The site of Oakley Bunyan Meeting in 1883
In 1672 the Congregationalists registered the house of William Finden in Oakley as a meeting house. Episcopal visitations between 1706 and 1720 outline the rise of nonconformity in Oakley from “several” families in 1706 to eighteen in 1720. A licensed meeting house stood in Oakley in 1706 and this may be the house registered in 1672. The vicar of Oakley refers to the nonconformists in his returns of 1709, 1712 and 1717 as being mostly Independents and makes it clear that a number of different denominations came together for worship at the meeting house. In his return of 1720 he refers to the nonconformists as Anabaptists. Baptists and Congregationalists alike had a shared history and were often both termed Independents.
From this it seems clear that Oakley was a mixture of Congregationalists and Baptists. In 1805: a house in the occupation of Richard Clifton was registered by Baptist minister Joseph Such as well as Mary Such, Robert Bowyer, Susannah Hooper, John Tysoe, Richard Clifton himself, Catherine Clifton, William Bowyer, Sarah Bowyer, Robert Tysoe and Thomas Bowyer [ABN1/1, ABN2/118].
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 chapel was made by the Congregational Minister, John Jukes, who noted that the chapel had been occupied since 1825. Jukes gave the following pieces of information:
- Sittings: 70 free and 30 other;
- General Congregation: 61 that evening;
- Average for the preceding twelve months: 80.
He also noted: “This place of worship is connected with Bunyan Chapel Bedford and under the same Pastor. The attendance on Sunday, March 31st was below average in consequence of sickness prevalent”.
There was now no Baptist meeting in Oakley. Indeed, the registration of a meeting in 1805 is the sole record held at Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service other than the episcopal visitations to mention Baptists in Oakley. Given their shared history it seems a reasonable hypothesis (until contrary evidence can be found) that the Baptist Meeting of 1805 was replaced by the Bunyan Meeting of 1825 with people of both denominations attending both places, though perhaps some Oakley Congregationalists had attended in Bedford and some Oakley Baptists later attended at Stevington.
In 1860 the Bunyan Meeting in Bedford was again registered with the archdeaconry, this time by John Jukes of Dame Alice Street, Bedford, Senior Congregational Minister. This was cancelled on revision on 8th May 1895. Sadly, Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service has no mention of the Bunyan Meeting at Oakley in the Bunyan Meeting archive [BY]. However, the chapel is shown on the Ordnance Survey 25 inches to the mile map of Oakley from 1883. It stood some way back from the highway on the east side of Pavenham Road some yards north of the junction with Highfield Road in the vicinity of today’s Farrows Close.