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,
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
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
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.
before this, a young shoemaker called William Carey from Paulerspury had been
baptised in the River Nene at
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
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.
No employment in Towcester. Our
friend Snedker with his family is removed to
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.
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.
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
24 Mar 1838 in Woolwich, the son of a builder, he was originally destined to be
a doctor. He attended the
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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