Hungerford Circuit, Berkshire
Transcription of article in the Christian Messenger
Hungerford is a city of no mean reputation. Its municipal government is not of to-day, nor even of yesterday. Except for an addendum in the form of a parish council it comes straight out of the fourteenth century. To speak of a hocktide and high constable, of feofees, commoners and ale-tasters is almost to utter an unknown tongue. There are ‘tutti-men,” who, once a year, make a round of the town to collect a tax of twopence from every householder and exact a kiss from every lady. On that day the town seems deserted by ladies. They hide; some of them, however, it must be confessed, where they may easily be found. Much depends upon who have been appointed tutti-men. On that day an ancient horn is blown by a town-crier in sober uniform of ancient hue. The institutions of the town and its quaint civic customs furnish a page of romance from English politics.
Not less distinguished, only from another standpoint, are the ecclesiastical associations of the town. The records of local Primitive Methodism are rich in deeds of heroism in the fight for the Kingdom in face of fierce persecution, and in the spiritual character of the men and women who have formed and maintained the churches of the neighbourhood. Hungerford is the modern edition of the old Shefford mission, whence the preachers went forth to open for the connexion the towns and villages of four counties. On the border of the Circuit is Ashdown, where John Ride and Thomas Russell prayed for the county of Berkshire until one exclaimed “Yonder country’s ours.” “Lord give us Berkshire,” they cried. He did give it them. They came down from their Peniel to occupy Lambourne, Shefford, Aldbourne, and other places now on the Circuit plans of Hungerford and Newbury. This was in 1830. In three years there were eleven missionaries on the ground.
In the villages of Wiltshire and Berkshire we find those elements of Christian character and church service that are usually accounted the most characteristic of the denomination. Here is the fervour of worship that frequently finds expression in a hearty “Amen,” a fervour that “tunes the pulpit” in a better sense than King henry sought to tune it in his day. If the preachers in some places speak a broad county dialect, they know the very heart of the Gospel, and can present it so persuasively that not infrequently the word is followed by the signs we are taught to look for in the prayer meeting after Sunday evening service. Here the camp meeting flourishes in almost all its early glory. Numbers are not what they were, and methods vary here and there, but the traditions are unbroken. The old songs are sung, including, “Come and taste along with me, Glory, glory, glory,” the call for a “prayer ring” is well understood, and not infrequently conversions are witnessed. The missionary enterprise is warmly cherished. The people are imbued with a missionary spirit. It is part of their spiritual heritage. The gifts of these agriculturalists put to shame the contributions of many wealthier Circuits. Revenue on the scale of this and contiguous stations would double the Connexional income and would give a good start towards doubling it again. The average is two shillings per member.
Evangelism flourishes here. The people have a passion for saving souls. Led by the minister they go forth to persuade men to turn from their sin to holiness. During the past two years conversions have taken place in large numbers and have included some striking cases, amply confirming the faith of the workers that the Gospel still acts with transforming energy upon and within those who receive it with a sincere and wholehearted faith.
The Hungerford Circuit plan comprises fourteen societies. But because so many churches are necessary to sustain the Circuit organization we must not, therefore, in easy mental frame, class it as a weak Circuit. Not many years ago the station carried two married preachers, where it now sustains only one. Rural depopulation is a serious factor in these parts. The villages are small and the churches cannot be, under these circumstances, very large. The work is held back in the villages by the lack of suitable premises, which would be provided were it possible to build in the air. Some of the villages opened by Ride and Russell sixty years ago have lapsed for want of a permanent preaching room, and in other cases the society still holds on, though dependent upon the goodwill of tenants renting cottages suitable for services. The wonder is that, considering rural landlordism and the itinerant methods of farm workers, so many village causes have survived. At Froxfield services have been held for a longer period than most can remember. Soon, however, it is hoped, a chapel will be erected and the long struggle for God’s cause will have ended, for each society in the Circuit will then have its own building. But by the time one society gets its own building another has outgrown the accommodation of its earlier years. The Circuit is in the chapel building stage. This is due largely to the ambition and ability of the present minister, the Rev. H.M. Hull. Gifted with a strong physical constitution, abundant energy, and having the local reputation for being a genious for organization and getting money, he is the man for the day. Happily the conditions are favourable. The building of the church at Lambourne, to replace one that collapsed, made the late Rev. T. Kench an old man. A school is about to be erected here. In July last a church was opened at Aldbourne, the third erected in the village. It is a picturesque structure and architecturally shares the honours of the village with the handsome parish church, whose bells were violently rung to drown the voices of the first missionaries. The cost, with the site was £525, of which £325 has been raised. Froxfield comes next. Later it is hoped to replace the Hungerford chapel with a more worthy building. The present one was built in 1856, and would no doubt now be adequate to the requirements of the church had not the trustees at the beginning been unwise enough to trust the designing of the place to an amateur architect.
The new church at Shefford is of connexional interest. For twenty years the friends had cherished the hope of building, and had accumulated £200 towards the cost, but no site could be secured. The plot of ground they desired was owned by a gentleman of a peculiar religious order, who declined to sell, lease or give. The church stands on this site. How they came to acquire it furnishes an interesting story. The choir on its round of Christmas singing stood and debated whether to call at the house of this particular gentleman. One of the ladies had an impression that if they were allowed to sing it would lead to a site for the building they had set their hearts on, and this impression she communicated to her husband and the minister. The choir was received. A few weeks later the leaders were sent for and had the joy of receiving an offer of all the land required as a gift. The Ride and Russell Memorial Church is a pretty structure and worthily bears the honoured names of the first apostles to Berkshire. It cost £450, the whole of which was in hand at the opening.
Turning to more permanent conditions of Circuit life we begin with Hungerford. The town church has had a most interesting career and in various ways played a conspicuous part in the development of Connexional interests over what was the old Shefford mission. Shefford was the place of residence for the preachers, but Hungerford only had the facilities for the headship of the Circuit, and that it really was. The congregation to-day has in it some worthy members. The first to catch the eye of the preacher will be the old man at the front who punctuates his utterances with quiet fervid responses. He is over ninety years of age and is usually referred to by the friends as “General Grant.” Mr. Stephen New is the Circuit Secretary and a zealous worker. The face of Mr. John Gooding would be singled out in any congregation. He is one of the oldest local preachers, and a man of singularly beautiful character. Mr. W. Mapson is there, who held the Circuit stewardship during ten strenuous years. He recently celebrated the jubilee of his Connexional membership. The notices are made by Mr. G.T. Phelps, who at the age of eighty-six reads the various hand-writings without spectacles. Dressed in the garb of the early pioneers – single breasted coat, white neckband of the old pattern – the venerable steward makes a living picture. He has been steward beyond the memory of the oldest member; even he himself cannot remember when he did not fulfil those duties! His whole life has been bound up with the Church. Of his seven children three sons are ministers and the three daughters are ministers’ wives. His home from boyhood has seen the preachers come and go with the utmost freedom. The “preachers room” for more than fifty years sheltered the ministers of the Connexion. Distinguished Connexional leaders and the Circuit preacher alike have shared the unstinted hospitality of Mr. and Mrs. Phelps, the latter now gone home.
Ramsbury Church wields a powerful influence in the Circuit. It has always had a strong official element, and therefore been a power in Circuit courts. There is a fine property ay this place. Mr. John Rosier is the steward, and also represents the village on the District Council. One of the officials in the Circuit Steward – Mr. H.J. Lawrence, a man of winsome personality, who gives himself unstintingly to the service of the Circuit. Eighteen months ago he introduced a system of finance that has secured an unbroken immunity from Circuit deficits. The scheme was novel and daring in this locality and its acceptance ny the churches was mainly a tribute to his personal influence and ability. Lambourne has a fine property. The society owes more than can be told to the Bowsher family. They have been the mainstay of the cause in this village for years past.
It will not occasion any surprise that such a centre of Connexional influence should freely contribute workers for other fields. Among the laymen may be named Mr. J.H. Thompson, Sunday School Superintendent, and Mr. G. Griffin, junior Circuit steward at Newbury; Mr. U. Chamberlain, of Reading; Mr. Josiah Wooldridge, of Slough; the late Mr. George Cumner, for many years steward of Aberdare Circuit, and many others. The station has given to the ministry the Rev. A.J. Bull, of Bournemouth, Rev. T. Phelps, of Poole, who has spent the whole of his ministry in the district which called him out in 1874; Rev. Leonard Phelps, who went out to Canada as a Primitive Methodist and now occupies a distinguished position as a preacher in the United Methodist Church; Rev. J. Phelps, pastor of the Congregational Church at Solihull, Birmingham.
The present minister of the Church, Rev. H.M. Hull, is naturally at the front of the activity we have described. His liberation from the Swindon First Circuit as second preacher in order to undertake the superintendency of the Hungerford Circuit was a wise arrangement in the view of his recent success in evangelism, chapel-building, and the raising of the necessary funds for the purpose. He has, happily associated with him his father, who spent four years on the station as superintendent, and now resides in the town as a retired minister. His mother also is on the plan and is popular among the churches as a preacher.
Like Mr. Phelps, Mr. Hull, senior, is the head of a ministerial family. Besides the son who has succeeded him in the local work there are Rev. Edgar J. Hull, of Leintwardine, and the Rev F.U. Hull, of Leicester. The people feel that their minister is the man of the moment for them. He has won their esteem and confidence, and the hope is entertained that he will have a long and successful ministry on the lines so happily inaugurated.
Christian Messenger 1907/42