07 September 2022

Former Congregational
church in Winslow recalls
links with early Puritans

The former Congregational Church on a prominent position on the bend of Horn Street in Winslow, Buckinghamshire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

The former Congregational Church in Winslow stands on a prominent position on the bend of Horn Street, and is clearly visible from a number of locations throughout the small, pretty town between Buckingham and Aylesbury.

Although the church has been closed since 1989, it once played an important role in the history of the Congregational or Independent tradition in Buckinghamshire that links back directly to the Puritans of the mid-17th century.

During the Cromwellian era, the Book of Common Prayer was replaced by the Directory of Public Worship, although it is not clear whether the Puritans ever gained control of Saint Laurence’s parish church during that time.

The Independent or Congregational tradition, a legacy of the Puritans of the Cromwellian period, survived as Dissenters in Buckinghamshire, particularly in Newport Pagnell. A small group emerged in Winslow, and for a time, at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, they assembled in Keach’s Meeting House near the Market Square.

For some time before this, the Independents had used this Baptist chapel on alternate Sundays. But their growing numbers called for a larger building and more frequent services, and in 1816 they bought a barn on Horn Street to fit out for their own worship.

When the chapel opened on 10 April 1816, it had a seating capacity of 250. The preachers at the opening were the Revd DW Aston of Buckingham and the Revd Thomas Palmer Bull, the Independent pastor in Newport Pagnell, who also ran an academy or seminary for aspiring ministerial candidates. The first pastor, the Revd John Wilson (1816-1824), had trained at Bull’s seminary at Newport Pagnell.

There was a brief schism in 1827, when some of the Independents joined the Baptists in Keach’s Meeting House, where a gallery was built at the east end to accommodate the influx of Independent seceders.

But unity was soon restored, and in 1829 the Congregationalists bought more land nearby to rebuild the chapel and to add a vestry and schoolroom.

The new chapel opened on 4 May 1830 and could seat up to 300 people. The early trustees included TP Bull, and students from his academy preached regularly on Sundays.

The Revd Joseph Denton, who was minister in 1830-1840, tried unsuccessfully to get permission to hold a weekly service in the Workhouse in 1838. The first marriage allowed under a new act took place in the Winslow chapel on 4 September 1850.

The Revd JB Attenborough was described as ‘a big burly man with a voice like the rolling of distant thunder’ and as ‘a man of great weight and power.’ When he retired in 1856, the Oxford Chronicle described him as the ‘dissenting minister,’ and when the Revd John Fogg arrived as the new minister in Winslow in 1857, the chapel was described as ‘the Dissenting Church.’

William Craft, an escaped slave from Macon, Georgia, spoke at a public meeting in the Independent Chapel in 1858, and described his and his wife’s escape, giving ‘a very accurate and sober account of slavery and its taskmasters’ and ‘a vivid account’ of his escape.

From the beginning, an influential minority in the congregation opposed Fogg’s appointment, and eventually he resigned in 1861. He was succeeded by the Revd Wesley Spurgeon Rae (1863-1867), from Ireland, and later by the Revd John Riordan (1881-1888).

The church continued to identify with the cause of abolition, and the Jubilee Singers, a choir of freed slaves, gave a concert in 1881, singing ‘stirring melodies said to have been sung … while in slavery.’

While a new Congregational Church was being built in Winslow, the congregation met in the Assembly Rooms at The Bell (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The congregation decided in 1882 to build a new church and to convert the existing into a schoolroom. While the church was being built, the congregation met in the Assembly Rooms at The Bell.

The new church was built in 1884 at a cost of £2,400. The building was designed by the London-based architect Sir John Sulman (1849-1934), who also designed the Congregational Church in Newport Pagnell. Sulman, who was strongly influenced by Sir George Gilbert Scott, later emigrated to Australia. The builders were Yirell and Edwards of Leighton Buzzard.

The foundation stone was laid by Margaret Verney, later Lady Verney. Her husband, Sir Edmund Hope Verney (1838-1910), was a nephew of Florence Nightingale and the Liberal MP for North Buckinghamshire until he was expelled from the House of Commons in 1891 after being jailed for procuring a girl under 21 for ‘immoral purposes’.

The foundation stone was laid by Margaret Verney, later Lady Verney (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Sulman’s design was inspired by 15th century English parish churches, but his design was made more difficult by the limited, triangular shape of the site.

The new church opened on 20 January 1885. The most prominent feature was the 58 ft high square tower, inspired by the watchman’s room in the old tower in Irthlingborough Church, Northamptonshire. The tower was surmounted by a weather vane. The upper part of the tower was a large room of 17 feet square, lit by seven windows, and used as a Sunday School classroom.

The church was lit by Gothic windows filled with cathedral toned glass. The principal window in the tower was 18 ft hight and 16 ft wide, and was said to be a reduced copy of a window in York Minster.

The church could seat 240 people on the ground floor and another 82 in the gallery. The building included a Sunday School and a large classroom.

Sulman’s design was inspired by 15th century English parish churches, but his design was made more difficult by the limited, triangular shape of the site (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The Revd John Riordan retired in 1888 and moved to a church at Sheerness.

The church fielded its own cricket and football teams in the late 19th century, and had its own tennis courts at Hollow Furrow.

At a church meeting in 1896, a resolution was carried expressed deep sympathy with ‘the suffering Armenian people’ and called on the government ‘to take strong and effective diplomatic measures in depriving the Sultan of Turkey of the power to sanction or connive at further bloodshed and persecution’ and ‘to rescue the remnant of the Armenian nation from total annihilation.’

On the initiative of the Welsh-born pastor, the Revd JG Evans, the church hosted an Eisteddfod in 1898 on the lines of the Welsh musical festivals, with 77 entries.

The church celebrated the tercentenary of the birth of Oliver Cromwell in 1899. At the service, Evans read portions from a facsimile of Cromwell’s Soldier’s Pocket Bible, and he described Cromwell as the greatest hero and the greatest religious reformer England had ever seen, ‘a Citizen, a Puritan, and a Protestant.’

Evans preached his farewell sermon in 1902, when he announced he had decided to sever his connection with Nonconformity, to be admitted to the Church of England and to seek ordination to the priesthood.

The Revd John Riordan returned to Winslow in 1904-1914.

The widowed Lady Verney returned to Winslow in 1924 to unveil a new organ in the church.

The Revd AT Quarterman (1939-1942) was the last pastor of the church to live in Winslow. The Congregational Church closed in 1989, and the war memorials were transferred to Saint Laurence’s Church, the Church of England parish church.

The former Congregational Church in Winslow has since been converted into a six-bedroom house. It was placed on the market recently through estate agents Fine & Country Birmingham with an asking price of £1.25 million.

The former Congregational Church seen through the houses on Church Street in Winslow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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