Andrews and in the church building itself is a tablet to Andrews’ memory and until recently another to the memory of Michael Castleden, with the inscription

In Memory of the
Reverend Michael Castleden.
Born February 22, 1769;
died November 5, 1848.
Forty years Minister of this Chapel.
He retired from the Pastorate
January 1st, 1841,
But occasionally
To the last Sabbath of his mortal life,
At home, in London, and at Canterbury,
He preached ‘Christ crucified’.
This Tablet
Is not Adulatory, but Tributary
To his Piety, Peacefulness
and Catholicity:
And is the last Token
Of Neighbourly respect,
Christian affection And Filial Gratitude.
‘He being dead, yet speaketh’.
Heb. xi. 4.

The connection of Michael Castleden with Canterbury is puzzling until one finds in the unprinted manuscript diary of Frederick George Castleden of Canterbury (now in the possession of Mrs. I. Castleden of Dunmow) entries referring to Michael’s preaching at Canterbury, visits to that city by his son George in 1847 and 1848, and a visit of the Canterbury Castledens to Woburn in February 1847. Some entries follow.

  • October 9th 1848. Arrival of old Mr. Castleden from won. Aged 78.
  • October 10th 1848. With great pleasure we heard our Cousin M. Castleden from Woburn at the Chapel.
  • October 13th 1848. Departure of our Cousin C. It was quite by accident that we discovered these Cousins about 1844. A lady, drinking tea at Grandma Castleden’s happened to mention that she knew a gentleman by that name living in the pretty town of Woburn, Bedfordshire, and so sent them an invitation. They had not been to Canterbury for 110 years. He has two sons, a grandson and a great-grandson – the grandson holding an excellent place in the Customs at London.
  • October 28th 1848. Had the pleasure of hearing our worthy Cousin Rev. M. Castleden preach.
  • October 29th 1848. His return back to London.
  • November 26th 1849. Received the melancholy intelligence that our dear Cousin Castleden, who so lately left us, expired at his grandson’s, London yesterday morning 3 o’clock”.

The Congregational Church about 1950 - pictured in The Bedfordshire Magazine
The Congregational church about 1950 - pictured in The Bedfordshire Magazine