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Hockliffe Street Baptist Church

Hockliffe Street Baptist Church June 2008
Hockliffe Street Baptist Church June 2008

Hockliffe Street Baptist church was created by a group of members leaving the Lake Street meeting as the following, written in the Church Book, not deposited with Bedfordshire & Luton Archives & Records Service but quoted in H.G.Tibbutt's The Baptists of Leighton Buzzard in 1963 records: "Soon after the settlement of Mr.T.Wake's successor [Edward Adey] dissatisfaction with his ministrations and deportment towards the Church began to prevail". Adey was an independent, or Congregationalist by training and his policy of open communion, allowing those not baptised as members to participate, cannot have been popular with all. The account goes on to say that opinion: "was drawn into decided opposition by his conduct towards a young woman, who in consequence of his communications thought he intended to make her his wife. The majority of the Church wished him to resign the pastoral office as they could no longer esteem him as their pastor. But every overture for that purpose being rejected they met, April 30th 1832, to consult on what steps should be taken as they were constrained to go a considerable distance to worship and were as sheep having no shepherd". The dissidents found a place to worship the next year - a warehouse, formerly a granary, in Grove Walk owned by Thomas Matthews. The meeting opened on 9th June 1833. The new church did not seek to cease to become members of Lake Street "considering themselves as in fact the Church".

Objectionable behaviour by ministers was a theme in the early history of the church: "A considerable number of ministers supplied the pulpit and administered the ordinances during several years and many were added to the church which continued to prosper till in 1839 circumstances of a very unpleasant nature occurred in reference to the minister who then presided, by which the members of the church were scattered and the congregation almost extinct. On the removal of the minister the place was kept open, several sermons being read on the Sabbath by Mr.T.Matthews - occasionally, however, the place was visited for a Sabbath by some minister, but very few persons attended". This minister seems to have been Robert Clarke, who left the town in 1839 with unsettled debts of £60, a large sum at the time.

There the Grove Walk meeting may have ended were Edward Adey not still in charge at Lake Street. So Thomas and John Matthews, when attending the opening of a new church in Northchurch [Hertfordshire], explained the situation to a number of ministers present and they were recommended to invite James Cooper of Amersham [Buckinghamshire] to become pastor, which they did: "Mr.Cooper came at the appointed time and having preached on Lord's Day 27th September, on the Monday following saw and conversed with the dissentient parties and recommended the formal dissolution of the anomalous union and the reorganisation of the church. The advice was received and acted upon and has issued in the formation of the second Baptist Church".

For about the first forty years of the separate meeting's existence the relationship of the congregation and the various pastors seems to have been stormy, not to mention the relationships of some sections of the congregation with others. Interestingly when the meeting was reformed in 1840 only one of the twenty six members was allowed to take communion.

Thomas Matthews, at his own expense, erected a baptistery at the meeting in March 1841. In 1842 seven members left the church in opposition to Cooper's closed communion policy and transferred to Heath and Reach.  However in 1843, the year Thomas Matthews died, eight members were received from Lake Street. Interestingly, in 1846 Cooper baptised the grand-daughters of Joseph James and Thomas Wake, the first two pastors at Lake Street, perhaps because he kept a school in North Street which they attended.

James Cooper left in 1847 and his successor, William Paine, was not popular, a number of people leaving to go to Linslade. By this time the Grove Walk church was known as Ebenezer. Gradually the congregation increased and the Grove Walk building became too small and a fund to raise a new building was opened in April 1847. The Ebenezer Chapel "at back of premises of Thomas Southam, plait dealer, in Hockliffe Road" was registered with the Quarter Sessions on 4th July 1849 by Thomas Hedge, printer and George Gamaliel Aveline, cabinet maker [QSR 49/3]. Registration bought the benefit of exemption from parish poor rates, exemption from control by the Charity Commission and the right to be licensed to carry out marriages.

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 Ebenezer Particular Baptist Chapel was made by Thomas Hedge “Deacon, Printer, Hockliffe Rd” who helpfully gave the dimensions of the chapel as 38 feet by 22 feet 8 inches and the vestry as 20 feet by 12 feet. The chapel could seat 200 and attendance had been 90, with an additional 57 Sunday Scholars, in the morning, 57 Sunday Scholars in the afternoon and a mixed congregation of 151 in the evening. Average attendances were held to be 90 and 60 in the morning, 60 Sunday Scholars in the afternoon and 150 in the evening.

 Remains of chapel behind 14 to 16 Hockliffe Street November 2008
Remains of the chapel behind 14 to 16 Hockliffe Street Novemver 2008

In 1865 the Ebenezer chapel was considered too small and a chapel was purchased from the Wesleyan Methodists. The building survives and can be seen from the Library car park, standing behind 12 and 14 Hockliffe Street. The new chapel opened with a flourish: "On Wednesday, May 31st the chapel in Hockliffe-street, Leighton Buzzard, recently purchased from the Wesleyans for £1,040 was reopened as a Baptist place of worship. The floor has been raised and new pews of a modern construction fitted, also a handsome rostrum has been erected: more light has been admitted by two new windows, the seats and galleries grained, the ceiling handsomely decorated, good ventilation from beneath the flooring and access to the galleries from the outside of the building. The opening services were conducted by the Rev.J.A.Spurgeon of London who preached 2 sermons, afternoon and evening. A tea-meeting was held in the new Corn Exchange at which nearly 300 persons enjoyed the social beverage". The move was presided over by the pastor Joseph Mountford, but he died less than two years later, on 29th April 1867, aged just 45.

Pastor Horatio Wilkins was a convert from Anglicanism and he believed strongly in doing away with closed communion. He was defeated in a vote in 1871 and resigned. He withdrew his resignation when it was agreed that the question would be re-examined. A new vote in August 1872 resulted in a victory for the pastor but when he proposed to act on this he met such bitter opposition from some of the members that he resigned in November. When he left the church agreed to open communion by 27 votes to 13 "several of the Strict Communionists not voting" evidently the issue had become a personal one. Wilkins' successor only lasted a year as he fell out with the chapel's deacons. Fortunately his successor, George Durrell lasted over twenty trouble free years.

During Durrell's pastorship the present church buildings were erected and were registered on 19th September 1892 by Durrell himself. The Baptist Handbook noted that the new buildings were being erected in 1892, the congregation "worshipping in the old chapel situate in the same road…The chapel will have sitting accommodation for 670 adults on the ground floor and gallery, the latter occupying three sides of the chapel, while a large gallery behind the rostrum and over the vestries will be used for an organ and choir. The walls are plastered, the roof is open-timbered, and the woodwork generally is of pitch pine. Special attention has been paid to the entrances and exits: a large tiled vestibule and lobbies with double sets of swing doors, form the principal approach to the chapel, and there are separate entrances for the gallery which is reached by two staircases in the front and two in the rear, the latter being mainly for the use of the Sunday School…The schoolroom is 51 feet by 32 feet inside and is surrounded by twelve class-rooms, each about 10 feet by 8 feet also an infants' room 15 feet by 15 feet and a kitchen for tea making purposes. The class-rooms open into the schoolroom, the side walls of which have an arcaded treatment below, and clerestory windows above; the walls are plastered and the roof ceiled at the collar. Separate entrances are provided for girls, boys and infants; while a special feature of the plan is the arrangement by which there is communication under cover between the school and the chapel, both to the ground floors and gallery. The building is faced with red-brick and relieved by Bath-stone arches, strings, cornices and other features. The chapel, school-room and class-rooms will be heated by hot water on the low-pressure system, with separate boilers for chapels and school; and the architect has provided a scheme of ventilation by which the vitiated air will be extracted by utilising the heat from the boiler flue, and in the summer time by means of gas, fresh air being introduced at various points".

The Local Education Authority, Bedfordshire County Council, used the schoolroom as an infants' school before the First World War, shortly before which the chapel was renovated. At this time the church was running a mission in Mill Road, ironically, the site of the first Primitive Methodist church in the town, but this closed during the Great War. In 1919 it was agreed to convert the church to open membership, but this did not happen as the necessary two thirds majority was not obtained. This changed in 1921 but in 1937 it was found that the decision was "irregular" so a new type of membership, associate membership, was invented for non-Baptists who wished to attend and vote on all issues except the appointment of a minister.

In 1961 Lake Street was finally reunited with its breakaway church after a little over 120 years when John Forrest Neilson became pastor of both Lake Street and Hockliffe Street Baptist church. Lake Street was demolished in 1983 leaving Hockliffe Street as the sole Baptist church in the town.

Ministers to 1963

  • Robert Clark: 1837;
  • James Cooper: 1840-1847;
  • William Paine: 1848-1854;
  • E.Jones: 1855;
  • George Varley Barker: 1857-1863;
  • Joseph Mountford: 1864-1867;
  • Horatio Wilkins: 1867-1872;
  • J.C.Wells: 1873-1874;
  • George Durrell: 1875-1897;
  • Robert Edward Chettleborough: 1898-1902;
  • Arthur Morgan Roberts: 1903-1911;
  • Alfred Butler: 1911-1915;
  • Joseph Benjamin Payne: 1915-1919;
  • James Hardaker Brooksbank: 1920-1928;
  • Arthur John Selwood: 1929-1933;
  • William George Legassick: 1934-1944;
  • Ernest John Whittley: 1945-1951;
  • Eustace Victor Whittle: 1952-1958;
  • John Forrest Neilson: 1961 to 1963