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Wesleyan Methodism in Milton Bryan

The chapel about 1900 [Z50/81/14]
The chapel about 1900 [Z50/81/14]

The first known registration of a meeting house for Wesleyan Methodists was in 1846 when a house occupied by William Ward was registered by Thomas Flower, the Minister of the Dunstable Circuit [ABN1/2 and ABN2/383]. 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. There is no return for a Methodist meeting in Milton Bryan.

Milton Bryan chapel was unique in Bedfordshire in being built on the village pond on a part of the manorial waste at the southern end of the village in 1861 and was built on piles. The late Alan Cirket wrote an article on the chapel for The Bedfordshire Magazine Volume XVIII, pages 59-61, of which the following are excerpts: “It was Lady Inglis, then Lady of the Manor … who gave permission to build the chapel over the pond, which counted as part of the manorial waste and therefore belonging to the manor. A letter written by Julia Quennell of 44 Lower Kensington Lane, London, to the Duke of Bedford on 28th February 1876, is most informative. After apologising for taking the liberty of writing to him she says – ‘While on a visit to a cousin of mine, Mrs. Burrows of Milton Bryant, I went to the Wesleyan Chapel there, a photograph of which is enclosed and from which Your Grace will see that it is built on piles driven into the pond. Lady Inglis was so kind as to grant them for a term of 7 years, at a rent of 2s. 6d. per year, the privilege of building over the pond, but this term will expire in either 3 or 4 years, and it is to ask your Grace’s bounty to bestow on this small struggling body of worshippers a small piece of land near to the present erection, to which it could be removed at the expiration of the lease granted by Lady Inglis. The chapel has neither regular Minister, nor income: those who officiate doing so without payment’”.

“’I was led to address this to your Grace by reading in the paper the part which you took in erecting the statue of John Bunyan at Bedford, and I am sure your Grace would never regret granting a small portion of the plot of land shown in the accompanying plan … it would be a great boon, excepting this wooden building there is no placed within 2 or 3 miles that they could worship in. They have met with many discouragements and your Grace will I trust sympathise with them in this emergency and grant them the boon I have been so bold as to ask of your Grace’s hands’”.

“On the accompanying plan a small piece of land belonging to the Duke, adjoining the road opposite the pond, is marked as the alternative site. Although this letter did not lead to the Duke making the land available to the Methodists it appears to have led to a show of goodwill both on his part and Lady Inglis’, as major landowners, for soon afterwards the chapel was thoroughly overhauled and repaired. The Bedfordshire Mercury, on 14th July 1877 reported ‘The Wesleyans of this place like the coneys of scripture are somewhat feeble folk [Proverbs 30, verse 26]: but show a fair amount of spirit. They have recently put their little chapel in thorough repair, introduced an harmonium and seem determined that Methodism in this village should take a new departure. Last week they were greatly cheered in their efforts by receiving from his Grace the Duke of Bedford a cheque for £10 in aid of the chapel fund’”.

A Society Steward, a Chapel Steward, and a Member of the church were again appealing to the Duke for assistance in January 1889, when the roof of the chapel was ‘in a very dilapidated state’ and needed to be replaced. ‘On wet days the rain comes through … on the seats inside’. The writers of the letter said ‘The members worshipping therein are very poor as regards this world’s goods, the collection at the services … seldom exceeding 1s. 6d.’ and the cost of the new roof would be ‘about £12 or £15’. They acknowledged the help given to them in 1877 by the Duke and stated that ‘Lady Inglis, some years ago, at her own expense greatly improved the Chapel’. The appeal was acknowledged by the Estate Steward but nothing further was done. Three years later, on the death of the Duke, the Wesleyan Circuit Minister appealed to the Duchess, the cost of a new roof having risen to £20. The Woburn Steward, C. P. Hall, disagreed with their estimate in his report and believed the building could be re-covered with felt for £3 or alternatively corrugated iron for £6. In his opinion a ‘similar new building could be put up for about £10 more than they propose for repairs’. And indeed ‘a new brick and slate one of the same capacity for £50 or £55’. He discovered from one of the estate tenants living there ‘that the Chapel is appreciated by a few of the parishioners who are all of the labouring class – their congregations vary from 5 or 6 to 20 or 30. The services are conducted in an orderly manner’. His dampening report did not prevent a donation of £10 being made for the improvements by the succeeding Duke”.

Membership was never particularly large and during World War One it fell as low as two before a revival in the mid 1920s by the Cliff College Mission [The Dunstable Circuit: One Hundred and Fifty Years of Witness 1843-1993 by Colin Bourne]. In 1932 the Methodist Church of Great Britain was formed reuniting the Wesleyans with the Primitive Methodists and United Methodists.

Alan Cirket's account continued: "The Duke of Bedford purchased the manor in 1905 and despite the help they had received from the family, the chapel members were in 1936 still uneasy regarding the permanency of their place of worship. They were continuing to pay the annual rent of 2s. 6d. to the Duke as Lord of the Manor. A Dunstable local preacher, A. J. Moore, 'general and fancy draper of 21 High Street, Dunstable', who for 27 years had conducted services at Milton, attempted to get the property made over to the church on the excuse that it would give one of the members there, an old lady of 94 'great pleasure to know that services would be continued there in perpetuity'. They also requested a further three to four feet at either end so they could plant shrubs 'to take off the bareness' of the place. The Duke agreed to sell for a nominal sum 'such rights, if any, as he may have in the site of the Chapel'. For the conveyance the Methodists suggested the old lady, Mrs. Emma Clark, as one of the trustees for the property".

"The chapel had not been used since the early 1960s and was pulled down in the winter of 1980-81: most of the former congregation had died. Recently a tree was planted on the bank of the pond to mark the site of this unusual chapel and there are plans to put up a plaque there to record its history".

Milton Bryan pond in January 2008 - the chapel would have been on the far side
Milton Bryan pond in January 2008 - the chapel would have been on the far side