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A Brief History of NBC
The Early Years
Local historians tell us that there are references to nonconformist meetings in the Northchurch area as far back as the 17th century. At that time it was illegal for more than five people to meet together for worship outside of the Church of England’s traditions. It is recorded that on 24 September 1665 about twenty "malefactors and disturbers of the peace" were found worshipping in Northchurch "under pretence of exercising religion in a manner other than is allowed by the liturgy or use of the Church of England" and were given the alternative of paying a five pound fine or going to prison for three months! These earliest named local non-conformist worshippers met in the house in Dudswell of John Puddevatt a tanner and his wife Mary, the other Northchurch dissenters being James Royse a carpenter, William Leigh a labourer and Jane Messenger described as spinster. In addition there were worshippers from Aylesbury, Tring, Ringshall, Ivinghoe, Westop (Bucks) and Redbourne in this group of early believers. These first-known dissidents in Northchurch were Quakers.
In 1696 a house in Northchurch was apparently licensed for Anabaptist worship and in 1729 and 1730 two further houses in Northchurch are known to have been licensed for Baptist worship, the earlier one called Durance and the next in Dudswell. Baptist worship, though subject to controls, was becoming more acceptable.
Baptist influences were strong in this area despite the persecution. Church returns in 1776 show that there were 45 non-conformists out of 281 adults listed in Northchurch - about 1 person in every 6. In neighbouring Berkhamsted the proportion was even higher.
The founding of the Baptist church in Northchurch seems to have been heavily influenced by Baptists worshipping in New Mill on the edges of Tring. Around the 1830s New Mill Baptist Church had a membership of more than 200 and the Christians worshipping there shared a vision for encouraging God's work in the surrounding area. As early as 1799 "it was agreed at the Church Meeting for some of our Brethren to go into the villages where opportunity offered, to lead and pray on Lords Day Evenings". Repeated encouragements are made over the next few decades, until in October 1834, New Mill's pastor "intimated [he] should be glad if any plan could be devised for the encouragement of our brethren who preach the gospel in the villages". This is where we meet James Lawrence, who perhaps had more influence than any other person in the establishment of the worshipping Baptist church in Northchurch. James Lawrence was a grocer and straw plait dealer who lived in Northchurch. He was baptised and joined New Mill Baptist Church when he was 22 years old in June 1792 and was an active member of that church for the next 47 years until his death. It was in the early 1830s that a small group began to meet together for prayer and Bible study in Mr Lawrence's home in Northchurch. On Sunday evenings preachers came there from New Mill or, if none were available, James Lawrence would read a sermon himself (from George Burder's book of village sermons).
It was around this time that he got married to Elizabeth (nee East), nearly 30 years younger than him, who transferred her membership from Chesham Baptist Church to New Mill in July 1835. In its early years Northchurch had strong links with Chesham; these may well have been helped by Elizabeth having come from that fellowship. During these years the Lawrence's and a few other members of New Mill who lived in Northchurch were also still expected to attend that church on a regular basis.
From these small beginnings the work grew. Services began to be held not just on Sunday evenings but also Sunday afternoons and then in the week as well, increasingly supported by friends from Chesham. Although his wife Elizabeth was to become one of the founder members of the Baptist Church in Northchurch, James Lawrence himself died in October 1839, never seeing the completion of the first Chapel building in Northchurch. It was to open less than a year after his death.
After first meeting in James Lawrence's home, in 1835 the group of worshippers were allowed to use a house owned by William Norris, fitted up for the purpose. William Norris was a property owner living in Berkhamsted, he and his wife Elean Jane also being members at New Mill. By about 1838 he seems to have taken over the informal leadership of the group, reading the sermon or conducting the prayer meetings on the occasions when no supply preacher could be found. The links with New Mill were now becoming less strong as the Northchurch believers had effectively withdrawn themselves and set up in their own right. In February 1839 it was agreed to seek a more convenient place of worship and Mr Norris himself donated the plot of land in Bell Lane where the first Chapel was to be built. Within 18 months they had raised the required money, helped by generous donations from many local Christian friends, and built a small Baptist Chapel on this site. The whole cost was £140 and with much thanksgiving the Chapel was opened on 16th September 1840.
Their main spiritual support was now coming from Chesham, both from William Payne, the current Minister of First Baptist Church there, and also from Mr Tomlin, the previous incumbent who had retired in 1833 after 22 years. Reverend Payne was to baptise by immersion a number of the early Northchurch Christians in Chesham before, on 30 November 1841, forming a group of eight of them into the first Baptist Church in Northchurch. These eight founder members were:
William Norris, aged 66, a property owner and provider of the first building and subsequently the plot of land. He died in 1853.
Elean Jane Norris, wife of William and born in Belfast. She was 53 when the church was founded.
Thomas Norris, a baker's apprentice aged 20 - probably grandson of William Norris.
Elizabeth Lawrence, aged 42, wife of James Lawrence who had died two years earlier. In 1845 she married Jeremiah Sherman.
John Bryant, aged 40, an agricultural labourer who, with William Norris, became one of the first Deacons in November 1843.
Elizabeth Bryant, aged 39, (John and Elizabeth Bryant transferred out in April 1848).
John Greene, aged 38, a labourer, who died on 15 November 1853 in Tring.
Lydia Green, aged 37, wife of a hostler called Thomas and mother of two boys. She lived for another 50 years in Dudswell, failing by just a few days to enjoy the Church's Jubilee Celebrations in December 1891.
Within 2 years the membership had more than doubled to 17. At the chapel's Jubilee celebrations in 1891 it was recalled that the first pastor was a Mr J Norris. Nothing more is known of him but it is assumed that this is James Norris who joined the church in March 1842. In 1869 at a church meeting held on Boxing Day the church was able to call as its (second) pastor, Mr George Clarke of Tring who had been a regular supply preacher for some time.
An insight into the very early years of the new congregation comes from Upton's Survey. William Upton was a Baptist minister in St Albans who compiled data on churches in Hertfordshire in 1847.
His insights were not necessarily flattering, the ministry in one church being described as "Pompous", another as "Quiet and dull. Little talent or energy". The character of the ministry at NBC in 1847 was described as "Useful". We also learn from Upton that the Sunday School had about 50 children attending, adult attendance at 3 Sunday services was about 100 and it seems that at this date there was no regular minister. Instead, he notes, "The Baptist Chapel is supplied principally from Chesham" confirming the strong support from that nearby town.
Even in these very early years the Church saw itself with responsibilities to the whole community. About 1864 a night school was founded to teach working men and women to read and write. Mr W D King (later Church Secretary) founded this and he always retained a keen interest but James Sear took over the leadership in the mid-1860s. By the end of 1872 it had a membership of between 30 and 40 and was very well-regarded.
The first marriage in the Chapel was able to take place on 22 August 1885 between Thomas Davis and Sarah Ann Briant but these were never frequent. By 1889 there had still only been four. Burials were much more common. As was usual the plot of land surrounding the Chapel was used for burials and the whole plot in Bell Lane is now referred to as the Burial Ground. (For more details see The Burial Ground.)
In 1882 Northchurch was being helped as one of the village churches supported by the Hertfordshire Association of Baptist Churches. Only in 1889 did it join the Central Union of Baptist Churches, long after it had been the beneficiary of tangible local support. By 1887 the membership had grown to 43.
1840 - 1900 Pressure on Premises
As the congregation and Sunday School work have grown, the premises of Northchurch Baptist church seem to have been under almost continual pressure.
As we have seen the first Chapel was built in 1840. In 1866 the Minute Books refer to a reopening ceremony in August after recent enlargements where Mr Schindler, Minister at New Mill was asked to preach.
Even in those days the church had a thriving children's work but 70 children and their Sunday School teachers were crammed into a single room 18ft by 12ft on the side of the original Chapel on the Bell Lane site. Accordingly, in 1878 new schoolrooms were opened at a cost of £180 together with a Minister's vestry. These schoolrooms were two storeys high with a gallery opening into the Chapel. An opening service was held on a Tuesday evening in November 1878. Embarrassingly, this well-attended public meeting, with many local dignitaries present, was at times almost in darkness due to the bad supply of gas!
By 1881 the Sunday School had 100 children and 12 teachers with pressure on space clearly still not solved. On Easter Monday 1884 a new schoolroom was opened for infants.
The state of the Chapel buildings was clearly still giving much cause for concern. In May 1884 a church meeting debated the many differing priorities for improvements eventually agreeing to spend their limited funds on the building of a new W.C.
It was this same year that the debate started, which was not finally to be resolved for another 15 years, as to whether to invest in much more major improvements to the Bell Lane site or to start again on the High Street. It is clear from the debate that the Bell Lane chapel was cold, draughty and with uncomfortable seats. That was if you could get a seat at all – these were the days of rented pews and it seemed that let pews would at times stand empty whilst space for others was at a premium! Much debate took place as to what to do with the current building, including ideas to add a gallery to make it match the schoolroom. None of the many ideas seemed really to solve the problems and in October 1884 the Church Meeting agreed to build a new Chapel on a new site a little down the road on Northchurch High Street. The new fund to purchase this land was launched in April 1885 with a bazaar held in the Town Hall which raised £40.
Despite the strategy to relocate on the High Street the existing building continued to need urgent attention if it was to remain fit for purpose. The Chapel was again closed for essential restoration work, reopening on 27 April 1889 but by 1894 a new list was drawn up of urgent maintenance work to the Chapel and Schoolrooms - some of which were able to be carried out after more fund raising.
It becomes clear how difficult it was for the church to raise money for new premises when it was struggling financially to pay for essential repairs to the existing building.
Nevertheless in July 1898 another resolution was passed "that the members of this church deem it advisable to erect a new chapel in consequence of the present building being ill adapted to meet the requirement of the village". Members had now managed to buy the plot of land in the High Street but were nowhere near being able to afford to build on this land. Then in January 1899 a special meeting was called after the Evening Service. Members were "surprised and astonished" to hear that the full cost of the new chapel was to be given to them by John Marnham Esq. JP, a Christian benefactor living in Boxmoor, well known to the fellowship. A fulsome letter of thanks was sent to him that same night.
Within 16 months all was complete and the Baptist Chapel that we see today was opened on 3rd May 1900.
The old buildings in Bell Lane remained for another 20 years until finally being demolished in 1920, the resulting materials being auctioned to raise £141 virtually an identical sum to the original cost of building the Chapel 80 years previously. Click here for early pictures of the Chapel and of Bell Lane.
1900 - 1925 HARD TIMES
Although now in a new building, the minutes show there were considerable improvements needed to make it fit for purpose. Clearly heating and lighting were still problems, just as they had been in the 1870s and 1880s. There are regular complaints about heating and lighting which were both still provided by gas at this time. In 1919 it was agreed that during the winter months services should be held in the schoolroom. Presumably it was warmer there but clearly too there was sufficient room to do so, given the numbers attending.
It was also in 1919 that we discover it to have been the custom to discontinue the church prayer meeting for the summer months, from mid-June to September. This may betray the chapel's rural roots, this being the harvest season. At one church meeting in 1910 the Treasurer was reported as being absent "detained in hay work".
Finances became increasingly difficult in the early years of the twentieth century, not helped by the withdrawal of a generous donation of £30 per year towards the Minister's stipend. This donation had come from John Marnham but he had died in 1903 and his family, in 1904, notified Northchurch that it would be discontinued. At this time Northchurch's total income was less than £80 a year, from which it paid a Minister's stipend of £50. The loss of the additional money from the Marnham family would have been very significant for the Pastor.
Rev William Dorey resigned in 1906 and from then until 1920 Northchurch could not support a full-time Minister, so again had a series of students from Regents Park College acting as Superintendent Pastors. Most stayed just a year, occasionally one was willing to do so for a second year too. The College also seems to have been a regular source of young men willing to come on a Sunday to preach.
That same year, 1906, James Sear, who had been Sunday School Superintendent for the past 50 years, was forced to retire through age and ill health. He died the following year.
Then, in the second decade of the century, the fellowship suffered further major setbacks.
Between 1913 and 1919 NBC lost three very experienced deacons, not as might be expected, because of the war – they would all have been too old. Brethren Sherman, King and Baldwin who between them had over 60 years experience of leadership in the Church, all passed away in these years and each one was still holding the office of deacon when they died. The last two died within 4 months of each other in 1919 one was Church Secretary, the other Treasurer.
After the War, there was in any case a shortage of men. One church meeting in 1920 consisted of the Student Pastor, one man and seven women. In March of that same year the remaining Members sought help from Berkhamsted Baptist Church. Rev H H Thompson, Minister of Berkhamsted, was asked, and agreed, to take on the oversight at Northchurch. Initially this was to be from June through to October 1920, but seems to have continued until 1925. Records are sparse in this period.
1925 - 1965 HAPPY DAYS BEFORE THE CRISIS
In 1925 a deputation from the Hertfordshire Baptist Union came to Northchurch to discuss its future. From this meeting it was unanimously agreed that Frederick Stratford should become Lay Pastor of the church. This was to be reviewed after one year but Alderman F Stratford JP stayed on until his sudden death, while still in office, on 24 February 1952, twenty seven years later.
Alderman Stratford was warmly appreciated within the church and it grew in numbers and financial stability under his Pastorate. For much of the time he doubled as Church Secretary too. He frequently ends the minutes by referring to "a very happy meeting".
In May 1939 Alderman Stratford nearly left, discussing openly with the church the matter of a potential call to him from another fellowship. The Deacons and Congregation responded with alacrity, informing him in a warm letter that same evening,
"Many of us remember how you came to us 12 years ago and recall the early days of your ministry with its very small beginnings and every one of us are sure you were sent to us of God. Further we believe your work with us is not finished. Our Heavenly Father through you [h]as blessed us as a Church. We have gone from strength to strength and we feel it would be a tragedy for Northchurch if at this time you decided to leave us."
He was persuaded, remaining for a further thirteen years.
His tenure spanned the war years. During World War II, because of the black-out, evening services were brought forward to 3.15 in the afternoon. This caused much debate!
It would appear that Mr Stratford’s tenure also saw some improvements to the old problems of heating and lighting. In 1932 electric lights were at last introduced, firstly simple bulbs, these then being upgraded to hanging lights in 1940. During the War it seems that the schoolroom was occupied by Hertfordshire County Council. They obviously did not appreciate the Spartan conditions and installed their own gas fires, which the church bought from them at the end of the War. The first electric fires in the church sanctuary were also introduced in 1945. In July 1946 the Annual Sunday School Treat was brought forward by one week at very short notice - in order to take place before the onset of bread rationing!
In March 1939 it was resolved to provide flowers for the Church every Sunday. Nearly 80 years on that tradition still continues.
After an interregnum of nearly two years Ald. Frederick Stratford was succeeded as Lay Pastor by his son Albert Frederick Stratford, who held that office until he retired in 1960 although staying in membership. When asked, the Baptist Area Superintendent advised NBC's leadership that they had little hope of attracting a new Minister, suggesting they explore some sort of link with either the New Mill or Berkhamsted Baptist congregations. An approach was made to Rev Sydney Harris at Berkhamsted Baptist Church but this had not led to anything tangible before another option presented itself.
Mr Harold Rose, a past President of the Herts Baptist Lay Preachers Association was moving house to the Berkhamsted area from Watford and knowing Northchurch and its situation, offered his services. The deacons and church members were happy to agree and he was called as Lay Pastor for an initial period of three years commencing in June 1961.
During this time the afternoon Sunday School, whose numbers had dwindled to about 5, was closed, being switched to the morning but gaining fresh impetus as a result. Average attendances rose to between 20 and 25 each week.
During these years things appeared fairly healthy. Numbers of adult church members stood at 55 in 1963. There was a financial surplus. The church prayer meeting was switched from a Monday night to Tuesday and the church seemed in fairly good heart. The years did see a significant change in the diaconate as Mr and Mrs Brooks both retired from office within a few months of each other. One was Secretary the other Treasurer, positions they had held in Northchurch for many years. Not long before this Mr Brooks had been recorded as having been a lay preacher for 50 years, starting at the age of 12 as a substitute for his father!
Then in 1964 the church lurched into crisis. In June Mr Rose was forced to give up the Lay Pastorate because of ill health. Again the fellowship was advised that it was too small to stand any realistic chance of getting Baptist Union support in funding a new minister. By now Rev Harris at Berkhamsted was fully stretched, Tring High Street Church was already working with Aston Clinton but perhaps possibilities existed with New Mill - the Church whose members had helped form Northchurch about 130 years earlier.
Pastor Raymond F Neave from New Mill agreed to become Moderator at Northchurch. Within a few months he must have been wondering what he had let himself in for! This was March 1965. Northchurch faced the common problems of many fellowships. Finances were again difficult with expenditure of £362 outstripping income of £323 the previous year. Church Membership had slipped back to 43. They faced a chronic shortage of Sunday School teachers and the Women's Own with 45 members was larger than the children's work which had 33 on the books, accurately reflecting the age profile of the congregation. Far worse, having lost the decades of accumulated experience of their Secretary and Treasurer a few years before, all at once 3 further deacons announced their resignations. These were all because their work was taking them away from the area.
Northchurch suddenly found itself in crisis and facing closure, with no Pastor and almost no lay leadership either. For a time the diaconate was down to one man.
Berkhamsted's Minister Sydney Harris who was invited to the Members' meeting in March 1965
"said he had been panic-stricken to hear that only Mr Bentley would be left on the diaconate and ... if a Treasurer and Secretary could not be found the Church would close".
Pastor Neave the Moderator wisely commented that "If the Church was of man it would die, but if Christ's Church it would go on”...
1965 - PRESENT DAY RECOVERY AND GROWTH
Quite clearly Northchurch Baptist Church did not die – but its survival is indeed something of a miracle.
In 1965 with no Pastor, almost no deacons and few members, a radical solution was adopted. A 5-person Management Team was created to support the by-then two deacons as a temporary expedient. This bought time whilst help was sought, and remarkably help came. Several deeply committed Christian couples joined Northchurch from Berkhamsted Baptist and other places in 1965 and the years immediately following. These people revitalised the church and were to form its backbone for the next few decades.
A new diaconate could be elected in November 1965 which included two of these newcomers, Eric McDonald as Treasurer and Alan Dyer as Secretary. Another, Cliff Bonnett was inducted that same month guiding the church through the next few years as Lay Pastor and as a deacon himself long after that.
A number of other people joined, in these and the next few years, whose influence was such that their names and legacy would still be familiar to many worshipping at Northchurch, even fifty years on. Their full story perhaps needs telling at a later date!
Cliff Bonnett was himself an early compiler of the history of Northchurch Baptist Church.
He recalls one particular character Len King. Len died in 1967 but Cliff and others could remember his stories of both the chapel and the village of Northchurch. These included being taken to Sunday School in the Chapel in Bell Lane and being married in the present building just 5 years after its opening. After the First World War Len helped in the demolition of the old Bell Lane Chapel and recalls that they raised £141 from the sale of old materials.
He also recalled one, unnamed, deacon who used to ride a three wheeled tricycle to church and for taking stock to the market in Tring.
1965 had been the church's low point – at least in living memory. Average attendances at Sunday services had shrunk to between 10 and 15 and the membership was down to 38.
This quickly began to change, so much so that as the fellowship grew in the 1970s and 1980s space became a problem once again. Various schemes were considered, including adaptations and total rebuilds.
In April 1982 the fellowship purchased the cottages 7-10 Bell Lane in order to acquire the land from their gardens that was immediately behind the church, before reselling these cottages (but with smaller gardens). Having purchased this land a major new hall extension could be built that was opened in 1987 and providing an access road onto Bell Lane. These facilities enabled the space to be used much more flexibly and provided a much enhanced kitchen, an office, a prayer room and space for classrooms on Sundays and other meetings during the week.
Flexibility of space was also achieved when the fixed wooden pews (below) were replaced by stacking chairs in the main sanctuary area.
Ministers 1869 – 1964
For much of this period the Church could not support its own Minister but instead relied on Regents Park College who sent Students to preach and to act as Student Superintendent Pastors. Most of these placements were for a single year but some were extended by mutual consent.
|Dates as Best Known||Minister||Comments|
|Before 1869||Mr J Norris||Mentioned at Jubilee in 1891|
|26 Dec 1869 - October 1880||Mr George Clarke of Tring||Described as "Officiating Minister"|
|1881-1883||Rev Henri J LeFevre||Died in November 1883 soon after retiring|
|October 1883 - 26 January 1895||Rev Alexander Bosher||From Regents Park College aged 27|
|30 Mar 1895 - June 1897||Mr Edgar Brook-Sayers||Student Superintendent from Regents Park College|
|June 1897- 4 November 1900||
William H Pratt
and possibly David Osborn (in 1899)
|Student Superintendent from Regents Park College. Mr Pratt refused the Pastorate when it was offered to him in 1900.|
|11 Nov 1900 - October 1906||Rev William Dorey||Previously Minister at Great Missenden|
|1906 - October 1908||J O Hagger||Student Superintendent from Regents Park College. (50 yrs later in 1962, a retired Secretary of Herts Baptist Association he was still coming to NBC as a lay preacher).|
|November 1908 - July 1909||Mr Allan Burnett Palmer||Student Superintendent from Regents Park. Left NBC to be missionary in Belgian Congo where he stayed for at least 28 years.|
|October 1909 - October 1910||Mr T Powell||Student Superintendent from Regents Park College|
|October 1910 - October 1912||Mr Harold Hubert Keyse||Student Superintendent from Regents Park College|
|October 1912 - October 1914||Mr A E Perry||Student Superintendent from Regents Park College|
|January 1915 - October 1915||Mr F G Perry||Student Superintendent from Regents Park College|
|October 1915 - February 1916||Mr Jenkins||Student Superintendent from Regents Park College. Invited but it is not certain that he ever came.|
|February 1916 – June 1916||Mr J Johnson||Student Superintendent from Regents Park College|
|November 1916 - April 1917||Mr T Tudor Rhys||Student Superintendent from Regents Park College|
|April 1917 - June 1917||Mr Payne Pastor pro tem||Invited but it is not certain that he ever came|
|June 1917 - June 1919||Mr B T Parris||Superintendent Pastor|
|June 1919 - June 1920||Mr W G Legassick||Student Superintendent from Regents Park College|
|June 1920 - April 1925||
Mr H H Thompson
(Minister of Berkhamsted Baptist)
|Honorary Pastor – accepted oversight of Northchurch temporarily.|
|April 1925 - 24 February 1952||Ald.Frederick Stratford J P||Lay Pastor|
|January 1954 – September 1960||Mr Albert Frederick Stratford||Lay Pastor, son of Alderman F Stratford|
|June 1961 – July 1964||Mr Harold B Rose||Lay Pastor|
Ministers and Paid Staff from 1965
|1965 - 1969||Mr Cliff Bonnett||Lay Pastor|
|1969 - 1972||Rev Dr Alexander Hodge||Pastor|
|1972 - 1977||Rev Dr Derek Tidball||The first full time Pastor in this era.|
|1977 - 1981||Rev Trevor Galpin||Pastor|
|1981 - 1995||Rev Dr Lance Birks||Pastor|
|1982 - 1985||Alan Spicer||Assistant Minister|
|1986 - 1989||Rob Stacey||Assistant Minister|
|1991 - 1996||John Hennings||Assistant Minister|
|1992||Arthur Hembling||Recognised for Ministerial Training|
|1993 - 1995||Gareth Dickinson||Youth Worker|
|1995 - 1996||Justin Dunne||Youth Worker|
|1995 - 2001||Rev Peter Swaffield||Pastor|
|1996 - 2002||Volunteer workers for office duties|
|1996 - 2001||Rev David Russell||Youth Worker|
|1998 - 2001||Rev Richard Pool||Associate Pastor|
|2001 -||Rev David Russell||Pastor|
|2001 - 2006||Andy Moody||Youth Worker|
|2002 - 2012||Barry Cook||Part time Administrator|
|2002 - 2003||Betty Gadbury||Part time Pastoral Worker|
|2005 -||Tommy Masters||Pastoral Assistant then Assistant Minister|
|2007 - 2009||Lucy Bannister||Youth Worker|
|2009 - 2012||Jo Kitson||Children and Families Worker|
|2009 -||Adrian Abramian||Youth Pastor|
|2010 - 2014||Tom Nicholls||Music and Worship Team Leader|
|2012 - 2017||Fiona Nicholls||Children and Families Worker|
|2012 -||Sarah Taylor||Church Coordinator|
|2014 -||Jo Holdcroft||Music and Worship Team Leader|
|2017 -||Joe Rudd||Youth and Children's Intern|
|2017 -||Zara Hornby||Youth and Children's Intern|
|2019 -||Anna FitzPatrick||Church Operations Manager|