Chilterns Religious Nonconformity

Dissension to Domesticity – Andrew Muir

Early Dissent the Lollollards Martyrs 1550
Religious Dissent
has been a feature of the Chilterns since at least the 14thC when Lollards used the Woods & Commons as places of refuge from persecution. The Lollard Movement was initiated by the “Poor Priest” followers of Wycliffe who, after his death in 1384, spread out from Oxford into the “small uplandish Towns” with the aim of challenging the passive acceptance of Clerical Authority in interpreting the Teachings of the Bible.
Clad in russet gowns, with bare feet, they travelled with staff in hand from Town to Town, preaching in Churches when allowed, or otherwise in the Churchyard, Street or Market Place like Wesley’s Itinerants 4 Centuries later.
Over the Centuries, Religious and Civil Dissent have often been associated.  The late 14thC was notable as a Period of Civil Unrest resulting from Wage Regulation and food prices in the aftermath of the Black Death; many of Wycliffe’s opponents declared that the Civil Unrest had been incited by the “Poor Priests”.

By the 15thC, Lollards had become well established in the Chilterns, enjoying varying degrees of toleration by the Established Church.  But this was not to last – in the early part of the 16thC, under the reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII, the movement suffered increasing persecution.  Amersham was a notable centre of Lollardry in the early 16thC. Lollards from Amersham & Chesham were imprisoned in the Bishop of Lincoln’s Palace at Wooburn (Bucks – The Moated Manor House of Wooburn was once a Palace of the Bishops of Lincoln – demolished 1963) in the early 1500s, and some were even Burnt at the Stake – one of the most notable Martyrs being William Tylsworth:
TyleworthDaughterAtStakeIn 1506 the Amersham Lollards attracted the attention of Bishop Smith of Lincoln who instituted proceedings against them.  Amersham was of importance as it was a favourite place for wayfarers travelling to and from London and news from the Metropolis would reach it quickly. Thomas Grove of London, Butcher, William Glasbroke of Harrow, Christopher Glasbroke of London and William Tylsworth of London, Goldsmith, used to resort & confer together of matters of Religion in the house of Thomas Man of Amersham about this time.  These visitors from London would be glad of a secluded spot in which to confer.  William Tylsworth was Burned at the Stake in Amersham in 1506.
MaryrAtStakeWilliam Tylesworth, James Morden, John Scrivenor, Robert Rave, Thomas Holmes, Thomas Barnard and Joan Norman (all of  Amersham) were burnt at the stake in the 16thC and their crime? Reading the Bible in English.  Tylesworth’s daughter Joan Clark and Scrivenor’s children were forced to light their Pyres.

“Many of the Chiltern Lollards attending the Amersham meetings at that time did so covertly but kept their views very private in their Hometowns & Villages. One of them was John Philip from Hughendon, described as a Physician.  He is said to have been “very ripe in the scriptures” and had a very valuable collection of books which he burned when he found himself in danger of arrest.
The Martyrs’ Memorial in Amersham records the death of William Tylsworth and other Lollard Martyrs.  There are few records of religious dissent in the Chilterns during the latter half of the 16thC under the Reign of Elizabeth I.  However, research has shown that Families with Lollard Ancestry were much less mobile than other Families in the Chilterns and that there were strong Family connections between the Lollards of the 16thC and the Baptists and Quakers of the 17thC:
“The surnames of Families who were both Lollards and post-restoration (17thC) Dissenters in the Chilterns demonstrated that these Families were outstandingly and entirely abnormally stable in the area. This was true even when they were compared with the wealthiest section of Rural Society there, which is usually the most static. The mobility, or rather lack of it, of radical dissenting Families in the Chilterns was ‘different’ from anyone else.  Radical dissent was a family affair.”

Puritans & Persecution – 1550 to 1700
By the time of the death of Elizabeth I, in 1603, England had become a wealthy and confident Nation with a very well established social order, particularly in rural areas such as the Chilterns. At the top of the social order were the Nobility, the Gentry and the established Anglican Church; below them were the Yeomen Farmers and other Landowners, and at the bottom were the Craftsmen, Tenant Farmers & Labourers. Within that social order, there was inevitably Religious & Civil Conflict.  Throughout this period religious dissent was active across the Chilterns. Many of the dissenters were Yeomen Farmers, Labourers & Shepherds; and these same people also engaged in Civil Dissent against the Landowners & Nobility.  At Caddington Common in the Northern Chilterns, the pressure of food demands from a rapidly increasing population encouraged Landowners to attempt to enclose Common Land for Agriculture and this created Civil disturbances which were exacerbated by the relative weakness of the Established Anglican Church.
“In 1635 an attempt was made to enclose Caddington Common and Plough the land for crops, forcing the Commoners off the land which they had grazed for centuries. In retribution Miles Matthews, a Shepherd, drove 160 sheep into John Cushie’s Oats; when reprimanded Matthews threatened that “he would knock Cushie down and pick his teeth with his staff.
“The Parishes of the Northern Chilterns were notorious for their Nonconformity … perhaps the most telling demonstration of the relationship between Religious Dissent & Resistance to Inclosure is the fact that the 6 Quakers sentenced to 14 years’ Transportation in 1665 had been convicted of illegal assembly in a Barn on Caddington Common.”

Another centre of dissent was Wooburn, South of High Wycombe, where Lord Wharton was a prominent dissident.
Philip, Lord Wharton, was one of the leaders of the Puritan Party in the days of Charles II.  His Chapel at Wooburn became a focal point for Worshippers: ‘thither came Puritans from WycombeFarnham and other places; one can see them in the dress of the period, with their steeple-crowned hats and their short coats coming down the hillside or crossing the Green, not in large groups but singly, stealthily picking their way to avoid observation.

“The records of Puritan feeling in the Southern Chilterns during the Reigns of Elizabeth & James I, though comparatively scanty, show that Puritanism met with influential support from the Country Gentry and others.  Early in the Reign of Charles I, a series of letters written by Dr John Andrews, Rector of Beaconsfield, show that South Bucks was, as he expresses it, “foully tainted with Puritanism”.  Thomas Valentine of Chalfont St Giles & Elkanah Gladman of Chesham were suspended from their Livings for not reading the Book of Sports.”

The Execution of Charles I and the creation of the Commonwealth, in 1649, then saw a revival of Puritanism, in particular the repeal of the Act of Uniformity in 1650 which removed many constraints on Nonconformist Worship.  By that time the General Baptist Church of Berkhamsted, Chesham & Tring had become well established.  “The General Baptist Church of Berkhamsted, later known as the Church of Berkhamsted, Chesham & Tring, was founded in or soon after 1640, and by 1654 at the latest it formed part of a well-organised denomination. The General Baptists held that the Way of Salvation is not confined to particular persons, but is open to all, because Christ died for all, and the Holy Spirit strives with all, so that if any perish their destruction is of Universal Redemption.”

“The General Baptist system of Church Order and discipline was much more structured than that of the Particular, or Calvinist Baptists, with whom they had originally very little to do.”  Other Baptist Churches were being formed in the Northern Chilterns; the one at Kensworth, particularly, attracted a congregation from a large surrounding area.
“This cause began in the 1650s and in its early days had groups of members not only in Bedfordshire but also in North Hertfordshire [Kensworth was in Hertfordshire until 1897].  Among Churches springing from the Kensworth one are those at Park Street, Luton and at Dagnall Street, St Albans.”
The fortunes of Puritanism were reversed again with the Restoration of the Monarchy when Charles II returned to England in 1660.  To ensure high Anglican dominance, persecution of dissenters re-started. The 5 Mile Act was introduced in 1665.  It prohibited Clergymen from coming within 5 miles of a fixed point in the Parish (generally the Church) from which they had been banished.  At Tring the members of the Baptist Church had to retreat to the Woods.
“In 1666 the 5 Mile Act came into force. Records state that “the little Church at New Mill had to leave their retired Meeting House and go into the Woods to worship God for fear of their Persecutors”.  Their nighttime place was discovered and Richard Sutton, their Minister was arrested and sent to prison until the death of Charles II.  With the accession of James II, Richard Sutton was freed and New Mill Chapel was reopened.” –

With kind permission of Tring Local History Society

Quakers & Baptists: 1700 to 1750
The Quakers were particularly persecuted during the reign of Charles II but, despite being persecuted, they grew in strength and in 1668 founded the Upperside Monthly Meeting, centred on Thomas Ellwood’s home at Coleshill. This encompassed Quaker Congregations across a large area of the Chilterns and surrounding areas of Buckinghamshire & Hertfordshire and played an important social as well as a Religious role.  “Notice having been given of the loss to have befallen Elizabeth Crutch of Prestwood near Missenden by fire, there was brought in towards her assistance £5 4s 4d, which money was committed to Samuel Troan of Wickham to lay out in household goods for the said Eliza Crutch..…Though Dell did on behalf of Wooburn Meeting make a complaint that the Meeting was overcharged with poor beyond the reasonable ability of the Friends there.”   Charles II died in 1685 and was succeeded by his Catholic leaning brother James II who abdicated in 1688 in favour of the Protestant William of Orange. Following William’s accession, the fortunes of Puritanism were reversed once again when Parliament passed the Toleration Act in 1688.  This allowed Freedom of Worship to Nonconformists who had pledged to the Oaths of Allegiance & Supremacy – they were allowed their own places of Worship and their own Teachers.  It is of note that these early 17thC developments have set the scene for the evolution of nonconformist worship in the Chilterns for several 100 years: Quakers centred on Coleshill, Baptists active in the Tring/Berkhamsted/Chesham area, Independents & Congregationalists in the Southern Chilterns, and a mixture of Quakers & Baptists on the Hertfordshire/Bedfordshire border.

The 1st half of the 18thC was a relatively quiet & peaceful time in Rural areas of England. The zeal & radicalism of 17thC Nonconformists diminished under the Reign of the Protestant House of Hanover and many of the Quakers, BaptistsCongregationalists, particularly in rural areas, tended to become self-contained and closely knit groups who often indulged in internal disputes and were often intolerant of, and made little impact on, the Community at large.  In particular, they seemed to have had little impact on the general drunkenness & disorder in the remote Settlements on the Commons.  By contrast, the nonconformists in the Chiltern Towns were more actively building Chapels, expanding into the neighbouring rural areas and attempting to establish basic Schools in some Settlements. Both the Quakers & the Baptists maintained strict rules on their membership during the 18thC, particularly an insistence that both parties to a marriage should be members of their respective sects – which deterred many of the younger members and was a factor influencing a decline in membership.

David Bovingdon & Elizabeth Crutch came again for the Answer of the Meeting to their proposition. And the Meeting (upon Inquiry) understanding yt ye man had been but very lately convinced, & come but little among Friends, & judging it both most advantageous for him to seek first ye kingdom of God, & some growth and establishment in ye way it leads thereto; & also more orderly & becoming ye gravity of Truth, advised them to forbear for a while, & wait to feel ye power of God bringing them more into, & establishing them in Truth.”
“The same day our Brother John Benham made his appearance before the Church desiring to be received into fellowship again who had been withdrawn from by the Church for disordering himself by drinking too much and for marrying with an unbaptised person contrary to his Covenant in his Baptism – .Not being sensible of his sin he still standeth withdrawn from by the Church and is again admonished to repent.”

The problems of alcohol were clearly a challenge. Many nonconformist communities maintained a strict adherence to temperance but others may not have been so diligent – as illustrated by life in Foxton, a Hertfordshire village to the East of the Chilterns.
“There seems to have been a period when in some Villages, of which Foxton is one, there were neither Ale Sellers or Pubs – roughly between 1660 & 1730. Has this gap anything to do with Puritanism & Nonconformity?  Not in the least. Several prominent citizens had part of their premises designated as ‘Drinkhouse‘, notably Nathaniel Singleton – and Singleton was the most rabid Dissenter of them all. They all had their tubs and barrels and coppers and vats and skimmers.  Including the Vicar.  This was the heyday of ‘home-brewed‘ Ale.”
In some Communities, the Nonconformists did attempt to address Social problems by establishing basic Schools, but often these attempts were short-lived as demonstrated by the Episcopal returns for Studham between 1709 & 1720.
1709: “A Schole [sic], as above.” This cryptic reference seems to relate to an earlier entry concerning Families in the Parish in which it was stated that there were 45 and another 24 in “Merket Street” [Markyate Street]. The entry goes on to state that there were 2 monthly meetings of “Anabaptists” [probably Baptists], one at Markyate Street and one “within ½-a-mile of the Church”. Perhaps one, or both, of these meetings ran a School.”
1717: “One Charity [School]. No fixtures [sic] and certain number of Children but as the poor people can spare them from their necessary service at home. The Teacher John Howard.”
1720: “There is no such School.”

In contrast to the remote rural areas, nonconformists maintained a more visible and active presence in the main towns of the Chilterns with Baptist chapels built in Amersham (1677), Princes Risborough (1708) and High Wycombe (1709), and Congregational Chapels built in High Wycombe (1714) and Chesham (1724). Joseph Winch’s house in Amersham was enlarged in 1689 to accommodate a Quaker Meeting House.  The Baptists in Chesham & Berkhamsted were also active during this period, establishing Preaching Stations in nearby Chiltern Settlements such as Frithsden & Chartridge and extending their influence to settlements as far away as Naphill.  “Adam Taylor writing in 1818 suggested that the Berkhamsted Baptist Church was formed during the Protectorate and that by 1700 was in a ‘flourishing state‘ numbering 100 members. During the 17thC, followers, always prone to prosecution and payment of fines, met at member’s homes or Farm outbuildings in the outlying Villages & Hamlets of Berkhamsted.  Francis Duncombe, the Vicar of Ivinghoe reporting in 1669, noted that the Anabaptist meetings at George Catherall’s house in St Margarets were ‘great & grand’ and that ‘one Neel of Freezden‘ is their Teacher.”

“In that same year, Nehemiah Neale is listed as being a ‘Preacher and Teacher‘ at the house of Richard Stringer, ‘a joyner of Redbourne‘.”
“In 1714, the General Baptist Church of Berkhamsted, Chesham & Tring benefited from a considerable Gift made by Joanna Neale of Frithsden, Widow of Nehemiah.  A Farm known as The Hill in Chesham and another in Frithsden were both conveyed to the Church, the income generated from their Rental to remunerate at least 2, but no more than 3 Elders.”


The Arrival of John Wesley – 1739 to 1800
John Wesley
was a frequent traveller between London & Bristol, often spending the night en route in Oxford – a journey which took him through High Wycombe.  His 1st recorded visit to Wycombe was on Friday 2nd March 1739; thereafter he Preached frequently in the Town, often in the open air or in a room in Easton Street.
Extracts from John Wesley’s Diary :
“25th September 1746: I came to Wycombe. It being the day on which the Mayor was chosen, abundance of rabble, full of strong drink, came to the preaching on purpose to disturb, but they soon fell out among themselves, so that I finished my Sermon in tolerable quiet.”
“27th October 1766: I rode to Wycombe. The room was much crowded, and yet could not contain the Congregation. In the morning too they flocked together in such a manner
as had not been seen here before.”
“15th October 1787: We went on to High Wycombe.  The work of God is so considerably increased here that although 3 Galleries are added to the Preaching House it would scarce contain the People. Even at 5 in the morning it was thoroughly filled. Never before was there so fair a prospect of doing good at this place.”

Wesley’s arrival in Wycombe coincided with a period of major Industrial growth in the Town: Paper Mills were being constructed around Wycombe Marsh and the Chair-making Industry was in its formative years. These Industries attracted a new Artisan Class who would have been receptive to Wesley’s Philosophy & Preaching.  The Methodist Movement quickly expanded both within Wycombe and outwards to the surrounding Commons which were experiencing housing pressures from the fast-growing Population of the Town. Wesleyan Churches were subsequently built to accommodate the growing Congregations – the 1st one in Wycombe at St Mary Street, in 1779, and the 1st one on the surrounding commons at Penn in 1808.
“Within living memory Tyler’s Green was an open Common without any house or building upon it, but small encroachments were from time to time made upon the Waste at the Skirt of the Great Wood (St John’s Wood which used to come down as far as Wheeler Avenue) on which mud houses were afterwards built which have gradually given place to buildings of a more substantial character, until within 40 or 50 years a Population has grown up upon the Waste of several 100 souls with houses built closely together wherever a spot of ground could be safely enclosed … a Population now of nearly 600 is all comprised within the space of a ¼-mile.  It will be difficult to point to any other instance where a Population has been collected so rapidly by illegal means and with so little resistance on the part of the Owners of the soil’ …loud complaints from the neighbourhood & some warning notices… but empty threats…so in the estimation of the Inhabitants the encroachments have acquired a Security little short of the most legal tenure.”
“There has been rapid growth before but at an increasing pace in the last few years…in the last 2 years nearly 20 new Cottages have been erected on the Common…at the present moment there are preparations for encroachments not of feet or yards but of roods & poles…in one instance approximately an acre.”
“The only means of stopping it is by an Enclosure of the Common which is now being promoted in earnest by adjoining Proprietors & it is understood that the Deans & Canons cordially support.  It is clear that under no Enclosure can existing buildings be removed. The Population is necessarily of a low & degraded class, for the most part extremely ignorant and needing most careful & judicious treatment.”
“In 1805 – just 14 years after John Wesley’s death – the Wingrove family along with Richard Hunt, Richard Hanningham & John Brown purchased a piece of land in Penn from Baroness Howe. A Church was built on the other side of the road to Penn Church and opened for Worship in 1808. One of the 1st Trustees in 1812 was John Birkenhead ‘a Minister of the Persuasion of Rev John Wesley‘.”
The Wycombe Methodists were also notable for founding the 1st Sunday School in England.  Hannah Ball was born in Stokenchurch in 1733 and moved to Wycombe in 1759 as Housekeeper to her brother.  She first met Wesley in January 1765 and quickly became a regular correspondent with him.  By 1769 she had established a regular Sunday School where between 30 & 40 children met her “to read the scripture, learn the catechism and repeat the collect for the day.”
Extract from Hannah Ball’s Diary
“11th November 1779. The Rev John Wesley opened our new Chapel, by preaching on ‘We preach Christ crucified; unto the Jews a stumbling block, etc’.  On this occasion, we had a crowded & genteel audience. My heart’s desire and prayer to God is, that this neat & convenient house, erected to Jehovah’s glory, may be an everlasting blessing to the Town of Wycombe.”

Depravity & Riot: 1800 to 1850
Although the major Towns of the Chilterns were becoming established as Industrial & Commercial centres by the beginning of the 19thC, many of the Commons were still regarded as wild & ‘depraved’ places.  The pace of the Industrial Revolution, together with the Inclosure of Fields & Common Land, was radically changing traditional Agriculture and depressing Agricultural wages – creating widespread poverty within the Communities.  The remedy to Poverty, as always, was to resort to drinking – and drink sometimes led to rioting, the most notable events being the “Swing Riots” – probably named after a “Captain Swing” – of 1830 which broke out across Southern England when Labourers attacked Farm Machinery, Factories & Mills.  The most notable Riots in the Chilterns were attacks on Paper Mills in the Wye Valley from High Wycombe down to Wooburn.  At the subsequent Trials at Aylesbury Assizes, 46 Rioters were sentenced to death and 34 were given prison sentences; the death penalties were later commuted to Imprisonment or Transportation.
In January 1831, a Special Commission opened in Aylesbury to investigate the causes of the “Swing Riots“.  Evidence presented to the Commission suggested a number of factors including the lack of Religious Leadership in the Communities and excessive drinking.  “Dr John Lee of Hartwell House believed that the lack of a Religious Leadership at Stone (in the Vale of Aylesbury) coupled with other matters had been responsible: ‘Stone has been deprived of both Churchwardens … no one equal to check those disposed to be disorderly and had the Curate Resided … the Parish might have been kept in good order.”
“The Vicar of Hughenden, Frederick Vincent, thought the rioters had been influenced by
excitement of a regular battle and by liquor and previous success.”  Many Community Leaders, and particularly Churchmen & Farmers, attempted a variety of measures to restore order, some more successful than others. Some Landowners invited local Ministers to preach “Hell and Damnation” to their Communities. An early example was the visit, in 1788, of the Reverend Thomas English – the Congregational Minister from Cores End – to Flackwell Heath at the invitation of a local Landowner, Mr Blackwell.
“At Mr Blackwell’s invitation the Rev Thomas English from Cores End came to address the people of Flackwell Heath on 6th July 1788 when the Community was celebrating the Climax of the Cherry picking season.
His tone was severe: “We meet you today on the spot of your annual pleasures to tell you that your conduct is sinful”. His dear friend, Mr Blackwell, could not bear to see the Village “at this season devoted to vanity, riot, profaneness and Sabbath breaking”.  Whether the Sermon preached by the Rev English was heeded, or whether it fell on stony ground, is unknown.”
The ‘Hell and Damnation‘ theme was also popular with the Primitive Methodists, and particularly their 1st Minister in the Chilterns, the Rev James Pole, who preached regularly on Downley Common in 1835.
“Tuesday 14th April:  At Dounly (Downley).  At night the Wheelwright’s Shop was crammed, and many could not get in.  Several wept, and some found peace with God.”
“Monday 20th April: It being Easter Monday we held a meeting on Dounly Common. The scene was both delightful and affecting, some praising God for deliverance and praying him to keep them in future – others crying for mercy.”
“Tuesday 28th April:  At Dounly in the open-air.  A large Congregation, a mighty influence prevailed and a powerful conversion took place.”
While some denominations, and particularly the Primitive Methodists, were aiming to bring order to ‘Depravity‘ by preaching ‘Hell and Damnation‘, others saw Education & Social activities as a means of bringing order to the Commons’ settlements.  Examples are the activities of the Anglican Canon Ridley at Hambleden, the Wesleyan Methodists at Flackwell Heath and the Evangelical Minister Joseph Walker at Rotherfield Peppard.
“Canon W H Ridley was Rector of Hambleden from 1840 to 1882.  His methods of Parochial work were to help his Parishioners in all that would conduce to their Welfare whether in Body or Soul.”
“If he saw any of the circumstances of their lives to be conducive to evil he did his best to counteract or change them.”
“Thus he instituted Hambleden Fair as a means of withdrawing them from the unwholesome attractions of Henley Fair.  With a like attention, he started the Flower Show.  The Reading Room in the Infant School on winter evenings was another means for enabling the young men to enjoy wholesome recreation.  In order to encourage thrift he took pains to promote the South Bucks Friendly Society, then in its infancy.”
“The origin of Flackwell Heath Infants’ School was intimately connected with the arrival
of Methodism in the Village.  A Villager by the name of John Wright had a room built for
Wesleyans to use on his Land in 1832 and on weekdays the room doubled up as a School
with fees of tuppence a week.”  The School spent its formative years quietly instructing Village children until it became the pre-eminent Village School, opening for business in April 1876 under the new title of Flackwell Heath Infant School.”
“In 1797 or 1798 Mr Joseph Walker, who is said to have been a Schoolmaster, settled in the Village. He found Peppard, he says, in a “wild, dark & benighted condition” and in 1798 he started a Sunday School, paying the poor neglected children who were running about the Common on Sundays a ½d a week for attending.”
“Mr Walker soon found that his Sunday Scholars were eagerly looking forward to a revel on Whit Mondaywhich brought together the very Scum of the surrounding Country to partake in, and be Witnesses of Cudgelling, Foot and Ass racing, and all the various abominations usual on these occasions; the day ending in intoxication, fighting and other evils too shameful to mention”.  By the promise of a Dinner he induced a large number of the young people to spend the day at the Chapel.”
In some settlements, the Anglican & Nonconformist Churches worked together in attempting to tame the ‘depravity’ of the residents, but in others, they were in conflict; the success rate also varied from one settlement to the next. An overview of the state of Religious activity in Hertfordshire is provided by a survey conducted by the Reverend William Upton in 1847:
Lilley: A lovely Village but in a Religiously bad state. The Church is a dilapidated miserable place. The Wesleyans are doing what good is done.”
Little Gaddesden: There appear to be no dissenting efforts in this Parish… Lady Bridgewater is supreme here…. There is a Wesleyan Chapel at Hudnall with easy reach of the place.  Some attend from here.  It is opposed by Ashridge House.”
Pirton: The Vicar is popular and useful. The Cottage Preaching has been less attended through his influence.”
Kensworth: The people are excessively depraved and quite neglected. On Sunday evenings in fine weather, this place is a scene of revelry.”

The 1851 Ecclesiastical Census
On Sunday 30th March 1851, the 1st & only National Census of Accommodation & Attendance at Places of Worship was conducted.  Special forms were distributed to the Clergy or Officials of all Churches & Chapels of all denominations for recording the number of “sittings” (seats) and Attendance at all Services on Census Day, together with the average attendance over the year.  Inevitably there were errors and inconsistencies in the returns – widespread ill health and adverse weather were sometimes blamed for low attendances – but the census does provide an extremely good overview of religious activity in the mid-19thC.  The Census was conducted on a County by County basis, and it is necessary to examine the returns for 4 separate Counties – Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire & Bedfordshire – to build up a comprehensive picture of religious activity in the Chilterns.  One interesting outcome is the variation in strength (and thus influence) of different denominations across the Chilterns.
A breakdown by denomination of Attendances at High Wycombe, Chesham and Henley-on-Thames on Census Day.
Baptist 22%, Anglican 34%, Wesleyan 25%, Primitive Methodist 11%, Congregational 8%.
Baptist 70%, Anglican 24%, Congregational 6%,
Baptist 1%, Anglican 70%, Wesleyan 4%, Congregational 25%
It can be seen that the Methodists had made major inroads in High Wycombe, the Baptists dominated in Chesham and the Anglicans dominated in Henley.  The Quakers had shrunk to Congregations of 10 or less, and the Roman Catholics were limited to strongholds such as Stonor Park.  These patterns were reflected in the Rural areas around the major Towns.  The snapshot provided by the 1851 Census reflects the History of Nonconformity in the Chilterns over the preceding 200-yrs: the Baptists had maintained a strong presence around Chesham, Berkhamsted & Tring ever since the General Baptist Church was established there in the mid-1600s, Wesley’s Methodist influence was spreading out from High Wycombe.  The Independents and Congregationalists offered alternative Nonconformist Worship in Oxfordshire.  The Quakers had been reduced to a small minority.  The snapshot also reflects Nonconformity in the Chilterns today – many of the active Chapels around Chesham are Baptist, whereas those around High Wycombe and around Dunstable tend to be Methodist.

Power to the People: 1850 to 1900
1851 was not only the year of the Ecclesiastical Census but it was also the year of the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, when Victorian Power & Confidence were arguably at their Peak.  At the same time, the Nonconformists were becoming increasingly confident, challenging the centuries-old dominance of the Anglican Church.
“Nonconformity became much more Political in the 1880s; before 1870 the mixture of Religion with Politics had meant the Evil of an Established Church. By the later 19thC the Nonconformists had gained sufficiently in confidence and numbers to think of themselves as an alternative Establishment, with the Political Power to shape National Policies.”
“The initial response of the Institutional Churches to intensifying denominational rivalries, the decline in external recruitment and the ‘problem’ of the un-Churched masses was to broaden the front of their appeal by diversifying their product in an expanding consumer market.  In other words, they expanded the provision of leisure time activities with more Services, more Weekday Meetings, more Clubs, Societies & Activities.”
It was also a time when many Chiltern Commons were being enclosed, creating major shifts in the pattern of the Landscape & Land Ownership and accelerating the migration of displaced small Farmers from Rural to Urban areas. However, a beneficial outcome of the enclosure for some Chiltern Settlements was the allocation of pieces of land for new Chapels & Schools.

“We now turn to the complex issue of changes in the pattern of Land Ownership following an enclosure. After an enclosure, inevitably there were winners & losers.  The former group included the principal Landowning Families and the Church but the identity of the losers is more difficult to analyse.  The central question is: following an enclosure did land tend to pass out of the hands of the small Proprietors and become absorbed into the large Estates?  If this was the case, this represented a considerable Socio-economic Shift as the displaced small Farmers would have been forced to give up their self-employed status and join the waged labour force working on the larger Farms or, worse still, in the Mines or burgeoning Industrial Centres.”
“Interest in the fortunes of small operators has continued in a number of studies produced in the 1970s & 1980s. Working in Buckinghamshire, M E Turner claimed that the turnover of small Landowners every 2 or 3 years was as much as 50-60%. Of the new Owners, it seems that many were Cottager class and so, although much of what Marx and the Hammonds had claimed now appeared to be true in that Cottagers were giving up their Land, equally it seemed that many others from the lower classes benefited from the new arrangements in the same way that the Landowning Aristocracy did.”
Different Settlements across the Chilterns, were affected by these changes in different ways – the outcome often being dependent on factors such as the personality of the Religious Incumbents, the Occupations of the Inhabitants and the Lord of the Manor’s Attitude.  An example is the different way in which 2 Commons’ Settlements originally within the same Parish evolved, for example Naphill & Prestwood, on opposite sides of the Hughenden Valley.

Enclosure of that part of Naphill Common, lying in Hughenden Parish, started soon after Benjamin Disraeli bought the Hughenden Estate in 1847. The process took 9-yrs before the Act of Parliament Authorising the Enclosure was passed in 1856.  While the enclosure process was progressing, a Primitive Methodist Chapel had been built in the Settlement, as a result of preaching on the Common over the previous 20 years by the Primitive Methodist Ministers James Pole & John Guy.
“We can speculate why Naphill was such fertile ground for Dissenters:

  • The Chilterns have had a reputation for dissent from Authority & Orthodoxy,
    beginning with the Lollards.
  • Hughenden was a sparsely populated Parish of generally poor people farming poor soil. They may not have been entirely happy with the Church of England – sometimes known as the Tory Party at Prayer – and having Disraeli, a Tory Prime Minister, as Lord of the Manor.
  • It was a long walk to the Church on a rough track.
  • Charismatic Methodist Preachers visited: James Pole in 1835 and John Guy for
    several years around that time.
  • There were some local activists.
  • The nonconformist Churches appear to have given a role and voice to groups
    excluded by the Church of England. Women made important contributions and
    even working men could become Lay Preachers.”

Extracts from James Pole’s & John Guy’s Journals.
James Pole, 19th April 1835: In the afternoon at Napple Common. Hundreds came to hear and a mighty Unction attended the Word.”
John Guy, 23rd May 1841: At Naphill. The ungodly disturbed the Class, but the Lord was with the people and 3 joined. There has been a great improvement in the morals of the people in the neighbourhood. Other Societies have shared the fruits of our labours. But we have raised a new Society of 20 at Naphill.”

Prestwood Parish Church

Common lay on the opposite side of the Hughenden Valley.  A Baptist  Community had worshipped for many years and had built a Chapel there in 1823. Later, in 1849, a new Anglican Church was built at a cost of £1350, funded by the new Minister Thomas Evetts and, in 1863, a small Wesleyan Methodist Chapel was built. A few years later, in 1871, a Primitive Methodist Chapel was opened nearby at Bryants Bottom.

Bryants Bottom Chapel

The new Anglican Church started to have a major impact on everyday life in this small Community.

“Although it may be that Church Membership was showing signs of decline by 1890, the
role Religion played in Prestwood was profound.  The new Ecclesiastical Parish with its centrepiece, a fine new Parish Church, established Prestwood as a Village in its own Right.  The adjoining National School, the only Day School in the Village, provided the opportunity of education for the children of the community, though it was a difficult task for the Church to keep the School full. But by 1890 they were winning this battle. The Anglican Church also provided Cultural & Sporting events and they were popular.”

“New Dissent in the Village responded to this and provided cultural activities of their own, not always exclusive to their own members.  The Strict Baptists had a long-established base of members expanded by groups of extended Families from the Farming Community.  The Methodists, smaller in comparison, drew its membership mostly from the Artisan Class.  Though the Church of England was left to serve the Village poor, it still held the loyalty of a cross-section of individuals across the socioeconomic groups. And it maintained a dominant and steadfast position throughout the period.  As in all localities, some individuals did wish to exist in a Community within a Community, but all denominations contributed in their way to give this once group of scattered settlements a strong sense of identity.”

The Nonconformists were not only challenging the Anglican Church at this time; there were also conflicts between different Nonconformist Sects.

John Wesley visited Chesham in 1769 & 1775, noting that “all that heard seemed affected for the present”.  More than a Century passed and in 1895 Rev Richard Harper, Superintendent of the High Wycombe Methodist Circuit wrote that “he had discovered a Township of 8,000 people only 25 miles from London with no provision for Methodism”.   In 1897, a Schoolroom was built in Broad Street, but there were too many Churches in Chesham already, including 4 Baptist Churches.  The “Chesham problem” became a regular feature of the Synod Agenda and most agreed “there is no room for Methodism in Chesham”.  It was not until 1932, when Chesham’s Population had grown significantly, that a Methodist Church became fully established.”

While the Anglicans, nonconformists and other religious groups were consolidating their roles in Local Communities during the 2nd half of the 19thC, the Government was passing Acts which effectively transferred powers from Religious groups to State institutions.  Two of the most important Acts were the Elementary Education Act of 1870 which introduced compulsory education for all children aged between 513, and the Local Government Act of 1894 which introduced elected Councils at Parish Level.  The changes introduced by these Acts often added to the existing tensions between the Established Anglican Church and the Nonconformist dissenters.
“During the process of the Enclosure of Stokenchurch in 1858, Land was allotted to be held in Trust for a Site for a School & Cemetery.  The process was to be administered by the Incumbent, i.e. the Vicar & the Churchwardens, known as the Vestry.  At this time there were no Parish Councils and Village affairs were overseen by the Vestry.  However, the School was not built for another 16-yrs.  The Vicar & Churchwardens appear to have been reluctant to proceed with this as the School Board which was finally formed consisted of 2 Methodists, a Congregationalist & a Churchman, under the Chairmanship of Squire Brown.”
“A recording made by a local resident George Britnall, who died in 1984 aged 106, remembers his father telling him that, after a lot of argument with the Vicar, terms were drawn up, backed by a Legal Document whereby the Board could take possession of the Land.”
“A piece of Land was to be set aside for Burial Ground, again administered by the Vicar & Churchwardens. There seems to have been many disputes between the Church & the Dissenters over this issue with Locked Gates & Skirmishes with the Police.  George Britnall related how a group of men cut the Padlock to the Cemetery Site.  After the Cemetery was in use, half an acre was set aside for nonconformist Burials.”

Parish Councils were set up in 1894 to replace the old system of the Vestry.”
“A comparison of the Vestry & Parish Council members indicates that there was a marked swing away from the large Farmers and the Establishment towards Chairmakers and less wealthy Tradesmen. Meetings were held in the evening whereas the Vestry had held them during the Day, thus reducing the possibility of working men to attend.  Only one previous member of the Vestry was elected, Mr Painter, the Miller.”

Decline & Regeneration: 1900…
Over the last 500-yrs, the nonconformist movement has survived because it has continually adapted to changing circumstances & needs.
“Generally speaking, the Protestant Churches began to experience absolute decline shortly before WW1.  A possible effect of the War was to reverse this decline in the 1920s and to bring the Churches to their highest-ever level of membership. Then began an accelerating decline to 1947, followed by a recovery to the mid-1950s and then a prolonged period of further decline in the 1960s which began to level off in the later 1970s.”
“Institutional decline of historic Churches, though, should not be taken to imply wholesale Religious decline.  The total number of Attenders at places of Christian Worship in England was still 3.8M in 2001.  Moreover other varieties of Religious experience – not all of them Christian – were springing up.”
The pattern described by Edward Royle, in the above extract from his book “Modern Britain”, can be seen in the story of Christian Worship in many Communities in the Chilterns, particularly in the aftermath of WW2.  One example is the relative fortunes of Beacons Bottom Primitive Methodist Chapel and the Jubilee Road Chapel, both near Stokenchurch.

Beacons Bottom chapel

Beacons Bottom was a flourishing Church in the 1930s, famous for its pantomimes.  The Church did a great
work among young people but many of the Village’s
young men were killed at Calais in  WW2 and the Church never seemed to recover.  In its last days there were sometimes only 3 people in the Congregation and 2 of them would be sharing the platform with the Preacher, one playing the Organ and the other pumping it!  It closed in 1970, was sold in 1972 for £3750, then converted into a house and resold in 1975 for £27,950.”
During WW2, Frank Stables had a vision of a ‘hut on wheels’ and a heartfelt ambition to go and Preach the Gospel of Jesus to all who would listen.
“In June 1950 he went to the Jubilee Road, stood on the Common and held his 1st open-air Sunday School.  In September of that year his uncle Henry Bird gave him a Hut which was standing in his back Garden. This allowed him to hold his Sunday School in the dry.”
“The Sunday School, held twice each Sunday, grew.  By 1978, when God took Frank Stables to be with him, an Extension had been built and an Evening Service had also been in action.  As the Village grew, children were fetched from all over the area to hear about Jesus and to sing God’s praises.”

One solution to the problem of declining Congregations was to merge 2 Churches or Chapels together; an alternative solution to cutting costs was to hold 2 separate Services in the same building at different times.  An example of this was the merger, in 1932, of the Wesleyan Methodist and Primitive Methodist Churches at Winchmore Hill.

Winchmore Hill Methodist Chapel

“The Wesleyan Church in Winchmore Hill (near Amersham) was opened in 1861, the
same year in which the Primitive Methodists also built a Church in the Village.”
“In 1932, following the merging of the Wesleyan and Primitive Methodists, Services were held on alternate Sundays in the 2 Churches, but this was not a success, so the United Congregation decided to meet at the former Primitive Methodist Church.”
“The Wesleyan Church was sold to the Church of England in 1937 and became the St Andrew’s Mission Church.  However, the Church was never well supported and in 1999 it was sold and rebuilt as a Private house.”
The Methodist Church in Winchmore Hill is still active today.

An altogether more unusual example was the merging of the Primitive Methodist Chapel at Slip End with the Baptist Church at Pepperstock.
The Primitive Methodist Chapel in Slip End (near Luton) was built in 1868, and on the opening day of 17th August a tea was held at Pepperstock Baptist Church.”
“Membership reached its peak in 1886 with 66 members. Nearly 200 people would attend Sunday Services out of a Village population of about 600.  From the late 1880s things were never quite so good again.  Trade in Luton was very bad.  With the severe depression there were over 400 houses empty in the Borough, and for the 1st time there was a decrease in membership.”
“By 1930 membership had dwindled to 10, though attendances at Church were always larger than the membership alone.  The building needed constant repairs adding to the economic burden on the membership.  This prompted talk of closure until the 1950s when youth work temporarily revived fortunes.”
“In the early 1970s the Church obviously still had very good relations with the Pepperstock Baptists, who had been meeting in the Settlement since 1817.  It was proposed to sell the Slip End Methodist Chapel and enter into an Agreement to share Pepperstock Baptist Chapel.  The decision was duly taken by the Methodists to sell and the Chapel was sold in 1973, Slip End/Pepperstock becoming only the 3rd instance of Baptists & Methodists sharing a building in England.”
Slip End Chapel is now a Bridal Shop, and Pepperstock Chapel is now a residential Dwelling.

Many of the Churches & Chapels built during the 19thC are no longer active places of Worship today; many of them are Private dwelling houses, some are Commercial Premises and others have fallen into disrepair and no longer exist. However, a significant number continue to be active and play an important part in Community life today.  This is particularly the case in settlements where the majority of their local Common has been enclosed and subsequently built over, leading to significant population increases. One such settlement is Holmer Green between Amersham & High Wycombe.
“In Medieval times Holmer Heath extended over 600 acres of Woodland and 7 different Parishes had Common rights.”
“All was to change when the Heath was enclosed in 1855, creating patches of geometric Field Boundaries in the midst of the older enclosures. The enclosure of the Heath, combined with the soil quality and the proximity of the new Railway Lines, created ideal conditions for commercial Cherry Orchards, but the industry was short lived as competition from cheaper sources started to bite. The redundant Cherry Orchards then provided an ideal opportunity for widespread house building, creating the Village of Holmer Green, whose population today in in excess of 4,000.”

Holmer Green Baptist chapel

The story of Holmer Green provides a good summary of the evolution of Religion on the
Chiltern Commons over more than 5 Centuries.  In 1850, Holmer Green was incorporated into the newly formed Ecclesiastical Parish of Penn Street and an Anglican Church, Christ Church, was built in 1894.  However, Baptists are recorded as worshipping on Holmer Heath as far back as 1798 and it is very likely that their predecessors, the Lollards, were active on the Heath before that.  Wesleyan Methodists started to meet in 1822.  Both Communities subsequently built Chapels – the Wesleyan Methodists in 1841 and the Baptists in 1869.  In recent years, the Congregations of both Churches have outgrown the original Buildings.  A new Baptist Church was built in 1999 and the Methodist Church was refurbished in 2010.

So what of the future? While it is, perhaps, unclear where the traditionally accepted forms of the Nonconformist movement will go in the 21stC, or what pressures it will face, there is little doubt that the movement will still play an important role in everyday life.   To paraphrase what Edward Royle wrote in Modern Britain “the response of the Institutional (including the ‘Established’ Nonconformist) Churches to increasing secularism was to broaden their appeal by diversifying their product in an expanding consumer market.”  In other words, they expanded the provision of Leisure time activities with more Services, more Weekday meetings, more Clubs and more Church centred activities (not dissimilar to the Holmer Green approach).

How the ‘established’ Nonconformist Faiths will further evolve to face the changing demands of Society … only time will tell.

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