Demolition A Twinge Of Regret (28 November 1975)
The demolition of the Spurgeon Memorial Baptist Church in Aylesbury Street, Fenny Stratford, must have saddened some local people, especially the elderly. From the day it was opened in 1892 up to its closure it was the most commodious place of worship in the district. True, the Baptist community are now carrying on the good work from the much more populated area of Water Eaton, but the removal from Fenny carries with it a twinge of regret for all that.
The church took its name from the celebrated Baptist preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, who died in 1892. His sermons sold in enormous quantities. So it is not surprising that a collection of them has been found in a lead box in the foundations of the church named after him.
The Baptists have the longest recorded history of nonconformity in the Bletchley-Fenny-Water Eaton area. Their recorded history dates from 1797. Long before that numbers of people had been regularly fined for not attending the parish church, but it is not certain that they were Baptists. Nor is it certain that the “conventicle” at Fenny which Browne Willis closed down when he became lord of the manor in 1710 was Baptist either, though there is a strong possibility that it was.
The Baptist movement as we know it today was started by John Smyth at the beginning of the 17th century. It had little or no connection with the earlier Anabaptist movement, though Baptists are often referred to as Anabaptists in public records, apparently an attempt to disparage them or through ignorance or prejudice.
Smyth was a Church of England minister who came under Dutch influence and founded the first Baptist church in England at Newgate in 1612, the year of his death.
By 1625 there was a Baptist church on the Horsefair Green at Stony Stratford, while Keach’s General Baptist Church at Winslow dates from about the middle of that century. The early churches were known as General Baptist churches. Some years later there was a doctrinal split and “particular” Baptist churches came into being as well.
The Fenny Baptists of 1797, therefore, came rather late in the day as Baptist records go. Moreover, they were of the “Particular” denomination. In addition, the original church book and register states that the first preaching was at a house in Bletchley, “a village near this place,” and that the house was duly registered.
Leader of the group, however, was William Linnell, a Fenny baker, and subsequent services were at various houses and in his barn at Aylesbury Street.
In 1801 it was decided to build a church – a decision possibly influenced by the fact that “Our enemies who loved Darkness rather than Light have several times in the Dark daubed the Styles and Gates we got over or passed through, with Night dung and even thrown Stones.”
The Baptists, apart from Linnell, were poor people. Some could only contribute gifts in kind. But in 1805 a chapel measuring 31 feet by 24 feet and costing £100 was built on the future Spurgeon site. That chapel, with possible later extensions, served until Spurgeon itself was built in 1892.
There are photographs of the old chapel in existence. The late Mr Joe Fennell remembered it as having a gallery, with the choir and organ, “or harmonium,” on the western side. Adjoining the chapel, the Baptists had their own burial ground.
Things did not always go smoothly. Gibbs, the Aylesbury historian, records that at the Assizes in March, 1841, there was “a trial amongst Fenny Stratford dissenters, being a quarrel about the Chapel Lamp. And the local Anglican historian, Dr Bradbrook, flippantly writes that “In July, 1851, the dissenters at Fenny Stratford divided into two sections as a result of a quarrel,” and that “They are distinguished by the very choice appellations of ‘the Potato Party’ and ‘the Cauliflower Party’.”
As a sympathetic outsider, I wonder whether the differences may not have lain deeper than the surface manifestations. For in May of the following year it was decided to dissolve the existing body and to remodel the church. It was also resolved “that the choice of persons should be left with Mr Davis, the Pastor, and that these should constitute the New Baptist Church in Fenny Stratford.” Was the description “Particular” thereby dropped? If so, it could have been significant, as it was not until 1891 that “Particular” and “General” were united in the Baptist Union.
Thenceforward things appear to have gone well and the Spurgeon building, though large, was none too large for some of the congregations that met there. The addition of the Sunday school in 1907 was also no doubt much needed. Over the years many of the town’s most esteemed men and women worshipped there.
The Baptists of Loughton attended the Fenny services up to the middle of the last century, when Fenny helped them to build a church of their own. In much more recent times Fenny also supported the building of the St. Andrew’s and Whaddon Way Baptist churches on the new estates.
As stated, Brown Willis, the founder of St Martin’s Church would not have a dissenter’s chapel in Fenny. The time came when his church was hedged about by the Baptists, the High Street Wesleyan Methodists and the Aylesbury Street Primitive Methodists. Now they have all gone from the immediate vicinity and St Martin’s is again the sole token of Christian witness – except, of course, for the Salvation Army in Church Street.