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Baptists in Thurleigh

Thurleigh baptist church around 1900 [Z50/122/11]
Thurleigh Baptist church around 1900 [Z50/122/11]

Thurleigh Baptist chapel was established in 1827 though Baptists had been in the village for some years, a Sunday school seemingly being created in 1780 [X349/2]. In July 1827 “a newly erected Chapel on premises of Mr John Williams and in occupation of John Cowley” was registered with the Archdeaconry of Bedford by Thomas Pestell, James Parkwood, Peter Brown, William Desborough and William Howkins [ABN1/2, ABN2/231, ABN3/3].

The first church book for Thurleigh Baptists begins in 1837 [X349/1]. It states: “The Meeting House was Erected in 1827. Mr. Crockford who had been preaching in a House near the Meeting about 12 Months Subscribed 15 pounds and a good deal of labour he being by Trade a Carpenter. Friends gave liberally according to their Ability and the House was finished and Opened for Divine worship … Mr Wells commenced October the same year and on October 5th 1837 the Church was formed”. The meeting house was enlarged 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 Thurleigh Particular Baptist church was completed by the minister, Samuel Wells. There were 150 free seats, 150 other seats and standing room for 100. In the morning there had been 63 general congregation and 60 Sunday scholars, 100 general congregation and 60 Sunday scholars in the afternoon and 120 general congregation in the evening.

Samuel Wells died in 1860, being replaced by Knibb Dexter, a Jamaican living in Bedford and the following January the number of members was 19 [X349/1]. In 1861 an issue arose as to relations with other denominations: “Mrs Harvey, a member of the Wesleyan Body [i.e. a Methodist] lately come to Thurleigh, wishing to sit down with us; it was resolved that she should be allowed to sit down at the Table, but should have no vote in Church matters, she not having been baptized”.

In 1861 the chapel was registered by Thomas Wagstaff of Thurleigh, shoemaker, the deacon. It underwent repairs in 1863 when membership had risen to 38 [X349/1]. Some entries in the book remind one that the mid-19th century was a different World to today: on the subject of children going to Bedford Fair: “They all declared it was better than being at Vanity Fair – May the Lord lead his Churches to fight earnestly against these strongholds of Satan – Feasts and Fairs”. The next entry refers to a Baptist convert being “turned out of doors for refusing to attend the Established Church” in other words he was made homeless because he did not attend the Church of England. Similarly the landlord of a farm required tenants to attend the Established Church.

By 1864 there were 66 members [X349/1] and land for a burial ground was sought. Pastor Dexter resigned in 1865 being replaced by a man named George Chandler, whose salary was £10 per quarter [X349/1-2], from 1872 he was also Pastor at Keysoe Row. The chapel was again repaired in 1868, repairs costing £18 0s 1d [X349/2]. In 1880 centenary celebrations were held for the Sunday school [X349/2]. By 1884 relations with the Anglicans in the village were obviously good, the vicar, Rev Benjamin Trapp having offered land for a Baptist burial ground – the offer was refused as it was too close to the road [X349/2]. Trapp and George Chandler were on friendly terms.

Plans for a new chapel and schoolroom were drawn up in 1886 [X349/2] and the new building opened in 1888. In 1901 George Chandler registered the new chapel for use for weddings [X349/20]. He then resigned “because of the weakness of his voice” being replaced by Robert Smathers of Eye [Suffolk] the following year. He did not last long, resigning in 1907 “because of the attitude of several members to him”. He was replaced in 1907 by S. J. Somers of Ashwater [Devon] [X349/2].

An organ was purchased for five guineas in 1911 [X349/2]. Rev. Somers resigned in 1917 being replaced by Walter T. Lea of Arch Lench [Worcestershire]. Discouraged “by the spiritual side of the work” he left in 1921 and was replaced by J. C. Shildrick of New Romney [Kent], at this time there were 47 members [X349/2].

An American was purchased for £45 in 1925, the old one being sold for thirty shillings [X349/2]. By 1935 membership had fallen to 39 [X349/3] and Rev. Shildrick resigned in 1937, being replaced by G. R. Cole of Pinchbeck [Lincolnshire]. The chapel was renovated in 1938 [X349/3]. During the war the upper and lower schoolrooms were used as a rest room and refreshment centre and the lower school room as a first aid post and ARP wardens’ post [X349/3].

Electricity was installed in the chapel in 1947 [X349/3]. Rev Cole resigned in 1952 being replaced by S. R. Record of Bibury [Gloucestershire], his manse being restored in 1954 and 1955 [X349/3]. Another new organ was acquired, by donation, in 1955, Rev Record resigning that year after the death of his wife. He was replaced by W. H. Wheele of Foulsham [Norfolk] [X349/3] who resigned in 1962 to be replaced by H. J. Harcup of West Drayton [Middlesex].

In 1966 an inter-denominational open air service was held in the village with Anglicans, Catholics and Baptists [X349/3]. The first record book was deposited with Bedfordshire Archive Service and Rev. Harcup resigned in the same year [X349/3]. In 1969 Thurleigh joined Little Staughton and Huntingdonshire parishes Kimbolton, West Perry and Great Staughton in a new Baptist group of churches [X349/3]. The chapel roof was repaired in 1972 [X349/3]. The following year Thurleigh was united with Keysoe Row, Little Staughton and Brickhill, though Little Staughton soon withdrew [X349/3]. The manse was demolished in 1975 [X349/3]. The chapel remains a place of worship at the time of writing [2015].

Thurleigh Baptist Chapel January 2015
Thurleigh Baptist Chapel January 2015