Victoria County History



A F Wareham, A P M Wright

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'Soham: 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. 542-545. URL: Date accessed: 26 October 2014.


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Late in 1660 a Soham man approached several craftsmen there, when seeking to recruit men and horses for a plot to seize Charles II as part of a projected Puritan uprising. He was soon informed on. (fn. 37) Protestant dissenters were active at Soham from the 1660s, when some people refused to come to church. In 1682 Quakers and others would not pay rates. A Quaker had been arrested at Soham, perhaps for preaching, in 1655, and there was a Quaker meeting by 1666, not formally 'discontinued' until 1756. (fn. 38) In 1676 the vicar reported 21 dissenters, (fn. 39) probably including the Presbyterians for whose meetings Thomas Malden, of a family still prominent among Soham's dissenters in the early 19th century, registered his house in 1672. (fn. 40) A newly exiled Huguenot congregation worshipped at Soham in 1687-8 before moving to London by 1690. (fn. 41)

Dissent, sometimes of uncertain denomination, remained lively at Soham in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Several houses were registered for worship, some by outsiders: in 1705 by a man from Bury St. Edmunds (Suff.), in 1738 on Sand Street by a local yeoman, and in 1758 on Brook Street by a tanner. (fn. 42) Ministers from Thetford (Norf.) registered in 1801 a barn and a room off Bull Lane. (fn. 43) Bury St. Edmunds shoemakers registered a house in Middle Fen in 1807 and a barn on Brook Street in 1816, (fn. 44) and ministers from Bury were using a house at Crow Hall in 1817 and a building off Brook Street in 1824. (fn. 45) Another house on Qua Fen was registered in 1806, and further out in the fen houses at Henney in 1816 by a yeoman living there, and at Barway in 1822. (fn. 46)

About 1810 Soham's dissenters, estimated as a fifth of the population, were mainly drawn from its husbandmen, tradesmen, and labourers. (fn. 47) In the mid 19th century they were united by their opposition to its Anglicans over control of the parish's government, schooling, and charities. (fn. 48) They accordingly sometimes cooperated religiously, even sharing pulpits, in harvest festivals and school festivities, by 1900 also in missions, (fn. 49) and probably in the Temperance movement; a dissenting Temperance Society founded in 1841-2 flourished until the 1890s. (fn. 50) In the late 19th century the number of dissenters sometimes almost equalled that of Anglicans. In 1873, when 350 children went to the four dissenting Sunday schools compared with c. 260 at the Church one, the vicar believed that a third of those worshipping regularly were dissenters. In 1885 and 1897 his successor reckoned their numbers as 1,800, compared to 1,900 churchgoers. (fn. 51)

Of the four dissenting chapels well established at Soham in the 19th and 20th centuries, (fn. 52) that with the longest tradition was the Independent, later Congregational, one. It derived from a dissenting group already well established by c. 1690, when a minister who also served Fordham and Burwell quitted them. Thereupon they sought assistance from the 'mechanic' preacher George Doughty, (fn. 53) under whom they combined with the Burwell congregation that he founded in 1692. Especially in the late 1690s it attracted new members at Soham, where its Sunday services were held as often as at Burwell from 1696-7. Doughty eventually concentrated on Soham, where after his Burwell followers broke away in 1712 he still had c. 200 'hearers' in 1716. About 1720 another Soham preacher, possibly a Presbyterian, had 250 hearers, some at Fordham. (fn. 54) After Doughty died c. 1738 his already dwindling congregation, increasingly recruited from baptized children rather than adult converts, broke up according to its constituent places and its beliefs. The Soham portion was supposedly served 1740-60 by seven transient pastors. (fn. 55) Formally re-established in 1762 by former Presbyterians and Independents, the Soham Independent church, which under its 'pious and learned' minister maintained friendly relations with the Isleham one, had only three full members at Soham when he died in 1782. (fn. 56) Robert Root, his successor from 1783, whose followers were described in 1806 as quiet and orderly, registered in 1803 the Independent meeting house built to replace a barn c. 1801, at which he served until 1827. (fn. 57) A new chapel was opened in 1841, built north of Cock Lane, later Station Road. (fn. 58) Of grey brick, its sides have four bays, all with square-headed windows, in two storeys; the three-bayed front has a pediment over pilasters, with a wooden doorway on Ionic columns. A smaller building of 1881 to the north-west served a longestablished Sunday school. (fn. 59) A manse on Pratt Street was apparently provided for the minister from c. 1850. (fn. 60)

In 1851 the resident minister, who served until c. 1860, claimed an average attendance at the three Sunday services then held that rose from c. 400 in the morning to almost 500 in the evening, besides 50-60 Sunday-school children. (fn. 61) Under a minister who served c. 1874-95, the chapel, where two Sunday services were held in 1873, (fn. 62) could seat 450. Although it had a resident minister until the 1960s, its membership gradually declined from 90-100 c. 1900-20 (fn. 63) to 50-60 in the 1920s and 1930s (fn. 64) and c. 35 after 1945. (fn. 65) When it joined the United Reformed Church in the 1970s there were only 19 members and by 1985 only ten. (fn. 66) With only five left, the chapel was closed in 1994. The building was for sale for domestic use in 1997. (fn. 67)

Late in 1693 Soham was chosen for its central position as one of two meeting places for a congregation, then Baptist, drawn mainly from surrounding villages; Soham itself produced only five members in 1706. After 1750 that became the Isleham Independent church, (fn. 68) which long maintained a branch and admitted members at Soham. It still held monthly services there in the early 1740s. (fn. 69) A minority at Soham who still supported its original practice of adult baptism seceded from it in 1748, after 'watermen' advocating such baptism were barred from preaching. In 1752, with support from Cambridge Baptists, they formed a Baptist congregation under a High Calvinist minister who served until 1771. In 1774 he was succeeded as minister, following disputes on free will, by the young Wicken-born Andrew Fuller, baptized in 1770, after a youth of wrestling and gaming, in the river at Soham. Fuller, chosen for his rhetorical gifts, served at Soham until 1782. In 1783 he registered the Baptists' newly built meeting house on Clay Street. (fn. 70) Another minister, newly arrived, registered a house in 1806. (fn. 71) His successor, a 'pious but cheerful' shopkeeper, died in 1836. (fn. 72) The chapel, rebuilt in 1837, (fn. 73) which still in the 1990s stood north of Clay Street, is a plain two-storeyed building of grey brick, slated, with corner pilasters. In 1815 it was attended by 65 or more people. (fn. 74) It was reckoned to seat 450 people in 1875, when there were c. 160 members (fn. 75) and two Sunday services were held. (fn. 76) From c. 1825 the Baptists ran a Sunday school, still kept up in the 1970s. (fn. 77) From 1856 they provided a house on the Fordham road for their ministers, previously in rented housing, (fn. 78) of whom there was a continuous succession from the mid 19th century into the early 20th. There were 170 members in 1885 and still often 90-100 in the early 20th century (fn. 79) and 60 c. 1960. (fn. 80) The chapel, which celebrated a '215th' anniversary in 1967, (fn. 81) still had its own pastor in the 1990s. (fn. 82) About 1959 the Baptists opened on the Downfield council estate a mission hall, closed 1967 × 1976. (fn. 83)

Soon after 1800 a Society of Unitarians at London sent to Soham a teacher, who built in 1809 a Unitarian chapel, a wide apparently apsed building, which stood north-east of the link between Pratt and Hall Streets. It was little frequented in 1820. In 1851, when it had 200 sittings, 70 free, its resident minister, a native of Soham, had an average morning attendance of only 20, doubled, however, in the afternoons, with c. 20 Sunday-school pupils. (fn. 84) After a year's closure he re-opened it, maintaining links with an East London society, in 1861, but, despite good initial attendances, (fn. 85) the smallness of its congregation led to its closure c. 1870. (fn. 86)

Methodism also reached Soham in the early 19th century. In 1815 the Wesleyans built a chapel at the junction of Cock and Fountain Lanes, in 1851 seating 200 and attended by up to that number, with almost 70 Sunday-school children. In 1841 the Primitive Methodists erected south of Bury Croft another chapel, holding 250, which in 1851 had average afternoon and evening attendances of 230. (fn. 87) By then it had a resident minister; in 1871 another lived at Bury Croft. (fn. 88) In 1843 the Primitive Methodists also built, c. 3 miles north of the village, on the west side of Great Fen Drove, a subsidiary chapel with 80 sittings, attended in 1851 by up to 35-40 people. Rebuilt in 1872 in brick with 164 sittings, it was served in 1897 by a local preacher. (fn. 89) From the 1850s both branches of Methodism drew such local preachers from the village tradesmen: the Wesleyans employed a blacksmith in 1861, the Primitives a pork butcher in the fen in 1881. (fn. 90) In 1869 the Primitive Methodists rebuilt their main chapel in the village, in grey brick trimmed in red, in four bays with round-headed windows and a three-bayed north front. A gallery was installed in 1883. A similar building for their Sunday school was put up to the west in 1890. In the 1850s the chapel had belonged to the Primitive Methodists' Ely circuit, but in 1886 they started a new one centred on Soham. They continued into the 20th century to hold occasional outdoor 'camp meetings', gaining 60 adherents at one in 1882. Their chapel, refurbished in the 1940s when a vestry was added, (fn. 91) was chosen, because with its 294 sittings it was the larger one, to serve Soham's Methodists after the Methodist re-union of 1932. The Wesleyan one was sold in 1942 for commercial use. (fn. 92) In the 1970s a minister still resided. From the 1980s Soham's Methodists shared their minister with six other chapels, including that in Soham fen, (fn. 93) still in use, though by a small congregation, in the 1990s. (fn. 94) The Bury Croft chapel was also still open in 1997.

Early in 1853 Soham was troubled by the arrival of Mormon missionaries. They were driven away within a few months both by violence, aroused by their preaching polygamy, which damaged the fittings of their meeting house off West Hall Lane, and by the efforts of a travelling anti-Mormon lecturer. (fn. 95) The Salvation Army established a 'barracks' at Soham in the 1890s. (fn. 96) Their 'citadel' south of Bushel Lane supported a band in the 1920s and 1970s. (fn. 97) Refurbished in 1995, it was still open in 1997. (fn. 98)

In 1592-3 a prosperous yeoman from the Cropley family was fined as a recusant. (fn. 99) A Catholic church opened in 1875, named for St. Etheldreda, in a plain grey brick building with a small cupola, apparently closed in the early 20th century. (fn. 1) In 1951 Catholic services were held in a house. A Catholic chapel of St. Felix, opened on Brewhouse Lane in 1956, where masses were provided monthly from Ely, closed after 1970. (fn. 2)


37 Cal. S.P. Dom. 1660-1, p. 352; East Anglian, N.S. vi. 311-13.
38 Fenland N. & Q. ii. 32; Proc. C.A.S. lxi. 93; lxxvi. 5, 16; lxxvii. 12.
39 Compton Census, ed. Whiteman, 232.
40 Orig. Rec. of Early Nonconf. ed. G.L. Turner, ii. 862; cf. above, local govt.
41 Proc. Huguenot Soc. of London, xxi. 425.
42 P.R.O., RG 31/2, Sudbury archdeac. nos. 23, 151, 190.
43 Ibid. nos. 298, 311.
44 Ibid. nos. 365, 462.
45 Ibid. nos. 503, 599.
46 Ibid. RG 31/6, Cambs. Q.S. nos. 44, 50-1.
47 Norf. R.O., VIS/42/4; VIS/47/10.
48 ABove, local govt.; below, educ.; char.
49 e.g. Camb. Chron. 26 Sept. 1857, p. 4; 31 July 1858, p. 4; 11 Feb. 1860, p. 8; Camb. Ind. Press, 8 Mar. 1901, p. 5.
50 Camb. Chron. 2 Jan. 1858, p. 2; 2 Nov. 1858, p. 2; 19 Feb. 1867, p. 8; 22 June 1894, p. 8; cf. above, intro. (feast).
51 C.U.L., E.D.R., C 3/24; C 3/31; C 3/39.
52 The four discussed below, continuously reported from 1850s, with resident ministers' names: Gardner's Dir. Cambs. (1851); Kelly's Dir. Cambs. (1864-1937).
53 Freedom after Ejection, ed. A. Gordon, p. 14.
54 Trans. Congregational Hist. Soc. vi. 415-27; vii. 3-11; Dr. Williams's Libr., MS. 38.4 (Evans list), f. 9. For Doughty, Isleham Independent Church Book, 1693-1805, ed. K.A.C. Parsons (C.A.R.S. vi), 253-4.
55 Trans. Cong. Hist. Soc. vii. 13; Isleham Ch. Bk. 17, 186-7, 196, 253-4.
56 Camb. Chron. 13 Mar. 1782, p. 3; Isleham Ch. Bk. 86, 88, 90-2, 98-100, 110, 191, 249.
57 Camb. Chron. 11 Jan. 1783, p. 2; Norf. R.O., VIS/42/4; VIS/47/10; VIS/54/4; P.R.O., RG 31/6, Cambs. Q.S. no. 42; cf. Trans. Cong. Hist. Soc. vii. 13.
58 Camb. Chron. 27 Nov. 1841, p. 3; C.U.L., E.D.R., G, tithe award 1845 (p. 97), and map (no. 1889).
59 Camb. Chron. 21 Sept. 1850, p. 2; 24 Sept. 1881, p. 5. See plate 49.
60 P.R.O., HO 107/1763, f. 232v.; ibid. RG 9/1036, f. 9; RG 11/1681, f. 10v.; cf. Kelly's Dir. Cambs. (1875 and later edns.).
61 P.R.O., HO 129/189, f. 52.
62 C.U.L., E.D.R., C 3/24; cf. Kelly's Dir. Cambs. (1875-96).
63 Congregational Year Bk. (1895), 252; (1905), 207; (1915), 197.
64 Ibid. (1925), 175; (1935), 315.
65 Ibid. (1945), 117; (1955), 127.
66 United Reformed Ch. Year Bk. (1975), 115; (1984-5), 72; cf. Newmarket Jnl. 14 Aug. 1975.
67 Newmarket Jnl. 17 Nov. 1994; Camb. Evening News, 1 Apr. 1997. A 222-year existence supposed in 1994 presumably reckoned from 1672 reg. at Burwell, q.v., nonconf.
68 Isleham Ch. Bk. 9, 15 n, 29 sqq.; cf. above, Isleham, nonconf.
69 Isleham Ch. Bk. 41-7, 55.
70 Ibid. 17-18, 57, 186-7, 255-6; Nutter, Cambs. Baptists, 159-63; D.N.B. vii. 149-50; P.R.O., RG 31/2, Sudbury archdeac. no. 235.
71 Norf. R.O., VIS/42/4; VIS/47/10; P.R.O., RG 31/2, Sudbury archdeac. no. 378.
72 Norf. R.O., VIS/54/4; Camb. Chron. 12 Aug. 1836, p. 2.
73 Kelly's Dir. Cambs. (1888).
74 P.R.O., HO 129/189, f. 58.
75 C.U.L., E.D.R., G, tithe award 1845 (p. 97), and map (no. 1979); Baptist Handbk. (1875), 132.
76 C.U.L., E.D.R., C 3/24.
77 Camb. Chron. 12 Oct. 1850, p. 2; Newmarket Jnl. 3 July 1975.
78 Camb. Chron. 12 July 1856, p. 5; Kelly's Dir. Cambs. (1864 and later edns.); P.R.O., HO 107/1763, f. 215; ibid. RG 10/1601, f. 11v.; RG 11/1680, f. 106v.
79 Baptist Handbk. (1885), 173; (1905), 43; (1915), 47; (1935), 62.
80 Ibid. (1955), 84; (1965), 113.
81 Ely Standard, 31 Aug. 1967.
82 e.g. Camb. Ind. Press, 28 Jan. 1971; Ely Standard, 20 Mar. 1980; Newmarket Jnl. 9 July 1992; 10 June 1993.
83 G.R.O., Worship Reg. no. 67407; Draft village plan, 1976, 17: copy, Cambs. Colln.
84 Norf. R.O., VIS/47/10; VIS/54/4; C.U.L., E.D.R,, G, tithe award 1845 (p. 98), and map (no. 1833); P.R.O., HO 107/1763, f. 202v.; HO 129/189, f. 59.
85 Camb. Ind. Press, 20 July 1861, p. 5; 10 Aug. 1861, p. 5; 4 Aug. 1862. p. 5.
86 C.U.L., E.D.R., C 3/24. Mentioned, Kelly's Dir. Cambs. (1864-9), but not ibid. (1875).
87 C.U.L., E.D.R., G, tithe award 1845 (p. 98), and map (nos. 1815, 1917); P.R.O., HO 129/189, ff. 50-1. Kelly's Dir. Cambs. (1888), dates Wesleyan chapel to 1841, by confusion with Prim. Meth. one, or due to rebldg.
88 e.g. P.R.O., HO 107/1763, f. 210v.; ibid. RG 10/1601, f. 99.
89 Ibid. HO 129/189, f. 56; Kelly's Dir. Cambs. (1888); C.U.L., E.D.R., C 3/31.
90 e.g. P.R.O., RG 9/1035, f. 115; RG 9/1036, f. 6v.; RG 10/1601, f. 19; RG 11/1681, f. 38v.
91 Methodist Ch. Centenary, 1869-1969: copy, Cambs. Colln.; Camb. Ind. Press, 10 May 1901, p. 5.
92 Methodist Ch. Bldgs.: Return (1947), 14; Camb. Ind. Press, 8 Dec. 1961.
93 Ely Standard, 4 Dec. 1975; 30 Aug. 1984; 13 Aug. 1987; 22 Sept. 1994.
94 e.g. Camb. Ind. Press, 14 Dec. 1972; Newmarket Jnl. 4 June 1992.
95 Camb. Ind. Press, 9 Feb. 1853, p. 3; 19 Mar. 1853, p. 3; Camb. Chron. 9 Apr. 1853, p. 4 (describing a, probably parodic, multiple marriage ceremony); 16 Apr. 1853, p. 5; 30 Apr. 1853, p. 4; 7 May 1853, p. 4.
96 C.U.L., E.D.R., C 3/31; cf. C.R.O., 470/O 110, p. 133. Not in Kelly's Dir. Cambs. before 1929 edn.; reg. only in 1951: G.R.O., Worship Reg. no. 63026.
97 Newmarket Jnl. 4 Sept. 1975; 27 May 1976.
98 Ely Standard, 13 May 1983; Soham & Ely Jnl. 1 June 1995.
99 Recusant Roll, 1592-3 (Cath. Rec. Soc. xvii), p. 15.
1 Camb. Chron. 9 Jan. 1875, p. 4. Illus.: Camb. Colln., Y. Soh. K6 26526.
2 Cath. Dir. (1951), 268; (1969), 334. Not recorded, ibid. (1976); G.R.O., Worship Reg. no. 65847.