In 1827 the Rev. Legh Richmond who had been the much loved Rector of Turvey for over twenty years, died. His daughter, in recounting his dying hours, described him repeating ‘It will be all confusion’. When asked what he meant he said ‘The church! It will be all confusion in my church’. His words were indeed prescient as after his death a large number of Turvey parishioners abandoned All Saints Church and began meeting in a barn for worship, prior to establishing the Independent (Congregational) Chapel. Why did they do this?
Legh Richmond had been an Evangelical Anglican but his successor, the Rev. Hawksley, was not. By the early nineteenth century, Evangelicalism was not only significant within the Church of England but was also fundamental to the growing Protestant nonconformist movements of Congregationalism, Baptism and Methodism. Evangelicals believed that only by conversion, that is repenting sinfulness and turning to Christ in faith, could a person be assured of salvation. Moreover they believed it was their duty to actively spread this message and zealously seek the conversion of others. Preaching the gospel in a direct, often spontaneous and unscripted manner, was a central part of the Evangelical approach. Historians have suggested a number of reasons for the popular appeal of Evangelicalism, and whilst we can only wonder about which of these might have led some of the Turvey congregation to leave their parish church and establish a dissenting chapel, historical documents provide some clues. Three factors stand out: the nature and style of worship that people had got used to under Legh Richmond’s ministry, the significance of lace buyers in the original group who founded the chapel, and the possibility that people were attracted by opportunities for community involvement and social influence.
Style of Worship
An account in the 1829 Congregational Magazine tells us the people ‘were fondly attached’ to Legh Richmond ‘and the sacred truths he maintained’ and that after his death the ‘system of church patronage had not supplied them with a ministry in accordance with the taste that Mr Richmond had laboured to form’. Historians writing at the time thought that it was the straightforwardness of the evangelical message, salvation through faith, that was the main reason for Evangelicalism’s appeal (Gilbert, 1976). Certainly at a time when life was fraught with economic hardship and constant reminders of illness and death this message that through faith ‘all will be well’ would have been powerfully reassuring to people who had little control over their destiny. It is likely therefore that, as the Congregational Chapel centenary history recorded, people sought ‘the simple and plain Gospel’ which was no longer ‘proclaimed as they had been used to’.
Three of the men prominent in establishing the chapel were lace buyers, Thomas Abraham and Joseph Vincent from Turvey and Ebenezer Aspray from Olney. At this time many women in Turvey, the wives, sisters and daughters of poorly paid agricultural labourers, were lace makers, selling their work to the local lace buyers. Families would have been dependent on the additional income from lace-making. Whilst a preponderance of women in dissenting congregations was not unusual, the fact that 80% of the Congregational chapel’s membership in 1828 was female may suggest that, these Turvey women, like the mill workers in the North, were keen to stay in their employer’s good books by following them to chapel.
A third factor accounting for the popularity of nonconformity in the nineteenth century were the opportunities it provided for activities, roles and support in the local community. Congregational/Independent chapels were self-governing with a wide range of decisions, including often the choice of minister, being made by the membership. Turvey, like other rural communities in the 1820’s, would have been characterised by strict social hierarchies with few opportunities for the ‘ordinary man’, and even fewer for women, to participate in local decision-making or have social influence. The opportunities presented by a project to establish a new place of worship may therefore have been attractive to people looking for greater participation and influence. Historians have suggested that the chapel movements provided social opportunities for ‘respectable’ women not otherwise available in communities where the ale house was the only place for social gatherings. The emphasis, typical of nonconformist membership, on discipline and community enforcement of moral codes may have been especially appealing to women. For example in Carlton’s Baptist chapel, of the sixteen expulsions of members between 1798 and 1827, twelve were of men, of whom seven were accused of drunkenness, or marital abuse.
Who joined the Congregational Chapel?
Whilst the membership appears to have initially been mainly female, two historical documents in Bedford Archives provide information about social class suggesting that those attending the chapel were probably broadly representative of the, largely poor, wider community, whilst those involved in securing the land came, perhaps unsurprisingly, exclusively from the ‘upper’ and ‘middle classes’.
The baptism register records fathers’ occupations and these show that for the first ten years the majority of these were what historians call the ‘rural poor’, 60% of fathers were described as labourers. In an area like Turvey, these would have been mostly agricultural workers. 20% were the ‘middle classes’, which included a surgeon, farmers and tradespeople (eg. a grocer, miller and baker). The remainder included artisans, for example a tailor and a shoemaker, and occupations such as a carrier, a carpenter and a sawyer. These proportions are very similar to Bedfordshire as a whole at that time.
The document recording the initial ‘lease and release’ for the land for the building of the chapel reveals that those involved included a ‘gentleman’, three lace buyers and a wool stapler (wool dealer), as well as tradespeople, for example three grocers, and two farmers.
D. Gilbert, Religion and society in industrial England: Church, chapel and social change, 1740-1914 (London, Longman, 1976), p.72.
J.H King, A short history of Turvey Congregational Church, Bedfordshire Archives, X729/15/4.
Lease and release, Bedfordshire Archives, x729/6/6
The Church Book of Carlton Meeting, Bedfordshire Archives, BAP170.
The Church Book of Turvey Meeting, Bedfordshire Archives, X729/1/1
The Congregational Magazine, 1829, pp. 8 and 62.