08 September 2022

Finding two hidden, former
Baptist chapels in Winslow

Winslow Tabernacle, the former Baptist Chapel off High Street in Winslow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

The Baptist tradition in Winslow has its roots in Keach’s Meeting House, one of the few Dissenters’ Chapels surviving from the 17th century. It has survived in a virtually unaltered state externally, and is hidden behind fences and rich foliage in a back garden. But its tranquil setting adds to the sense of time standing still in this corner of the small Buckinghamshire town.

Keach’s Meeting House is built of red brick, and is partly concealed by the neighbouring properties in Bell Walk, close to Winslow’s former cattle market and the Bell Inn. The chapel takes its name from Benjamin Keach (1640-1704), a man of humble origins and no formal training who became one of the best-known Baptists ministers of his day. Keach was a native of Stoke Hammond and joined the Baptist Church in Winslow in his early teens.

The church soon recognised his preaching gifts, and, although it never actually called him to be its pastor, it set him apart for ministry. He married Jane Grove of Winslow, and during his time in Winslow he was regularly jailed and placed in the pillory, both in Aylesbury and Winslow, where his books were burnt publicly in the Market Place by the common hangman.

Keach moved to London in 1668 to become pastor of a small group of Baptists in Tooley Street, Southwark. For many years, he preached to large congregations in a building that had to be enlarged several times. He wrote over 60 books, and in the last 15 years of his life, he led a campaign to introduce congregational hymn-singing.

He died in London in 1704. His church later relocated to Newington where, as the Metropolitan Tabernacle, it became identified with the great Victorian Baptist preacher, the Revd Charles H Spurgeon.

Meanwhile, throughout the 1680s, Baptists in Winslow were constantly summoned before the Archdeacon of St Albans because they had not ‘received the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper’ according to Anglican rites and had not attended Saint Laurence’s Church, the parish church in Winslow.

Keach’s Meeting House is tucked away in Bell Walk, Winslow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Keach's Meeting House was built in Winslow in 1695 on land belonging to William Gyles, a prominent local draper who died in 1702. It is a small rectangular building, with walls of red brick in Flemish bond, and a tiled roof gabled to the east and west. The north front has two small rectangular windows with leaded glazing and external shutters; between them is a timber framed porch, which was mostly renewed around 1958.

The building has been altered inside at various dates. The meeting house has a 17th century Communion table and several monuments and floor slabs. The pulpit, centrally placed along the west wall, is surrounded by box pews, and open-backed benches.

The desks against the east wall have hinged tops and four lead inkwells, for the use of the Sunday School that began was commenced in 1824. A gallery was built at the east end in 1827 to accommodate the influx of Independent or Congregational seceders. A small burial ground on the north side of the meeting house is surrounded by a brick boundary wall.

William Gyles and his son Daniel surrendered the meeting house to charitable uses in 1696. Thomas Forster (1685-1746) a former elder of the Chesham Baptists, married Sarah Gyles in 1719 and moved to Winslow. Daniel Gyles re-established the meeting house with nine new trustees in 1722, for the use of ‘Baptists, Dissenters from the way and communion of the Church of England and Presbytery’, and Forster remained pastor until 1729.

The meeting house came back into use in 1799 through the efforts of Thomas Wake, the Particular Baptist pastor of Leighton Buzzard, and the Bedfordshire Union of Christians, and it was used by both Baptists and Independents or Congregationalists. By 1800, the services seem to have alternated each Sunday between each denomination. [The Independents moved out in 1816.

Eight people formed a Particular Baptist church in Winslow in 1807, and the Independents moved out of the meeting house in 1816 when a new Congregational Chapel was acquired on Horn Street. The gallery was built when a group seceded briefly from the Independent (Congregational) Church in 1827.

After a decline, the church was reconstituted in 1862-1863 with 13 members, but these finally died out in 1926. An attempt to re-establish it in 1936-1937 failed, and the meeting house has only been used for occasional services since then.

The Revd JA Spurgeon opened the new Baptist chapel in Winslow in 1864 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Meanwhile, the foundation stone of a new chapel, the Baptist Tabernacle, was laid by Henry Kelsall of Rochdale on 3 May 1864, with Spurgeon preaching at two services that day and visiting the old Baptist Chapel at Keach’s Meeting House.

The legendary Baptist preacher, the Revd Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892), visited Winslow on 7 October 1856, and between the two services light meals were provided in the Bell Hotel. He returned to Winslow for two services on 10 February 1858, when it was noted that ‘the Morning Service is chiefly designed for members of the Church of England.’

However, the resurgence of interest in the General Baptist cause in the Victorian era was beyond the capacity of the meeting house. The Baptists of Winslow met in July 1861 to discuss appointing a resident minister. They used Waddesdon Hill Particular Baptist Church, and its minister for two baptisms on 9 November 1862.

A church of eight members was formed in Winslow in November 1862, and one of Spurgeon’s students, Robert Sole, was sent as the pastor. A site for a new chapel was acquired, and the foundation stone of the Baptist Tabernacle was laid by Henry Kelsall of Rochdale on 3 May 1864, with Spurgeon preaching at two services that day and visiting the old Baptist Chapel at Keach’s Meeting House.

Spurgeon’s brother, the Revd JA Spurgeon, opened the new chapel on 15 September, 1864. Once again, a meal was served in the Bell Hotel. By then, the church had grown to 62 members, and the Sabbath school was attended by 70 children.

The chapel was built of brick, and could seat about 300 persons. The features included classical windows and an elegant west gallery for the choir, with there were separate meeting rooms. The building costs came to £600, and the builder was J Munday of Buckingham. The Revd Robert Sole was publicly set apart and ordained at the Baptist Tabernacle on 1 December 1865.

Tenders were invited in 1880 for a new schoolroom beside the Baptist Tabernacle. The new schoolrooms were opened as the Centenary Hall on 3 August 1880 by Spurgeon’s son, the Revd Charles Spurgeon of Greenwich.

The Centenary Hall could hold 400-500 people, and included a class room, three smaller rooms and a gallery.

The Baptist Tabernacle was criticised in local newspapers in 1881 when the new hall was held for a meeting with speeches by leading members of the Liberal Party, with the support of the Baptist pastor, the Revd FJ Feltham, who would leave for the Isle of Wight in 1883.

The Centenary Hall was effectively the local headquarters of the Liberal campaign in the 1885 and 1886 general elections, while the Revd JS Poulton was the pastor. It was reported that the hall was ‘readily granted in the cause of civil and religious liberty,’ and both the Baptists and the Congregationalists openly supported Sir Edmund Verney as the Liberal candidate in North Buckinghamshire.

The chapel fielded its own cricket team at the end of the 19th century. A large portion of the chapel ceiling fell in 1885, and for three weeks the services were held in the School Hall. Later, after further renovations, the Baptist Tabernacle reopened on 5 January 1898.

Meanwhile, the Centenary Hall was the venue in 1893 for a protest meeting against the Irish Home Rule Bill, labelled as ‘the Great Betrayal.’ The speakers included Lord Cottesloe, a former Chief Secretary for Ireland (1845-1846), Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, Liberal MP for Aylesbury, and the Irish-born W Hussey Walsh.

The hall was also used for meetings of the Women’s Liberal Association and the District Liberal Association, addressed by the Liberal politician, Herbert Samuel. During general election in 1900, the main Liberal meeting in Winslow was held in the Centenary Hall.

The Baptist Tabernacle was an unusual as an early supporter of women’s ministry, and a daughter of the Rev TJ Feltham, a former pastor of the Tabernacle, was among the women who preached there.

The Baptist Tabernacle was reordered in 1929, when the pews were rearranged to provide a central aisle, and the chapel acquired an organ when Swanbourne Baptist Church closed.

The former Baptist Tabernacle can be found at the end of a laneway been 156 and 158 High Street. Today, Winslow Tabernacle is an evangelical Pentecostal Church, and describes itself as a ‘Bible-based Spirit-led evangelical church.’ Services are at 10:30 and 6 pm each Sunday.

Keach’s Meeting House is hidden behind fences and rich foliage in a back garden in Winslow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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