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Towcester Baptist Church

 

18th Century        19th Century        William Fidler      20th Century
Baptist Church Register transcript            Present church

 

18th Century

The official starting date for the Baptist church in Towcester is 1784. There were however, Baptists in Towcester before this, who attended the chapel at Weston-by-Weedon, but also met in their own homes or in the small chapel they shared with the small group of Independents at other times.

 

The original chapel was in two houses, one of them used as a place of worship, and was the property of Joyce Carvell in 1720. In 1723 it was fitted up as a place of worship. In 1764 the Baptists and the Independents together re-built the chapel on the same piece of land, it being then 22 feet long, 20 feet 8 inches wide with galleries. The land is now occupied by a block of flats, Islington Court.

 

John Wesley visited the town several times during his travels. He obviously had no great opinion of the spirituality of the town on his first visit on 1760. He wrote, “One person we found here, whose soul God keeps alive, though he has scarce any in the town to converse with.” He visited several times, the last time being in 1789.

 

By the late 18th century, the congregation, of mixed denominations, would listen to a sermon from the Baptist minister from Weston-by-Weedon, William Stanger, on two Sundays of the month, and from the minister of the Independent chapel at Potterspury, John Heywood, on the other two. The Baptists were members of the church at Weston, and the Independents of the church at Potterspury.

 

This state of affairs may have continued for some time, except that William Stanger, by then no longer a young man, fell off his horse. As he could then no longer make the trip to Towcester to take their services, the church began to decline – “fell into a gloomy aspect”, as the earliest Church Book puts it. John Heywood had died in 1778, and was not succeeded until 1782, by John Goode.

 

Then a Baptist minister called Martin Ready arrived in Towcester. Mr Goode was reluctant to relinquish preaching on the 3rd Sabbath to Martin Ready, so "unpleasant circumstances occurred", which resulted in the separation of the Baptists and the Independents. For some months feelings must have run high and the general atmosphere been far from happy. Aspersions were cast upon the Baptists for unjustly taking the place of worship. Legal advice was sought, and when the writings were examined, it appeared that the Independents had no claim upon the property. They were offered remuneration for their assistance in building the place, but refused to accept any such offer.

 

At this point, the Baptists decided to form themselves into a church. Seventeen people signed a letter to the church at Weston, requesting leave to do this. Not all were from Towcester – one woman was from Blakesley, and another family, the Goodmans, from Bradden. A minister was found, one Thomas Skinner, to come and pastor the new church.

 

Thomas Skinner was a Devonshire man. He had first joined Exeter Baptist Church as a teenager, from where he went on to train for the ministry at Bristol. He came to Towcester from Clipstone in the north of Northamptonshire. The Clipstone Church Book describes him as “animated but not clamorous, serious but not severe”, and as possessing a pastoral heart. He was just thirty when he moved to Towcester with his wife Mary, into a house at the northern edge of Towcester, one of a short row on the east side of the road, now 180 Watling Street.  One child was born while he was living in Towcester, Mary, in 1785.

 

Mr Skinner was not formally inducted into the new church until 1786. The Church Book records that “Rev John Sutcliffe gave the charge from Matthew 28 v20, Dr Ryland addressed the church from Hebrews 13 v22, and Rev A. Fuller preached in the evening from Ps 1 v2-3”. Sutcliffe, Ryland and Fuller were three men whose influence on church life of the day was profound and far-reaching. In 1784 they had issued a “Prayer Call” , calling upon churches to meet and pray monthly for ‘the revival of real religion, and the extension of Christ’s kingdom in the world’. The Prayer Call was taken up not only by Baptist churches in Northamptonshire but by churches across the land. John Sutcliffe ministered in Olney, Dr John Ryland in Northampton, and Andrew Fuller in Kettering. Andrew Fuller had ridden to the service praying for his daughter Sally, who was gravely ill. His diary reads:

 

Apr 28th 1786  Riding to Towcester was exceedingly affected and importunate with God for the soul of my poor little girl…..My heart seemed to be dissolved in earnest cries for mercy, particularly on the other side of Blisworth. Enjoyed a good opportunity in hearing the charge to Mr Skinner by Brother Sutcliffe, from Matt28 v20, “Lo I am with you always”, etc and the sermon to the church by Brother R from Hebrews 13 v22, “Suffer the word of exhortation”. I preached in the evening from Psalm 1 v2-3 with some pleasure.

This very auspicious start to the life of the young church appears to have coincided with a slight spiritual improvement in the town. In 1789, John Wesley returned yet again, for what was to prove to be his last visit to a place he had written about in 1784 as “poor dead Towcester”. Prophetically, he had also written” But is not God able to raise the dead? There was considerable shaking amongst the dry bones, and who knows but these dry bones may live?”.  In 1789 he wrote, “The Dissenting Minister at Towcester offered me the use of his meeting house, it was well-filled, and I believe our Lord was in the midst”. This was the most encouraging comment about Towcester he had made.

 

Shortly before this, a young shoemaker called William Carey from Paulerspury had been baptised in the River Nene at Northampton by Dr Rylands. He was later to become the first missionary to India. William Carey wrote, “I frequently went to Towcester in the day to attend Mr Ready, and afterwards Mr Skinner, who often gave me much encouragement, and the latter sometimes asked me to preach for him”.  Dr Rylands subsequently wrote of his baptism, "October 5th, 1783: I baptised in the river Nen, a little beyond Dr. Doddridge’s meeting-house at Northampton, a poor journeyman shoemaker, little thinking that before nine years had elapsed, he would prove the first instrument of forming a society for sending missionaries from England to preach the gospel to the heathen. Such, however, as the event has proved, was the purpose of the Most High, who selected for this work not the son of one of our most learned ministers, nor of one of the most opulent of our dissenting gentlemen, but the son of a parish
                                                          clerk.”

 

It is worth stating that at this time in history, the considered opinion of church leaders was that if God wanted the heathen converted, he would convert them without any help. This sounds strange to our ears today. Carey, who became a friend of Thomas Skinner, was thought to have a “wild and impractical scheme” in mind when he talked if a mission to heathen lands.  In 1792, however, Carey with twelve others formed the "Particular Baptist Society for the Propagation of the Gospel amongst the Heathen". He volunteered to become the Society’s first missionary, and left for Calcutta in 1793 with his wife and family. He never returned to England. By 1812, he was a household name, and regarded as the pioneer of mission work, an inspiration to many.

 

19th Century

 

The 19th century opened with a new pastor, John Barker.  He came from Walgrave in Northamptonshire, where he had been baptised in 1794, and began to preach in 1796, learning on the job. Married to Elizabeth Payne in 1801 at Walgrave (the Walgrave pastor’s daughter), he was ordained as pastor at Towcester on May 20 1802. He was to remain at Towcester until his death in 1849.

 

During his time at Towcester the church grew from 30 members to over a hundred. Some of the members were very godly, such as Lucy Elizabeth Sheppard . Many more formed the congregation; membership was only open to those who had been publicly baptised by immersion, and this was a step too far for many. Leave aside that at this date the water in the baptistery was unheated!

 

The Church Book throws some interesting light on Towcester:

 

1811 We have cause for thankfulness that our prayer meetings are tolerably well attended. It is almost entirely the poor who attend these meetings. At Pury there were many who attended on Sabbath evenings

1813 Membership 57. Enlarged the gallery to 19 feet in length: still chapel full.

1819 Circumstances of a painful nature to record. S. Harris married a Methodist and has left us. Aaron Gibbs acts unworthy of his profession. Our old friend Scott has become embarrassed in his circumstances, and now left off coming to hear the Gospel with his wife and daughter, nearly twelve months.

The trade is so bad some of the poor cannot pay for their seats. [Lace making was suffering because of the end of the war, and French lace once more available]

But the chapel is full.

1827 No employment in Towcester. Our friend Snedker with his family is removed to Northampton. Two other families also, through want of employment.

1831 8 baptised - 2 received much opposition from parents. They were threatened with not being allowed to attend. Threats that they should no more return home have evaporated into air. Membership 95.

1835
Jan 27 Lydia Scott died suddenly
Aug 28  Rachel Miles died in child-bed. Membership 115. 7 baptisms

1838  John Barker records that when he came there were 30 members, all but two had since died. He had baptised 148, 12 had transferred in. Of these 34 had been removed by death, 8 dismissed and 8 withdrawn or excluded. In all, including the two old members, membership was 112.

 

Following John Barker’s resignation due to ill-health in 1846, there was a succession of pastors who came for just a few years and then moved on. This continued until 1861, when Henry Hardin was invited to the pastorate. Born 24 Mar 1838 in Woolwich, the son of a builder, he was originally destined to be a doctor. He attended the Baptist College, Regents Park College (now re-located to Oxford) with the famous preacher C H Spurgeon, from 1858.  Under him, the Church Book begins to record church meetings in greater detail, and we learn that supporting the church was by subscription rather than through a weekly collection (which was proposed for the first time in 1864), that 50 people had tea in the Vestry in 1864; that the deacons were either dead or too old and infirm to continue, and that as they had been deacons for nearly 30 years, no-one could remember how to choose them; that the pastor brought up the subject of building a new church (which topic caused several rows over time); that communion was held at 3 pm on Sundays and prayer meetings were held as early as 5 am.

 

Everything in the garden was definitely not rosy, however. The Church Book in 1866 records:         
“The state of our church is such as to give us great anxiety. Owing to the death or removal of many of our members during the past few years our numbers have been reduced and our financial resources greatly diminished. In other respects too our cause is in a low condition.”

 

Rumours of immorality were started, and proved to be false. One was against the pastor himself.  There is evidence that some of the members did not support Mr Hardin, who eventually left the church in 1869. He went to Wakefield, and then to Montacute in Somerset, where he became much beloved. He became “one of the best known and most highly esteemed ministers in the Baptist Union.” Some extracts from his diary can be found here.

 

William Fidler

The church was thus without a pastor again. For the next year, efforts were made to find one, and legend has it that two of the deacons walked to Daventry to try to persuade a young carpenter there, William Fidler, to come and pastor the church. As he had not long been pastoring a new church at Daventry, this would have been a difficult decision they were asking him to make.

 

He did, however, agree to come. The first church meeting recorded for nearly two years has the note:

1871    Church Meeting 2 March      Mr Fidler commented on the dilapidated state of the chapel, and other parts of chapel property. The church was reported to be in a very unsatisfactory state, and "it being impossible to ascertain from the Church Book as to its real position", dissolution was discussed.

 

One wonders whether William Fidler regretted his move, when his first act was to close the church down.

 

While the church was not functioning, the chapel building was restored, and new Trustees found for the building. The church was re-formed on 2 Nov 1871, with a greatly reduced membership of 40. The letter to the local Baptist Association in 1872 states, "We are glad as a church to be able to record the fact of our existence."

 

Under William Fidler the church grew back to over 100 members.  Meanwhile, Mr Fidler was discovering that the chapel may not have been built in the best place in Towcester. There is a note in the Church Book:

29 Dec 1875

Towcester Flood relief Committee voted £5 to the funds of the Chapel in consequence of our having had the chapel twice flooded during the recent heavy floods.

 

The pastor threatened to leave unless a new chapel was built:

The Pastor stated that the circumstances in which we had been placed of late, the falling off of the congregation during the very wet season, and the general aspect of the place in which we worship and its surroundings had greatly affected his mind and he had been driven to the conclusion that it was impossible for him to gather or sustain a congregation under such conditions, and though he was willing to labour with all his strength yet it was of no use, and unless a new chapel in a position better than the one now used be obtained, he feared the church must in a few years die out, unless something was done soon he would be compelled to give up the work and seek labour elsewhere.

 

The site of the Chapel on Watling Street was purchased in September 1876. The foundation stones were laid in August 1877, and the first service was held 23 April 1878, the last service having been held in the old chapel two days before. “Many seemed to feel deeply at leaving the old place, endeared to them by many precious memories”, despite the fact that the old chapel was described as a “model of inconvenience and deformity”, with square, high backed pews, a rickety pulpit and overhanging galleries. The new chapel cost £2018, including the cost of the land, and at the opening there was a debt of £900, finally paid off in 1897. It was largely William Fidler’s own efforts which made this possible, as he returned to his old trade as a carpenter and made furniture to raise money. He was presented with £50 as a mark of appreciation when the debt was cleared.

 

The first baptisms were performed on 7 Sep 1879, and many more followed in the 122 years the building was occupied.

 

During this period, William Fidler (who was a widower with a small daughter, Florence), met and married a local lady, Harriet Sheppard. Harriet had been baptised in the other Baptist Chapel in Towcester, known as the North End Chapel (now Gowlings Carpets), in 1871, which her grandfather, John Sheppard of Duncote, had been one of the founder members of.  They had two sons, William Ernest Fidler, and Bernard Sheppard Fidler, who both became Baptist Ministers. William’s daughter Florence became a teacher, and died in 1895 aged 30. This was a heavy loss to him.

 

William Fidler was not a man to take things lying down. At the time, Non-Conformists were not allowed to have their pastor conduct a burial service, as this took place in the churchyard of the parish church. The coffin entered the ground unaccompanied by prayer, with just the mourners round the graveside. Fidler decided this had to stop, and, to the surprise of the sexton, accompanied the coffin of a child to the graveside and read the burial service over it. This caused a furore in the town.

 

Fidler continued as Pastor of the church until 1912, in which year he preached his farewell sermon on 28 June. “In the evening a Public Meeting was held at which Rev Fidler was presented with an illuminated address and a purse of money from the Congregation, a pair of silver candlesticks by Miss Hutchins and a walking stick from the Sunday School by one of the scholars in tears (Miss D. Wootten).” He retired to Mostyn in North Wales, where he died in 1917. He is buried in the cemetery in Towcester.

 

 

Twentieth century

The church had some difficulty finding a suitable pastor to follow William Fidler.  The early years of the First World War was marked by a membership of just 24, a series of church meetings which couldn’t muster the 8 members needed for a quorum, and a dispute with a Pastor who had come from Sunderland. A Lighting Order in 1916 saw evening services moved forward to finish by 5pm, to avoid the need to buy new blinds for the chapel’s numerous large windows. Another new pastor, H Cross, came and baptised 5 people in his first year, and by his third the church was raising money for an organ. The Rev Israel Harlick arrived in 1922 and left in 1927, overseeing a renovation of the chapel.

 

Extracts from Church Book:

1917 31 May   Mr & Mrs Smith were willing to undertake the Chapel Caretaker duties, at £7 per annum.  Mr Wootton had agreed to light the Furnace and keep the grass cut quite free.

1919   9 May   Caretaker Mrs Kilsby resigned, as church members were all telling her what was wrong.

1920   14 Jan Owing to the water coming into the Boiler House, we found a defective Drain, and no doubt it was a good thing we had done so.

1921   30 Sep Water still comes into the Furnace Chamber.

1923   The Church is to pay for Wallpaper and repair of plaster in the Study of the Manse - on condition that the Pastor is responsible for the Whitewashing.

Church life remained at a low ebb, with between 25 and 30 members on the books, when Arthur May was invited to become lay pastor in 1928. He was to remain for many years, and saw the church flourish once again.  So small he had to stand on a box to preach, many people in the town knew and loved him. While he was pastor (which he was for 25 years), the church changed to “open” membership (whereby people did not have to be baptised by immersion to join the church), and celebrated the Diamond Jubilee of the “new” chapel.

 

Some extracts from the Church Book tell us about church life during this time:

 

1936   21 Sept           Mr May spoke of the joy and happiness he had experienced in this Church.

1937   20 Sep             The tree in Mrs Kilsby's garden [next door] overlapped on to the roof of the Wash House, and besides damaging this it was a great temptation to the children to pick the plums. It was agreed that someone be appointed to go and see Mrs Kilsby about the matter. Mr F. Gardner to approach Mrs Kilsby.

1937   15 Nov             Mrs Kilsby has promised to have the Tree pruned at the right time.
It was decided to start a Prayer Meeting on Monday evenings at 7.45pm.

                                    Agreed to alter the time of the morning service from 10.45 to 11 o'clock and only have 4 hymns  instead of 5 so that the Service could finish at the usual time 12 o'clock.

1937   13 Dec             Mr Caton reminded the Church that when he took on the position of Treasurer it was only temporary, and he had now been Treasurer for 3 years. It was moved he be re-elected as we could not possibly get anyone else to fill the position.
 The Clock in the Chapel had ceased to work for a week or two. It was moved that the clock be taken to Mr Bailey and see what was really wrong with it, and if it was worth repairing

1938    21 Feb             The clock had been attended and was going satisfactory.

                                    The Treasurer had not prepared a Financial statement but stated that we had approximately £1 in hand. This was considered satisfactory as it was only the beginning of the year

1938    19 Sept           It was agreed not to start a Bible Study Class on Saturday evenings.

                                    It was agreed not to bore holes in the first two rows of the pews for the Communion Glasses.

                                    The Baptistry was out of order. The Deacons were to test the Baptistry.

1938   12 Dec             Mr May reported that the Welsh Services held in this Church in the future would be all in Welsh.

1939    2 Oct              Decided to hold Sunday evening services as usual and that we Black Out.

                                    The steps of the Chapel and the sides of the path to be painted white to help people in the Black Out.

1939   13 Nov             Blacking Out was said to be well worth it and that we had an increase in the attendance at the evening Service.

1939   12 Dec             No financial statement was given, but our Treasurer assured us that we were on the right side.
 Attendance at the Sunday Evening Service is still increasing, also it was the opinion that there was a better spirit in the services

1940    3 Sep              The Top Schoolroom was not considered satisfactory for the use of the Grammar School, not being suitable in Air-raids.

1941   17 Mar             Resolution on Sunday Theatres. Strongly appealed to the Government not to grant the suggested opening of Theatres and Music Halls on Sunday. Provision has already been made for Sunday entertainment by the opening of cinemas and further encroachment on the sanctity of Sunday is opposed to the moral and spiritual interests of the community.

1941    23 Jun            The Schoolroom had been opened as a rest room for the troops in the town, but had not been made use of in the way hoped for. Use as a Canteen, as first proposed, had proved impossible.

1941   16 Oct             Pastor's 13th Anniversary Service. It was hoped that the Home Guard and the Fire Brigade would parade for the morning service. Cars to be parked in the Cinema Car park, Lord Hesketh to be asked for permission.

 

After the War, things started to return to normal. The land girls and troops went home, electric light was installed in the chapel, also an electric organ. The chapel nearly went up in smoke when wood was stored too close to the furnace, and was also flooded. Having got the electric lights in 1946, the Treasurer was appealing for economy in their use by 1951. There were 27 members in 1950.

 

Following the resignation due to ill-health of Arthur May, the church decided to share a pastor with Blisworth Baptists, a man called Maurice Kendrick (father of the songwriter Graham Kendrick, at this point aged just 3).  There was one snag with this – the congregation began to only turn up on those Sundays when Rev Kendrick was preaching!

 

The church had several more joint pastors or student pastors. By 1967 apathy, indifference and lack of responsibility are concerning the Moderator and by 1971, not only was the congregation small and ageing, but the secretary wished to resign, and the pastor was moving on. The Area Superintendent met the church to discuss the situation.  The church continued to limp along, until in 1978 Rev Michael Jones came. While he was pastor, several more mature Christians transferred to the church, and things began to change. Rev John Metcalfe was appointed as full-time pastor in 1982.

 

The church is now unrecognisable as the aging congregation which was in place in the 1970’s.  With as many young people as adults in the congregation, it can be found at http://www.tvbf.co.uk and at Nicholas Hawksmoor School on Sunday mornings. The “new” chapel finally became too small and in need of too much repair, and the church moved out in 2001.  It has also once again joined forces with the church at Weston-by Weedon, to the mutual benefit of both congregations.

With a membership of over 100, and a new building planned, life, by the grace of God, is looking good for this historic yet forward-looking church