Wisbech: Protestant nonconformity

Pages 250-251

A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 4, City of Ely; Ely, N. and S. Witchford and Wisbech Hundreds. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2002.

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In 1638 unlawful meetings and conventicles were held in Wisbech at the house of Thomas Bouth. (fn. 1) The Baptists are the first sect to be mentioned by name. In 1655 two Baptists from Fen Stanton (Hunts.) visited their brethren at Wisbech at the invitation of John Milles, a member of the Wisbech congregation, of which at the same time Edmund Smith and Israel Cave were elected elders. (fn. 2) Wisbech does not figure as a prominent centre of Nonconformity in Bishop Compton's 'census' of 1676, which enumerated only 12 Dissenters here as compared with 139 in March, 43 in Doddington, 96 in Whittlesey, and 67 in Littleport. (fn. 3) No licences were issued in respect of Wisbech under the Declaration of Indulgence (1672).

By the end of the 17th century there were already separate congregations of Particular and General Baptists in Wisbech. In 1692 the former built the first Nonconformist place of worship in the town-in Deadman's Lane (now Alexandra Road). (fn. 4) William Rix was appointed as resident pastor. (fn. 5) Rix was still in his ministry in 1715, when his congregation numbered 60, including ten 40s. freeholders. (fn. 6) In the middle of the 18th century the numbers began to decline, and in 1776 there were only 20 adherents, too few for a resident minister. (fn. 5) Under the Revd. Samuel Fisher of Norwich (minister 1781-1803) the congregation revived, but a schism occurred and some members, under Richard Wright, adopted Unitarian views and claimed the Deadman's Lane chapel.

In the mid-18th century a congregation of Johnsonian Baptists established itself in Wisbech. Deprived of his chapel Fisher allied himself with this community, and in 1794 built a new chapel in Ship Lane (now Hill Street). (fn. 7) This was rebuilt in 1859, and is the only modern building in Wisbech constructed entirely of stone. (fn. 8) An offshoot of this chapel, in Artillery Street, was closed in 1937. (fn. 9)

The General Baptists absorbed the congregation of Walpole (Norf.) towards the end of the 17th century. In 1697 they built a permanent chapel off Falcon Lane, on land belonging to Henry Place, a wealthy woollen draper and a member of the sect. The chapel measured 35 by 32 ft., and cost £120. (fn. 10) The graveyard and some fragments of the building remain. (fn. 11) About 1700 the General Baptists had 26 members but no resident pastor. (fn. 12) Later ministers of this congregation included Joseph Proud (1745-1836), who became a prominent Swedenborgian, (fn. 13) 'the excellent Mr. [Joseph] Freeston of Hinckley' (minister 1783-99) (fn. 14) and Mr. Jarrow, who was in office in 1820. (fn. 15) In 1803 a new chapel was built in Ely Place, which in turn was replaced by the present building seventy years later. (fn. 16) In 1820 the society maintained a flourishing Sunday school and also the General Baptist Academy. (fn. 17) Three years later a plot of land in Crescent Passage was purchased for a burial ground, and on it a school was built in 1836. This was used by the Sunday school and by the girls' British school during the week. (fn. 18) The General Baptists were also instrumental in establishing (1818) the Christian Fund, a friendly society open to all churchgoers, Anglican as well as Nonconformist. (fn. 19)

Another Baptist chapel (Zion) was built in Victoria Road in 1856; (fn. 20) it has a good classical facade.

In 1751 licence was granted to Isaac Culy for an Independent meeting-house in Wisbech. (fn. 21) This was undoubtedly for a congregation of Culimites, followers of David Culy of Guyhirn in Wisbech St. Mary (q.v.). The sectaries met in the Wool Hall, Exchange Square. (fn. 22) In 1851 the remnants of this sect were worshipping in the Calvinist Chapel at New Walsoken, 'a small mean building, erected in 1837'. (fn. 23)

The Presbyterians in Wisbech were organized as a society some time before 1694, when Ishmael Burroughs, their pastor, published a pamphlet on the conversion of T. Mackenesse, a condemned robber. Burroughs moved to London in 1724, and was succeeded by John Ford, who was paid £4 a year and moved to Sudbury (Suff.) in 1729. (fn. 24) Philip Doddridge preached at the ordination of William Johnston as minister on 8 June 1737. (fn. 25) The original chapel of this denomination is said to have been in Ship Lane (Hill Street). During the 18th century this congregation, like many of the English Presbyterians, seems to have become Unitarian. Its two most famous ministers almost certainly were of that persuasion. (fn. 26) They were John Godwin (minister 1748-58), father of the author of Political Justice, and William Hazlitt senior (minister 1764-6), who married Grace Loftus, daughter of a Wisbech ironmonger, and was the father of the essayist. (fn. 27) From the fact that the section of Particular Baptists under Richard Wright who seceded into Unitarianism about 1790 (see above) claimed the Baptist chapel in Deadman's Lane and ousted the orthodox section, it seems that the Presbyterian-Unitarian congregation may have for some time been worshipping there rather than in Ship Lane. The Unitarians were influential in Wisbech early in the 19th century. (fn. 28) Between 1851 and 1858 they moved to Great Church Street, but their chapel here was closed early in the 1870's. (fn. 29)

In 1816 the Congregationalists started public worship in the Wool Hall in Exchange Square. (fn. 30) The foundation stone of a chapel in Castle Square was laid in 1818 by the Rev. William Holmes, the pastor, and the congregation moved thither in the same year. (fn. 31) An addition made in 1911 comprised a new Sunday school. There are two subordinate chapels, at South Brink (1848), about 2 miles south-west of the town, and at Gorefield (1836) in Leverington. (fn. 32)

There are said to have been 8 members of the Society of Friends in Wisbech in 1660. (fn. 33) They were prominent in Wisbech in the 18th century, (fn. 34) and had a meetinghouse, originally two cottages, on the North Brink on the site of the present building as early as 1711. (fn. 35) In 1851 the meeting had 14 adherents; (fn. 36) the present meeting-house was built three years later. (fn. 37)

Methodism did not immediately obtain a foothold in Wisbech; Charles Kyte and Ashmead of Lynn, its first missioners, were pelted with stones and mud when they preached in the Market Place in 1786. (fn. 38) By 1793, however, its adherents were numerous enough to hire a barn in Deadman's Lane, moving in 1803 to the present chapel (enlarged in 1835) in the Crescent. (fn. 39) Primitive Methodism began in Providence Chapel, New Walsoken, in 1838, and the present chapel in Church Terrace dates from 1868. (fn. 40) United Methodist Free Church meetings were held from 1850, at first in the public hall and later (1862) in the existing chapel (now sold) in Little Church Street. (fn. 41) A Seamen's Chapel ('Bethel') was erected in Russell Street in 1828. It was closed between 1879 and 1883. (fn. 42) The Salvation Army citadel (now demolished) in. East Street dated from 1885. Its foundation stone was laid by General Booth. (fn. 43)

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries a considerable amount of co-operation occurred between the established and dissenting churches. The original Committee (1781) of the Literary Society included both Anglicans and Friends. The Committee of the Wisbech branch of the British and Foreign Bible Society included Anglicans, Quakers and Baptists. (fn. 44)

In 1824 open air services were held in the Market Place on Sunday evenings by the Independents, Methodists, General and Particular Baptists. 'The Church was silent, but perhaps had service been celebrated there at the same hour much good would arise from it, and at any rate some of the thousand loungers, riotous persons and squallers and squeezers in the Market Place would for a time at least have had their feet, and tongues and hands in a state of greater quietude and not less insincere'. (fn. 45)


  • 1. Trans. Cambs. and Hunts. Arch. S. iv, 382; Bp.'s Mun., Ely, D 8.
  • 2. A. Taylor, Hist. Engl. Gen. Baptists (1818), i, 138-41; ii, 301-2.
  • 3. Bp.'s Mun., Ely, A 6.
  • 4. Walker and Craddock, Hist. Wisb. (1849), 395. This chapel was on the site of the present British Legion premises; its graveyard still exists (infm. the late E. J. Rudsdale).
  • 5. Wilson MSS. I 5, 283-6 (Dr. Williams's Libr.).
  • 6. Evans MSS. f. 9b (Dr. Williams's Libr.).
  • 7. Cong. Mag. iii, 169-70 (1820).
  • 8. Gardiner, Hist. Wisb. (1898), 269- 71. The materials were largely taken from the Stone Bridge and Butter Market, demolished in 1856.
  • 9. Bapt. Handbk. 1950.
  • 10. Taylor, Hist. Engl. Gen. Baptists, i, 138-41.
  • 11. Infm. the late E. J. Rudsdale.
  • 12. Taylor, Hist. Engl. Gen. Baptists, ii, 301-2.
  • 13. D.N.B.
  • 14. Author of Encouragement for Travellers to Zion.
  • 15. Cong. Mag. iii, 169-70.
  • 16. Gardiner, Hist. Wisb. (1898), 269- 71. The site of the Ely Place chapel was 'very unwillingly' conveyed to the Baptists by Joseph Medworth (Ely Place Chapel Souvenir (1905)).
  • 17. Cong. Mag. iii, 169-70.
  • 18. Gardner, Dir. Cambs. (1851), 607.
  • 19. Ibid. 625-6.
  • 20. Bapt. Handbk. 1950.
  • 21. Bp.'s Mun., Ely, A 6.
  • 22. Gardiner, Hist. Wisb. 260.
  • 23. Gardner, Dir. Cambs. (1851), 607.
  • 24. Evans MSS. f. 9a (Dr. Williams's Libr.).
  • 25. Cong. Mag. iii, 169-70.
  • 26. D.N.B. states that William Hazlitt senior was a Presbyterian minister who became Unitarian, and that John Godwin was a 'dissenting minister'.
  • 27. William Godwin the elder was born in Wisbech in a cottage attached to the Deadman's Lane Chapel, but Hazlitt had moved to Maidstone by the time of his son's birth.
  • 28. James Hill, who was prominent in local affairs c. 1800-25 and was the father of Octavia Hill, was a Unitarian. The sect is mentioned several times in Jackson's Diary (Wisb. Mus.) as a power in Wisbech.
  • 29. Gardner, Dir. Cambs. (1851), 607; Kelly, Dir. Cambs. (1858, 1869, and 1875). The Unitarians and their chapel are not mentioned in the last-named edition.
  • 30. Gardiner, Hist. Wisb. 265.
  • 31. Cong. Mag. iii, 169-70 (1820); Walker and Craddock, Hist. Wisb. 393; Gardiner, Hist. Wisb. 265. A photograph and memoir of Holmes appear in the Evang. Mag. 1853.
  • 32. Cong. Year Bk. 1949.
  • 33. Susanna Peckover and J. Brown, The Friends in Cambs. (1888). There were sixty-nine in Cambridge and fifty-one in Ely at this date.
  • 34. See p. 257 below.
  • 35. Walker and Craddock, Hist. Wisb. 389.
  • 36. H.O. 129/7/193.
  • 37. Gardiner, Hist. Wisb. 267-8.
  • 38. Ibid.
  • 39. Ibid.
  • 40. Ibid.
  • 41. Ibid.
  • 42. Kelly, Dir. Cambs. (1879, 1883).
  • 43. Notes supplied by the late E. J. Rudsdale.
  • 44. Ibid.
  • 45. Diary of Revd. J. Jackson, 29 Aug. 1824 (Wisb. Mus.). 'Whether the Socinians had anything of the kind [i.e. an open-air service] I am sorry I did not ascertain.'