Victoria County History



A F Wareham, A P M Wright

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'Burwell: Nonconformity', A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 10: Cheveley, Flendish, Staine and Staploe Hundreds (north-eastern Cambridgeshire) (2002), pp. 364-366. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=18908 Date accessed: 28 November 2014.


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Dissent was strong from the late 17th century, and Burwell had four chapels open, c. 1850-1930. (fn. 17) About 1873 there were altogether 700-800 dissenters, two fifths of the population. (fn. 18)

In 1676 the vicar reported 33 dissenters, (fn. 19) and five husbandmen received indulgence as such in 1687. (fn. 20) There had been Baptists in the late 1650s. (fn. 21) A Scots Presbyterian, preaching at Burwell c. 1690, left, discouraged by his hearers' many 'odd opinions'. (fn. 22) Burwell's oldest surviving congregation was one of Independents, for whose worship a house on High Town may have been licensed in 1672. (fn. 23) George Doughty, who had long preached in the area, became the leader of the Independent meeting organized, with 15 people covenanting, in 1692; he was formally ordained as their pastor, 1693-4. At first Burwell and Reach provided the largest individual contingents among its members, though it recruited widely over North-East Cambridgeshire. When its covenant was renewed in stricter terms in 1707, there were 36 full members, half women, and c. 135 'hearers'. It regularly excommunicated members, not only for absence from its weekly assemblies for 'breaking of bread' and for such failings as drunkenness, swearing, fighting, and 'vain singing', but also for attending the 'human' services at the parish church. It insisted on marriages only within the congregation. From the 1690s members' children were regularly baptised as infants, a practice formally accepted in 1707, despite some disquiet. (fn. 24)

What later became the Isleham Independent church also initially provided services at Burwell. It had included seven members from Doughty's congregation when formed there in 1693, and over half its 23 members came from that village when it was reorganized in 1706; into the late 1710s it admitted one to three members a year from Burwell, where it held meetings for 'breaking of bread' monthly by 1709. Eventually most of its Burwell members probably joined the Burwell Independents who had formally separated from Doughty's, by then Sohambased, church in 1712. (fn. 25) It was presumably for that newly distinct group that three Burwell houses were successively registered for worship between 1711 and 1718, two by a tailor and a tanner from Bury St. Edmunds (Suff.). (fn. 26) In the 1740s three barns were similarly registered, one in 1746 on North Street. (fn. 27) There was a regular series of Independent ministers from 1712: the first c. 1716 claimed 320 hearers at Burwell and Kirtling. His successor served 1745-96. (fn. 28) The Burwell Independent meeting house, built c. 1747, in which a gallery was installed in 1798, (fn. 29) stood in 1841 on ¼ a. east of High Town, facing Meeting House Lane across the high street. (fn. 30)

After 1800 the vicars claimed that attendance at that meeting house, whose congregation, including few of standing, was of 'quiet life', was diminishing. (fn. 31) It was soon revitalized, partly by the support of the Balls, Burwell's leading merchants and manufacturers. (fn. 32) By the 1850s it had a Sunday school. (fn. 33) When in 1862 a minister would not resign, though three quarters of the congregation demanded it, up to 80 people seceded. The Balls allowed them to hold services for a year at the British school, soon filled to hear a young revivalist preacher brought from their Reach chapel. Reunited after the minister left c. 1865, the Congregationalists built on the same site a new and larger chapel, opened in 1866. (fn. 34) The square, greybrick building, facing downhill towards the street over a graveyard enlarged in 1893, (fn. 35) has a five-bayed parapeted front, with tall round-headed windows and a central pediment. In 1895 it seated 420. (fn. 36) It continued to have resident ministers, holding three Sunday services in 1873, (fn. 37) for whom a manse across the street was acquired in 1881, (fn. 38) until the 1960s. Some were locally prominent: one, J. W. Upton, 1881-1923, chaired the parish council, 1896-1921. After falling by a quarter from the 121 of 1905 by 1915, membership was stable at 60-70 from the 1920s to the 1960s. (fn. 39) Linked to the United Reformed Church from 1972, the congregation, served from Newmarket by 1975, moved its services in 1976 across the street to the one-storeyed Sunday school building, of grey brick trimmed in red, opened in 1907. (fn. 40) In 1988, with membership reduced to 32, they merged with the Burwell Methodists to form Burwell Trinity Church. The united congregation still worshipped, using their two traditions' liturgies alternately, (fn. 41) in the former school in 1994, when a third of the 35 members were former Congregationalists. (fn. 42) Their large disused chapel was sold by 1990 for business purposes. (fn. 43)

Methodism at Burwell, for which a minister from Bury St. Edmunds possibly registered a barn in 1816, (fn. 44) was certainly established in the 1830s. (fn. 45) In 1834-5 (fn. 46) Wesleyans from Fordham and Thetford (Suff.) built east of the Causeway a chapel, originally of three bays, gradually enlarged in 1884 and 1913 to a square shape. Attached from 1839 to their Mildenhall circuit, it was served after 1938 from Newmarket. In 1851, when it could hold 140, the average attendance was up to 55, besides c. 45 Sundayschool children. (fn. 47) A hall for a Sunday school held in a gallery by 1877 was added in 1940. (fn. 48) In 1836 the Primitive Methodists had established on North Street a chapel, rebuilt or refronted in 1864, (fn. 49) usually part of their Soham circuit, except when worked from Ely, 1857-85. They were holding camp meetings nearby in 1863. (fn. 50) The two Methodist congregations united in 1939 at the Wesleyan chapel, the other being sold for industrial use in 1940. (fn. 51) E. W. Peachey by will proved 1929, besides leaving £100 for the Wesleyan chapel fabric, gave £50 to assist five Wesleyans and five Primitives yearly. (fn. 52) The Methodists had 48 members in 1976, but only 12 by 1988, when they joined the new Trinity Church. Their chapel, abandoned c. 1986, was sold in 1987 for housing. (fn. 53)

The Burwell Baptist congregation, still independent in the 1990s, was started by four men baptized in the 1790s, who quitting the Soham Baptists c. 1815 registered in 1818 a leased house on North Street, burnt down in 1835. Its site was later bought and a Particular Baptist chapel built there in 1846 with a three-bayed, twotiered brick front, the sides of clunch. It had 250 sittings, 150 free, in 1851 when a separate congregation was formally organized; the minister, who came from Fordham, then had on average up to 130 adult worshippers, with 50 children. (fn. 54) It held public baptisms in Burwell streams, also sponsored c. 1862 by the revivalist from Reach, until after 1900. (fn. 55) Membership of the chapel, which had a continuous series of resident ministers, occupying a manse nearby on Toyse Lane, into the late 20th century, gradually declined from over 100 before 1900 to c. 45 about 1930. (fn. 56) It revived from the 1940s, usually standing, 1955-75, at c. 65, and reached 93 in 1985, besides over 100 children at a Sunday school using a schoolroom built behind the chapel in 1882. (fn. 57) The chapel, renovated in 1968, (fn. 58) was still open in 1994. (fn. 59)

The Mordens, a gentry family in the early 17th century, (fn. 60) were suspected as Catholic recusants in 1611. (fn. 61) In the 1970s quarterly masses were said at the 19th-century St. Andrew's Anglican church. (fn. 62)


17 Cf. Kelly's Dir. Cambs. (1858-1937).
18 C.U.L., E.D.R., C 3/24.
19 Compton Census, ed. Whiteman, 231.
20 Cal. S.P. Dom. 1685-7, p. 358.
21 Proc. C.A.S. lxi. 78.
22 Freedom after Ejection, ed. A. Gordon, pp. 14, 265.
23 Orig. Rec. of Early Nonconf. ed. G.L. Turner, i. 571; ii. 870.
24 Based on Doughty's 'Church Book' 1692-1734, printed, Trans. Congregational Hist. Soc. vi. 413-28; vii. 3-15.
25 Isleham Church Book, 1693-1805, ed. K.A.C. Parsons (C.A.R.S. vi), 8-9, 14-15, 17, 39-41, 44-5, 47. Admissions, ibid. 182-81, 202-8, as indexed; Trans. Cong. Hist. Soc. vii. 11; cf. Proc. C.A.S. lxi. 79.
26 P.R.O., RG 31/2, Sudbury archdeac. nos. 56, 89, 115.
27 Ibid. nos. 158, 165-6.
28 Isleham Ch. Bk. 254, 258; Dr. William's Libr., MS. 38.4 (Evans list), f. 9; cf. Trans. Cong. Hist. Soc. vii. 13-14.
29 Camb. Chron. (BC), 18 Nov. 1862, p. 8; Richardson, Burwell, 86; cf. P.R.O., RG 4/262.
30 C.U.L., E.D.R., G, tithe award 1841, pp. [6, 33].
31 Norf. R.O., VIS/42/4; VIS/47/10; VIS/54/4.
32 Cf. above, econ. hist.; below, educ.; below, Reach, nonconf.; Camb. Chron. (BC), 8 June 1850, p. 2; 16 Nov. 1861, p. 5.
33 Camb. Chron. (BC), 14 Oct. 1854, p. 5.
34 T.T. Ball, Looking Back: Burwell British School, 9; idem. Life & Labours of Revd. Jas. Smith (Ely, 1893), 36-41, 44-5 (story misapplied to Wesleyans, in Richardson, Burwell, 120-1); Lucas, Fenman's World, 107; Congregational Year Bk. (1865), 107; inscr. on bldg.
35 Char. Com. file 203215/10, deed 1893.
36 Cong. Year Bk. (1895), 252.
37 C.U.L., E.D.R., C 3/24.
38 Trans. Cong. Hist. Soc. vii. 14; cf. Kelly's Dir. Cambs. (1858-1937); R.C.H.M. Cambs. ii. 31 (no. 33).
39 Cong. Year Bk. (1905), 206; (1915), 196; (1925), 174; (1935), 314; (1955), 115; cf. P.R.O., RG 9/1032, f. 15v.; RG 10/1597, f. 21; C.R.O., R 54/36/2A, pp. 38 sqq.; R 54/36/2B, p. 148.
40 United Reformed Ch. Year Bk. (1975), 114; (1984-5), 72; Camb. Evening News, 1 Feb. 1979; cf. Richardson, Burwell, 82, 86, 89.
41 Newmarket Jnl. 7 July 1988; 28 May 1992; Ely Standard, 15 Sept. 1988.
42 United Reformed Ch. Year Bk. (1994-5), 91.
43 Richardson, Burwell, 86.
44 P.R.O., RG 31/2, Sudbury archdeac. no. 470.
45 Acct. of Methodists mostly based on E. Goodridge, 'Burwell: 150 Years' (anniversary pamphlet, 1985): copy, Cambs. Colln.; cf. Methodist Ch. Bldgs., Statistical Return, 1940 (1947), p. 14; cf. R.C.H.M. Cambs. ii. 25.
46 P.R.O., RG 31/2, Sudbury archdeac. no. 736.
47 Ibid. HO 129/189, f. 19.
48 Cf. Ely Weekly News, 15 Nov. 1990.
49 Date on bldg.
50 Camb. Chron. (BC), 25 July 1863, p. 5.
51 Cf. Richardson, Burwell, 144-5.
52 Char. Com. file 239653.
53 Newmarket Jnl. 17 Sept. 1987; 7, 14 July 1988.
54 Richardson, Burwell, 162-3; P.R.O., RG 31/2, Sudbury archdeac. no. 537; ibid. HO 129/189, f. 18; cf. R.C.H.M. Cambs. ii. 25.
55 Richardson, Burwell, 163; cf. T.T. Ball, Life of Jas. Smith, 40-1. See plate 50.
56 Baptist Handbk. (1875), 131; (1885), 172; (1895), 185; (1925), 57; (1935), 61; cf. P.R.O., RG 11/1676, f. 25; Kelly's Dir. Cambs. (1896-1937); Camb. Evening News, 7 Nov. 1975.
57 Baptist Handbk. (1944-6), 28; (1965), 112; (1973-4), 69; (1985-6), 56; cf. Camb. Ind. Press, 8 Feb., 16 Aug. 1973.
58 Camb. News, 24 Oct. 1968; Newmarket Jnl. 12 Mar. 1992.
59 Baptist Union Dir. (1994-5), 56.
60 e.g. P.R.O., C 3/418/198; cf. abutments in C.U.L., Queens' Coll. Mun., 19: terrier 1657.
61 Norf. R.O., VIS/4/3, f. [42].
62 Cath. Dir. (1976), 279.