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Wesleyan Methodism in Woburn

The old chapel in London End March 2007
The old chapel in London End March 2007

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 chapel was made by the steward, Robert James Lilley, confectioner. There were 50 free seats and 50 other seats and attendance had been 40 in the afternoon and 44 in the evening.

The first registration of the Wesleyan chapel in Woburn took place in 1861 by the circuit minister, Thomas White of Newport Pagnell [Buckinghamshire]. The Bedfordshire Times of 9th October 1860 reported on the foundation stone laying. In 1932 the Wesleyans came together with the Primitive and United Methodists to form the Methodist Church of Great Britain.

The chapel registration was cancelled in 1964 when the chapel seems to have closed. As can be seen from the modern photograph the chapel still exists, just behind the old Fire Station in Leighton Street, though it is now a private house. It was converted to form a dwelling in 1992 and 1993 [PCWoburn18/4/2]. Bedfordshire & Luton Archives & Records Service has no individual chapel records for the Wesleyans in Woburn since the chapel, for most of its life, was a Buckinghamshire circuit, Wolverton and Bletchley and then Milton Keynes. However, until about 1844 it was in the Leighton Buzzard Circuit and circuit records [MB1533-1534 and 1557] show that there were Methodist in Woburn as early as 1816.

Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service has a handwritten manuscript copied from memoirs by Frederick Bodley of Simpson [Buckinghamshire] and published in the Wolverton Wesleyan Methodist Circuit Magazine which ran from about 1908 to 1913 [CRT130Woburn3].

“In this compact, clean little town of Woburn stands a very nice Methodist Chapel. It was erected in 1860 at a cost of £435. the Foundation Stone of the Chapel was laid in October 1860. The Ministers present, besides the Circuit ministers, were the Rev. Samuel Wesley from the Bedford Circuit, who informed the friends then present that he was indeed proud of his name; and the renowned Benjamin Bennett, Local Preacher of Dunstable, rightly named a ‘Son of Thunder’ was also present”.

“The gathering was a very successful one and our friends did very well for, in the early part of the New Year, the new Chapel was opened to the Glory of God by one of the greatest – if not the greatest – and most brilliant of Methodist orators, the Rev. William Morley Punshon, who preached a memorable sermon from the words “Ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched and that burned with fire, nor unto blackness and darkness and tempest” (Hebrews XII 18). At the Evening Service the Rev. J. Wilson, a returned Missionary, was the Preacher”.

“Our friends at Woburn may well be proud that such men, together with the Rev. Richard Roberts, Dr. F. Jobson and John Watson have occupied their pulpit; three of them have occupied the Presidential Chair”.

The first Chapel Schedule, signed by Brother Lilley as steward shows Seat Rents £9-0-6; Anniversary Services £17-10-11: all other income 12s. 11d. Total £27-4-4. Expenditure: - Paid Interest £5, Lighting, Cleaning &c. £4-3-0. All other expenditure £17-16-9. Total £26-19-9. balance 4s. 7d in hand. Present Debt £150. Signed Thomas W. Smith, Superintendent Edward Armstrong, Secretary”.

“In 1873 £25 was paid off; in 1878 another £25; in 1884 the remaining 3100 was extinguished during the Superintendency of the loveable and able preacher the Rev. Joseph Sanger. But, as always is the case, this did not long remain, as our friends found it absolutely necessary to build a Schoolroom. This was done in 1886 when the Chapel Schedule showed a debt of £25. This was reduced in 1890 to £16. (Since then the Chapel has been Renovated, re-floored and se-seated, and a new organ added)”.

“In 1858 I find Woburn for the first time on the [Wolverton] Circuit Plan being No. 4 from the Top. I believe Woburn formerly was part of the Leighton Buzzard Circuit, Methodism at Woburn was, at first ‘Small and feeble’, as our friends obtained two cottages in Cobbs Row, later called New Street; these two cottages were converted into one. This was the place in which the people called Methodists first worshipped and in which they had many good times. Ministers in the Circuit were: Rev. Samuel Brocksop, Superintendent of Newport Pagnell/, with the Rev. John Mack (an able preacher) of Fenny Stratford. The only Local Preacher then on the Plan residing in Woburn was Brother R. J. Lilley. Services were held at 2 o’clock and 6 o’clock. Preachers ‘On Trial’ in 1858 were Paternoster (Woburn Sands), Mead (Cranfield), Turton (Wolverton) and Simms (Milton Keynes). In 1857 there were 8 members of Society in 1858 eleven members with Brother Burgess as Leader and in 1860 seventeen members with Brother R. T. Lilley as Leader”.

William Whiting, presumably the transcriber then added his own memories in 1960: “The Wesleyan Chapel stood there, by itself, from 1860 to 1886, a lovely light, airy, high building it was and still is. I have often thought, sitting there on a Summer Evening, how the westering sun must have shone in through those windows, now darkened by the Schoolroom, needing blinds sometimes to keep strong sunlight off the pulpit &c. In the long Summer days the sun shone, too, through the window high up in the arched roof in the Chapel front”.

“My earliest recollections date from around 1888 when the original seatings &c. were there. The lay-out of the pews was much the same as now – with two aisles. The pulpit, in those days, was 18 inches to two feet higher than at present, it being lowered that much during the Renovation. For years after the Renovation, one could see the marks in the wall behind the pulpit where the decorative back-board or screen had been originally fixed”.

“Lighting was by gas – with the gas pipes laid under the floor (I saw them there when the original seats were taken out). Small pillars, containing gas pipes, were set up as follows: - one near the baize door, by the aisle, against the second pew next to the wall, one near the last pew but one towards the front and one half-way between these two on the other side of the aisle (against one of the middle pews). Three down the other aisle balancing the others and one ornamental curved bracket fixed on the inside porch or screen half-way along and over the back seat; one pillar at each corner of the pulpit and an outside lamp on the front wall to light the pathway from the road. There they were then, nine burners all told, inside the Chapel with plain open burners, sometimes called ‘bat’s wing’ flame. The gas meter was under the back pew on the left-hand side. Heating was by a large, slow combustion “Tortoise” Stove set in the middle of the Chapel, the stove-pipe running straight up through the roof near the ridge, with supporting iron rods fixed to the beams half-way up”.

“The Communion Rail” originally ran right across the Chapel from wall to wall with two openings to reach the pulpit steps. Inside the Communion Rail the floor was raised several inches (one step up, so to speak) and when the Chapel stood ‘by itself’ fuel for the stove was stored in a kind of cellar under the raised portion of the rostrum nearest the School, where a large lid or cover on two strong hinges was raised by an iron ring. All this was covered with cocoanut matting, as were the aisles. Whether there was ever any other heating I have often wondered. Outside the back wall of the Chapel, half-way up one of the piers or buttresses of the walls there used to be (and probably still is) an iron door with small holes in it, suggesting a draught-hole, or flue door, or soot-door, to enable a chimney to be swept from the outside. But whether it was ever used is, to me, wrapped in mystery”.

“The pews on the inner part of the seating were built ‘round the stove’ and were lined with sheet iron (or similar substance) on those sides and ends next to the stove, to take the heat and protect the woodwork. I seem to remember that the pews were on a flooring an inch or two higher than the aisles”.

“There was a panel in each window, near the top, which would open inwards about a foot, hinged at bottom and working on a curved ‘stop’. Long window cords operated these slides. Coloured panes of glass round the outside of these windows: - yellow, red, blue, green, relieved the monotony of all plain glass”.

“Note. When the renovation took place the pulpit and the vestibule (or porch, or screen, or whatever it is called) near the doors, were retained: they are the ‘old originals’ and of course the green baize doors working on self-closing hinges”.

“The Clock in those days was hung on the front wall over the vestibule where the Parson could see it, and very few other people: there were no ‘side seats’ then. The harmonium stood in the middle of the front of the Chapel under the pulpit-desk and the organist faced the pulpit. This harmonium, with its ten or twelve stops, did yeoman service for many years. It was told to us that, as a young child, Mr. W. Steff-Langston – who became organist at Woburn Chapel eventually – and who ‘opened our new organ’ in April 1907, played this harmonium for Sunday Services in the Chapel”.

“The Collection plates were once plain crockeryware plates, then came unbreakable plates covered with green baize and, later on, nice wooden boxes. Several people kept hassocks in their pews”.

“The first organist I remember was Miss Alice Smith, daughter of the Police Inspector at the Police Station. When she married and went away Mrs. Reed took over. Later on Mr. E. B. Watson was organist for years followed by Mr. W. Watson, then Miss Reed, and Miss A. White (all these before 1916)”.

“The officials &c. whom I remember were: Mr. R. J. Lilley (Local Preacher), Mr. J. Reed (Joint Sunday School Superintendent) and Mr. G. Norman (Sunday School Superintendent). Sunday School teachers were Mr. Lathwell, Mr. J. Newbury, Mr. F. Wootton (blacksmith), Mr. G. Berry, Mr. J. Morgan, Miss M. Smith, Miss E. Coburn, Miss M. and Miss. M. Whiting and Mrs. Norman (occasionally). From 1893 onwards Mr. J. Watson, Mr. Bodsworth, Mr. H. Murray (later) and Miss M. Reed”.

“The reverend Ministers came and went and I cannot now recall their names. But the good old ‘Locals’ came year after year and were embedded on the memory. As far back as I can go these were: - J. Swannell (Wolverton), J. Betts (Fenny Stratford), Job Swannell (Stony Stratford), C. Minter (Aspley Guise), J. Simms (Milton Keynes), John Olney (Castlethorpe), C. Barley (Castlethorpe or Hanslope), John Turney (Aspley Guise), Daniels (Wolverton), Guscott (Cranfield), Matthew Mead (Wolverton), R. Sharpe (Wolverton), E. G. Miller, W. Kent, F. Wingrave, J. Elliott, G. Dolton (all Woburn Sands), G. Oldham (Sherington), J. Sharpe (Newport Pagnell).

John Olney of Castlethorpe, a railway man, was one of our favourites. He was bottom on the list of locals on the plan when I first knew him and I lived to see him Top of the Plan. He died a few years ago, aged (I believe) 82. Matthew Mead loved to talk to us about the stars. He would lean back with his hands in his trouser pockets and discourse on the Milky Way and on the constellations. Brother Daniels was bald-headed. He used to shout out ‘Halleluiah’ here and there in his sermons”.

“T. Simms would always kneel down for the prayers. He would throw his head right back and say ‘O Lord &c.” C. Minter (Printing Works [i.e. Powage Press]) was a little bald-headed man who sometimes gave prizes to the children after service. He always liked to ask us questions on the Bible”.

Wolverton supplied many more good ‘Locals’ and so did Woburn Sands. John Buckingham of Old Bradwell was one other acceptable preacher. And there were many others. Some travelled by train to Woburn Sands and walked up. Some drove their own vehicles. A few cycled and quite a number walked. In those days there were several different families in Woburn willing to entertain to dinner and tea – and they worked on a rota system”.

“It is a strange thought, but, in those days we children didn’t give much thought to health, circumstances &c. A Local would be down for a certain Sunday on the Plan and that was that. To us he would come. And very rarely were we let down. All honour to those stalwarts. And what sermons we heard!”

“people I remember who attended regularly in those far-off days are Mr. Brown, Mr. Emery (and family), Mrs. Woodstock, Mr. Newbury and family, Mr. Bodsworth (senior), Mr. Atterbury, Mr. Bodsworth (junior), Mr. and Mrs. A. White and family, Mrs. Matthews, Mrs. Whiting and family, Mrs. Clarke, Mrs. Cook, Mr. J. Reed and family, Mr. and Mrs. G. Norman and crowded congregations at anniversaries and Harvest Thanksgiving.

Woburn Wesleyan Sunday School Built 1886.

Built on the west side of the chapel, with a lean-to roof. Built to the extremity of the land available. Two Rooms, main Room and Class Room (at entrance) with a sliding screen or shutter, moving up and down like a sash window – opened when required. Furniture – plain and serviceable – desk and moveable forms with backs: chairs in classroom. Fireplace in classroom (open coal fire) and fireplace in Schoolroom, set across the front corner on the right and never did draw well – register grate – very smoky. Hats and top-coats &c. hung in the classroom. The cupboard across the corner, where the fireplace once was, used to be in the Chapel, inside the Communion Rail where the Choir now sit. It contained a small Library in my early days – each book carefully covered with brown paper. Two only can I remember (a) “Crumbs Swept Up”, (b) “Fox’s Book of Martyrs”. I can’t remember reading either book. Two pipes led from the ceiling, with cross-pieces and a gas-burner at each end: four burners altogether. Three windows over Reading desk – about eight panes – clear glass. Two pictures hung on west wall for many years: - (a) the Crucifixion, (b) The Ascension (with letter press under)”.

“School assembled 9.30 a.m. Superintendent at desk. Hymn, prayer and hymn, register, lesson and then classes. Forms moved round, each teacher taking his or her group. One class in classroom. Older children often in Chapel. 11 a.m. assemble in Schoolroom. Then one of the teachers (male or female) conducted a short service: hymns, blessing and out by 11.30 a.m. After School 2 p.m. to 2.25 p.m. and then into Chapel for afternoon service”.

“No musical instrument at all in the Schoolroom while I was there. One of the teachers started the tune and we all followed. Some popular hymns were “Stand up for Jesus”, “Work for the Night is Coming”, “Safe in the Arms of Jesus”, “O What can Little Lands Do?” &c. &c. &c. “O That will be Joyful, Joyful, Joyful, Joyful” (Parodies of these hymns were sung, away from Sunday School). A teacher sat at the end of each row of children. Fred Wootton sat at the back with a class of girls. John Newbury sat about three seats down with his class. The ladies sat alternately. The school was full”.

“Mr. G. Norman, superintendent, a cheery man, with a smile, a clear voice and a fringe of whiskers was a good superintendent. Mr. J. Reed was also on hand to help. In prayer time we all turned round and knelt on the floor. School prizes were hymn books, testaments, Bibles, later story books”.

“Sunday School Treats were held at Longslade Farm, among the woods – children conveyed in wagons, wagonettes, carts &c. races for scarves, handkerchiefs, braces, caps &c. Tea in open air – “eat all you can and pocket none” they told us; tug-of-war and all the old round games fun”.

Sunday School Anniversaries (three services); practises in chapel. Chapel crowded (seats in aisles). Something new to wear and the inevitable button hole. Mr. Lathwell used to run an outing each year. I remember going to Mentmore one year and Ascott (Wing) another year. We went in wagonettes, brakes and carts. We paid on a club for those outings (about 1d. a week)”.

“Mr. G. Norman had his own ideas. When a choir was suggested he said it must be called a Singing Class. Entertainments they got up had to be called Entertainments, not concerts. These came along one a year and the funds helped the Sunday School. We sat on the Rostrum and said our pieces, recitations, dialogues &c. to good congregations, who were allowed to applaud. (All the above between 1888 and 1895)”.

“We learned a verse of scripture and a verse of a hymn each week to say to our teachers on Sundays. Naughty children were made to learn a verse by themselves in Chapel before they went home”.

The former Methodist Chapel March 2012
The former Methodist Chapel March 2012