City of Ely: Nonconformity

Pages 86-87

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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The Roman Catholic Church of St. Etheldreda in Egremont Street dates from 1891. (fn. 1)

It was not to be expected that Protestant Dissent would make an early appearance in a city so literally overshadowed by its cathedral as was Ely. No licences were issued in Ely under the Declaration of Indulgence (1672), and four years later only 33 Protestant Nonconformists and 1 Papist were reported. (fn. 2) About 1700 there was a General Baptist congregation in the city, with a Mr. Clack as pastor, but this seems to have been short-lived. (fn. 3) In 1753 Edmund Carter asserted that there were no dissenting chapels in Ely (fn. 4) but a rapid increase occurred before the end of the century. (fn. 5)

About 1797 a section of the Countess of Huntingdon's congregation in Ely (see below) adopted Strict Baptist doctrines, split away and began to hold services in two licensed rooms. (fn. 6) The breach was not irrevocably widened, and in 1840 a chapel (Salem) was built in Chequer Lane and used by the Independents and Baptists in mixed communion. In 1851 Salem chapel had no resident minister or Sunday School. (fn. 7) The absence of a resident minister seems to have led to weakness, and in 1853 the Baptists finally seceded and built a chapel of their own (Zion) at the corner of Butcher Row and High Street Passage. This chapel still exists. (fn. 8) The congregation is not, however, in affiliation with the Baptist Union. Salem chapel continued to be used by the Independents until c. 1875. (fn. 9)

From about 1780 itinerant preachers of the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion visited Ely. (fn. 10) A regular congregation was formed in 1785 (fn. 11) and in 1793 the existing church, in Chapel Street, was built by a certain Morgan James and opened by the Revd. Thomas Wills of London, the Countess's chaplain. In 1797 it was closed as a result of the Strict Baptist schism (see above). It was reopened in 1802 under John Sheppard, a minister from Cheshunt College, and became a vigorous institution. In 1819 galleries had to be erected to provide extra accommodation. The congregation was then estimated at 500 to 600. (fn. 12) It remained at this level for at least a generation, and in 1851, when there were over 400 adult worshippers and 200 Sunday scholars, was the largest congregation in the city. (fn. 13) This church is still in existence.

John Wesley visited Ely in 1774 and 1786. On the former occasion he preached in a house 'well filled with plain, loving people' and admired the cathedral; on the latter he was only passing through on his way from Lynn (Norf.) to Hoddesdon (Herts.). (fn. 14) It was not, however, until 1818 that the Wesleyans built a chapel in Ely. In 1851 there was a Sunday School. (fn. 15) The chapel building, in Chapel Street, near the Countess of Huntingdon's, was restored in 1891 (fn. 16) and is still in use.

The Primitive Methodists built a chapel in Victoria Street in 1847. There was a Sunday School in 1851. (fn. 17) The chapel is still in use.

The Salvation Army began work in Ely, also in Victoria Street, between 1892 and 1896. Their work ceased between 1908 and 1912. (fn. 18) The Railway Mission Hall in Silver Street was opened in 1901 and is still in existence. (fn. 19)

Conditions in Prickwillow were much more favourable to Nonconformity, and the Baptists (1816), Wesleyan Methodists (1826), and Primitive Methodists (1846) all had organized congregations there before the established church. In 1851 the last named had as yet only a licensed schoolroom (1849) with a service held alternately in the morning and the afternoon. The congregations were larger than at any of the chapels individually, but each of the latter had a flourishing Sunday School. (fn. 20) The Baptist chapel was rebuilt in 1875 and the Primitive Methodist in 1894. They still exist. The Wesleyan congregation had more or less died out by 1894, and the chapel, under the title 'The People's House' (now St. Peter's Hall), became a centre for religious and social meetings. (fn. 21)

There are no Nonconformist congregations in Adelaide, Stuntney, and Chettisham.


  • 1. Kelly, Dir. Cambs. (1900).
  • 2. Bp.'s Mun., Ely, A 6.
  • 3. Cong. Mag. ii, 502 (1819).
  • 4. Hist. Cambs. (1753), 66.
  • 5. Bp.'s Mun., Ely, B 6 and C 2.
  • 6. Cong. Mag. ii, 502.
  • 7. H.O. 129/7/190.
  • 8. Kelly, Dir. Cambs. (1937); City of Ely Red Bk. (1950).
  • 9. It is last mentioned in Kelly's Directory of that year.
  • 10. Cong. Mag. ii, 502.
  • 11. Cong. Yr. Bk. 1949.
  • 12. Cong. Mag. ii, 502.
  • 13. H.O. 129/7/190.
  • 14. J. Wesley's Jnl., ed. Curnock, vi, 51; vii, 215.
  • 15. H.O. 129/7/190.
  • 16. Kelly, Dir. Cambs. (1900).
  • 17. H.O. 129/7/190.
  • 18. Kelly. Dir. Cambs.
  • 19. Inscr. on bldg.
  • 20. H.O. 129/7/190.
  • 21. Kelly, Dir. Cambs. (1900 and 1933).