This article is reproduced by kind permission of This England Magazine, P.O. Box 52, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL50 1YQ

Stoke Goldington chapel blossomed for 100 years

by Bernard A Barton

The rise and fall of Stoke Goldington Chapel reflects the changing way of life affecting many villages in England up to and after world war one. With the disappearance; of old habits and the gradual decline in public worship, sadly the chapel - along with those in other small villages - eventually had to close its doors


There's the Church,

There's the Steeple

Open the Door and

there's all the People.

How many, I wonder, will recall that old jingle and the actions that went with it? Simple enough lines, yet how descriptive of the average Sunday scene in those uncomplicated days when life in most of our remote villages was centered around the Established Church.

Their attractive buildings are so sited that, in retrospect, it is abundantly clear the intention was that the church should form the focal point of the village, providing a subtle appeal to the rural community it sought to serve. We are all familiar with the shapely spire or bell tower, usually rising above surrounding trees, forming an attractive silhouette on the skyline:: a comforting landmark and a sure sign to all that "People here on Earth do Dwell."

No such rural scene is complete without its rectory or vicarage; a building of some character standing in pleasant grounds, often sharing a boundary wall with the neighbouring churchyard, through which gateway and path provide the incumbent with ready means of access to the church. One can only speculate that the establishment held the view that rectors would be blessed with a sizeable family, and do more than the average amount of entertaining. This may well have been true in those localities where the parish was acknowledged to be "a good living," having a loyal following of enthusiastic parishioners, including several influential gentry of means. Regrettably, times have changed and it is a sad reflection on presentday religious fervour when it has to be recognised that many of these fine old premises have gradually fallen into disrepair, with the incumbent and his small family either struggling to maintain appearances in part of the now too-spacious rectory, or rehoused in a more conventional type of residence.

Before continuing, it must be explained that I intentionally chose the Established Church by way of introduction to chapel affairs to focus the desired amount of attention on the fact that, before the growth of nonconformity in this country, there existed no other major religious influence likely to disturb the undivided allegiance of these small communities. To define this as a kind of monopoly is too strong an expression, but its use may help us to appreciate the extremely difficult personal problems that must have arisen in the early years as small groups of evangelists attempted to introduce, within an existing church-loving community, some alternative form of organised worship embodying the same fundamental Christian beliefs.

All they could really offer was a less formal approach, combined possibly with a greater sense of personal participation. Happily, those struggles are a thing of the past and, though over the years various denominations have been able to set up a comprehensive range of chapels, they were for obvious reasons never able to embark upon building programmes which, in rural areas at least, could in any way compare with the architectural beauty of the established churches.

Such material considerations are, however, of no consequence when measuring the true worth of any religious group, and in developing this theme what could be more appropriate than taking an example based on personal impressions gained during very close association with the Congregational Chapel and folk in the village of Stoke Goldington?

In doing this it is necessary to refer back to my article on the Godfrey Sisters (published in This England in September 1976), my great-aunts, with whom I spent so many long and memorable holidays in the early 1900s. Sundays in their household was a day to remember. Not that the the sisters were any less dedicated during the week, for bible reading was a regular daily feature, and many were the texts they would quote - chapter and verse-as the occasion demanded. It was simply that Sunday activities at the chapel, which was in full view of their front parlour window, allowed much more scope for full expression of their faith. The sisters had held the keys for many years and, with other helpers, cared for the chapel fabric as if it were part of their own home.

The chapel dates back to 1819 and. compared with the village church, is quite a plain building, with accommodation for 200 to 300 people. Unlike the well-sited church, it stands some distance back from the road, not readily noticeable to passers-by. Externally, one of the most interesting features was the timber portico framing the main entrance. This was orginally part of the John Bunyan Meeting House at Bedford. In 1848, when the Bedford building was pulled down, the portico was purchased by a Mr. Jno. Adkins of Ravenstone, who kindly presented it to Stoke Goldington. Unfortunately, it appears to have been destroyed for, when the village chapel fell into disuse and the building and adjacent chapel houses were adapted for private use, the contractor, unaware of the porticos history, took it away when the work was completed.

An additional point of historical interest came to light about the same time and I am indebted to the present owner of The Manse (Sir Robert Bradlaw) for being able to quote the following -`acts from the old minute book of `;The Stoke British School", as found in the chapel ... "The British School Society was undenominational, but the majority of its supporters were non-conformists who did not wish their children to attend the schools of the National Society for promoting the poor in the principles of the Established Church ... On March 13, 1837 a meeting took place of The Friends of Education in Stoke at which members of the Church of England were present, when it was agreed that a school should be established ... In 1838 an application was made to the National Society for a grant towards the erection of a schoolroom, allowing 6 ft. per child

The Society donated £60 and the Treasury £72. A temporary room was used from autumn of 1837 until the permanent School School House could be built ... The building commenced October 1, 1838 .The new schoolroom was opened at the beginning of 1839 and opened as a Chapel .

The Trustees did not acquire the Chapel House until November 8, 1842 ... This was originally two cottages ... On June 16, 1845, the British School closed and the children were received at the National School ...

It is not clear from these minutes whether the chapel, with its convenient Sunday School accommodation, played any part in the six years' life of this British School venture ( 1839-45), though the reference made to chapel and chapel houses makes it a distinct possibility. Chapel life evidently blossomed in those days and, lacking evidence to the contrary, it may be assumed that this happy state of affairs continued at least up to the 1900s.

Internally, the chapel lay-out was of the simplest. Illumination was by oil lamps, stored in summer-time beneath the raised platform on which stood the altar table. A sizeable gallery spanned the full width of the building. The area underneath this was screened from the body of the chapel and had its individual front entrant:. also an exit into the garden at the rear. A covered stairway gave access to the gallery. Suitably furnished with bench seats and harmonium, this room provided ideal accommodation for the extremely well-attended Sunday School, which was ably conducted by an enthusiastic band of helpers.

Apart from the pulpit. the most outstanding feature in the chapel was the organ with its familiar array of pipes. How and when this instrument came to be installed is not known. but in all probability it had previously given service elsewhere.

An interesting fact revealed itself recently, when, one of the Godfrey descendants informed me that she has the violin that belonged to her great-uncle, Tom Godfrey, who played it when he was a member of the chapel orchestra before the organ was installed: A date in the body of this violin states that it was repaired in London in 1880.

Too young at the turn of the century to take much interest in the chapel services, my early attendances would find me in the gallery, along with other children. Then came the time when I could take my turn at "blowinging the organ"; always with a firm warning to keep close watch on the rise and tall of the indicator-a lead weight suspended by string over a pulley wheel-which by its position signified when the bellows were getting short of wind. One lapse and sure enough the organ began to sound like a chorus of dying bagpipes. Ultimately, I was occasionally given the chance to act as organist, tackling those lively Moody and Sankey hymn tunes to be found in their collection of "Sacred Songs and Solos". The friendly atmosphere prevailing on these many happy occasions, supplemented by the more personal relationships formed during the week in the village, on the farms and in the harvest fields, doubtless went a long way towards creating a feeling that we young visitors (including my brothers and sister) had become part of it all; a feeling which, at the lime, we lightheartedly accepted as a matter of course, only to recognise its true value later in life.

It has, of course, to be acknowledged that long family history in a compact environment meant that, for us, conditions in Stoke Goldington were ;particularly favourable. Where else, but in that small village chapel, could one expect to see so many relatives ... the Godfreys, Greens, Warrens, Wesleys, Hills and Olds, side by side with such close friends as the Blands, Adams, Loveseys, Carolls, Dowdys; Darbys, etc. What is more, leaving the chapel for a moment and taking the broader vie-,.;!, we learned to appreciate the equally friendly attitude of the church folk who, by reason of their long standing and influence in the village, were helpful in so many ways and ever-mindful of the well-being of one and all.

Chapel services were invariably conducted by lay preachers drawn from the surrounding district. This frequently called for a journey by pony and trap or other similar Conveyance and here again the Godfrey sisters I with their instinctive desire to be of service were usually to the fore, and in offering their humble hospitality they undoubtedly gained considerable satisfaction. On such occasions the mealtime scene in the front parlour was unforgettable. Snow white tablecloth and serviettes beautifully ironed; best china and cutlery; homely fare with preserves, honey and cakes-with the preacher solemnly giving thanks from his place of honour in the big armchair. Obviously somewhat overawed by the occasion, we young ones were at first "seen and not heard", but found our tongues as we were gradually drawn into the conversation.

The author taking an afternoon nap during harvesting on the farm of John Roddis at Stoke Goldington about 1910

Brought up from childhood in a small village from which families seldom strayed far, and in an environment rich with good, honest living, it is probably not surprising that certain members of both the Godfrey and Wesley families, encouraged by example during their active chapel lives, eventually fulfilled the obligations attached to lay preaching, occasionally taking services both in Stoke Goldington and nearby villages. Actually, many years later, when on a visit to Godalming. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Congregational minister there was none other than a distant cousin from the Newport Pagnell area, the Rev. Douglas Godfrey.

Though world war one and the end of my schooldays finally broke the sequence of annual August holidays, more profound and far-reaching changes were imminent. As events proved, a new era was in the making; the widespread effects of which eventually penetrated deep into the remotest parts of the country. Stoke Goldington being no exception. A feeling of restlessness was in the air and the younger generation, particularly those previously destined by family tradition to work on the land, became attracted by the potential advantages afforded by urban development; openings which with improved mobility were now becoming available.

Consequently, there began a slow loosening of ties and habits that had stood for many years; a factor which doubtless had some bearing on the gradual decline in public worship that made itself evident in many areas. Add to all this 20 years of very unsettled peace, culminating in a second world war and the ever-deteriorating situation in many of the smaller churches and chapels gave rise to considerable concern. The "blossom" was beginning to fade. Chapel folk, lacking the resources available to the Established Church, were in these circumstances at a distinct disadvantage and what eventually occurred in Stoke Goldington was unfortunately typical of the fate suffered in many other villages.

Few of the dedicated, staunch workers who had maintained such a high standard of Christian service in the early part of the century remained and in the absence of equivalent loyalty from the younger generation, the chapel doors which had first opened in 1819 were finally closed ... so now "There's no Chapel, there's no Steeple, Gone the Old Porch. where are the People?" A disappointing conclusion after over 100 good years.

Yet there comes to mind an interesting thought arising from the fact that the only burial ground was the one adjoining the village church. In the Final Reckoning, therefore, the "earthly labels" attached to those groups of worshippers seeking the Promised Land by way of slightly different paths were, as it turned out, of little significance, for on that earthly journey to their final resting place, each and every villager traversed the same pathway to the church on the hill!

Epilogue. Perhaps all is not lost, for when I last entered the chapel building it had been
adapted for use as a fine conservatory, housing many beautiful plants. Yes. Blooming once again!

Bernard A Barton September 1976

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