Baldock Primitive Methodist Chapel
The sad remains of what was probably the most important PM society in Hertfordshire
In the beginning
When, on 18 July 1844, Brother C Matthews took up his appointment in the Hertford Mission, he commented that “in most of the places our preaching services were held in the open air … . When I first preached at Baldock, we had only three members in the society, but now we have thirty-five; also the converting work is still advancing, and through our increasing interest, we are in great need of a chapel.” That same year, Brother John Guy, also appointed to the Hertford Mission, used the columns of the Primitive Methodist Magazine to report that:
“since August last, we have had forty souls converted at Baldock, a small town on the north border of Hertfordshire. … we must have a chapel at this place. I have been sent for by three different persons to look at ground for building upon. The part of the town where we preach was formerly called Hell-end, on account of the depravity of its inhabitants; but now it is so changed – that we may call it ‘Little Heaven’.”
By the autumn of 1844, the society had obtained the use of a house to preach in. A “dwellinghouse and premises at Norton End”, belonging to Catherine Hide, were registered on 17 August 1844. As John Guy later reported, “the word began to take effect, and in a few weeks about sixty souls were converted to God. A chapel was, therefore, greatly needed, especially in unfavourable weather, as the cottage in our service was too small to contain the usual congregation.” Brother Beesley, another colleague in the Hertford Mission, commented as follows:
“Lately the Lord has been working powerfully among us here. On the 28th of December, 1845, after preaching twice and conducting a powerful love-feast at Baldock, I had the happiness to find that five souls had been saved during the day. And still greater displays of mercy were bestowed upon us on the 30th; for after I had preached to a crowded and deeply affected assembly, seven broken-hearted penitents believed on the Lord Jesus Christ and found peace with God. On the following Tuesday four souls were washed in the blood of Jesus; thus twenty persons have professed to find salvation at Baldock, within the last fortnight. The work of God, I am happy to say, is still progressing, not only at Baldock but at other places in our mission. What we have already seen are only the signs of mightier outpourings of the Spirit’s influences. These we shall have. All things are possible to him that believeth: I do believe; and if my efforts correspond with my faith, my utmost expectation will be realized. May God help me to work for him!”.
On 5 April 1846 and the four following week-nights, sermons were preached and meetings were held at Hertford, Weston, Baldock and Stotfold. At Baldock the meeting was held in the British school-room, presumably because the cottage was too small. John Guy records that this building was “kindly lent for the purpose” and that there was “a large and respectable congregation, and a very refreshing season from the presence of the Lord. The Rev D Atkinson, Independent minister of Ashwell, ably occupied the chair on the occasion.”
It would seem that the ‘utmost expectation’ was indeed realised, as Petty notes that, in April 1847, two cottages were acquired and converted so that they could be used as a meeting place; they were registered as such on 27 April. As Brother Guy explained:
“The Lord opened our way to purchase two elligibly-situated [sic] cottages in Norton-street, and we converted these into a chapel that will accommodate about one hundred and fifty hearers. The frontage of the building is twenty-four feet, the depth to the back wall is eighteen feet, and there are eighteen feet of unoccupied land behind for a garden, or a future enlargement of the building; and the cost of the whole is 150l. The opening services took place on April 18th and 25th … . We have put a new floor nearly over the chapel, and inserted two new windows, with shutters and a door and a new pulpit and six new pews, and the place is properly ventilated.”
This meeting-place was clearly the one mentioned in the 1851 Ecclesiastical Census which referred to “two cottages converted into a chapel” in Norton Street in existence since 1847.
Also in 1847 the link between Hertford and Baldock was broken. Conference divided the Hertford mission into two ‘stations’ and Baldock was made the head of a mission, with two preachers, Brothers J. Guy and E. Powell, stationed to it. Petty reported that “in Hertford there are eight places of worship, but the moral state of the people is awful”, so it is hardly surprising that it would be Baldock rather than Hertford that turned out to be the driving force of Primitive Methodism in the east of Hertfordshire for the next seventy years. Even so, it was not an easy start; in the summer of 1847 it was clear that all was not well in Baldock, so much so that Brother Guy considered it necessary to use the columns of the Primitive Methodist Magazine to report that:
“there has been great depression in the straw-plaiting trade, and it is now deteriorating every week; and yet, during the harvest, there has been much more drunkenness and kindred vices than were formerly known in the neighbourhood. Previous scarcity has apparently been forgotten, various excessive indulgences have been cherished, and I have had cause to mourn over the delinquency of some who once appeared to be in a promising state of grace.”
Clearly, however, this set back was short lived. In his 1847-48 survey of nonconformity in Hertfordshire, William Upton recorded that the meeting-place at Baldock had accommodation for 80, with three Sunday services and an attendance of 50 at the fullest. Petty records that, by 1849, the converted cottages had become too small for the congregation. The building was therefore enlarged, but “still the place was low, unhealthy, and dilapidated, and not likely to serve for any length of time”. It is not difficult to see why, therefore, the society’s members took the view that “if we intended to lift the cause, and give it anything like firm footing in the place, we must have a chapel more suited to the times”. However, it would take a further eight years before a purpose-built chapel could be provided.
A permanent meeting-place
First, it was necessary to obtain “the sanction of General Missionary Committee to receive donations, etc”. Having done so, “a fund was commenced for that purpose, many contributing to it from one farthing per week upwards”. At length, presumably when a sufficient level of funds had been accrued, the society “sought and obtained the sanction of the District Building Committee to proceed with the undertaking. Plans and specifications were prepared, the work let by contract, and on Friday, July 17th, 1857, the foundation stone was laid by J. Newell, sen., a respected local preacher amongst the Wesleyans, and one of the first race of Methodists in this neighbourhood.” The cost of the new chapel was initially estimated to be £150, although less than a year later, it seems that the total cost had doubled.
The chapel was built on the east side of Norton Street (since renamed Church Street). Its design was based on the typical long rectangle pattern that was prevalent in Hertfordshire, as elsewhere. Building work must have proceeded apace, because the first service was held in September 1857. Even then, it seems that the building was not finished, according to a report in the Primitive Methodist Magazine:
“We deemed it best to open the chapel when we did – although it was far from being finished – as it was a time when our friends were best able to help us in money matters. … The chapel is a neat substantial brick building, covered with slates, and is capable of seating upwards of 300 persons. It has a gallery at one end, the under part of which shuts up, and serves as a school-room. It has a neat front, there being three large windows with circular heads, a small yard, and iron palisades. It is considered an ornament to the neighbourhood. The total cost of the new building, with gas fittings and every other thing, will be upwards of 330l.; old debt 85I. – making a total of upwards of 415l., towards which we have raised upwards of 80l.”
Clearly, the building of a chapel played a not inconsiderable part in the further growth of the society at Baldock. A report in the Primitive Methodist Magazine for 1858, referring to the Baldock Mission, said that “friends and supporters are increasing on this station.” The Baldock Mission was, at this time, under the care of the General Missionary Committee, but in 1865 the Baldock circuit was formed with 324 members and 3 ministers. Over the following fifty years, Baldock spread the cause across the northeast of the county, from Bennington and Sandon to Ashwell, and northwards across the border into Bedfordshire.
The circuit plan for the second quarter of 1875 lists 18 preaching places.
Life was still not without its problems, however, as is evident from a report that appeared in the Primitive Methodist Magazine for 1861 about the efforts being made to reduce Baldock chapel’s debt.
These efforts must, ultimately, have been successful, since, in 1899, the Primitive Methodist Magazine carried an article about Baldock’s “really aggressive work in connection with our Church”, commenting that it was “always pleasant to come across [such work] and more especially to come across it where we least expect to find it. We have known the Baldock Station in the London First District for some years, but this knowledge never led to the anticipation of aggressive work by it, but it is said that it is the unexpected which frequently happens, and in this case we sincerely rejoice that it is so.” The aggressive work in question focused on Hitchin, then with a population of 11,000, and Stevenage, with a population of 5,000. The article continued:
“In neither of these towns has Primitive Methodism had any position, though there was both room and need for it. The authorities of Baldock Station recognised the need, but with their limited means, and many liabilities, and only one minister they feared to venture. Under the guidance of the Rev. W Suttle they have, however, decided to mission these towns, and have inaugurated services in Hitchin. … Services will be shortly commenced in Stevenage, and in these efforts to extend the influence and usefulness of the Connexion, this somewhat poor station ought to meet with substantial encouragement, for it is for a few poor and burdened churches a heavy undertaking.”
A further report in the following year continued to sing the praises of the society at Baldock:
“It is pleasing to learn that the Baldock Circuit are taking possession of the large and growing town of Hitchin. This town has a population of 11,000, but till two years ago Primitive Methodism was entirely unknown in the place. It says much for the enterprise of the Baldock Station that a forward movement like this was undertaken. For the station has been among the poorest in the Connexion, situated as it is in a purely agricultural district. Its ministers could tell a pathetic story of hard toil amidst great discouragements – a decreasing population resulting, in spite of the greatest efforts, in a decrease in the congregations and membership of the church. Not only have the young men gone away from the neighbourhood, but in some instances those who have been connected with the little church and been its main support for a generation. Meanwhile, these rising towns are springing up on all sides. The present minister, Rev T Wallis, has been bold enough to move the minister’s place of residence from Baldock to Hitchin.”
Unfortunately, however, the factors which led to the expansion of Primitive Methodism beyond the boundaries of the Baldock circuit were, ultimately, also the cause of its own failure. As the reports in the Primitive Methodist Magazine in 1899 and 1900 showed, Baldock was one of the poorest stations in the Connexion; membership was also on the decline as a result of a movement of population from this largely agricultural area towards the growing urban areas of Hitchin, Stevenage and Letchworth. Whilst it might have been a bold move to relocate the manse to Hitchin, that relocation probably only served to add to the difficulties locally as well as to hasten Baldock’s decline. Baldock, which had been a mainstay of Primitive Methodism in eastern Hertfordshire since the early 1840s and which had been responsible for growth and chapel building at Hitchin, Letchworth and elsewhere, began to fade away and eventually closed its chapel in 1916, although the last entry in the baptism register was dated 22 July 1917.
There were three particular societies that played a considerable part in furthering the growth and development of Primitive Methodism in Hertfordshire, namely those that were established very early on in Watford, St Albans and Baldock. It is perhaps surprising, therefore, given the importance of these locations to the growth and development of Primitive Methodism in the county, that the society at Baldock, like the initial foundation at St Albans (see Sopwell Lane PM Chapel, St Albans), did not manage to survive until Methodist Union in 1932.
Primitive Methodist Magazine 1845; 1846; 1847; 1857; 1858; 1861; 1899 and 1900
William Upton’s Survey 1847-48 (as referred to at p.10 in Religion in Hertfordshire 1847-1851, Burg, Judith (ed.), Hertfordshire Record Publications Vol. 11, Hertfordshire Record Society, 1995.)
Ecclesiastical Census 1851 (as referred to at p.136 in Religion in Hertfordshire 1847-1851)
Petty, John, The History of the Primitive Methodist Connexion, from its Origin to the Conference of 1860, the First Jubilee Year of the Connexion, revised and enlarged by James Macpherson (London: J. Dickinson, 1880)
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies, NM4/7; NM4/11; NM6/47/1; AHH18/1
Baldock Museum, Late Victorian Baldock – A snapshot of Baldock in 1881 (2001: Baldock Museum & Local History Society)