Reminiscences of The Old Baptist Meeting House, Winslow, Bucks

(And the cause of God attached to the place)
By Thos. Matthews, Melbourne, Australia, 1872

Published in the Buckingham Advertiser, Saturday April 20 1895

The Old Baptist Meeting house at Winslow is supposed to have been built early in the seventeenth century. The date on the porch is 1695, but it is thought by antiquaries that it relates to that part of the building only, the original building being of an earlier date.

The Chapel stands in a most secluded spot, once a garden belonging to the family of Giles, some of whom are interred within the place.  It is approached by a passage between two buildings, about a hundred yards long, from a corner of the Market Square, so that anyone passing through the town would not discover its whereabouts unless directed to it.  It is a brick building, very low in the walls, with high pitched roof of tiles, very barn like, the windows are low, like cottage windows, with quarry lights of green or horn-like glass - having ledged abutters to each on the outside - which no doubt were very necessary at the time it was built - and even in my time the spirit of persecution ran so high, that the windows would have been speedily demolished unless so protected.

The interior is very plain, with whitewashed walls and ceiling, the ceiling half-way up the roof, with a large oak tie-beam about a foot square, running across the place about 8 feet from the floor, with queen posts, and collar of large size - (this beam was removed and the side posts put in, about 1826).  The floor is of red bricks or tiles - except the stone slabs, which cover the graves - these now form the greater part of the floor.

The pulpit is a large box-like structure, now at the West end - (at one time it was opposite the porch) with a pew on each side, and a massive oak table with turned legs.  Seats ran round the walls, and loose forms - without backs, were placed across the body of the place. (This was altered by the writer's father, and backs were put to the seats).  Some years since a door was opened at the East end of the Chapel, and the porch entrance disused.  The little Chapel will seat about 100 persons.

The mortal bodies of many of the Lord's precious ones slumber here, awaiting the Archangel's trump, when it will be a glorious place, for it has graves under nearly the whole of both chapel and burial ground, including even the footpaths.  During my time several were buried there, but my father had the graves dug so deep that three coffins might be placed on each other.

About the year 1830, a large addition to the congregation occurred, when a gallery was erected at the east end of the building, four seats deep - this has since been narrowed to one seat.  The dates of the various alterations connected with the place may be found in the "Church Book" kept by my father.

The first Pastor was Mr Benjamin Keach, the author of many valuable works, viz - "A key to open Scripture Metaphors" etc .  He was the son of John Keach, and was born at Stoke Hammond, on the 29th February 1640.  He has sometimes been called the Buckinghamshire Bunyan.  In 1660, he was appointed as pastor over this people, and he remained at Winslow about eight years, where he was called upon to endure much persecution, and suffering both in prison and in the pillory, his crimes being that of preaching the Gospel and publishing a little book entitled "The Child's Instructor, or a new and easie Primmer."  This book contained some argument against Infant Baptism, and so gave offence to the Clerical Party at Winslow, who caused him to be apprehended.  At the Assizes in Aylesbury, October 8th 1664, he was tried for this offence, before Lord Chief Justice Hyde, who sentenced him to pay a fine of £20, to stand in the pillory, both at Aylesbury and Winslow, and have his book publicly burnt by the common hangman, which was done on the Market Square at Winslow.  He continued to preach at the little old meeting house, and some of the neighbouring villages for some four years after this, but finding no rest, he removed to London, where he became eminent both as a writer and preacher, and died on the 18th July, 1704, in the sixty-fourth year of his age.

From Keach's time down to the end of the 18th century, the information is very scanty, but for some years at the end of the century the pulpit was supplied by the Ministers from the Bedford Union, and some of these were not altogether Calvinistic in their preaching.  Some time after the year 1800, a Mr Dormer, who was originally a farm labourer, and naturally intelligent, being called by the grace of God, used the talents which the Lord had given him in the teaching of the young as a schoolmaster on the week days, and ministered to the Lord's children on the Sabbath.  He appears to have been acceptable to this people as their pastor for many years.  He, however, accepted a call from a larger Church at Bodicote, near Banbury, Oxon.

Afterwards the pulpit was occupied by supplies who were men who spoke the Shibboleth of the people of the Lord God of Hosts, unstammeringly and fearlessly.

From about my 18th year to my 28th year I heard him, Mr Dormer, preach many times in the little Baptist Meeting House.  He was a plain outspoken preacher of the plan of Salvation, and emphatically a man of prayer.  He slept at our house several times, and I have heard him wrestling with the Lord in Prayer two hours before I arose in the morning.
Some whom I knew in my youth were baptised by Mr Dormer, while he was minister of the old place - viz., Phillis Cox, and William Anstee were baptised in the Brook at a sheep wash, on the Great Horwood road, there being no baptistry in the meeting-house.  On this occasion a large concourse of people assembled principally for curiosity, and some to persecute or ridicule.  I might here say that the people of Winslow were then generally a most bigoted race, and some being then inclined to cause a disturbance, a person who was leader of the Choir at the Church of England shouted Silence! in a stentorian voice, there was a profound silence during the remainder of the service.  This was the more remarkable as this person was looked upon as the leader of those who came to cause a disturbance.  At this time a Mr John Gibbs, who had with five others of the same name been Church Ringers, was the Deacon - and after Mr Dormer's removal got the place supplied with preachers the best he could, at times not getting preaching more than once in three months.

The account of this little Baptist cause has now come down to the time of the writer's own personal remembrance - my parents having now come to reside in the town - (it being my father's birthplace).  There being no other dissenting place of Worship in Winslow, a mixed congregation had been accustomed to worship in the Baptist Chapel for some time, the Baptists then being but few.  About the year 1816 the Independents fitted up a Chapel for themselves - at first supplied by Students from Mr Bull's Independent College at Newport Pagnell.  In a short time a Mr John Wilson was settled over the Independent cause - and a Church formed.
About this time my mother and father had become impressed, or awakened to their need of a Saviour, and had begun to enquire the way of Salvation, and coming in contact with the good old Deacon, John Gibbs, who was my father's uncle, he taught them the way more perfectly, which resulted under the hand of the Spirit of God in enabling them to declare themselves disciples of the Lord Christ.  At this time they worshipped with the Independents, as there was only occasionally a service in the Old Baptist Meeting.  Mr Wilson, therefore expected that they would be some of the first members of his Church.  Prior to the formation of the Independent Church, Mr Aston, of Buckingham (jocosely called Bishop Aston), came and delivered a severe tirade against Baptism,  hoping thereby to strengthen his cause, but it had the reverse upon my parents.  My father had attended a Baptist Ministry during his apprenticeship with his uncle, Mr William Matthews, of Leighton Buzzard, who was a Baptist, therefore, he was somewhat enlightened on that subject, and after earnest consideration, they were fully decided that the Baptism of believers by immersion was fully laid down in the New Testament.  They therefore applied to their old uncle, John Gibbs, the Deacon, who confirmed them in their belief, and they were baptised and joined the little despised flock.

The old Deacon, Mr John Gibbs, was now about 70 years of age, and like Simeon of old, had been praying and waiting for a successor to his office, and was rejoiced that the Lord had answered his prayer by raising up one of his own relatives to take his place in the little Church.
The deaconship was soon transferred to my father, who must have been then in or about his 32nd year.  He was like most of those who have found the blessedness of salvation, very desirous of serving the Lord's cause, and he made every effort to support the service of the Lord in his little sanctuary at Winslow.  At this time the pulpit was only supplied about once a month by such Ministers as could be procured at a small expense, the cause then being very low.  My father's house being the home for Ministers, I had an opportunity of knowing many of them in my early years - say from 1819 to 1830.

Part 2: Buckingham Advertiser, 27 April 1895

A Mr Corbett, of Olney, supplied several times, but on his last visit he caught cold from sleeping on a damp bed at an hotel, which resulted in his death.  A Mr Hill, of Hanslope, also occasionally supplied on a week evening.  He afterwards left that place and went to America.  Also Joseph Ludgate, from the adjacent village of Swanbourne, where a little cause had been raised up and a chapel built.  This servant of the Lord was early called home to his Master to receive his reward.

After this a Mr William Collett, who was first Pastor of the Swanbourne Church, gave Winslow friends his help, and preached about once a month on the Sabbath evening, and more frequently on a week evening.  He was a dear old Saint, full of grace and truth.  To show the state of feeling of the inhabitants of Winslow then towards those who attended this little sanctuary (especially of those who called themselves true Church people).  I have seen this good old man, as he was leaving the place to return home, pelted with mud and stones in the public streets by people who prided themselves upon their respectability.  Indeed in my childhood, I have myself been assailed by adults, calling themselves respectable, who have jeeringly called me a long-eared meetinger, because my parents were dissenters. In fact, at that time the state of Winslow was such that to prevent outbreaks of disturbance in the service at the Meeting house, my father has been obliged to read the Act of Parliament which protects dissenters from molestation in their worship.  This generally had the desired effect in quieting the disturbance.

Indeed the little flock seem to have been the objects of the world's hatred and persecution, for at the time my father became Deacon he found abundant proofs of the molestations that the congregation had been subject to, in a large quantity of cord, attached to the handle of the Chapel door, and on a balustrade in the porch, which had been used to fasten the door, to prevent the congregation getting out, so that the door could not be opened until the cords were broken by main force, or some friends would come and cut them.

The dear old Mr Collett continued to preach occasionally at Winslow, until near his death.  When I grew up to manhood, I had the pleasure to erect, and write, a tablet to his memory in the little Chapel at Swanbourne.

For some years after this my father had a difficulty to get the pulpit supplied, the Church being few, and poor in this world's goods, so that they could not pay the travelling expenses of preachers.  He therefore accepted the help of some lay preachers, who were desirous of preventing the entire closing of the place.  Among these I remember, Thomas Orchard, of Swanbourne, William Anstee of Whaddon, Daniel, Great Brickhill, Thornton Sheffield, of Great Brickhill.  The latter once came and preached to only four persons, and a person of the name of W. Weldon who had been a soldier, preached as he was passing the town.

About this time, my father, with three others, viz., John Adey, David Norris, and John Ridgeway, took of the word of the Gospel to the dark village of Great Horwood, which made its way, until an Independent Church was formed - of which Mr John Adey became first pastor - this was the means in the hand of God in transforming one of the darkest to one of the most enlightened villages thereabouts.

My father toiled in the Sabbath School there for some years, until his sentiments were found to clash with the preacher, Mr John Adey, and he was so driven back to his little own spiritual home at Winslow.  As an instance of the darkness, and ignorance of that village, I might state that although I was then only a lad of ten or eleven years, yet I taught young women of 22 their alphabet.

And I might relate as an instance of a precocious memory, that of a little girl of nine years, who received from my father, a copy of Dr. Watts' Hymns, and first Catechism, one Sunday, and repeated from memory on the following Sunday, the whole of the Catechism and Prayers, and six of the Hymns.

But to return to the little old Meeting-house, during the time my father was engaged in the Sabbath School at Great Horwood, he had evening services at Winslow, as frequently as he could, as he could, and being now liberated from his school duties at Great Horwood, he resolved to establish a Sunday School in connection with the Baptist Chapel at home, and being deeply impressed by the painful necessity there was of instructing the rising generation in writing, so many young people, especially female servants, being unable to write to their friends, that he determined to teach writing in the morning of the Sabbath to those scholars old enough.  This continued for some years, and many a poor girl who afterwards went out to service, was thankful to him for enabling her to write home.

Some time after the Sunday School had been established, and when the pulpit was only occupied once a fortnight, about the year 1826, a Mr Barrows, who had been for some time Minister of the Independent Church, having a disagreement with part of his Church, the party who adhered to him, solicited my father to allow them to use the Baptist Meeting-house, at such times as it was not required for Baptist services, which request he complied with, and Mr Barrows occupied the pulpit six times in the month, besides week night services.  Mr Barrows being a taking preacher, his congregation over filled the little place, which necessitated the erection of a gallery as before related.  When Mr Barrows left, some of his people joined the Baptists, and became members of the little Church, Mr John Dumbleton becoming their Pastor.  From this time the place was more regularly supplied, although the congregation was very fluctuating.  Among those who supplied the pulpit, I remember the following Ministers, William Mobbs, Dormer, Smith, of Oxford; Smith, of New Mill; Collier, of Ivenhoe; Meaken, of Waddesdon Hill; and Mr. Ralph of Banbury, at the time I left England, the little Church had no settled Minister.

NOTE. - The Mr. John Gibbs so frequently mentioned in this narrative, was buried within the Chapel, April 3rd, 1826, aged 82 years, and Mary his wife, was also buried there March 27th 1828, aged 80 years.  In the same building there is an inscription upon a monumental slab, stating that "William Matthews for many years Deacon of this place of worship - died May 19th 1860, aged 73 years."
"And Mary, his wife, died Dec. 11th, 1856 aged 71 years."

This is a list of the names on the stones in the meeting house and yard erected before my time
(Wm. Matthews):-

Grace Aldridge, daughter of Thomas and Grace Aldridge.  She departed this life March 22nd 1726, in the _ year of her age.

In memory of Sarah Giles, relict of William Giles and daughter of Benjamin Morley, gentleman.  She deceased Sept. ye 26th, 1726, aged 7_ years.

In memory of Sarah, daughter of Thos. and Sarah Foster, who died April 11th, 1727, aged _ years.
Also of Dick their son, who passed unto Life Eternal, April 17th, 1737.

Here lieth the body of Martha, the relict of Thos. Burch, and daughter of Samuel Norman, who departed this life August 29th, 1731, aged 36 years.

On the South side of this tomb lieth the body of Mr Samuel Norman, who departed this life Nov. 22nd, 1735, aged 76 years, and likewise of Mrs Martha Norman, who departed this life Nov. 21st, 1742, aged 79 years.

"Here lies inter'd the body of Mary Giles, wife of Daniel Giles, who departed this life August 21st, aged 58 years.
And also the body of Francis Collier, her sister, deceased Nov. 6th, 1734, aged 48 years."
Also in memory of Daniel Giles, Senr., who departed this life April 5th, 1747, aged 74 years. ***
__________

The foregoing monumental inscriptions are still to be found within the Old Chapel [1895], although varying somewhat in their orthography and dates from that here given.  In some instances the writer would appear to be quoting from memory -

On a grave stone in the Burial Ground
"In memorial of Dinah Delafield,
Who died March 25th, 1776,
Aged 75 years.
Also of Sarah, her sister,
Who died June 8th, 1775,
Aged 68 years."
"Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord, even so saith the Spirit for they shall rest from their Labours."

[Note] Among the signatories of "An Orthodox Creed," drawn up by the Baptists of Bucks, Beds, and Oxon, in 1679, occur the names of William Giles, Senr., William Giles, junr., and John Delafield (or Delifield), of Winslow.

(Other Inscriptions),

"In memory of
Joseph Bowden,
Who died March 22nd, 1867, aged 62 years,
Also of
Elizabeth Bowden,
Who died January 14th, 1881,
Aged 74 years."
__________
"In affectionate remembrance of
Richard Gibbs,
Who departed this life August 30th, 1878,
Aged 68 years.
Free Grace can death itself outbrave,
And take its sting away,
Can souls unto the utmost save
And them to Heaven convey."
Eph. iii c., 8th verse
__________
Winslow.                         ARTHUR CLEAR         

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