A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 9, Chesterton, Northstowe, and Papworth Hundreds. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1989.
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Four men and 3 women were not attending church in 1675, and 6 men and at least 3 women were regularly absent in 1686, while one man went to conventicles in 1679. (fn. 1) Later the Cambridgeshire preachers Joseph Oddy and Francis Holcroft were said to have laboured in the parish, apparently holding meetings at a cottage near Denny Abbey. (fn. 2) Independents and Anabaptists were reported in 1728, (fn. 3) but organized dissent was quiescent until the 1760s. About 1765 William Cole noted as rival teachers the Methodistical John Baxter, a Presbyterian tailor, and a woman. The evangelical John Berridge began preaching on the green c. 1759, and by 1767 was giving sermons, before and after the labourers' working hours, in a barn nearby. By 1773 he sent out working men from Waterbeach to preach in neighbouring parishes. (fn. 4) An outhouse was registered for dissenting worship in 1778, (fn. 5) and a barn on H. P. Standley's ground in 1787 by a group including John Baxter, long their teacher. (fn. 6) There were many dissenters drawn from the lower orders, including some Methodists, in 1783 and 1807. (fn. 7) By 1800 they had outgrown the barn and in 1802-3 a thatched and timber-framed dovecot from Cottenham was re-erected as a meeting house on land off the south-east end of the green lent by Edward Mason of Hall Farm. A schoolroom was added in 1814. The site was purchased by the chapel trustees, probably in the 1840s. (fn. 8)
By the 1820s its members considered themselves to be Strict and Particular Baptists, and were taught by a Baptist minister from Cambridge. (fn. 9) The chapel had a Sunday school by 1833. (fn. 10) In 1849 the Baptists briefly obtained a resident minister, (fn. 11) who in 1851 claimed an attendance of 160 adults in the morning and evening and 300 in the afternoon. (fn. 12) By then the congregation was probably General Baptist. The young C. H. Spurgeon, later a famous preacher, between 1851 and 1854 regularly walked from Cambridge to preach at Waterbeach thrice each Sunday. His sermons filled the small meeting house to overflowing, and he converted for a time some of the wild and drunken cottagers. (fn. 13) Spurgeon frequently returned to Waterbeach from the 1860s to the 1880s, giving annual sermons: his audience overflowed into marquees put up around the chapel. (fn. 14)
The old chapel was destroyed by fire in 1863. (fn. 15) A new building of 1864 on the same site, in grey brick dressed with red to designs by William Higgs, architect of Spurgeon's Metropolitan Tabernacle, had a three-bay pedimented front and a galleried interior with an organ at its east end. (fn. 16) Later styled Spurgeon's chapel, it seated 560 and had from the 1860s to c. 1920 a continuous series of resident ministers. (fn. 17) At Chittering, where Spurgeon had started a mission station, the Baptists put up a smaller chapel with 120 sittings, (fn. 18) registered in 1899. (fn. 19) They dominated that area in 1873. (fn. 20) That chapel, served by a lay preacher c. 1912-25, (fn. 21) still stood in 1986, when it was in commercial use.
In the village, one minister, E. S. Neal, provoked a schism by his intemperate preaching c. 1867. The deacons and trustees tried to dismiss him late in 1868, but a large majority of the congregation, almost 600, voted him back into office in 1869. His respectable opponents, numbering barely 50, seceded, opening their own Baptist Tabernacle in 1868. Not until Spurgeon himself intervened in 1870 to procure for Neal a call elsewhere were the Baptists reunited. (fn. 22) In the late 19th century they constituted the largest element among the dissenters who dominated the parish, numbering almost 600 c. 1886 and up to 700 in 1897 and 1906. (fn. 23) They included many of the wealthy farmers, among them the Tollers of Winfold Farm. (fn. 24) Adult baptisms in the Cam at Bottisham Lock continued into the 1890s, often attracting large and curious crowds. (fn. 25)
The Baptists' membership, numbering c. 80 in the 1870s and 1880s, rose to 125 by 1905 and stood at c. 110 into the 1930s, while their Sunday school had c. 150 pupils over that period. After 1900 the school was held in a new brick building beside the chapel. Membership then declined from c. 100 in 1945 to 67 by 1965 and only 35 in 1980. The Sunday school was closed and the building sold between 1980 and I986. (fn. 26) The chapel, however, which celebrated its purported tercentenary in 1960 and remained in use in 1986, usually until 1972 had its own minister, who sometimes baptized in the village school swimming pool. (fn. 27)
The Primitive Methodists began preaching c. 1823, (fn. 28) but put up a chapel only in 1850. It could seat c. 105; the preacher from Cambridge had in 1851 an attendance averaging 60, and up to 90 in the evenings. (fn. 29) With up to 80 followers in 1863, they flourished into the 187os, (fn. 30) and were holding camp meetings c. 1886. (fn. 31) Their chapel was still open c. 1910, and perhaps into the 1930s. (fn. 32) The Wesleyans had by 1818 started a society which had 14 members by 1824. Their first chapel, opened in 1822, was rebuilt, probably by Jonathan Denson, whose family continued to support it, in 1837. It stood at the south-east corner of the green and had 225 sittings, 100 free, in 1851, with average attendances of c. 160 in the afternoon and evening, besides 35 children from a Sunday school which lasted into the 1890s. (fn. 33) In 1861 a gardener was preaching there. (fn. 34) Two services were held every Sunday in 1873. (fn. 35) The Waterbeach Wesleyans flourished into the 20th century, (fn. 36) but their chapel ceased to be used c. 1970, and a legacy of £12,000 c. 1972 to build a new one was in vain. (fn. 37)
Read's chapel, of uncertain denomination, was established by 1850. (fn. 38) The Salvation Army, sponsored by the gas works manager, began its attack in a barn in 1886, (fn. 39) and by 1889 had set up a permanent hall at the south-west corner of the green. (fn. 40) It remained there until 1972, when it removed to the recently purchased Wesleyan chapel, (fn. 41) which was enlarged in 1981. (fn. 42)
In 1937 a convent of Carmelite nuns, perhaps from Cambridge, was installed at the then secluded Waterbeach Lodge, (fn. 43) where they remained, building a new wing c. 1960, until the early 1970s. (fn. 44) Their chaplain by 1965 also served a small chapel at the airfield, lately converted from a derelict shed, and named by 1970 St. Joseph's. (fn. 45)