Ashwell United Reformed Church (History )

After the 1850 Fire
After the war. 1947. No railings.
2007 Inside church
Pastor Frederic Sillence
Royston Crow
1st Ashwell Company Flag
Ashwell Photo Club 2011
GLB Cadets Flag
Ashwell Photo Club 2011


‘To be a Pilgrim…..’

The story of Free Church progress in Ashwell

By Frederic Sillence

‘There’s no discouragement, shall make him once relent his first intent, to be a pilgrim’ (John Bunyan)

Sowing the Seed

In this month of November, 1991, as we celebrate the anniversary of our Nonconformist church in Ashwell, we remember, and give thanks to God for our present building, where faithful people have served and witnessed for 139 years.

But let us also recall that an established church fellowship has met for worship on this site since 1793, so it is true to say that we now commemorate 198 years – nearly two centuries – of recognised witness.

The real history of free worship in Ashwell goes back still further.  We are proud to reckon that the immortal John Bunyan was, indirectly, our founder.  With his great evangelical energy and zeal, Bunyan preached in villages for some 20 miles around Bedford, his centre.

It is clear that he sowed the seeds of Nonconformity in Ashwell, because when he applied for licences for Meeting Places, as he did when they became legal, when specified, under the 1672 Declaration of Indulgence Act, one concerned Ashwell.

There exists, in Bunyan’s handwriting, an application for a licenced Meeting Place at the house of Thomas Morrise, Ashwell.

However, Bunyan did not set up separate churches in all the communities he visited.  He established little groups, or communions, and it was his practice to affiliate such groups to his own church at Bedford.  So the first Ashwell Nonconformists, though they met regularly for worship in an Ashwell house, were actually members of the Meeting at Bedford.

In the period 1672 to 1693, several Ashwell people were received into fellowship at Bedford, among them – on Aril 7th 1672 – ‘Sister Mauris of Ashwell and Mary Prutton of Edworth’.

There followed a period which such worship obviously continued in the village, but of which nothing is recorded, until the second half of the 18th century.  Then, a Calvinist Methodist preacher, John Berridge of Everton, Beds, preached in a barn belonging to a Mr Christy, at West End, Ashwell – and what a splendid feeling of continuity that name and connection gives us!

The First Church

Berridge did not start a church, as such, but the result of his preaching was that, eventually, a coherent church was formed and a definite building licensed for Nonconformist worship.

The building was on our present site, but nearer, and sideways to the street.  It had, in fact, been a malting.  So, in 1793, the church was formed upon, let us be clear, Independent principles.  The term ‘Independent’ meant just what we would mean today if we simply said ‘Free Church’, though in subsequent years the fellowship continued to be administered, virtually, as a Congregational Church.

The first minister was a Mr Abraham Barfield, who also kept a boys’ school in Royston.  He resigned his ministry in 1803, and left for Enfield where he died.  His widow eventually returned to Royston and became governess to the Beldam family, but her name is still commemorated because, under a bequest in 1833, she founded a group of almshouses in Kneesworth Street, Royston, next to what became the railway station.  The Barfield Trust survives, but the original almshouses have, in 1991, been taken over as private dwellings.

A Landmark

Mr Barfield was followed in the ministry by a Mr Atkin of Eversden.  There is no record of how long he remained, but it is known that after he left the pulpit was supplied by students, lay preachers, and such ordained ministers as could be obtained for Communion services, baptisms, and similar occasions.

But a landmark in the church’s history was set up in 1826, when a Mr Woodward became pastor.  Mr Woodward had been trained for the Anglican Church, but was accepted here and fully ordained into the Congregational ministry in 1827.  His importance lay in the fact that his ministry had a tremendous effect in the village.  Numbers of adherents increased so much that a new building became necessary, to replace the former malting.

By 1830, a new church had been built and opened.  No record exists of its shape or size, but we can appreciate the energy and enthusiasm of a congregation, in a small village, which could achieve so much in so short a time!

Mr Woodward retired in 1831, and the next pastor was a Mr Wildey of Wheathampstead, who continued until 1834.  There was a short interval, then in about 1836, a Mr Richardson took over the pastorate.

Mr Richardson had been a City Missionary in London, and it is on record that his ministry in Ashwell started well, but that something went wrong which ‘greatly injured the cause’.

The Great Fire

Very intriguing, that reference, but whatever Mr Richardson did to injure the cause, it was hindered much more by an event which looms large in Ashwell history – the great fire, which broke out on the night of February 2nd, 1850, and raged until much of the village, including the Congregational church was burnt out.

Public funds were raised to help those who lost property in the conflagration, but due, we are led to believe, to the prejudices of the time, the Congregational Church got none of the money!

True to their name, however, the Independents raised their own funds, and by 1852 our present church building had been built and was opened, the special preacher for the occasion being the Revd Joshua Harrison, of Park Chapel, London.  In the same year, the Revd James Buckley Millsom became the church’s minister.

Mr Millsom remained for more than 40 years until, early in 1893, he had to resign because of ill-health.  His ministry was not only long, but quite outstanding.  He began in a new building, and restored a proper sense of dignity and purpose to the fellowship.  When he retired, the church was a ‘going concern’, spiritually and practically.

One of Mr Millsom’s last achievements was the gathering and collating of the very scanty facts about the church’s history, and were it not for the neat pages he wrote nearly a century ago, I should not have been able to present this present narrative.

An innovation

After Mr Millsom came another worthy minister, the Revd Charles Coleman Edwards who, in my own earlier years with you, was still clearly remembered by some older folk in the congregation.  Mr Edwards resigned in May 1910, after 17 years of service.

One innovation, made during this ministry and the subject of much prayer and debate at the time, is something we now take very much for granted – the use of Individual Communion cups, adopted in 1909.

After hearing a number of ‘possibles’, and after some attendant controversy about stipend, the church invited the Revd William Morgan, of New College, London, to the pastorate.  He appears to have remained from 1911 to about 1916.  For the rest of the Great War years the church seems to have relied upon supplies of lay preachers and students, and for a time a Revd Hooper was in office, but in 1919 there began another notable ministry – that of the Revd Arthur Perkins.

Well-loved Minister

A well-loved personality, still remembered by many of you, Mr Perkins was a man of rich experience and learning.  He led this church for nearly a quarter of a century, until his death in 1943, and his family, too, played an active part in both church and Sunday School.

The next minister was the Revd Herbert Hard, who remained in office from about 1945 to 1949.  Then came Mr J Griffiths, who served as lay pastor for ten years, from 1949 to 1959, as far as I can ascertain.  After he left, there was an interval when various lay preachers and ministers helped out, until September 1961, when I – who had been one of those frequently called up – accepted your kind invitation to be Leader and lay pastor.

Much has happened in the thirty years that have elapsed since that time, and many old friends have passed on, or moved elsewhere.  Naming name can be invidious, but memorials with the church record the valiant service of, for example, the late Frank Christy, and Charles Westrope, whose support as organist and deacon continued until his death in 1948 – the year when his favoured project, the re-building of the organ, was completed.

For length and loyalty of service, however, I must pay tribute to the late Herbert Mole, Life Deacon/Elder, who had, at the time of his death in June 1989, been active in the church’s life for eighty years, and whose service is commemorated by the Cross behind the pulpit, dedicated on December 10th, 1990.

The church’s manse was sold in the mid’1960’s, for economic reasons, the last tenant being the late Harry Frankland, who served the church well in many practical ways before moving to Letchworth.

A New Era

What had been an Independent, or Congregational fellowship had, however, a major decision to make in the early 1970’s – should it opt to join the new United Reformed Church or remain Congregational?

Membership was at a somewhat low ebb at the time, and the vote – by no means unanimous – was in favour of becoming URC.  The first service with the church under that heading was, therefore, held on October 8th, 1972, and thus the church has continued.

So has its Sunday School.  Thirty years ago the young people were led by Molly Waldock, who also ran a strong group of Girls’ Life Brigade members.  The Brigade changed its nature, nationally, and had to close down, in Ashwell – but we still retain its Standards, which stand in a corner of the church!

When Molly and her husband, the late Joe Waldock, left Ashwell in 1971, leadership of the Sunday School was taken over by Mrs Ruth Revell.  Eventually, Ruth and her husband, Stanley Revell, left Ashwell, and leadership was continued to function excellently for many years in the hands of Cheryl Paton.

In the mid-1970’s we were joined by Methodist friends, whose church in Ashwell had to close down.  Sad though this closure was, the effect upon our fellowship of the larger congregation was encouraging, for it brought us support also in musical terms – Ivy Brown and Millie Harradine became, after the death of faithful, meticulous Ken Bryant, our regular organists.  The Harradines moved elsewhere in July 1986, but Ivy, thankfully, continues in that role.

Practical Renewal

We are thankful to God, too, for the practical work of renewal and alteration achieved in the past two years – the new footpaths, the new toilet block, the rebuilt kitchen, the complete set of new windows on the western side of the church – with, we hope, yet more renewal to come.  Spiritually and socially, we have become an interested, forward-looking fellowship.

On September 8th 1991, my own thirtieth anniversary as the church’s lay pastor was marked by a kind of ‘This is your Life’ service which took me quite by surprise, overwhelmed me by its extent.

At the time, I could not find words to express my appreciation of the church’s kindness and generosity.  I can scarcely find adequate words, even now.

That is why I have prepared this little record of the church’s history.  It is my way of saying ‘thank-you’ for such wonderful support.  May I also thank God, with the whole fellowship, that the seeds of faith sown 300 years ago by John Bunyan have grown and have borne good fruit.  Let us go forward together, in the cause of a greater harvest.

For, like Bunyan and all saintly souls, we “Look for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God”.

Fredric Sillence, November 1991

Dedicated to all within the fellowship of Ashwell United Reformed Church

First published 1991





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