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Methodism in Oakley

Oakley Methodist chapel and Sunday school about 1920 [Z0/85/16]
Oakley Methodist chapel and Sunday school about 1920 [Z0/85/16]

The first possible reference to Methodism in Oakley is in 1815 when the house of David Balls was registered by John Dean of Bedford on behalf of an unnamed denomination [ABN1/1, ABN2/171]. John Dean registered a property in Clapham in the same year and the form used on that occasion was one commonly used by the Wesleyan Methodists. In 1825 a building belonging to William Chapman was registered by Samuel Hillyard of Bedford [ABN1/1, ABN2/221]. Again this may have been a Wesleyan registration due to the nature of the form used. Indeed, a chapel at Oakley is noted in 1825 in the Bedford Wesleyan Circuit Stewards’ Accounts Ledger [MB12]. The register covers the years 1817 to 1837 but the only mention of a meeting in Oakley is in 1825. In fact there are no other records of Wesleyan Methodists in Oakley. There was a Wesleyan chapel in Milton Ernest and it may be that Wesleyans from Oakley went to that village to worship.

Primitive Methodists in Oakley can be traced back to at least 1843 when there is an entry in the Bedford Primitive Methodist Circuit baptism register for the baptism of George, son of Richard and Mary Wilshaw of Oakley [MB1854]. A later newspaper article [see below] states that the first chapel was built in 1849. 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 Primitive Methodist chapel was made by the chapel steward, William Prentice, who noted the following pieces of information:

  • Sittings: 108 free and 70 others;
  • General Congregation: afternoon 140; evening 120.

In 1852 this Primitive Methodist chapel was registered by John Symonds Gostling of Gwyn Street, Bedford, upholsterer, one of the trustees. The 1st edition Ordnance Survey 25 inches to the mile map of 1883 shows a Primitive Methodist chapel in the High Street on the site of today’s Methodist church so it seems reasonable to assume that this was the building registered in 1852. At this date the chapel was part of the Bedford Mission (Hull) Circuit. In 1867 it changed to being part of the Bedford Primitive Methodist Circuit.

The chapel was enlarged between 1876 and 1878, the Duke of Bedford giving additional land for it [R1/192 page 182] and the chapel became part of the Bedford First, later called Hassett Street, Circuit in 1897. Another registration came in 1898, by William Durrance of Bedford, minister. The chapel was registered for marriages less than a month later.

A new Sunday school was constructed in 1913. It looks at first glance very like a private house (see the photograph at the head of the page) and survives to the present day [2011], just south of the main chapel building. The Bedfordshire Times of 4th July 1913 reported as follows.

“The Bedford First Circuit of Primitive Methodist Churches is actively engaged in a bold forward policy. This includes several extensive building schemes, such as the new Central Church and Schools in Bromham-road, Sunday Schools and enlargement of the chapel in Park Road [West, Bedford], and new Sunday Schools at Oakley”.

“The first of these schemes to receive attention was the one at Oakley. For nearly 70 years Primitive Methodism has been an aggressive and successful force in this village and neighbourhood. The first Chapel was built in 1849 and continued in use until 1878, when the present commodious building took its place. “There were giants in those days” – men like B. Beard, W. Prentice, J. Beard, J. Hulatt, J. Panter, G. Beard, G. Warner, who went through Oakley and the neighbouring villages like flaming torches, arresting the heedless and calling sinners to repentance. Mr. G. Warner still survives, linking the present with the past, and reminding the children of to-day of their heroic sires who have fallen on sleep. As the oldest member of the congregation, to him fell the honour of laying the Church stone”.

“In neither of these cases, however, was provision made for the work of the Sunday School, and for the social functions which are inseparable from Church activities. Hence, some years ago, when the debt on the then new chapel was liquidated, the trustees and members decided forthwith to establish a fund for the purpose of erecting suitable school premises. Recently, His Grace the Duke of Bedford kindly gave to the trustees a plot of land adjoining the Chapel on which to erect the proposed buildings. Consequently the trustees and members decided to proceed at once with the scheme they had so long discussed and desired to see realised. Plans were prepared by the church specialists, Messrs J. Wills and Sons of Derby and London [RDBP1/238], and accepted by the trustees”.

“The new schools will occupy the rear portion and will consist of a central assembly room surrounded by class rooms, kitchen and other adjuncts. Two of the class rooms will be open to the assembly room in the form of wings or transepts, thus allowing for 200 scholars being seated in one assembly. There will be two independent class rooms, each of which will accommodate 25 persons. A convenient kitchen will afford facilities for tea meetings etc. and under this a basement for heating apparatus and fuel. Provision is made at the rear for the addition of a large room in future if required”..

“The building is designed in a simple domestic style in harmony with its picturesque surroundings. Externally the walls will have facing bricks at the base and the angles, the intervening space being treated with rough cast. The assembly room will have an open roof showing the stained timbers and a boarded ceiling in the natural colour of the wood. The roofs will be covered with hand-made tiles. All the windows will be glazed with plain leaded lights of neutral tint and fitted with steel casements to admit a generous supply of fresh air. A low pressure water heating apparatus will be fitted through the building”.

“The existing Chapel is being renovated and made more comfortable. The existing schoolroom, now screened off from the Chapel, will be done away with and the whole space devoted to the Chapel, with an increase of seating and communion platform. The two rear windows will have stained glass with a suitable decorative treatment. The floor will be repaired and the whole building thoroughly redecorated. The contract has been undertaken by Mr. T. Dickins, of Bedford, for £542”.

In 1932 the Primitive Methodist joined with the Wesleyan Methodists and the United Methodists to form the Methodist Church of Great Britain. The chapel became part of the Bedford North Circuit in 1952 and remains a chapel at the time of writing [2011], though rebuilt in a modern style.

Oakley Methodist Church March 2011
Oakley Methodist Church March 2011