Bradfield Circuit, Berkshire
Transcription of Article in the Christian Messenger by Rev. Arthur T. Slater
Few English Shires can boast the possession of more places of historical and antiquarian interest than Breezy Berks, one feature of which is the vale of the White Horse immortalized in “Tom Brown’s Schooldays,” and another, the famous Bucklebury Common, half a mile from our Bradfield
Chapel, with its fine avenue of trees, over a mile in length, one of the oldest and noblest in the country. If these Bucklebury Oaks could speak we would let their message go forth as the history of Primitive Methodism in this area. Since 1830 they have sheltered Camp Meetings of great fervour and power. Right in the centre of Berkshire, on a beautiful upland standing between the Thames and Kennet, are the six churches comprising the Bradfield Circuit.
It was in 1830 that Russell and Ride knelt in prayer for Berkshire, and Russell rising from his knees cried: “Brother Ride! yonder country’s ours, and we will have it.” But Primitive Methodism had been in the County a year or so before that date. The earliest date we can find is one a year earlier than is recorded in any of the histories we have read, and strangely enough is to be found over the signature of the Vicar of Ashampstead in the visitor’s book in the Parish Church of that village. He writes “The Primitive Methodists had been working here since 1828, first in a barn and afterwards in a humble chapel which gave place to a better structure in 1872. Among the Primitive Methodist notables here were Mrs. Ann Street and Mr. Isaac Nullis, a preacher among them, who paid off debts on Quicks Green, Wallingford and Plumstead Chapels.” Here we get a glimpse of the important work often done by unofficial members; for what happened, one imagines, was that Nanny (Mrs. Ann) Street in removing from Wiltshire to Berkshire in 1827, had brought with her some of the spirit which was moving the former County. Either that or Isaac Nullis or some other unattached believer began work on Primitive Methodist lines in Ashamptead in 1828. If not Nanny Street then we certainly think Isaac Nullis must be credited with that first beginning. It is well known that very early he held services in his house at Ashampstead, where in 1828, coincidently, his distinguished evangelist son, Isaac Septimus Nullis was born.
Officially. Berkshire Primitive Methodism began on Good Friday, 1829, when at Wootton Bassett, Wilts, a prayer-meeting was held to pray for the success of the Mission soon to be started in Berkshire. The first attempt failed, but Thomas Russell and John Ride in 1830 went forward with such fiery fervour and undaunted zeal that by the end of the same year, in face of hostile circumstances and cruel difficulties, they had established in the County fifty preaching places, ten local preachers, and three hundred members.
Edward Kirby, of Bradfield, hearing from a Mr. Goddard, of Russell’s brutal imprisonment for selling 10d. worth of gospel literature without a licence, became excited to see and hear for himself and walked to Hermitage to hear Russell preach, and afterwards prevailed on Russell to visit Bradfield where Kirby hid a little chapel. Russell during this visit also preached at Beenham, Bucklebury Common, and Burnt Hill. A Society was formed at Bradfield on January 5th, 1831. John Ride also came to Ashampstead Common, where services were held in a barn. Nanny Street attended these services and became filled with spiritual zeal. She opened her cottage at Quicks Green (Ashampstead) for meetings which were so crowded that a chapel became absolutely necessary and was built on land given by Isaac Nullis, a few yards away. In Nanny Street’s cottage that consecrated missionary lsaac Septimus Nullis was converted. Isaac Nullis also built a chapel at Yattendon which he opened for the use of those converts who had been walking to the Ashampstead Common Barn, and later on to the Quicks Green Chapel for worship. This was used for several years, but in 1877, Elijah Bew, of Yattendon – of sainted memory – built and presented to the Connexion the present beautiful structure. Bradfield, Beenham, Burnt Hill, Yattendon, and especially Quicks Green were now aflame with God and experienced an extraordinary outpouring of the Holy Spirit and a mighty work was effected throughout the countryside.
When the Reading Mission was inaugurated on April 12th, 1835, it was a Bradfield layman, Edward Kirby, who was the first preacher on that memorable Sunday, while from Bradfield and Beenham bands of members came to support the services.
From the beginning these village churches have been splendidly served by strong men and gifted and devoted women. Historians have rightly given first place among these to Nanny Street of Quicks Green, whose extraordinary spiritual gifts exerted a tremendous influence on all the societies on the Bradfield side of the Shefford Circuit, which later became the Reading Branch of the Berkshire Mission, and in 1839, the Reading Circuit. She and her cottage were the centre of a great revival which for many years swept over this district, and it is recorded that people came very long distances to Quicks Green to catch the flame. Much has been written elsewhere of Isaac Septimus Nullis, whose “Life” in a book of three-hundred-and-thirty-six pages was penned by Jesse Herbert, and published by Messrs. Barcham and Beecroft, London, and our own Book Room. But special mention should be made of Isaac Nullis, the father, who, while not so passionately religious as his son, was a business man of great Christian character and sincerity, and whose statesmanship and practical help did much for this circuit, and for Reading, in those days. Of others who have passed away (except the second named, now residing in U.S.A.) mention should be made of Henry Harris, George Patey, James Cox, Charles Johnson, James Johnson and Josiah Trotman of Bradfield; James Holmes, Richard Turner, Joseph Prouton, James Rivers, and Thomas Street of Quicks Green; John Fisher and John Harding of Theale; Henry Alexander and George Brunsden of Burnt Hill; Mr. and Mrs. Layley of Beenham.
Bradfield became a branch of the Reading Circuit in 1877, with the Rev. T. Reeve as its first minister. Mr. Reeve is remembered as a man of indifferent health, of fine Christian character, of great gentleness, of mental alertness, and strong personality. The housing problem was acute in those days; no minister’s house could be found, and after living in rooms at Bradfield, the Branch minister went to reside in Reading in 1881. This was too far from the centre of things, so upon the appointment of the Rev. John Pearson in 1882, the following resolution passed the Branch Quarterly Meeting: “That as the Branch has failed to secure a house at Bradfield for the incoming minister we request the Reading Circuit Quarterly Meeting to give Theale to the Branch and allow the preacher to reside there.” Theale is four-and-a-half miles from Bradfield and five miles from Reading. The Rev. Alfred Warcup succeeded John Pearson in 1886. It was during the successful ministry of the Rev. Edwin Millichamp that land was obtained adjoining the Bradfield Chapel and the present Manse erected. Mr. Millichamp did a great work among these hills. A fine presence, a strong visitor, a robust mind and a thorough Christian Minister, he was highly esteemed.
In 1895, Bradfield became an Independent Circuit in the second year of Charles Dunham’s ministry. Since then the following ministers have served: Revs. F.W. Harper, Luke Stafford, Edwin Millichamp (2nd term), John French, Alfred Clarke, F. Leadley, and J. T. Ridley, who was succeeded by the present writer in 1917, after six years of most successful service.
The history of the circuit has not been one of steady development, but of somewhat varying fortunes. The early days were days of triumph; then came a period of fairly steady growth; then followed several years of declining interest and decreasing membership. Its recovery dates from 1911, when Mr. Ridley came on to the circuit.
Throughout all the years the churches have been fortunate in having splendid officials and devoted members who have counted it a joy to serve Primitive Methodism in these villages. At no period were we better served than today. The present Circuit Steward, Mr. Tom West, is a man who, by hard work and sound commonsense and sterling character, has won for himself a special place in the life of this neighbourhood. He is held in high regard by all sections of the community. He is a source of great strength to the circuit and a minister’s friend.
Bradfield is a strong and virile society of one-hundred-and-seven members. Mr. F.G. Mayers is the present Steward and seems to have for his motto: “Never absent, never late.” Mr. Arthur Johnson is an efficient Trust Secretary and Choir-master. There is a Sunday school of one-hundred scholars and nineteen teachers, with Mr. Robert Clem, Superintendent, and Mr. John Nickles, Secretary. We have a fine body of young people and a Recreation Club of fifty members. A Ladies Committee is a source of great strength to us. By happy and steady work throughout the year they help to make our financial problem easy. Alterations to the church have been made since the accompanying photograph was taken some years ago, and it is now one of the most commodious and comfortable village churches in the South of England. It is a delight to preach at Bradfield. Empty pews are not conspicuous, and the morning congregation, and especially in the proportion of men is a joy not always found in Town Churches.
Beenham is a small Society of twenty members, where amidst difficult conditions, Messrs. George Webb and Charles Burgess and their families have laboured with fine loyalty. They are now joined by Mr. S. F. Johnson and other workers and progress should be made,
Quicks Green is still the “heart” of the circuit although only served by twenty-five members. In the class meeting, which always follows the morning service, one has an unusual sense of the Divine Presence, and the grand men and women of other days seem very near. It is here where we feel most the movement of the young to the towns and the drift of the people to the centres of industry. But a few houses are near the chapel and the people for the most part come to service from Ashampstead, Basildon, and Buckhold. Mr. Henry Smith is the only remaining member of the old guard, but he is a strong worker still and a model class leader. His son is Trust Secretary, and two sons of Thomas Street and great grandsons of Nanny Street are Society Steward and Organist respectively, the latter also being the Junior Circuit Steward.
Theale has a membership of thirty-six and is doing well. Mr. Jacob Smith for very many years has been a faithful Steward. Mr. J.W. Leavey is Trust Secretary and Circuit Secretary, Mr. E. Flitter, Superintendent of the Sunday-school. Mr. C. Westcott, leader of a most promising Christian Guild, and Mr. W. Pitman, the best of caretakers for twenty-six years.
Burnt Hill is a place where we have fine workers who serve the church with undoubted devotion, but cannot be induced to pull in double harness. We have a thriving school and good services, but we ought to do better – the neighbourhood is responsive to the gospel message.
Yattendon Church is a beautiful building, and we have a good Society of twenty-two members. A Sunday-school started a year ago, under the Superintendency of Mr. C. Hewitt, is progressing very well. Mr. Joseph May is a Steward of proved devotion, and Mrs. Ilsley is the Trust Secretary.
Although the people of this circuit never tire of speaking of its glorious early days, there is no dead hand of history upon them. Their traditionalism is inspirational, their memories are incentives. The people are mentally progressive and call for a modern ministry. Primitive Methodism is strong and healthy in these villages. We are the only Free Church in five of the villages, and the only Methodism in all six. We have a firmer hold upon the people than has the Established Church, with which we work in closest friendliness. Fortunately we have no chapel debts. A small debt is upon the manse property, which includes a cottage and land, but £289 has been paid off recently, leaving our total debt at £199. The Cemetery at Bradfield has just been enlarged and improved as part of our memorial scheme for those fourteen men from the circuit who gave their lives in the war. We are well staffed with capable and willing local preachers, and receive very valuable help from preachers on the Reading Circuit. In the faith, courage and hopefulness of the men and women of these days we can see the future holding promise of growing power.
Christian Messenger 1920/298