The city of Cambridge: Protestant Nonconformity

A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and University of Cambridge. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1959.

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'The city of Cambridge: Protestant Nonconformity', A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and University of Cambridge, (London, 1959), pp. 135-138. British History Online [accessed 16 June 2024].

. "The city of Cambridge: Protestant Nonconformity", in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and University of Cambridge, (London, 1959) 135-138. British History Online, accessed June 16, 2024,

. "The city of Cambridge: Protestant Nonconformity", A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and University of Cambridge, (London, 1959). 135-138. British History Online. Web. 16 June 2024,

In this section


The triumph of Puritanism during the civil wars meant the complete breakdown for the time being of Anglican organization in Cambridge. The report of the committee appointed under the ordinance of June 1649 showed that the parish of St. Andrew the Less was the only one with a minister serving the cure, though there were preachers at Great and Little St. Mary's. (fn. 1) The Restoration thus meant an abrupt readjustment of the townsmen's religious practices, and the addition of more independent congregations to those already in existence. The earliest evidence of the formation of the various meetings comes from the reports of official repression, which begin even before the Conventicle Act. The notebooks of Sir Thomas Sclater, J.P. for the Borough 1660–84, are a valuable source of this type. (fn. 2)

The Friends.

Rough treatment of the Quakers had begun under the Commonwealth, in the mayoralty of Pickering (1653–4) and in 1660 there were as many as 67 Quakers in the Cambridge gaols. (fn. 3) In 1654 George Whitehead was welcomed there by Alderman Blackley, later to be ejected from the Corporation as an adherent of the Friends. (fn. 4) By 1659 there was a flourishing meeting 'in our own house over against Sidney College', where in August Whitehead and Fox publicly disputed with Smith, the University librarian. (fn. 5) In April and May 1660 a series of attacks, which Alderman Blackley tried in vain to restrain, were made upon the house by 'unruly scollers, soldiers and others'. (fn. 6) In February 1661 some 72 Friends, mostly women, were committed to the Tolbooth, some for refusing to take the oath of obedience, others for attending a conventicle at the Quaker house near Sidney Sussex College. (fn. 7) In 1667 ten Quakers were taken in the house of the shoemaker, William Brazier. (fn. 8) In 1670–1 there are further records of commitments for refusal to bear arms, and for the holding of meetings in the house of William Brazier and Nicholas Frost. (fn. 9) The records of the Quarterly Meeting of 1670–1 note, 'Cambridge—Most Friends in prison'. (fn. 10) Under the general pardon of May 1672 ten of the Cambridge Quakers were released, (fn. 11) but in 1674 and 1684 William Brazier was again penalized for holding meetings in his house. (fn. 12) After the Toleration Act Ann Docra devised (1700) the estate in MeetingHouse Yard in Jesus Lane, with certain lands in Fulbourn, for the benefit of Friends. Subscriptions from Friends elsewhere made possible the building of a new meeting-house in 1777, 'on the bank of the King's Ditch' extending over the old graveyard. The meeting was closed in 1795. From 1827 to 1832 the buildings were used for the Jesus Lane Sunday School for Barnwell children conducted by undergraduate members of Simeon's congregation, and from 1855 to 1862 for the Cambridge Public Library. The meeting was reopened in 1884. New buildings were erected in 1894 on the site of the old cottage at the entrance, believed to be Brazier's house, which had been condemned, and in 1926 thoroughgoing alterations gave the interior an entirely new form. For all its vicissitudes, however, there seem good grounds for believing that the present site at the junction of Park Street and Jesus Lane facing the wall of Sidney gardens is the one used continuously since 1659. (fn. 13)

The Independents.

Whilst the Independent congregations in the county were being organized by Holcroft and Oddy, (fn. 14) evidence of the early meetings in the town is scanty. Sclater's notebook records the breaking up of a meeting in Widow Wilson's house in St. Andrew's Street in April 1665. The preacher, Thomas Dac, described as 'a heavenly man' by one of his congregation, was fined, as was his hostess. The congregation escaped through Mr. Blackley's yard and Emmanuel Field. (fn. 15) This may be the first reference to the group for which in 1672, during the shortlived indulgence of Charles II, a licence was obtained for a meeting-house at St. Andrew's (or Hog) Hill. (fn. 16) In 1675 the notorious informer Stephen Perry reported a meeting in Robert Wilson's house in St. Andrew's parish. Wilson (1627–1710), a teacher of music in Cambridge, was one of the original trustees of the Hog Hill meeting in 1687. (fn. 17)

In 1668 a conventicle was reported in the house of Widow Pettit. (fn. 18) She may have been the relict of Richard Pettit who was said in 1662 to have served as clerk of the County Committee under the Commonwealth, (fn. 19) and she is probably the Elizabeth Pettit for whose house in Green Street Corbyn, who had been preaching in St. Michael's parish in 1669, obtained a licence in 1672. (fn. 20) Two of the early dissenting meetings, it would seem then, were in existence by 1668.

Other conventicles reported in 1673 were those in Bridge Street, where Holcroft and Oddy had taken out licences to preach in 1672, and in Scroop's house in Trinity parish. (fn. 21) Other houses licensed for conventicles in 1672 were those of Brian Kitchingman (Mayor 1647–8, ejected from his aldermanship in 1662), (fn. 22) reported by Perry as one who 'encouraged fanatics', Richard Thurlow, Downham Yeomans, Lancelot Hooper, and Job Hall. Hall's house in Bridge Street was probably the scene of Holcroft's and Oddy's ministrations. (fn. 23) In 1689, under the Toleration Act, in addition to the meetings at Hog Hill and Green Street, six private houses were notified at Quarter Sessions as places of worship, (fn. 24) and several other small meetings split off subsequently.

Toleration in Cambridge was in fact the preliminary to a fissiparous evolution of the dissenting churches. The terms Presbyterian and Independent are so loosely used by historians of the 17th century that William Cole's indiscriminate use of the terms Anabaptist, Presbyterian, and Independent seems almost justifiable. Only gradually is it possible to identify a meeting in terms corresponding to modern Free Church organization.

On 2 August 1691 Joseph Hussey preached in 'the new meeting-house built since the liberty in 1687' on Hog Hill (now Downing Place) (fn. 25) and became the first pastor of 'the Great Meeting', (fn. 26) a church then consisting of 76 members. Up to 1694 this called itself a Presbyterian body. In that year the pastor advocated 'a more democratic form of church government'. The meeting thereupon became Congregational, and in October 1696 the Presbyterian minority seceded. (fn. 27) It was this meeting-house which was 'pillaged and almost demolished' by Jacobites on Oak-apple Day in 1716. (fn. 28) When 'the learned and famous Mr. Hussey' retired in 1719 there was a congregation of 1,600, with a church membership of 150, (fn. 29) but a period of disputes and secessions followed, traceable to personal and economic rather than doctrinal differences. In 1721 a hundred of the poorer members left the congregation, with the minister of their preference (Richard Davis), and the rich majority remained in possession. A similar schism occurred in 1735, and the church was only restored to harmony during the ministry of J. Conder (1738–54). (fn. 30) An attempt in 1766 at a union with the Stoneyard Baptists failed, and by 1767 the meeting had again dwindled to 100. It was revived by Joseph Saunders (1767–88), a fine preacher and the ally of Charles Simeon, who used to attend his afternoon services. (fn. 31) Towards the end of Saunders's ministry a new meeting-house was erected on the old site in Downing Place; its windows were broken by an anti-Jacobin mob in 1792. (fn. 32) The dwindling of the membership to 52 may perhaps be attributed to the counter-attractions of the Stoneyard Chapel under Robert Hall. (fn. 33) The vitality of the congregation, however, is shown by the active support given to overseas missions, and by the foundation in 1801 of the Cambridge Benevolent Society by Mrs. Flower, a member of the congregation. (fn. 34) The Society was supported by churchman and dissenter alike. William Harris (minister 1806–17) restored the membership and attracted a large student congregation. A manse was built for him in 1807. (fn. 35)

In 1874 after nearly 200 years the Downing Place site was abandoned, (fn. 36) and replaced by Emmanuel Church in Trumpington Street, opposite Pembroke College. A Sunday School was added in 1896. A daughter church was erected in Victoria Road in 1884. (fn. 37)


The second meeting-house registered in 1689 was that in Green Street. It derived presumably from the conventicle in Elizabeth Pettit's house. (fn. 38) Cooper was unable to locate the meeting-house precisely, but it lay north of Green Street in St. Michael's parish. Its minister was Thomas Taylor of Norwich. (fn. 39) There was another meeting-house south of the street in Holy Trinity parish. The Presbyterian minority that seceded from Hog Hill in 1696 joined the congregation in the northern Green Street meeting and induced it to declare itself Presbyterian. It so continued until 1716, when its minister, Dr. Cumming, went to the Scottish Church in London. The chapel seems to have been in use as late as 1813, since John Stittle, who preached there for 30 years, was buried in it in 1813, but his flock were Particular Baptists, and his memorial is in Eden Chapel in Fitzroy Street. (fn. 40)

The Presbyterian church today represents a new beginning, initiated by a petition sent in 1881 by Presbyterians in Cambridge to the Presbytery of London. For a while Presbyterian services were held in the Guildhall, but by 1891 the church of St. Columba had been built at the corner of Downing Street and Downing Place, (fn. 41) which with Westminster College makes Cambridge an active centre of Presbyterianism. St. Columba also had a mission hall in York Street, which was in existence in 1907.


Though there were Baptists in Cambridge during the Interregnum it was the second migration from Hog Hill meeting which first led to the foundation of a Baptist community. The hundred poorer members who seceded in 1721 under Davis's leadership hired a stable and granary in the Stoneyard next to Hobson's Spinning House in St. Andrew's Street, and set up their own meeting, with a church membership of 132. Further secessions to Barnwell in 1723 and to Miller's Barn in 1725 reflected the divisions of the congregation on the subject of infant baptism. The seceders of 1725 returned in 1727, and there was a temporary recovery, but the meeting was nearly extinct when Robert Robinson of Norwich accepted its invitation in 1759. (fn. 42) During his ministry (1759–90) the Stoneyard meeting grew and flourished. A new meeting-house was built in 1764, and Robinson, who was an able preacher, drew audiences of as many as 200 gownsmen to his Sunday evening lectures. (fn. 43) He was a friend of Simeon, though his political views were very different, for he was an ardent advocate of reform, (fn. 44) and a friend of Priestley. He made an eloquent but vain appeal for reunion with the Independents of the Hog Hill meeting. (fn. 45) He was also an active farmer of close on 200 acres at Chesterton, a dealer in corn and coals, and the manager of the Chesterton ferry. (fn. 46) Robinson's successor, Robert Hall (1790–1806), was an even more remarkable and distinguished man. (fn. 47)

During the early years of the 19th century 'village stations' or local chapels were founded by the St. Andrew's Street Meeting at Coton (c. 1810) and Barton (1822). (fn. 48) Members of the chapel took a prominent part in town government in both the 18th and 19th centuries. The chapel was rebuilt in 1836 on the original site, and the present building replaced it in 1904. (fn. 49)

Several charitable trusts founded since 1849 for poor members of the congregation are attached to the St. Andrew's Street chapel. Two legacies for the support of the chapel and one for the minister were also made in 1864, 1905, and 1922 respectively. (fn. 50)

In 1882 a mission hall in Mill Road was founded for the St. Andrew's Street chapel. It became independent a few years later. The chapel in Arbury Road was built between 1928 and 1931. The earliest trust deed of the Zion Baptist Chapel in East Road is dated 1845. There is also a chapel at Cherry Hinton. The St. Andrew's Street chapel had a mission hall in Cambridge Place, which was sold in 1940. (fn. 51)

The 'Strict and Particular' chapels are Eden Chapel in Fitzroy Street, built in 1825 (fn. 52) and reconstructed and enlarged in 1874; the chapel in Tenison Road which was opened in 1897 replacing the Hope Chapel in Paradise Street (founded 1861); (fn. 53) and Hope Chapel, Cambridge Place (1929). The last named is a 'Gospel Standard' chapel. (fn. 54)

Wesleyan Methodists.

Meetings were held by the Wesleyan Methodists in Cambridge in 1800, but the first permanent congregation was founded in the yard of the Brazen George Inn in St. Andrew's Street in 1810. In 1815 William Beacock, a Yorkshire plasterer, built a chapel in Blucher Row, Barnwell, with his own hands, assisted by the unskilled labour of other members of the society, which then numbered about 80. (fn. 55) In 1830 the Methodists took over the chapel on the south side of Green Street which had earlier housed an Independent meeting. (fn. 56) When the numbers had increased to 300, the chapel in Hobson Street was opened in 1849. This was rebuilt in 1894 but was sold to the County Council in 1912. It was replaced by the new Wesley Church near Christ's Pieces in 1913. There are other chapels at the corner of Norwich Street and Hills Road (1871), in Romsey Town (1906), in Meadowlands (1952) and in Chesterton. The last was founded in 1858 and a new building on a new site in Chesterton High Street opened in 1904. This was sold in 1952 and a new chapel opened in Scotland Road. (fn. 57) The Hills Road and Romsey Town chapels benefited from legacies left by Robert Sharman (will proved 1943). (fn. 58)

Primitive Methodists.

The Primitive Methodists held their first meetings in Castle End in 1820, and their first chapel was built in St. Peter's Street in 1822, and rebuilt on the same site in 1863. (fn. 59) A new chapel was built in 1914 on an extension of the original site facing Castle Street. They also had a chapel in Newmarket Road (1875). A chapel in Panton Street, held under a trust deed of 1845, was sold in 1911 to the Christian Scientists. (fn. 60)

Other denominations.

The Unitarian congregation in Cambridge dates only from 1904. In 1928 the Memorial Church was built in Emmanuel Road. (fn. 61) The Catholic Apostolic Church, Pound Hill, is said to have originated in 1834, and ceased to be a church in 1954. (fn. 62) The premises have subsequently been used as a cold store. The first public Christian Science service was held in the Victoria Assembly Rooms in 1899 (fn. 63) and the church in Panton Street was bought in 1911 from the Primitive Methodists. (fn. 64) The Christian Science Reading Room has been at 96 Regent Street since 1919. (fn. 65) The Salvation Army 'opened fire' in Cambridge in 1885, and the present citadel in Tenison Road was opened in 1914. (fn. 66) There is also a men's hostel in East Road. (fn. 67) The Cambridge National Spiritualist Church was formed in 1928 and the Myers Memorial Hall in Thompson's Lane opened in 1949. (fn. 68) The Cambridge Christian Spiritualist Church has records which indicate its existence in 1931. Services have been held at various addresses, including Ram Yard and Falcon Yard. In 1953 the church was moved to 17 Corn Exchange Street. (fn. 69) Under a deed of 1879 the former Theatre Royal in Newmarket Road became an undenominational mission hall. After 1915 it was no longer used for this purpose and was sold in 1926. (fn. 70)


  • 1. Cooper, Annals, iii. 436–8.
  • 2. C.A.S. Comm., xvii. 93–96.
  • 3. C. Fell Smith, James Parnell (1906), 36–39; J. Besse, Sufferings of the Quakers, i. 84–85, 89.
  • 4. G. Whitehead, Christian Progress (1725), 23. Blackley was in prison for not paying tithe in 1663. Declaration of the people called Quakers (1664), 14.
  • 5. Early meetings were held in the garden of William Brazier's house in Jesus Lane. A gagg for the Quakers, by R. B. (London, 1659), gives a full account of the debate, with a list of witnesses.
  • 6. East Anglian (1903), x. 65–66. Other accounts describe the meeting-house as 'over against the gate of Sidney College'. The meeting-house of today stands in Jesus Lane opposite the gate into the garden of Sidney Sussex. The gate was transferred from Sidney Street to its present position in 1832, but may replace an older simpler garden gate. Whatever the precise site, all the accounts locate the meeting in Jesus Lane.
  • 7. Bodl. MS. Rawl. C 948; 4, 7, and 10 Feb. 1661.
  • 8. B. Nutter, Story of Cambridge Baptists, 72.
  • 9. Besse, Sufferings of the Quakers, i. 95–96.
  • 10. Nutter, Story of Cambridge Baptists, 45.
  • 11. N. Penney, Extracts from State Papers relating to Friends, 343.
  • 12. Besse, Sufferings of the Quakers, i. 96, 98; Bodl. MS. Rawl. D 1137, p. 311.
  • 13. The Wayfarer (Norf. Cambs. and Hunts. Quarterly Meeting), Nov. 1937.
  • 14. V.C.H. Cambs. ii. 187.
  • 15. C.A.S. Comm., xvii. 114–15.
  • 16. Cooper, Annals, iii. 556.
  • 17. East Anglian, xii. 113; A. G. Matthews, Calamy Revised (1934), 537. After 1691 Wilson served as Hussey's deacon: Walter Wilson, Hist. and Antiquities of Dissenting Churches and Meeting Houses in London, iv. 413.
  • 18. Nutter, Camb. Baptists, 74.
  • 19. Bodl. MS. Rawl. C 948, p. 23.
  • 20. Matthews, Calamy Revised, 137; Nutter, Camb. Baptists, 58.
  • 21. Matthews, op. cit. 272, 371; Bodl. MS. Rawl. D 1137, p. 299.
  • 22. J. M. Gray, Biog. Notes on Mayors of Cambridge, 38.
  • 23. Nutter, Camb. Baptists, 77.
  • 24. Congregational Mag. (1819), ii. 315.
  • 25. The site, in what is now Downing Place, had been acquired on a long lease in Sept. 1687; the freehold was acquired by 1710. B. L. Manning, This Latter House (1924), p. vii.
  • 26. Emmanuel Church, Past and Present (1895), 36.
  • 27. Congregational Mag. ii. 315. The seceders numbered under 24 in a church membership of 90.
  • 28. Cooper, Annals, iv. 143. For a similar riot in 1718 see Hist. MSS. Com. Portland MSS. viii. 237–8.
  • 29. Congregational Mag. ii. 316.
  • 30. Cooper, Memorials, iii. 217; and see D.N.B.
  • 31. See V.C.H. Cambs. ii. 194.
  • 32. Cooper, Annals, iv. 445.
  • 33. See below, p. 137. As Robinson, Works, iv. 178, said, 'When one has increased the other has visibly decreased'.
  • 34. Congregational Mag. ii. 373.
  • 35. Atkinson, Cambridge Described, 174.
  • 36. In 1881 the site was purchased by Mrs. Henry Sidgwick and her sister, and the disused chapel was fitted up as a chemical laboratory, named after Francis Balfour, for the use of the Newnham College students who were not then admitted to the University laboratories: Manning, This Latter House, 9; E. Sidgwick, Mrs. Henry Sidgwick, 89.
  • 37. Atkinson, Cambridge Described, 174.
  • 38. See above.
  • 39. A. G. Matthews, Calamy Revised, 478.
  • 40. Cooper, Memorials, iii. 242, 353–4. No trace remains of either of the Green Street chapels.
  • 41. Atkinson, Cambridge Described, 176–7.
  • 42. Cooper, Memorials, iii. 216 n.
  • 43. Atkinson, op. cit. 174; Congregational Mag. ii. 371.
  • 44. See his 'Political Catechism' (1782) in Works, ii. 257 sqq.
  • 45. 'Memorial to the two Congregations of Protestant Dissenters in Cambridge', Robinson, Works, iv. 178.
  • 46. For biography see Works, i, pp. xix–xx.
  • 47. See D.N.B.
  • 48. H.O. 129/7/186.
  • 49. Cooper, Memorials, iii. 216. For an illustration showing the building of 1836 see above, plate facing p. 77.
  • 50. Char. Com. files.
  • 51. Ibid.
  • 52. Ibid.
  • 53. H.O. 129/7/186.
  • 54. Letter of Revd. W. H. Reeves to Cambridge City Libraries, June 1953.
  • 55. Atkinson, Cambridge Described, 175–6. Beacock died as a missionary in the West Indies in 1817.
  • 56. Cooper, Memorials, iii. 382.
  • 57. Char. Com. files.
  • 58. Letter of Revd. F. W. Doar, Superintendent Minister, Cambridge Circuit, to Cambridge City Libraries, 23 June 1953.
  • 59. Cooper, Memorials, iii. 294.
  • 60. Char. Com. files; Cambridge Chronicle, 20 Feb. 1914.
  • 61. Year Book of the General Assembly [of] the Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, 1955–6.
  • 62. Ex inf. Secretary to the Trustees, Catholic Apostolic Church, Gordon Square, W.C. 1.
  • 63. Letter of E. Taylor, Clerk, First Church of Christ, Scientist, to Cambridge City Libraries, 13 June 1953.
  • 64. Char. Com. files; see above, p. 137.
  • 65. Letter of E. Taylor, 13 June 1953.
  • 66. Major J. Taylor, Cambridge Citadel Corps: Notes supplied to Cambridge City Libraries, 17 June 1953.
  • 67. Kelly's Dir. Camb. (1953).
  • 68. Letter of H. J. Ingrey, Hon. Gen. Sec. C.N.S.C., to Cambridge City Libraries, 13 June 1953.
  • 69. Letter of D. R. Watts, Hon. Gen. Sec. C.C.S.C., to Cambridge City Libraries, 25 July 1953.
  • 70. Char. Com. files.