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This article is from "Aspects of the Early History of Hungerford" by Norman Hidden, 2009.

Although the early 19th. century saw the establishment of a meeting house or chapel for Congregationalists in Hungerford, and the year 1840 saw the erection of the present building, now the United Reformed Church, there had been a strong history of religious dissent within town and parish throughout the two preceding centuries.

Records of dissent at local level are not always easy to  come by, but it none the less persisted. Because of this relative lack of documentary record, the existence of dissent in Hungerford has been seriously undervalued even by local historian and Congregational minister Rev. W.H.Summers.

In the earliest period it is often difficult to distinguish between membership of one dissenting denomination and another, and an account of much early dissent must of necessity encompass not only Congregationalists but other Protestant groups in Hungerford also, such as Quakers and Presbyterians.

There was great ferment within the parish church of Hungerford as early as 1599 when a group of parishioners led by one James Frinde (Friend), shoemaker, refused to allow their children to be baptised in the parish church by the vicar but, as the vicar reported, “would have some other to christen his child according to his mind, which
was contrary to the book of Common Prayer and the uniform rules of the Church Established. So, upon the 18th day of this instant month, the same James Frinde got one Mr. Fenton, a wandering minister (as I suppose) into his house and there did minister the sacraments of baptism privately that ought to be done
publicly.....Which Frinde had gotten into his house birds of a feather, to be, as he called them, witnesses and sureties to his child what it had vowed and promised by them’. The vicar then went on to name at least nine other local worthies who were present ‘at this conventicle [1]’.

The diocesan authorities responded by passing sentence of excommunication on James Frinde, and the local churchwardens for their part expressed dissatisfaction with the vicar, complaining that he was ‘no preacher’ and that ‘we have not had monthly sermons in our parish’. Numbers of parishioners were refusing to pay their church taxes [2]. It was no surprise that the vicar left the parish in the next year.

We may thus see the seeds of Puritan dissent existing within the Anglican Church long before the ultimate establishment of an independent church. During these years in the early part of the 17th. century up to the outbreak of Civil War in 1642 a number of local townsmen were presented as non-attenders at the Church of England services, especially the Easter Mass. The most prominent perhaps was Mr. John Goddard of Hidden, a substantial farmer and member of the highly reputed Goddard family [3].

During the period 1642 - 1662 the vicar of Hungerford was able to maintain a more or less central position in the disputes of the time. His ejectment in 1662 following the Act of Uniformity reveals that his leanings were Independent/ Presbyterian. Another great support for local dissenting or non-conformist believers in the 1660’s and 1670’s
was the presence in the area of Sir Bulstrode Whitelocke , once Cromwell’s ambassador to Sweden and Keeper of the Great Seal. Whitelocke regularly held prayer meetings at Chilton Lodge, to which he invited as preachers non-conforming ministers of all kinds in what would seem to have been a broadly non-conformist ecumenical
union of local dissent [4]. Whitelocke’s mansion at Chilton Lodge was licensed as a Congregational place of worship in 1672 [5].

It is in the years following the overthrow of the Commonwealth and the Restoration of Charles II that we may particularly find references to local dissenters. There was, for instance, a small group of Quakers, nine of whom are named in the Churchwardens’ presentments of 1682. In the same list thirteen other townsmen are also named, almost all of standing in the community, who almost certainly were Congregationalists. One of the most prominent was George Clempson, an apothecary [6]. G. Lyon Turner in his ‘Original Records of Non-Conformity’ names seven Presbyterians who met at the house of Daniel Reade in the years 1669-72 [7].

In the year 1669 a return was filed at Lambeth Palace which detailed the state of non-conformity in the parish and this shows the same lack of any distinction between the groups. ‘Conventicles uncertaine.Number 1008’. I assume this means that there were approximately 100 non-conformists living in the area but it was not known to the
authorities whether they had any local meeting places. W.H. Summers interprets the phrase ‘conventicles uncertaine’ to mean ‘several conventicles’. Presumably he had in mind that secret, illegal meetings rotated among the houses of local supporters. It is difficult to imagine such meetings within the town occurring without becoming known to the local authorities. It would be possible, however, for Hungerford dissenters to attend meetings at Chilton Lodge or at neighbouring towns such as Marlborough or Wantage, where there were some 400 - 500 worshippers at ‘Presbyterian’ conventicles held every Sunday, according to the same Lambeth Palace return. The figure of 100 non- conformists in Hungerford represented a much larger proportion of the population than today, for in those days the total population of the parish, man, woman,
and child, was unlikely to have been in excess of 1000.

According to the Lambeth Palace report in 1661 the leading figures in Hungerford non-conformity were stated to be Mr. Robert Rogers of Charnham Street (a former Anglican minister ejected under the Act of Uniformity); Jonathan Reade, saddler, who is likely to have been the town Constable of that name under the Commonwealth in 1653 and possibly again in 1661; and Richard Bell, farmer in the Eddington portion of the tithing of Hidden. Among the three teachers listed was Robert Goddard, a local weaver [9].

In 1672, following the freedom afforded by the Declaration of Indulgence, Hungerford Independents applied for a license to hold meetings at the house of Daniel Reade. Daniel Reade was the son of Jonathan Reade (deceased 1670) and like his father was also a saddler, inheriting from him both his business and his house [10].

From the town rent rolls it may be deduced that this house was, or was on the site of, latter day no.11 Bridge Street [11]. Although Summers writes of it as a Presbyterian meeting place, it is designated as ‘Independent’ in G. Lyon Turner’s ‘Original Records of Non-Conformity’.

Daniel Reade died in 1679 at the early age of thirty. He left his house and all his goods to his brother Benjamin [12]. Since no further record of Benjamin appears in Hungerford documents it is probable that he left the area. Certainly the house was in other hands by 169013. It is unlikely, therefore, that it continued long, if at all, as a
meeting place of the Independents after Daniel Reade’s untimely death.

Further evidence of dissent comes in the presentations to the ecclesiastical authorities of parishioners reported in 1671 as having married ‘clandestinely’ [i.e. not by public ceremony in the parish church]. These included Timothy Shadwell and Jane ‘his pretended [= alleged] wife [14]’. The same Timothy was reported in 1676 ‘for keeping a barn to entertain meetings in, called conventicles’. Another well-to-do local tradesman Edward Atkins was presented in the same year ‘for having his children baptised at a barn, contrary to the laws of England, by a non-conformist [15]’.

In 1682 we hear that ‘there hath bin conventicles kept in the houses of Mr. George Clempson, Joseph Whyneate, and John Playstead ... We have heard also that Rebecca Mills doth entertain Quaker meetings at her house [16]’.

The will of apothecary George Clempson dated Feb.1687/8 is a fascinating document for the light it throws both directly and indirectly on the state of dissent in Hungerford at that time [17]. That Clempson was of some modest substance locally is shown by his bequests of gold and silver plate, gold rings, silver watch etc. In addition he left £4 p.a. ‘to any non-conformist minister that shall yearly preach in Hungerford’, and 20 shillings to Mr. Richard Brooke ‘to preach my funeral sermon’. He leaves his lexicon of the Greek Testament to Thomas Butler, and appoints as overseers to his will Dr. James Pearson of Hungerford, Dr. John Stephenson of Abingdon, Joseph Butler and Richard King, both of Hungerford.

Thomas Butler was the schoolmaster who was reported in 1687 as ‘unlicensed’ by the Bishop of Salisbury. Almost certainly this was because he was a non-conformist. Dr. James Pearson had been tutor to Bulstrode Whitelocke‘s children; he was an intimate and trusted friend of Whitelocke, and is known to have been licensed to preach at Chilton Lodge as a Congregational preacher [18]. The other two overseers to Clempson’s will, Joseph Butler and Richard King, had been ‘presented’ in 1682 by the Churchwardens as attenders at a conventicle held at Clempson’s house [19].

Clempson’s bequest may well have made it possible for the congregation to invite Rev. Henry Chandler from Marlborough to become Hungerford’s first full time Congregational minister. It was in Hungerford that his son Samuel was born in 1693. Samuel was to become a notable figure in the 18th. century history of Congregationalism. Surprisingly W.H. Summers managed to confuse the two, describing ‘the famous Dr. Samuel Chandler’ as the father of Henry [20]!

A series of well-documented ministries seems to have begun with Henry Chandler. This series of ministries is clearly stated in W.H. Summers‘ book ‘The Congregational Churches of Berkshire [21]’. I will therefore not repeat this material, already published, but rather take the opportunity to add to it a little.

In a will dated 28 Feb.1694/5 widow Joan Pollerne left the sum of ten shillings to the vicar of Hungerford to preach a funeral sermon; and she also left a further sum of ten shillings to ‘Mr. Benjamin Robinson, non-conformist minister or ... to such non-conformist minister as shall usually preach at Hungerford [22]’. It is a pleasant thought that, whichever congregation Joan belonged to, she seems to have held both in equal respect! Summers does not give the date of Robinson’s arrival in Hungerford, but Joan’s will at least indicates it as earlier than February 1694/5.

Summers states that Robinson left in the year 1700, but it seems unlikely that this would happen before the birth of Robinson’s second daughter who was born in Hungerford on 3 Dec. 1700. Her birth is included in a list of birth dates recorded in the parish register of children ‘born but not baptised according to the office of the Church of England’. A full list of these non-conformist births is included in my transcription of the Hungerford parish register (Births or Baptisms 1700 -1799).

In an Introduction to this transcription I stated that Benjamin Robinson was the Presbyterian minister, but I perhaps should have written ‘non-conformist minister’. The difficulty of determining the particular sect to which a non-conformist might belong in those times arises from the closely interwoven history of the Presbyterian and Independent or Congregational churches at local level. This was the view of such historians of non-conformity as W.D.Jeremy and A.H. Drysdale, and has been confirmed more latterly by P.Palgrave - Moore [23]. Thus it is not surpising that Jeremy refers to Benjamin Robinson repeatedly as a Presbyterian and one who between 1697
and 1700 was the teacher of two Presbyterian students in Hungerford [24].

Despite the fragmentary nature of the information we have available concerning religious dissent in Hungerford during the late 17th. century, it is clear that by the end of the century non-conformity enjoyed support in the town strong enough to undertake the settlement of a minister there. All now still lacking is evidence of a permanent meeting place. This was achieved in the early years of the 19th. century, and is another story.

References:

1 Wilts. R.O.: D5/28, Bdle 7, f 12
2 ibid Bdle 8, f 107
3 ibid Bdle 31, f 13
4 Ruth Spalding: ‘Diary of Bulstrode Whitelocke‘, Oxford, 1990, passim
5 ibid vol 1, p.795
6 Wilts. R.O.: D 5/28, Bdle 60, f 11
7 G.Lyon Turner, ‘Original Records of Non -Conformity’, London, 1911
8 Lambeth Palace, Tenison Ms 639
9 ibid
10 Wilts. R.O.: Dean of Sarum will Jonathan Reade , prob 1679
11 W.H.Summers, ‘The Story of Hungerford’, opposite p.118
12 Wilts. R.O.: Dean of Sarum will Daniel Reade 1679
13 Wilts. R.O.: 110/16, lease Goddard-Brushwood
14 Wilts. R.O.: D5 /28, Bdle 50, f 19
15 ibid Bdle 54, f 3
16 ibid Bdle 50, f 11
17 P.R.O.: PCC will PROB 11/391 f 46
18 Spalding op cit vol 1, 795
19 Wilts. R.O.: D5/28, Bdle 60, f 11
20 B.L. Add Ms 28674 f 63v; W.H.Summers, ‘The Story of Hungerford’,p.119
21 W.H.Summers, ‘The Congregational Churches of Berkshire’
22 Wilts. R.O.: Dean & Canons of Windsor will, prob.1700
23 P.Palgrave-Moore, ‘Understanding the History & Records of Non- Conformism’, 1987
24 W.D.Jeremy,’The Presbyterian Fund & Its Trustees’,London,1885 pp.3,13,34216

See also:

- Aspects of the Early History of Hungerford