14 September 2022

A lonely church tower is
a reminder of ecumenical
diversity in Aylesbury

The surviving tower of the former Congregational Church in Aylesbury is surrounded by Hale Leys Shopping Centre (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

During my visits to Aylesbury in recent weeks, I visited Saint Mary’s Church on each occasion. But, while Saint Mary’s Church is at heart of the county town of Buckinghamshire, there other interesting places of worship, and the sites of former places of worship in Aylesbury – some I have managed to visit, but others are now on my ‘to-do’ list.

Aylesbury identified strongly with Oliver Cromwell and the Parliamentarian cause. So, it is natural to expect that there was once a strong Independent or Congregational presence in the town from the mid-17th century on. Yet, the church tower is all that remains of the former Congregational Church that stood on High Street in Aylesbury.

The Independents or Congregationalists were the heirs of the Puritans who had been ejected from the Church of England in 1662. The Independent or Congregational church on Aylesbury’s High Street was founded on the site in 1707.

A new Congregational Church on High Street was designed in 1874 by the London architect Rowland Plumbe (1838-1919). Plumbe’s churches include the red-brick Perpendicular Gothic Revival Saint John the Baptist Church at Loxwood, West Sussex and the red-brick Grade II listed Saint Margaret’s Church at Streatham Hill.

Plumbe’s church in Aylesbury originally had a simple asymmetrical fa├žade, and stood on the site from 1874 to 1980. For its last eight years it was part of the United Reformed Church, following the merger of the Congregationalist Church and the Presbyterian Church of England in 1972.

With new commercial and shopping developments in the heart of Aylesbury in the late 1970s, the church relocated to Rickford’s Hill, and the church building was demolished in 1980.

All that is left of the church today is its tower. Now used as offices, it stands out from the surrounding Hale Leys Shopping Centre on a busy street, with modern office blocks nestling up to the tower.

A plaque on the tower is a reminder of the Congregational presence in the centre of Aylesbury (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

On these visits to Aylesbury, I did not get to see the Methodist Church in Buckingham Street, designed by James Weir and built in 1893. The church displays Italianate features as well as some Byzantine and Romanesque features. But it was described by the architectural historian Sir Niklaus Pevsner as having a ‘terrible Italianate style.’

Nor did I get to see the 20th century Saint Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church on the High Street.

However I did get to see the Quaker Meeting House on Rickford’s Hill, built in 1726-1727, offering an insight into the interesting story of Quakers in Aylesbury.

The Quaker Meeting House on Rickford’s Hill was built in 1726-1727 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The Quaker Meeting House, now with a Grade II listing is a well-preserved, early 18th century meeting house in a discreet location with a modest appearance that is typical of the vernacular architectural style associated with the Society of Friends at the time.

Many meeting houses were built throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, and earlier meeting houses were remodelled. Quaker meeting houses are generally characterised by simplicity of design.

Two tenements on what is now Rickford’s Hill, then known as Green End, were transferred to the Aylesbury Friends in 1704 on a 1,000-year lease and a ‘newly-erected’ meeting house was registered. This building was superseded in 1726, when further land behind the tenements was acquired. The present meeting house opened in 1727. It was reached through a passageway at the west side of the frontage properties. The remainder of the site was used as a burial ground and the frontage properties were let.

A porch was added in 1804 ‘after the manner of Friends Meeting House at Chesham’ and double shutters erected in the meeting room, presumably to form a women’s meeting room. The meeting was discontinued in 1836 and from 1845 the building was let as a school. It later became as a Baptist chapel and was then used by the YMCA.

The Quaker meeting in Buckingham was revived in the 20th century, and the meeting house was restored by Walter Rose of Haddenham, a Quaker, in 1933. This included demolishing the early 19th century porch, removing the plaster ceiling in the meeting room, and installing new benches. The meeting house was refurbished again in 2010, when the architect was Malcolm Barnett.

There is a small burial ground to the south-west of the meeting house. The first burial took place in 1727, and it closed in 1855. Six burials are recorded, but none is marked by a headstone.

The attached building is now used by the New Tabernacle Church of God.

Other lost churches in Aylesbury that have been demolished over the years include Saint John’s Church in Cambridge Street, the former Wesleyan Chapel in Friarage Passage and, of course, the former Greyfriars or Franciscan Friary that founded by the Ormond Butlers and that was suppressed at the Dissolution of the monastic houses during the Tudor Reformation.

Parts of the Friary, including some of its crypts or tunnels, are said to survive in the King’s Head off Market Square, which claims to be the oldest pub in Aylesbury.

But more about the King’s Head and some of Aylesbury’s oldest pubs on another day.

The New Tabernacle Church of God beside the Quaker Meeting House in Aylesbury (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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