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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Nathaniel Bradshaw claimed to have left 90 devout families when ejected from the rectory in 1662. (fn. 1) The Congregational chapel and its Baptist successor later dated their foundation to that year. (fn. 2) Bradshaw continued to preach in Willingham and neighbouring villages until he removed to London c. 1667, (fn. 3) when another ejected minister, Joseph Oddy, came from Meldreth. He had an assistant at Willingham (fn. 4) and probably remained resident until his death in 1687. (fn. 5) Oddy's associate Francis Holcroft also taught at Willingham. (fn. 6) In 1669 the conventicle numbered about 100, many from Cottenham and other places; (fn. 7) six years later 70 members, mostly women, were listed at Willingham, Over, and Oakington, perhaps 14 of the 22 men being from Willingham itself. (fn. 8) A house was licensed as a meeting place in 1672. (fn. 9) After the Toleration Act Bradshaw moved to St. Ives (Hunts.), making a weekly journey to preach in Willingham until his death in 1690, when he was buried in the chancel. (fn. 10)
Bradshaw's Independent congregation, perhaps from 1714 housed in what became known as the Old Meeting, (fn. 11) was frequently troubled by disputes in the early 18th century. Three successive ministers between 1711 and 1751 were forced to leave, the last two on charges of immorality. The departure of the second c. 1728 led to the separation of the Cottenham congregation from that at Willingham. In 1731 and 1732 a separate meeting existed in Willingham in opposition to Edmund Almond, pastor 1728-51, (fn. 12) and ten different houses were registered for worship during his time, some by himself. (fn. 13) The joint Willingham-Cottenham meeting had 500 attenders in the 1720s. (fn. 14) In 1728 Willingham dissenters, who met twice each Sunday, numbered c. 100, besides others coming from Over and Swavesey. (fn. 15) In 1774, when numbers were thought to have been much reduced, there were 51 members, slightly more women than men. In all 68 Willingham families and 17 from elsewhere attended. (fn. 16) In 1783 the curate estimated that a third of the parishioners were dissenters. (fn. 17)
Although the church was Congregational in 1772 (fn. 18) and probably remained so under Thomas Boodger, pastor 1754-84, the principle of adult baptism was adopted c. 1789 after a successful preaching campaign by John Rootham, who was invited to become pastor (fn. 19) and died as such in 1827. (fn. 20) Adult baptism became compulsory for members only in 1830. (fn. 21) Some of the former adherents may have remained Congregationalist, using other buildings registered for worship in the early 19th century. (fn. 22)
The Baptist church had about 40 members and a considerable congregation in 1798. (fn. 23) In 1825 there were c. 400 Baptists in the parish. (fn. 24) The Old Meeting was demolished in 1830 and a new building, to seat 750, was erected on its site in High Street. (fn. 25) A secession in 1814 led to the building of a new chapel further south in High Street in 1820. Its members inclined to Unitarianism but had disbanded by 1838. (fn. 26) Another part of the congregation seceded in 1838 (fn. 27) to form the Second Baptist Church, taking over the chapel of 1820, which seated c. 250. (fn. 28) In 1851 the average adult attendance at each of its three Sunday services was between 90 and 150, while the first church attracted 400 adults on Sunday morning and 750 in the afternoon and evening. (fn. 29) Neither church joined the Baptist Union (fn. 30) but the deacon of the second church in 1873 described its tenets as moderate. (fn. 31)
In 1873 William Jackson, probationary pastor of the first church, left to form a new congregation, which by 1874 had affiliated to the Baptist Union and in 1875 built the Tabernacle across the road from the first church. His brother-inlaw C. H. Spurgeon preached at the laying of its foundation stone. (fn. 32) Of the three Baptist the second disappeared before 1877. The first, from then usually called the Old church, was also affected by Jackson's secession, declining to 20 members in 1884, and may have closed in 1897. (fn. 33) A new minister was appointed c. 1928 and there were over 30 members c. 1945, but numbers had fallen below ten by 1955 and the church was closed c. 1973. (fn. 34) The plain brick building was demolished in 1978. (fn. 35)
Membership of the Tabernacle climbed rapidly to 169 in 1885 and did not fall below 140 until the 1930s. Thereafter it declined, but stood at 57 in 1982, when there was still a full-time pastor. (fn. 36) The building, of white brick and Bath stone dressings, is gabled with two low turrets and a large four-light window facing the street.
Quakers were active in Willingham in the late 17th century. A meeting may have been in existence as early as 1657, (fn. 37) when its members met there possibly in rotation with neighbouring villages. (fn. 38) One Quaker woman was recorded in 1728. (fn. 39)
In 1807 a single Methodist was noted. (fn. 40) The Primitive Methodists of Cambridge resolved to send their preacher in 1823 and in 1860 the parish was included in a newly created circuit branch served by a minister who lived in St. Ives. (fn. 41) In 1861 the Primitives had a chapel in Church Street, which evidently closed in 1865. (fn. 42) The Wesleyans had established a preaching place by 1836, probably in a barn registered for worship in 1835. (fn. 43) Their chapel was attended by between 65 and 107 adults at each of the three services on Census Sunday 1851. (fn. 44) In 1852 a new chapel was opened, (fn. 45) a plain yellow-brick box facing the green with sash windows and seating for 158; (fn. 46) it was still used for worship in 1982. At first in the Cambridge circuit, it was attached in 1877 to the new Cottenham circuit, which was reunited with Cambridge in 1952. (fn. 47)
In 1985 Roman Catholic services were held once a month in the parish church by a priest from St. Ives. (fn. 50)