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Methodists in Wilshamstead

The location of the Wesleyan chapel in 1883
The location of the Wesleyan chapel in 1883

The original Wesleyan Methodist chapel in Wilshamstead stood, as may be surmised from the name, in Chapel Lane. The first chapel was a house registered by William Armstrong in 1807 [ABN1/1]. Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service has a summary of deeds to the chapel [Z274/35] which begins in 1801 with a conveyance of the cottage by William Pearce to Thomas Glover. It can, therefore, be assumed that Armstrong leased the premises from Glover. He then bought the property from Glover in 1811.

In 1814 William Armstrong conveyed the building, now called the Methodist Chapel, for £10 to trustees. The list of trustees included Armstrong himself as well as the minister Isaac Bradnack of Bedford; Richard Lovell of Bedford, cordwainer; William Matthews of Bedford, gentleman; Robert Miller of Wilshamstead, schoolmaster; John Maynard of Bedford, wheelwright and Thomas Cooper of Wilshamstead, labourer [Z274/35]. The chapel formed part of the Bedford and Ampthill Circuit. Robert Miller was remembered by Elizabeth King in 1898: “Mr. Miller (an army pensioner) was the first schoolmaster and introducer of Methodism in the village”. She was not right about him being the first schoolmaster as there had been a school in the parish since the 16th century but he was, no doubt, the first that she remembered. Elizabeth worked for William Armstrong, who had Manor Farm, so it is interesting that it is not to him but to Miller that she ascribes the introduction of Methodism.

From 1820 to 1838 Wilstead appears on lists of Wesleyan churches making collections for Kingswood School. This was in Bath [Somerset] and had been founded by John Wesley, founder of Methodism, in 1748. In the years 1836-1838 William Armstrong was described as the Wilshamstead chapel’s leader [CRT130Wils1].

In 1825 new trustees were appointed [Z274/35] including Miller, Maynard and Cooper as well as: Thomas Inskip of Flitwick, yeoman; William Armstrong junior of Wilshamstead, yeoman; Samuel Bennett of Ridgmont, farmer; William Bennett of Marston Moretaine, farmer; John Isitt of Bedford, butcher; Thomas Hine of Milton Ernest, farmer; Joseph Swannell of Felmersham, yeoman; Thomas Row of Bedford, gentleman; William Biggs of Bromham, mealman; John Dowsett of Bedford, surgeon; John Howard of Bedford, ironmonger; Charles Armstrong of Wootton, farmer and Isaac Wale of Bedford, tailor.

The Wesleyan Methodist chapel about 1900 [Z50/134/1]
The Wesleyan Methodist chapel about 1900 [Z50/134/1]

A new chapel was built on the site of Armstrong’s cottage in 1841. The Bedfordshire Mercury of 13th November reports: “A new Wesleyan chapel was opened at Wilshamstead on Sunday, November 7th, by the Rev. P. C. Turner. Governor of the Wesleyan College, Hoxton [Middlesex]; and on Tuesday, the 9th, by the Rev. H. Fish A. M., of London. In addition to liberal private subscriptions, £107 5s. was collected at the opening services. This neat and commodious chapel is erected on the site of the old one, which had been built 34 years, and had become too small for the congregation”. This contrasts with the date for the new chapel of 1846 given in the Post Office Directory in 1864 and 1877, which is, clearly, wrong.

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 Wesleyan Methodists was made by Society Steward Thomas James, who gave the following information:

  • The society in Wilshamstead began in 1833 [a puzzling date given that there had clearly been a meeting in 1807];
  • The chapel had 50 free seats, 55 other seats and standing room for 77;
  • General congregation in the morning had been zero, though there had been 38 Sunday scholars;
  • General congregation in the afternoon had been 125, with 38 Sunday scholars;
  • General congregation in the evening had been 165;
  • The averages for the preceding twelve months had been in line with the figures quoted above.

In 1854 the chapel was registered by William Henry Clarkson of Harpur Street, Bedford, the superintendent minister. He was busy that day as he also registered Wesleyan chapels in Bedford, Cardington, Clapham, Kempston, Milton Ernest, Pavenham and Wootton.

The interior of the Wesleyan chapel [Z50/134/25]
The interior of the Wesleyan chapel [Z50/134/25]

In 1860 the circuit granted leave for the enlargement of Wilstead Chapel to accommodate 100 people at the cost of £100. William Armstrong guaranteed that the debt would not be increased [CRt130Wils1]. The Bedfordshire Mercury of 13th April 1861 reported: “The opening services connected with the new school-room at the above chapel were very successfully held on Wednesday, the 3rd instant, when two exceedingly good sermons were preached by the Rev. J. Moore. One of the late popular ministers in the Bedford circuit, but who we are sorry to add, continue to labour under indisposition. The congregation in the afternoon consisted of a large and respectable audience, and in the evening the chapel was quite crowded. Between the services a public tea was provided, which reflected great credit on its managers, of which no less than 150 partook. The chapel since its alteration and enlargement is a building of which the Wesleyan body may have good reasons not to be ashamed, and with the addition of a most excellent school-room, this is certainly one of the best village chapels in the connexion. The Wesleyans in this neighbourhood contemplate shortly to place in the chapel an organ, on which occasion it is intended the work and painting, which has been delayed, shall be completely finished, and it [is] earnestly hoped that they will meet with sympathy and assistance of the Christian public, so that every effort may be put forth which [s]hall tend to ensure them deserving success”.

New trustees were appointed in 1867. In addition to William Armstrong, now of Haynes, they were: William Henry Sargent of Bedford, superintendent minister; John Carrington Conquest of Bedford, solicitor; Thomas Twitchell of Willington, farmer; Thomas Phipps of Wilshamstead, grocer; Frederick Howard of Bedford, ironfounder; George Street of Maulden, farmer; Charles Street of Cople, farmer; James Sheppard of Bedford, nurseryman; John Curtis of Bedford, coal merchant; George Cocking of Bedford, market gardener; Charles Hebbes of Wootton, brickmaker; Charles Day of Bedford, builder and Thomas Robert Broom of Bedford, butcher [Z274/35]. The following year the trustees paid £5 for eleven poles of land adjoining the chapel [Z274/35]. In 1869 the chapel proposed to the circuit to erect a new school room, and make slight alterations to the chapel itself for £150 [CRT130Wils1].

In 1875 Wilshamstead was moved into the Bedford Saint Mary’s Circuit. Two more changes of trustees took place, in 1894 and 1915. The new trustees in 1894, joining Frederick Howard and Charles Hebbes were: Edward Tenney Bousfield of Bedford, barrister; Alfred Clare of Bedford, solicitor; Arthur Frederick Cox of Wilshamstead, farmer; Thomas Tokelove Gray of Bedford, wine merchant; Thomas Percy Gray of Bedford, wine merchant; John Howard Howard of Bedford, ironfounder; Archibald Hislop of Kempston. Captain in the Bedfordshire Regiment; William Irons of Wilshamstead, labourer; George Mastin of Wilshamstead, blacksmith; John Frederick Nutter of Bedford, private secretary; Benjamin Charles Palmer of Bedford, commercial traveller; George Sharpe of Wilshamstead, postmaster; William Stewart of Bedford, retired postmaster and Harry William John Wooding of Kempston, general dealer [Z274/35]. The trustees in 1915, along with Cox, Hislop (now a retired major), Irons, Mastin, Sharpe and Wooding were: James Mastin Cooke of Wilshamstead, blacksmith; Alfred Joseph Cox of Wilshamstead, decorator; James Felts of Kempston, tinware manufacturer; Frederick John Irons of Wilshamstead, engineer’s striker; William Kendall of Wilshamstead, wheelwright; William King of Kempston, clerk; Arthur Mastin of Wilshamstead, agricultural engineer; William Murrell of Bedford, insurance agent; William Soper of Wilshamstead, farmer and George Hawkin Tompkins of Wilshamstead, retired grocer.

In 1932 the Wesleyans came together with the Primitive Methodists and United Methodists to form the Methodist Church of Great Britain. In 1942 Wilshamstead was moved into the new Bedford South Circuit. In 1950 a new organ was provided at the chapel [Z274/28] but by the mid 1960s plans were under way to move the chapel to a new, larger, site closer to the hub of the village near the cross roads of Cotton End Road and Church Road with Luton Road/Bedford Road (the A6). This new building opened in 1967 [Z274/1-3] and the chapel remains a place of worship at the time of writing [2013]. In 1971 the chapel moved to the Bedford South and Ampthill Circuit. Since 2010 it has been part of the North Bedfordshire Circuit. The old building in Chapel Lane was demolished and the site is now beneath private houses.

The Methodist Chapel March 2012
The Methodist Chapel March 2012