Methodism in Rushden
Methodism arrived in Rushden, Northamptonshire, by 1780. But it had a troubled history in the village, which was later to become a boot and shoe manufacturing town.
METHODISTS IN RUSHDEN, NORTHANTS.
THE FIRST RUSHDEN SOCIETY
Methodism arrived in Rushden at some time during the late 1760s or 1770s. The society there was part of Bedford Wesleyan Circuit, which had been formed in 1765. In Bedford Record Office there is a transcription of the first Circuit Book, which does not cover the early years, but gives detailed records from 1781 to 1806.
Like most early Wesleyan circuits Bedford covered a very wide area. In 1781 it was responsible for 21 societies, ranging from Godmanchester in Huntingdonshire to Stevenage in Hertfordshire. These had a total membership of 304: Bedford was the largest with 45 and Stevenage the smallest, with just two. Societies were further sub-divided into class meetings: Bedford had three of these, Luton and Old Weston two, while the majority, including Rushden, had only one.
In 1781 the Rushden society had fifteen members, making it almost exactly average for the Circuit. The early records give the names of every member: Thomas and Sarah Angrave of Irchester, James and Elizabeth Berridge of Wollaston, Thomas and Sarah Cumberland of Rushden are recorded first. They are all farmers and their wives. Next come another married couple, Thomas and Mary Fisher of Rushden. Thomas is a “huckster”. Mary Whitlock, an unmarried servant, lived at Irchester. Six other members all lived at Rushden: Ann Simons, a married lace-maker; Thomas Mackness, a married labourer; Hannah Hooper, married and “poor”; Elizabeth Partridge, an unmarried lace-maker; William Underwood, a married labourer; and Sarah Pettit, married and “poor”.
At that time Rushden was still a village- the first national Census in 1801 recorded its population as 818. Assuming some growth over the twenty years between 1781 and 1801, perhaps between one and two percent of Rushden people were Methodist members in those early years. Many others probably attended their meetings, either regularly or occasionally.
The record for the next year, 1782, shows the membership down to thirteen. No new members have been added, and Thomas Mackness and William Underwood are missing. No reason is given- whether they died, moved away, were excluded for some “sin”, or had simply fallen away is not stated. Some other changes are also recorded: Thomas Fisher has become a labourer, Hannah Hooper and Sarah Pettit are spinsters (in the lace trade?) and no longer “poor”. Whether these improvements in status were the result of Methodist self-discipline or a revival in trade we cannot tell.
In 1783 Sarah Baker of Rushden is a new member, bringing membership back up to 14. Sarah’s occupation is not given. James and Elizabeth Berridge have now moved from Wollaston to Irchester, and are still recorded as farmers.
Mary Whitlock and Elizabeth Partridge disappear from the membership list in 1784, bringing the total down to 12. In this year’s record, Thomas Angrave and James Berridge are both described as “Graziers”, and Thomas and Mary Fisher are recorded as living in Irchester. But this may be a mistake, because in 1785 they are back in Rushden again. (The Angraves and Berridges are once again simply “farmers”.) Also in 1785 Sarah Mitchell, a servant of Irchester, has become a new member, but Hannah Hooper and Sarah Pettit have been lost. The society is down to eleven members, almost half of whom now live in Irchester rather than Rushden.
Next comes a long gap in the records. In 1792 the recording minister writes: “There is no account that I can find since the year 1785. 6 years have been neglected by the Assistant…”. In the 1792 records there is no mention of a Rushden society. Instead there is a society at Irchester with 22 members, and another at Higham Ferrers with 32. Thomas and Sarah Angrave are part of the Irchester membership, with James and Mary Berridge (perhaps Elizabeth Berridge had died, and James had remarried, or perhaps the same person is now known by a different name). In the Higham membership are farmer Thomas Fisher (but no Mary), charwoman Hannah Hooper, lacemaker Elizabeth Partridge, Sarah Pettit (her occupation not given) and lacemaker Sarah Baker. These were all former Rushden members, though Hannah, Elizabeth and Sarah Pettit had lapsed from the Rushden society by 1785. The later records do not say where members live, but it is very likely that these still all were from Rushden.
The years between 1785 and 1791 had obviously seen rapid growth- by 1793 the Bedford Circuit had grown to 38 societies with a total of 677 members. From then on it was organised into three sections, Bedford, Higham Ferrers and St. Ives, in preparation for these becoming distinct circuits on their own. From 1793, therefore, both Irchester and Higham disappear from the Bedford records. The fourteen societies with 155 members which remained with Bedford grew by 1806 to thirty with 908 members. Fewer personal details are recorded in these later years, and sometimes only the number of members in each society are given with no names. On the other hand amounts of annual collections appear with increasing frequency, perhaps a reflection of what happens to organisations as success comes and numbers grow.
The original Rushden society seems to have become increasingly focussed on Irchester. The Angraves were clearly the leaders- their names always appears first in the list of members, and in the 1790s records of the new society they are explicitly said to be the class leaders. Perhaps even in the 1780s some meetings had been held at Irchester, which might have led to a falling away of the “lower social status” Rushden members.
The new Higham Ferrers society seems to have picked up some wandering Rushden sheep, and was probably intended to serve both places- at one time Higham was the more important place, a relationship that was only reversed much later in the 19th century. But the “recovery” of some of the old Rushden members did not last long: in the 1793 Higham list Sarah Pettit and Thomas Fisher are missing (they may have died, of course, or moved away from the area). And nothing more is heard of Thomas and Sarah Cumberland, or of Ann Simons, once members of the old Rushden society.
RE-FORMATION AND REFORM
Rushden seems to have given problems to the early Methodists. The village clearly failed to develop good lay leadership, and depended for this on nearby communities (especially Irchester). Perhaps the presence of a strong Baptist church in Little Street (founded in the 1720s) had “pre-empted” some of the potential. But the Rushden Baptists were Calvinists- they believed God had predestined some for salvation, and consigned everyone else to perdition, with no-one having any choice in the matter. That should have left room for a version of the Gospel which proclaimed, as did the Wesleyans, “whosoever will may come”- unless Rushden was the kind of East Anglian village where people’s minds were so inflexible that Calvinism could appear to be the more realistic theology.
In any case the Little Street Baptists themselves were beginning to change. Andrew Fuller, minister of the Baptist church at Kettering, was teaching that, although God had his chosen elect, he would draw them to faith by evangelistic preaching, just as a magnet draws iron filings out of a heap of sawdust. The older Calvinists tended to say “God is able to convert the heathen in His own way” without any help from us. Rushden Baptists began to be drawn to Fuller’s new ideas, so much so that that in 1800 there was a division- the stricter members left to form a new church in the High Street (later known as Succoth Chapel).
Despite all this competition, the Wesleyans were re-established in Rushden by 1814. A fortnightly service there appears on the Circuit Plan in that year, and also at nearby Wymington, where the house of “George Mackeness” had been registered for worship in 1807 (Mackness family members were prominent members later in the century. On the 1814 Plan the village is, mysteriously, spelt “Warrizden”. Perhaps the Superintendent Minister sent a written copy to the printer who, not being a local man, misread the name). By 1814 the Circuit was centred on Wellingborough, though Higham was reinstated as a Circuit a few years later when Wellingborough grew and was sub-divided: Rushden and Wymington stayed with Higham. A few years later the Rushden Wesleyans were worshipping in a thatched barn next to the Green (opposite the Parish Church) which in 1827 was converted into a chapel seating just over 100 people. Northamptonshire Record Office has the memories of a Mrs Clarke, who as a child belonged to the Sunday school there (they are quoted in Hall and Harding’s book “Rushden”, published in 1985). Her father and mother, Robert and Eliza Dickens, were among the first members of this chapel, which had high-backed pews. Opposite the pulpit was a gallery, reached by awkward steps, where the singers and children sat. Two square pews stood on either side of the pulpit, one of which was occupied by the Dearlove family who from the late 1830s were tenants of Higham Park, to the south of Rushden.
The Wymington society remained a cottage meeting, by the late 1820s meeting in the home of Thomas and Ann Rains (or Reins). Thomas was a farm labourer who had been born at Stanwick in 1792, and Ann was born at Southoe, Hunts in the same year. Their daughter Elizabeth was born at Wymington in 1830, which suggests that they had arrived in the village by then, probably bringing their Methodism with them.
Rushden’s population was still growing slowly but steadily, reaching 1311 by 1841. Still a village, it had not yet experienced the expansion of the boot and shoe industry which by the end of the century was to turn it into a small industrial town. But Wesleyan Methodism was now firmly established, and could hope for steady and uninterrupted growth as the village began to respond to new commercial developments.
It was not to be. These were stormy days for the Wesleyan Methodists. Disputes were raging about forms of government and the liberty sought by some circuits and congregations. John Wesley had created a strongly centralised structure, with authority vested in a conference of the most senior ministers. This was a pattern which some were convinced ought to be maintained- most notably Jabez Bunting, who was Secretary of Conference from 1814 to 1820, and for some years after that holder of leading positions in the denomination.
Bunting is reputed to have said “Methodism hates democracy as it hates sin”. Even if he did not use those words, many felt that his actions were wholly consistent with that view. Throughout the 1830s and 40s opposition was growing to the “Bunting” view, until from 1849 a major dispute led to a series of expulsions and resignations which deprived the Wesleyans of a third of their members (over 90,000 people) within five years. The Rushden society was caught up in this turmoil. For some years the commitment of the Rushden society to the Wesleyan Conference had been waning- their contributions to central funds had declined, until in 1850 the Wesleyan Education Fund records stated bluntly, “Chapel taken away”. Late in 1851 the chapel on the Green closed down, and many members began renting a room for worship from Benjamin Denton in Backway (now Rectory Road).
Earlier in 1851 the national Census had also recorded statistics of church attendances (it is the only one to have done so throughout the country). Rushden’s population in 1851 had grown to 1,460, and the census showed a reasonably strong Wesleyan congregation in the village: in a chapel said to have been erected in 1834 (perhaps a completion date for work started in 1827) there were 130 sittings, of which 84 were free (the others presumably rented for regular contributions, a common practice at the time). On Sunday 30th March there was a morning congregation of 50 adults and 64 children, in the afternoon 40 adults and 70 children, and in the evening 50 adults and 50 children. The return was signed by Josiah Parker, Chapel Steward, of Rushden, near Higham Ferrers. In the Dearlove’s house at Higham Park was another smaller Wesleyan congregation of 20 adults, the return signed by Ralph Dearlove, a member of the church, and farmer of Higham Park near Higham Ferrers. The room in which they met, “not used exclusively for worship”, was said to have 80 “free sittings”. The Wymington cottage meeting attracted an afternoon congregation of thirty, and 78 in the evening (no distinction is made in that record between adults and children). In 1851 Wymington had a population of 293. The large evening congregation is perhaps explained by the fact that the Parish Church held afternoon and evening services on alternate Sundays- Census Sunday saw an afternoon service there. In villages it would not be unusual for people to attend services both at the Parish Church and at Wesleyan cottage meetings. Oddly a house registered for worship “about forty years ago” (George Mackness’ house?) was still in use “occasionally” (though not on Census Sunday) by the minister of Little Street Baptist Church in Rushden.
It is possible that the Census caught the Rushden society on the point of disruption. In many places Wesleyan societies split between loyalists and “Reformers”, as they were known, but Rushden seems to have opted almost unanimously for break-away (as the 1850 note from the Education Fund suggests). Perhaps the small group with the Dearloves at Higham Park were the tiny minority who remained Conference loyalists. Thomas Reins at Wymington was told by the Higham Wesleyan authorities that unless he stopped inviting “Reformers” to conduct services there they would no longer be considered part of the Circuit.
Nationally, most of the 1849 Reformers were willing to enter into negotiations with other groups who had already seceded from the Wesleyan Conference during the 1830s and 40s. This resulted in the formation of the United Methodist Free Church in 1857, which retained some elements of central government while responding to the demand for more democracy. But a minority rejected all forms of central authority, opting for congregational independency, more characteristic of the older dissenters, the Baptists and Congregationalists, than of Methodism. In 1859 this minority formed the Wesleyan Reform Union, which has since consistently refused to reunite with other Methodists. The Rushden society, now worshipping in Benjamin Denton’s room, joined this Union, and with Wymington and others created a Reform circuit centred on Wellingborough.
CHAPELS IN AN INDUSTRIAL TOWN
Benjamin Denton was clearly a key figure in the Rushden Wesleyans’ decision to opt for Reform, and in its more extreme version. He was a “shoe factor”, a new breed of man in the village, with, according to the 1851 Census, 36 workers in his employ. His “factory” dwarfed all the other shoemasters in the village- William Sherwood, the next biggest, had only eight employees, and John Smith five. (In 1851 there were 234 shoemakers in Rushden- thirty percent of the total working population- the next largest groups were 174 lacemakers, mainly women, and 159 farm labourers). Over the next thirty years Denton’s firm grew to nearly 90 workers. It had been well overtaken then by William Claridge, with nearly 300, but was still in second place, ahead of Ebenezer Claridge (39) and Frederick Knight (32). Thirteen other manufacturers employed eleven or fewer workers.
Was there something about Benjamin Denton’s experience of life as a leader in the industrial life of Rushden, his authority as a growing employer, perhaps his optimism about the future of the boot and shoe trade, that made him a leader in his chapel and a strong advocate of Independency, able to lead the Rushden Wesleyans so firmly in that direction and perhaps to challenge the older leadership of men like Ralph Dearlove?
In his book “Methodist Secessions: the origins of Free Methodism in three Lancashire towns” (published in 1979 by the Chetham Society, Manchester), D.A.Gowland tells the story of chapels in Rochdale which broke away from the Wesleyan Conference in the 1830s, and with others formed the “Wesleyan Association” (which later united with the majority of the 1849 Reformers to form the 1857 UMFC). They were led by men who “belonged to a rising social group that prospered and advanced only as a result of a formidable challenge to existing institutions and vested interests …… In so far as secession was an ecclesiastical manifestation of widespread social changes it was engineered by men convinced of the need for a range of instruments firmly within their control and expressive of their own values” (pp74-5).
In other words older concepts of religious unity were being challenged by men with a new outlook on life, formed in their experience of working life, competition and industrialisation. What they were learning in the business world was applied to their attitude to the chapels they also led. Keith Jones tells a similar story of the division in the Baptist Church at Barnoldswick (Baptist Quarterly 30:3, July 1983). Founded in 1661 the congregation grew with the expansion of textile working in the area, and by the 1840s included a large number of independent hand-loom weavers in its membership. As the cotton industry changed and factory production forced independent weavers out of business (a development exactly similar to the changes happening in the boot and shoe industry) disputes grew in the church. A majority (including the minister) saw the task of the church as giving support to the increasingly impoverished traditional workers, but a minority were impatient with this attitude, until a split created a second Baptist church in the town, led mainly by the new factory owners.
Rochdale was a far larger town than either Rushden or Barnoldswick. Barnoldswick, like Rushden, was still only a little over 1000 people in the 1840s, whereas Rochdale’s population of 8,500 had grown to nearly twenty thousand by 1831. But social change was coming to all these places, and Benjamin Denton in Rushden perhaps shared some of the same thinking and reactions with the Rochdale Wesleyans and the factory owners of Barnoldswick. How far his belief in local “democracy” and freedom was carried over into his relationship with his own workers (or even his fellow church members of a lower social status) is not clear.
The old Wesleyan chapel on the Green found many uses after 1850. For a time it was an infant school, then a carpenter’s shop. The Primitive Methodists used it briefly when they came to Rushden around 1880, and was finally demolished soon after they left it to build themselves a new chapel on Fitzwilliam Hill.
It was to be more than thirty years from the Reform schism of the 1850s before Rushden once again had a congregation which owed its loyalty to the Wesleyan Conference so vigorously championed by Jabez Bunting. In 1888 a new Wesleyan Methodist society held its first meetings in the Public Hall in Coffee Tavern lane, then in the Temperance Hall. A chapel was built in Park Road in 1890, and finally a new chapel in 1904 (the 1890 building becoming the Sunday school).
The Wesleyan Methodists had returned to Rushden just as its population reached take-off point. Growth had still been slow from 1851, and was still only 3,657 in 1881. But then, as factory production (pioneered by the likes of the Dentons) took over from hand-made home shoe-making, and new workers poured in from the nearby villages to occupy the rows and rows of newly-built red-brick terraced houses, population leaped ahead to 7,448 in 1891, and 12,459 in 1901. After that the expansion slowed again, reaching 14,248 in 1931.
The Independent Wesleyans who in 1851 had rented from Benjamin Denton built themselves a chapel in the High Street in 1873, which cost £1000. (Wymington built its own chapel in 1871 for £115). Later High Street set up a daughter “Mission” first on Station Road, then on the Wellingborough Road, to serve a newly growing part of the town. In 1900 the High Street congregation built itself a larger chapel, which in 1903 hosted the annual Conference of the Wesleyan Reform Union. Now the members felt confident and well-established enough to employ their own minister separately from the rest of the Wellingborough Circuit. Richard Shorten served them from 1901 to 1908, and from 1909 Charles J Keeler became a prominent figure in the town for some three decades. By 1925 they had over 330 members and a Sunday school as big. The Mission also had over 230 members, and more than 300 Sunday-school scholars. These two churches had the largest memberships in the Wesleyan Reform Union (Muff Field, Bradford was third, with just over 200)- a remarkable achievement for a town of only 14,000 people. Wymington at the same time had sixteen members, plus six “on trial” (ie serving a probationary time before being admitted to full membership) and a Sunday school of seventy.
The 20th century, however, was to prove a greater challenge than any they had previously known. The bitter experience of war from 1914 to 18 caused many to question the optimistic assumptions of “Christian civilisation”. Scientific thinking and Biblical criticism had begun to erode traditional religious certainties. The ancient, fairly stable relationships of a half-industrialised village were giving way to the far less personal economic struggles of a small town. With that came a growing sense of alienation from the associations that used to draw people together. This was a new world that the churches and chapels, rooted as they were in older patterns of village society, were ill-equipped to face. But as memberships and congregations declined, they determinedly struggled to find new ways to surmount the crises, as they had had to do many times before.