Swavesey: Nonconformity

Pages 396-397

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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Catherine Radcliffe, wife of the rectory lessee, was named as a recusant in 1593. (fn. 1) No papists are known thereafter until the 20th century. In 1985 Roman Catholics held monthly services in the Anglican church. (fn. 2)

A Quaker of Swavesey was imprisoned in 1655, as were 23 in 1660. (fn. 3) A conventicle had 15 hearers in 1669, (fn. 4) perhaps the 15 nonconformists recorded in 1676. (fn. 5) A Quaker meeting house built in Black Horse Lane in 1714 was rebuilt in red brick after it was burnt down in 1719. A rear wing was added in the late 18th century, and the meeting house was reroofed in slate and refitted in the 1890s, when it was used for a Friends' adult school and various charitable and political meetings. Quaker evangelistic services were held there in 1917. It was sold in 1937, evidently to the Barwells, and descended with the Old House next door to Mr. R. B. Hewlings, who was converting it for domestic use in 1988. (fn. 6)

The 28 dissenters presented in 1686 for absenting themselves from communion (fn. 7) may not all have been Quakers. There were six Independents in Swavesey in 1691-2 who were admitted to a congregation at Rothwell (Northants.), (fn. 8) and in 1728 many unspecified dissenters who attended services at St. Ives (Hunts.). (fn. 9) Independents registered two houses for worship in 1726 and one in 1738. (fn. 10) Unspecified protestants registered houses for worship in 1736, 1747, 1755, 1799, 1813, 1822, 1827, 1831, 1836, and 1839. (fn. 11)

Some of those groups were probably Baptists. The Baptists in Swavesey (fn. 12) were troubled by frequent schisms. A Unitarian Baptist congregation existed by 1820, worshipping in a wooden building built before 1800 at Boxworth End and known as the Old Meeting; it had a burial ground attached. In 1820 the church dissolved itself and was re-formed as Trinitarian, with c. 250 adherents in 1825, and in 1834 it absorbed a Particular Baptist congregation. The chapel, which on Census Sunday 1851 was attended by 250 adults in the morning and evening and 300 in the afternoon, was replaced in 1869 by a Strict Baptist chapel on the west side of Middle Watch, designed by Hammell Robb. It was closed in 1946, reopened in 1950, and still open in 1988.

A group of dissident Unitarians or Ranters survived the re-organization of 1820; they numbered c. 30 in 1825. In 1831 they built a new chapel on the corner of School Lane and High Street. Described in 1851 as Baptist Unitarian, the chapel was then attended on average by 40 adults in the morning, 70 in the afternoon, and 30 in the evening. It was taken over by a group of schismatics from the Baptist Bethel chapel in 1860; they kept on the existing Unitarian preacher. There were 45 members in 1875, but in 1884 they sold the chapel to the Primitive Methodists.

In 1839 another group split from the Old Meeting and in 1840 built the wooden Bethel chapel on the east side of Middle Watch on land given by Thomas William Carter. There was a schoolroom behind. The next year the chapel was replaced by a brick building to seat 250, described in 1851 as Particular Baptist and attended on average by 150 adults in the morning and evening and 200 in the afternoon. It was enlarged in 1853. Despite the secession in 1860 of the group which took over the Unitarian chapel, Bethel was rebuilt in 1868 in yellow brick with red-brick dressings to the design of R. Hutchinson. The congregation was apparently General Baptist by 1873. The chapel was restored in 1907 and 1913 and was still open in 1988. A Baptist cemetery north of Castle close, controlled jointly by the Strict and Bethel chapels, opened in 1868; the cemetery chapel was built between 1929 and 1946. (fn. 13)

In 1783 there were said to be very many Methodists with a conventicle. (fn. 14) Primitive Methodists decided to preach in Swavesey in 1823 and there were allegedly 150 Methodists there in 1825. The Primitive Methodists' First Cambridge Circuit established in 1882 included Swavesey. (fn. 15) In 1884 they bought the former Unitarian or Baptist chapel in School Lane; after the Sunday school closed in 1914 attendance dropped and the chapel was closed in 1932, sold in 1934, and converted to a bungalow. (fn. 16)


  • 1. Recusant Roll, i (Cath. Rec. Soc. xviii), 15.
  • 2. Cath. Dir. (1985), 176.
  • 3. Proc. C.A.S. lxi. 90-1.
  • 4. Orig. Rec. of Early Nonconf. ed. Turner, i. 36-7.
  • 5. Compton Census, ed. Whiteman, 166.
  • 6. R.C.H.M. record card; Cambs. Local Hist. Counc. Bull. xxix. 31; Swavesey Chron. 75-8; Camb. Ind. Press, 28 Apr. 1916; 9 Feb. 1917; inf. from Mr. Hewlings.
  • 7. C.U.L., E.D.R., B 2/70, ff. 5ov.-51.
  • 8. Proc. C.A.S. lxi. 80.
  • 9. C.U.L., E.D.R., B 8/1, ff. 3ov., 37.
  • 10. P.R.O., RG 3½, Cambs. Q.S. nos. 19, 26, 63.
  • 11. Ibid. nos. 54, 101, 127-8, 165, 262, 416, 425, 514, 555, 605, 636.
  • 12. Acct. of Baptists based on ibid. HO 129/177, ff. 29-31; ibid. IR 29/4/69; IR 30/4/69; L. M. Munby, Fen and Upland, 57-8; Lond. Gaz. 27 Oct. 1840, p. 2354; 29 Nov. 1870, p. 5421; Gardner's Dir. Cambs. (1851); Swavesey Chron. 23; C.U.L., E.D.R., C 1/6; C 3/25; C 3/31; G.R.O. Worship Reg. nos. 19299, 19877, 35488; inscrs. on Strict and Bethel chapels; cf. above, plate facing p. 381.
  • 13. Wilson, 'Hist. Swavesey', 69 (TS. in Cambs. Colln.).
  • 14. C.U.L., E.D.R., B 7/1, p. 90.
  • 15. Ibid. C 1/6; Tice, Methodism in Cambs. 61-2, 74.
  • 16. Munby, Fen and Upland, 58. For a view of the chapel, Cambs. Colln., Y Swav. K 33 *24367.