Nostalgia by Neil Rees

Timothy Reynolds has contacted me to say that 2020 is the 200th anniversary of the building of the first Strict Baptist chapel in Chesham in 1820, which was the forerunner of Newtown Baptist Church.

Strict and Particular Baptists

From the 1700s the Particular Baptists of Chesham met in Punchbowl Lane in Waterside. From about 1816, a dispute arose amongst some of them with the pastor William Tomlin, over a matter of perspective on some aspects of theology. As a result these people met separately from the main church for prayer at the home of Thomas Adams. His house was registered for religious meetings on 29th December 1818. The group engaged Robert Chapman, formerly a pastor in Northamptonshire, as a preacher and then as their first pastor. They then decided to meet at the home of Joseph Mayo, which was registered on 25th May 1819. They formally constituted as a church congregation with elders on 12th September 1819. They were part of a national movement known as the Strict and Particular Baptists, or often just called Strict Baptists. The word “strict” just referred to a strict policy of who they would allow to take the bread and wine of communion.

Townfield Chapel

Chesham Strict Baptists secured a site at the back of Townfield Yard, near to their former chapel which was lower down the hill. They then started to build a meeting house. Founders of the church inscribed their names into bricks, which were placed in the outside wall. The chapel was registered by William Garrett in April 1820.

The chapel could seat over 300 people sitting tight together in pews, although it seldom had that number. In the 1850s congregations were about 170 people consisting of some large families. In the early days the chapel was known as the Upper Baptist Chapel to distinguish it from the older Lower Baptist (now Trinity) Chapel in Punchbowl Lane. Often it was just called Townfield Chapel.

First Burial and First Wedding

When their pastor Robert Chapman died in 1822, he was the first person to be buried at the chapel, in a grave by the front door. The chapel was registered for conducting weddings on 23rd May 1888, and the first wedding was between Alfred Thorne and Hannah Hawkins of Cowcroft Farm on 12th June 1888.

The problems at Townfield

Townfield Chapel had three problems connected to its location. Firstly it was difficult to find if you did not know where it was, tucked down the end of Townfield Yard, or down the cobbled path from Punchbowl Lane. Secondly the chapel had no room to build a separate hall, and the Sunday School met separately in the chapel on Sunday afternoons. And then from 1873, after Zion Hall in Red Lion Street was built, there were 3 Baptist places of worship on one acre of land, which people nicknamed “God’s Acre”.

Moving from Townfield to Newtown

So in 1911 the Strict Baptists discussed moving to Newtown, which was then a growing part of Chesham and which had no non-conformist chapel. In February 1912 John Rose Howard bought some land in Berkhampstead Road, formerly part of the Chesham Generals football meadow. A Newtown Baptist Sunday School started with 8 scholars on 8th September 1912 meeting at Progress Hall, on the corner of Essex Road and Berkhampstead Road. The foundation stones for Newtown Baptist Hall were lain by Alfred Throne and John Rose Howard on 21st May 1914 and it opened on 3rd September 1914. This was then used for Sunday School, and from 18th April 1915 evening services were moved from Townfield to Newtown. Then on Sunday 8th August 1915 Townfield Chapel was used for morning worship for the last time. The Strict Baptist worship then moved totally to the new Baptist Hall in Berkhampstead Road in Newtown. This continued until 1927 when the church was built.

Chapel Brush Works

In July 1915 Townfield Chapel was put up for sale, along with two cottages, and it was sold to William Griffin who had a brush-making business in London. Chesham was a centre of brush-making and the chapel became known as Chapel Brush Works. This operated for many years and was later run by his son Sidney Herbert Griffin. After being a brush-making factory for 18 years, the old chapel burnt down one morning in November 1933. The fire brigade took about five hours to put the fire out, but managed to save neighbouring buildings. The factory had not been insured and it stood as an empty shell for years.

Townfield Yard Clearance

Meanwhile the Townfield Yard area was considered a slum area and earmarked for clearance. Townfield Yard was compulsory purchased in October 1932. From 1933 Townfield Yard was evacuated and the people were relocated to new houses in Milton Road, Pond Park. The Townfield properties, including what was left of the chapel, were demolished in late 1936. All that was left of the old chapel was a capped boundary wall. This was built in 1937 from rescued bricks from the chapel. This includes some of the original 1820 signed bricks, which were placed alternately at a level of about three feet from the ground.

Townfield Flats

Chesham Council then drew up plans to build old people’s flats at Townfield, which were built in 1938. They were originally called Townfield Flats. In April 1939 Chesham Urban District Council got permission to move the two graves which had been by the front door of the chapel. These were moved a few yards to the back of Hinton (now Trinity) Baptist chapel, where they can still be seen. The first council tenants moved into Townfield Flats in May 1939. The flats are now called Townfield and Trinity Court.

Newtown Baptist’s are planning to write a history book, so if any readers have information about Townfield Chapel please let me know on or 01494 258328.