In this section you can find brief histories of our Churches in Abbey Lane & Newport.
In 2015 we celebrated the 350th anniversary of the founding of the congregation that was to become Abbey Lane United Reformed Church. 2011 also saw the 200th anniversary of the current Church building at Abbey Lane which was opened in September 1811, and one of our members has written a series of articles about the building of the Church and other aspects of Church life and society at the time.
1665-2015: Celebrating 350 years of Abbey Lane Church
Martin Luther nails his “95 Theses” to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, propounding two central beliefs—that the Bible is the central religious authority and that humans may reach salvation only by their faith and not by their deeds—sparking the Protestant Reformation.
John Calvin publishes his Institutes of the Christian Religion, setting out the theology of reformation.
The English Civil War. Conflicting attitudes towards royal authority and religion brought about a series of events which escalated into armed conflict.
Charles II asked to return to England to restore the monarchy.
The Act of Uniformity decrees that clergy of the Established Church who refused to give ‘unfeigned consent and assent’ to the Anglican Prayer Book would be deprived of their living.
Rev Jonathan Paine LL.D. deprived of his living at Bishop’s Stortford.
According to early records Rev Jonathan Paine laboured greatly among the Non-Conformists in Essex and, three years after his ejectment he had gathered a congregation. He does not appear to have had a settled charge at Saffron Walden but he preached with great acceptance in the town and district for several years.
The Act of Toleration granted Non-Conformists the right to worship as they wished. A new spirit of freedom led to more than one thousand chapels being built in England over twenty years. One was the chapel at Abbey Lane. A piece of land known as Froggs’ orchard was purchased for the sum of £18. With the erection of a meeting house the Church at Abbey Lane secured a permanent place of worship.
The current Church building at Abbey Lane replaces the old Meeting house.
Erection of the schoolroom (Church hall) to celebrate the Jubilee of the Church building.
The Congregational Church joins with the Presbyterian Church to form the United Reformed Church.
Newport United Reformed Church joins with Abbey Lane to form one Church worshipping on two sites.
Saffron Walden Methodists join Abbey Lane & Newport United Reformed Church.
West Essex & Bishop’s Stortford (WEBS) pastorate formed bringing together Abbey Lane & Newport URC, Saffron Walden; Stansted Free Church; Clavering Local Ecumenical Partnership and Water Lane URC, Bishop’s Stortford
Abbey Lane URC: a brief history
The history of the Church at Abbey Lane reaches right back to the emergence of Non-Conformity and the Free Church tradition in Britain. John Bradford, one of the first protestant martyrs to suffer in Queen Mary’s reign (he was burnt at the stake at Smithfield in 1555), preached in Saffron Walden a number of times. Doubtless his life and the manner of his death had a great influence on the people of Saffron Walden, causing many to leave the Established Church. These early dissenters remained faithful to their belief through many years and it was largely their descendants who were responsible for the founding of the church at Abbey Lane. This is traditionally regarded as having been founded in 1665, making 2015 the 350th anniversary of the church.
The Toleration Act of 1689 enabled non-conformists to spring into action, with the erection of a meeting house at Abbey Lane being completed in 1694.
Key events in the subsequent history of the Church include:
- The opening of the current church building in 1811
- The election of five members of Abbey Lane Church as Town Councillors in 1835 after the repeal of the Test and Corporation Act which had barred non-conformists from public service. These included Alderman John Player J.P., the first mayor of the Borough after the passing of the Municipal Corporation Act and the Borough’s first Justice of the Peace
- The construction of the schoolroom and classrooms in 1861 to celebrate the Jubilee of the Church building
At the beginning of the 20th century, Abbey Lane was a flourishing church, attended mostly by trades people of the town. The church had a large choir and a good Sunday School which met twice on Sunday as well as attending the morning service. On special occasions such as Harvest Festivals extra chairs had to be placed in the aisles.
We hope that this summary provides some historical context for the congregation that has become the United Reformed Church in Saffron Walden. The last decade has seen us embrace the outward facing, ecumenical spirit of the URC with the redevelopment of the old school room to provide a well-serviced hall and, in addition, a new hall and facilities for the Salvation Army, who now share part of our site. The MethodistChurch in Saffron Walden has recently resolved to join us in 2014.
Newport URC: a brief history
One of the principal founders of the dissenting interest which spread to Newport via Arkesden, Clavering and Wenden was Rev. Francis Holcroft, a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge. After his ejection in 1662 he became Minister to a congregation at Eversden which lies 6 miles W.S.W. of Cambridge; the congregation was drawn from a radius of some twenty miles encompassing Hatfield Heath, Stansted, Arkesden, Clavering and Ely. From there, separate congregations were ‘planted’, each with their own minister. From the Meeting at Wood Hall, Arkesden came an initiative determined on 22nd December,1682 which is recorded in the records of the Saffron Walden District of Essex Congregational Union, “At the close of the year 1682, the Clavering and Wenden Church was formed, the Minister preaching at the two places alternately. In the Autumn of 1778, the Chapel at Wenden, being in a dilapidated state, the trustees pulled it down, and built a new one at Newport to meet the growing wants of that more central village. A suitable piece of ground was given by a Mr Cranmer of Quendon Hall.” He was a descendent of the Archbishop of that name.
This took place under the ministry of Mr Harrison who preached the first sermon in the new Independent Meeting House on Whit Sunday, 23rd May 1779. Mr. Harrison was succeeded by Mr. John Bailey, a student of Homerton Academy who was ordained on 4th July, 1781 in Newport to serve there and in Clavering. Past differences of opinion led to a division in the church in 1785 which resulted in the permanent separation of the congregation. Mr. Bailey’s supporters retained the chapel at Clavering while his opponents held possession of the chapel at Newport and the burial ground at Wenden, but were without a minister.”
Records give details of a tombstone at the Old Manse to Thomas Living which was dated 18th March, 1784 and the following information. “At last, a new minister, Rev. Edward Bryant, was appointed to the Newport meeting house in July, 1785. A secession from the church occurred in 1794 which resulted in the formation of the Little Meeting and the appointment of a separate minister. This separation persisted until 1814, when illness prevented Edward Bryant from continuing his ministry to the old Meeting. The two congregations were united under the ministry of Rev. J. Hopkins, who continued as minister until 1850. Side galleries were added to the meeting house in 1855, to accommodate the growing congregation, and a Sunday School built in 1861. By the time Rev. John Hutchin began his ministry in 1878, the meeting house was in a bad state of repair. It was originally intended to restore it, but the architect recommended that it needed completely rebuilding, so a new church was built and ready for worship by June, 1879. A new two manual organ was built there in 1893, and was renovated in 1928.”
However, this building, too, suffered from lack of maintenance and was used for the last time in 1974 when worshippers transferred to the Old Manse. This practice has continued with the purchase of the former doctor’s surgery in Wicken Road. This bungalow with Quiet Garden available to the public is available as a day retreat venue. It has simple facilities and a comfortable worship room which is particularly suitable for Christian meditation and ‘alternative’ forms of worship.
In her ‘History of the Congregational Church in Saffron Walden’, the Rev’d Lydia Rapkin noted, “During his ministry at Abbey Lane, Saffron Walden, Rev. A. Trinder was invited to become minister of Newport as well. This was agreed on October 31st 1963.” In 2009, a single pastorate on two sites was formed, Abbey Lane and Newport United Reformed Church, Saffron Walden.
The Minister in 1811
The Revd William Clayton’s only church pastorate was at Abbey Lane. He was ordained here in 1809 and left in 1831 to become chaplain at Mill Hill School.
He came from a line of well-known Independent ministers. His father and two older brothers, all notable preachers, addressed the eager congregations at the three services which opened Abbey Lane’s new meeting house on 17 September 1811.
William was given the full treatment of florid Victorian prose in the Clayton family biography – for example, ‘William Clayton grew up a fine handsome lad, full of life and vigour; a buoyant sprightly mind being enshrined in a well-built and symmetrical frame’. His athletic power earned him the nickname ‘The Giant’. He certainly appeared as a larger-than-life figure in a story which one of his successors, the Revd Henry Pepper, retold with gusto:
One hot June day Mr Clayton borrowed a donkey cart to drive to a village preaching engagement, accompanied by his young daughter. When he was in sight, but not shouting distance, of the preaching tent, he came up against a strongly –barred gate. Nothing daunted, he lifted his daughter over the gate. Then he unharnessed the donkey and heaved the cart over. Then he seized the donkey and ‘with one powerful movement succeeded in placing the animal on the other side of the gate, to the astonishment and great amusement of his daughter’. Climbing over and proceeding on his way, he arrived unruffled at the appointed time. As Mr Pepper remarked: ‘A very good instance this of muscular Christianity’.
On the day before demolition of Abbey Lane’s old chapel, the minister preached rather pointedly on Hebrews 10: 25 (‘Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together’). No church to meet in? Not a problem – one of the trustees lent his large barn to accommodate the congregation for worship. The committee and builder worked hard to fit it up acceptably. Presumably communion table, rostrum and benches were the essentials – and perhaps the children enjoyed perching on any straw or equipment that remained.
Services were well-attended and monthly church meetings also continued, with admission of several new members. Then the weather caught them out.
As there was ‘a singularly early harvest’, the barn was needed for its proper purpose and the congregation, seeing themselves as the children of Israel journeying onward, had to move to a second barn for the last few weeks of the building interval.
No Planning Permission required!
Two hundred years ago the Abbey Lane congregation wanted a new meeting house. The old one was too small and dilapidated. It lacked the dignity and modernity appropriate to a growing church whose leading members had key roles in making Saffron Walden prosperous.
In January 1810 the trustees took the decision to rebuild. Their initial ‘To Do’ list included: Set up committee. Start collecting money. Decide dimensions of chapel and vestry. Clear part of burial ground (N.B. List inscriptions of removed graves). Chop down trees and sell timber. Plan arrangement of pews.
In October three trustees were charged with procuring contracts and, less than a month later, the full Board agreed to award the contract to William Biggs, of Linton.
After a brief lull in the winter of 1810-11 the building project regained its astonishing momentum. The old meeting house began to be demolished on 4 March and the first brick of its successor was laid on 29 March.
The builders seem to have been fairly lucky with the weather. The 1811 journal of an Essex farmer, William Barnard, records his grumbles about the weather (‘very ungenial’ in April, ‘very variable’ in June), but conditions that were bad for growing crops may have helped brick-laying and plastering.
The building in which we still meet was opened on 17 September 1811.
What about the women?
Many women are named in Abbey Lane’s records around 1811. They appear as church members, as mothers of children being baptized, and as subscribers to the fund for ‘the Support of the Gospel’. But what part did they play in the church’s life? Perhaps they lurk behind an item in the 1811 accounts: ‘Cloth for dusters 1s.2d.’ – guess who wielded those dusters! They would have taught in the Sunday School which by 1820 had more than 170 children attending. Their voices were heard in the singing of psalms and hymns. Practical help for the poor and needy, hospitality for visiting preachers, care for the sick, tea and sympathy – all these were the women’s sphere, unrecorded in the church books. But they couldn’t be deacons or trustees, let alone ministers.
The custom of separate seating at Communion for men and women was long-lasting at Abbey Lane. The change to ‘Mixed Communion’ was voted in (only by men) at a church meeting in September 1811. More than a century passed before women became eligible for the diaconate (October 1919).
Olive Newman recalls a tradition that the clock set in the rear gallery was a gift from the women of the church. In 1817 a man was being paid 9 shillings per annum for winding the clock – a task that Olive and Ena have performed gratis for many years!
What else happened?
Abbey Lane chapel was built in 1811. Other events of the year included.
King George III was declared unfit to rule. The Prince of Wales was appointed Regent.
The Prime Minister was Spencer Perceval, a decent uninspiring leader struggling with a shaky economy and social unrest. (No one yet knew that he would become famous as the only British prime minister to be assassinated. In 1812 he was fatally shot by a businessman with a grudge against the government.)
Population census showed there were just over 10 million people in England and Wales. Saffron Walden had 3403 inhabitants.
A 4 lb loaf of bread cost 1s.2d. (=6p – if you ignore inflation!)
The Luddites (textile workers who feared losing their jobs) began to break into factories at night and smash up the new machines.
First performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 5 (‘The Emperor’). Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility was published. The Derby was won by Phantom, owned by Sir John Shelley.
The Purse Strings
In April 1807 twenty esteemed citizens met to sign a revised property deed for Abbey Lane meeting house and burial ground. They were led by James Searle, draper and banker, and included another draper, four maltsters, two bakers, two butchers, a blacksmith, miller, carpenter/builder, ironmonger, brazier, liquor merchant, woolcomber and three ‘gentlemen’. Sixteen lived in Saffron Walden and four came from outlying villages – Wenden, Littlebury, Newport and Elmdon.
This was the Abbey Lane board of trustees who decided in January 1810 that the 120-year-old chapel must be replaced and who supervised the rebuilding project and its financing.
Trustees had to be ‘regular attenders of this and no other meeting’ (no flirtation with the parish church or Baptists!) and subscribers supporting the ministry. On a list of conditions for being a trustee someone scribbled a query: ‘Whether 1s. or 2s.6d. is sufficient when trustee formerly paid £4?’ No answer is recorded but it suggests that only men of means were wanted on the board.
They paid a very generous share of the rebuilding costs. James Searle the banker topped the subscription list, promising to pay £20 annually, and to this he added hundreds of pounds by instalments.
(Sad postscript: In 1825 came the shocking failure of Searles’ Bank which collapsed taking its associate, the Cambridge Town & County Bank, with it. Inadequate capital reserves, too many risky loans – sounds familiar? Just before the crash James Searle died of typhus.)
Mr Biggs the Builder
The Abbey Lane trustees’ minutes (12 November 1810) state that the contract for building the new meeting house was given to William Biggs of Linton.
Linton Free Church still owns a plaster bust, inscribed ‘Gulielmus Biggs. Aetat.43. 1816’. If he was 43 years old in 1816, he would have been about 37 when he started the Abbey Lane job. Biggs is not an uncommon name locally, but it is reasonable to conjecture that William was related to J. P. Biggs who sculpted various monuments at Linton and Buntingford Independent churches around this time and may well have made the portrait bust.
Our builder was evidently a go-ahead entrepreneur, alive to various business opportunities. He can be found in the records of Essex and Cambridgeshire as surveyor and auctioneer, as well as builder. A few years after the completion of our church building he rebuilt Linton Independent meeting house (1818) in a very similar style but much less expensively. Later still he was described as the ‘architect’ of Linton British School (1847).
Both Linton and Abbey Lane congregations still use the buildings he provided