25th June 2004 at Berry Hill Salem Chapel, near Coleford, Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire

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THE POWER OF THE CHAPEL A talk given by Averil Kear, Chairman of the Forest of Dean Local History Society as part of the ‘Voices in the Forest Festival

25th June 2004 at Berry Hill Salem Chapel, near Coleford, Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire

Nonconformity offered an option for the ordinary man who had grown tired of the teachings and constraints of the Church of England.

By the 19th century Nonconformity evolved into a way of life for a vast majority of the population of England and Wales, influencing their religious beliefs, politics, education social life and even the way they brought up their children.

“Their prim stone hulks were the solidification

of almost everything judged important in the life

of the district gathered immediately around them.

Half a mile away there would be another chapel,

and, half a mile onwards again, yet another.

Each a ruling centre, with a ruling cabinet and

a discipline as immutable as an established natural law.”

Dennis Potter
The Emergence of the Nonconformists in the Forest of Dean.

We know very little about the start of nonconformity in the Forest of Dean although when records do begin to appear around 1660 it is obvious from the strength of the groups that they had been in existence for some time.

During the 16th century the religion of England was in a turmoil Henry VIII had changed religion to suit his requirements for marriage and the Puritan uprising against the Crown resulted in a Civil War in 1642 led by Oliver Cromwell.


One good thing that did happen during this period was the translation of the Bible in the 1530’s by William Tyndale and Miles Coverdale which was important for many people as it meant that there was no longer anybody between them and God, they could read his teachings directly from the bible for the first time. Many of the bible stories would have been very exciting to ordinary people much the same as adventure stories are today.

Forest of Dean dissenters like those throughout the country began to form their own groups but these meetings were illegal in the eyes of the Church of England and if the members were caught they were often persecuted for their beliefs. Sometimes when a dissenting congregation expressed their wish to build a meeting-house the vicar and his congregation threatened local builders and carpenters with loss of trade if they took any part in its construction. Often, in small communities, dissenters would be threatened with a loss of work and wages to try and prevent them from worshipping outside of the Church of England.

Despite the opposition and persecution Nonconformists still carried on worshipping in secret and building their own meeting places. At first preachers would be sent out from other chapels to surrounding areas to preach in the open air or in barns or private houses. Once a congregation had been established a small meeting house or chapel would be built. The chapels of the nonconformists were at first designed to blend in with their surroundings, to look like simple houses or outbuildings. This was to protect worshippers from persecution for practising their faith.

In 1660 records show that the Society of Friends (Quakers) were holding meetings at Coleford and Aylburton, and they were frequently hounded by the parish constables and many were imprisoned for their beliefs and illegal meetings. These Quakers though had a burning sense of mission and interrupted many Church of England services. Their leader George Fox encouraged his followers and kept a diary about these meetings. We know from this diary that he held early meetings in the Forest of Dean as in 1668 when he states “and then on the first day we had a large generall meeting in the forrest of Deane and all was quiet”

Diocesan records tell us that Benfield House in Newland was licensed for worship by the Presbyterians in 1689, and in 1691 the house of James Baylis at Blakeney was licensed for worship by Protestant dissenters.

In Mitcheldean tradition has it that there was an Independent church as early as 1662 There is certainly no doubt that dissenters were noted in Mitcheldean as early as 1623 when a man was reprimanded for interrupting the rector during a service in Mitcheldean Parish Church and in 1639 a couple went against the rules of the Church of England and married in an alehouse. By 1682 at least 13 people were reported for failing to attend services in the parish church and these people were probably the founders of the first Independent movement in the Forest of Dean

Baptists first appeared around 1603 and originally had two main groups. There were the General Baptists who believed in free will and the Particular Baptists who followed the teaching of John Calvin and believed in predestination. The earliest notice of Baptists in the Forest is found in a letter dated 1653 and among the signatures on the bottom appear William Skinne, John Mills and Francis Pebb “Elders, in the name and on behalf of the Church Baptised in the Forest of Dean”. Probably their church was in Coleford as there appears to have been considerable religious fervour going on here, certainly from the middle of the 18th century or even earlier.

In 1664 the Conventicle Act was passed: this decreed that

any Nonconformists attending a religious meeting, or assembling themselves together to the number of more than five persons in addition to members of the family,for any religious purpose not according to the rules of the Church of England, should be punished

with a fine of £5,or three months imprisonment;

for the second offence, double;

for the third transportation.”

This broke up Nonconformist congregations everywhere, and they were forced to meet in secret in secluded areas.

A year later in 1665 the Five Mile Act was passed. This act decreed:

No Nonconformist minister or teacher whatever should, except when passing along the road, come within five miles of any city, or town-corporate, or borough sending member to Parliament, or within the same distance of any parish or place where he had formerly preached or taught, under a penalty of £40 for every offence’

This meant that preachers were forced away from the congregations that knew them and would help support them and were forced to become wanderers struggling to survive and depending on the charity of strangers.

The next few years were very bleak for the Nonconformist groups but they still believed passionately that their interpretation of the Word of God was the right one. They believed that the poor should take priority over the rich and there should be freedom in the way in which the ordinary man was able to live. So they still met in secret.

Charles II was at heart a Roman Catholic, but as England at this time was Protestant, Catholicism was a Dissenting religion. In order to favour the Catholic religion without bringing himself under persecution he set out the ‘Declaration of Indulgence’ in 1672, which granted to all Dissenters, Protestant and Catholic alike, the privilege of worshipping according to their own doctrines, though, in order to do so, licenses must be obtained, signed by himself. These licenses were for preachers and places alike. The Declaration was withdrawn the following year but in this time over 4,000 applications were entered.

In 1689, during the reign of William of Orange, the Act of Toleration was passed effectively allowing people to practise different religions free from the fear of prosecution and persecution. However, this did not mean that the religions of the Dissenters were fully accepted by the Church of England as worthy counterparts. Between 1754 and 1857 all nonconformists still had to marry in an Anglican church except for Quakers and Jews.

The 18th century. This was a period when ‘alternative’ religions really began to emerge. These religious societies often started out as groups of students who met for Bible study. They were composed of laymen and so were often un-favoured by the Anglican Church. At the start nearly everyone in these Bible study groups still took their orders from the Established Church and most carried out good deeds in their parishes.

However more and more these groups began to become disillusioned with the Anglican ministry. They felt that the church was neglecting its duties and its members. These Bible Groups recognised the shortcomings of the established Church and the need for a revival became great.

In 1739 Methodism emerged in the Forest of Dean after George Whitefield preached in Coleford. He was a Calvanistic Methodist and as such his teachings were in direct opposition to those of John and Charles Wesley.

The evangelism of John Wesley had an extraordinary impact on the working classes whose conditions of living made them ready to seek a far better way of life, but Methodism made very little inroad into the Forest until after 1820.

Wednesday , 17th August 1763

Hence we rode to Coleford.

The wind being high, I consented to preach in their new room;

but large as it was, it would not contain the people, who appeared to be not a little affected, of which they gave sufficient proof by filling the room at five in the morning”.

In 1749 John Wesleys brother Charles had a poor reception at St. Briavels but John Wesley himself was welcomed when he visited Coleford on 15th March 1756 “We reached Coleford before seven, and found a plain loving people, who received the word of God with gladness”. He visited again in 1763.

The Church of England remained the dominant religion throughout the 18th century with 90% of the population swearing at least some sort of allegiance.

Universities were Anglican and non-conformists were kept out with the intention of keeping their education at a basic level. The Anglican clergy performed and recorded all baptisms and burials and church courts still had business over wills and marriage disputes.

BUT chapels were beginning to appear in the Forest of Dean by the end of the 18th century.

These chapels differed greatly to the parish churches of the Anglican Faith, they were of a much more simple design, usually rectangular in plan, with none of the ornate sculpture and mouldings found on Anglican churches. The idea was that the emphasis should be on the lessons being preached and not the luxury of the architecture. These chapels were often small but had no system of seating based on class and all were welcome. This is most likely why chapels found favour with the middle and lower classes as they no longer felt like 2nd class citizens. Non-conformists had to obtain licenses from the Bishop of their Diocese to build Meeting Houses or to turn Current dwelling houses into Assembly Houses.

The dissenting religions offered ordinary folk the chance to seek a better life. They were religions accessible to the humble and unsophisticated.

The chief characteristic of 19th century religion was Evangelism. The belief that every man and woman was heir to the sins of Adam and destined to spend eternity in Hell unless justified by faith. Evangelists believed that only those who experienced a conversion and were willing to profess their faith would find Heaven after death

Evangelistic preachers believed that salvation could not be bought, learnt or inherited; it had to be earned by conduct and morals. Membership to these churches was not dependent on your birth or land it was voluntary and required only commitment and piety. This is partly why many of the nonconformist religions practice adult baptism. They do not see membership of the church as a birthright but something that had to be earned and professed to when old enough to understand the implications of your faith.

Nonconformist preachers required no specialist training or qualifications and, as today, many of them were laymen. What was required of them was evidence of their conversion to Christ, a passion for the salvation of their congregation and the ability to communicate their faith in simple terms.

Most preachers from the nonconformist religions travelled around the country spreading their faith preaching in the open air or at private meetings. As the numbers of preachers grew so did the area that they could cover and the number of circuits that they could complete. In 1746 there were 7 Methodist preaching circuits in Great Britain, in 1790 this had grown to 60 and by 1830 the number had exploded to 336. This was one advantage that the nonconformist religions had over the Church of England - they were flexible in structure.

By 1818 20% of Primitive Methodist preachers were women and by 1824 30% of the travelling preachers were women, and it cannot be denied that women preachers created a curiosity and certainly were responsible for drawing more men into the religion.

The extent of popular support for Evangelical Nonconformity is evident in the unique religious census of 1851 of England and Wales. The census revealed that 40% of the population had attended a religious service on Sunday 30th March 1851, and of that 40% nearly half were Protestant Nonconformists.

During the 19th century, the lower classes in society began to feel that they no longer fitted in with the Anglican Church with its grand architecture, procession and class based seating orders. It was within the poor and the unsophisticated that Evangelical Nonconformity found its greatest support and this accounted for a large portion of the population of the Forest of Dean.

John Horlick on his visit to the Forest of Dean in about 1832 notes how religion was taking a hold in the nonconformist chapels throughout the Forest. In one section of his writings he talks about one of the Evangelistic Ministers who helped to shape the religious beliefs of the Foresters. In 1783 Richard Stiff came from Dursley to live in Blakeney and “Moved with sympathy and concern for the salvation of his fellow immortals, as soon as possible, he invited gospel ministers to come and preach in his own house, and to some of them he made a pecuniary acknowledgement, towards defraying their travelling expenses, to meet which he worked extra hours even till midnight”

Stiff went out into the Forest and preached under the extended branches of a tree. Gradually the suspicious Foresters took notice of this novel practice and were soon excited by the teachings of this man. Richard Stiff helped to establish independent chapels at Littledean, Cinderford and Soudley and Lydney, and thought nothing of walking 17 or miles every Sunday to preach in different parts of the Forest.

Preachers from all nonconformist denominations went from Church to Church, Chapel to Chapel as Bill Williams noted in his journal in 1872 (Wesleyan Minister came to Cinderford Baptist). Bill lived in Cinderford and regularly attended Cinderford Baptist chapel. He also kept a journal which shows how influential these ministers were and how much attention was paid to their every move.

This appeared as one entry.

Sunday Oct. 27th 1872 “Went to Chapel at night.

Minister from Wesleyan Chapel, vapouring with his hands 250 times in 5 minutes or 3120 times per hour. Took note of it”

Diary of a working Man by Ralph & Bess Anstis p.54

Forest of Dean Folk hung on every word these ministers preached as when Edward Kear commonly known as clergy Ned preached a very powerful sermon in the mid 19th century. (Methodist recorder 1895) Ned read his text “For the great day of His wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand ?” An old man in the congregation shouted out “I shall” to which Ned replied “Then you’ll have to alter first”. The man went home not best pleased with the preachers remarks but taking them to heart all the same.

Dennis Potter also recalls a story told to him by his father about one particular preacher, a little stumpy man with an evilly hooked nose, who was called Emmanuel and who had to supplement his height to reach pulpit level by standing on a margarine box he used to bring with him. On one occasion he was unable to stave of the worst of all calamities.

While reaching up on tiptoe, lunging out his arms to make a particularly dramatic point, the margarine box at last gave way with a splintering, blasphemous crack, and Emmanuel fell into ignominy, below the level of the pulpit. A moment’s horrified pause, [whilst everyone hastily searched for handkerchiefs to suppress giggles] and his head appeared once more in view, shakily above fingers clutching at dark oak.

Be not afeared!” he announced with great dignity, “for tis I.”.

Winifred Foley in “A child in the Forest” shows how sinners were dealt with and how everyone tried to obey the church laws in fear of eternal damnation of the soul. It came to the notice of the preacher that there was a local woman who had been gambling

Mrs Smith took her seat among the Sunday evening congregation The chapel was much fuller than usual –sadists that we were.

Starting off in his low-pitched, holier than thou quaver, the preacher soon worked himself into a volcanic eruption of denouncement against those who committed one of the basest sins against their Maker – the sin of gambling. And who could be a greater sinner than a sister who had succumbed to this lure or the Devil ?

So the ashes fell on her unprepared defenceless head! There was a long dramatic pause, as long as he could manage to hold it without losing our attention. Then, again in low-pitched quavers, he asked the congregation to kneel and pray that the sinner in our midst might be brought back to righteousness by repentance and washed clean again in the blood of the Lamb. She must have been a compulsive gambler for she stopped coming to chapel.”

It is no wonder that these dramatic preachers instilled great radical thinking into the population, which is probably why so nonconformists turned to politics.

Look at the number of men and women in Politics over the years and whose faith informed their political action:

Keir Hardie (a Nonconformist), often described as the father of the Labour party

John Bright (a Quaker) member of the Liberal Party who held the first Nonconformist Cabinet Post in 1868;

John Wheatley (a Roman Catholic), who gave the nation its first housing programme

Ellen Wilkinson (a Methodist) who walked with the men of Jarrow in their dignified protest for work;

Stafford Cripps (an Anglo-Catholic), a Labour chancellor who helped secure Russian support in the fight against Hitler;

And more recently Harold Wilson (a Congregationalist) who caught the mood of the nation in the 1960's

John Smith (a Presbyterian) whose untimely death in 1993 denied him his request of 'a chance to serve'.

Many Forest union meetings were held in Chapel rooms and even in the Chapels themselves when more space was required

During the 1926 Miners Strike in the Forest of Dean many God fearing Forest men made their mark on the political situation. Charlie Mason, a Methodist, father of Winifred Foley was a left-wing member of the Labour Party, a member of East Dean Rural District Council and a fervent union supporter. His compassion for the locked-out miner meant that he constantly pressured the Westbury Board of Guardians to supply poor relief to the miners, telling them not only to preach the principle of brotherhood but to practise it as well. Many of the local Nonconformist Lay Preachers who were also coal miners stirred up such strong feeling among their followers that their bosses did not allow them to return to the pits after the strike.

Another Nonconformist who made his mark politically in the Forest was

Timothy Mountjoy (1842-1896). He regularly attended Littledean Hill Chapel Sunday School where he soon developed an aptitude for public speaking. Later he established a number of Friendly Societies for the miners, and acted as chairman of a Cinderford Ratepayers’ and Voters’ Committee. This led to the formation of a Miner’s Union and Timothy’s appointment as its first agent.

The first school board for East and West Dean was formed in 1875, this Board ensured that all children between 5-13 attended school. The population of the Forest overwhelmingly supported the Nonconformists giving six out of the nine seats available to them. These included W.B. Brain, S.J. Thomas, and Alfred Goold all colliery proprietors and Joseph Thompson a colliery clerk. There were also two Baptist ministers, Thomas Nicholson and Cornelius Griffiths.

But the first schools to give any sort of rudimentary education to children were the Sunday schools. These were attached to the churches in the Forest and to the Nonconformist chapels.

During the 19th century many poor children learnt to read and write and understand the stories from the Bible by attending a schoolroom attached to a Church or Chapel.

Even after children had to compulsorily attend school, Sunday School was still a part of life for many Forest children, teaching them how to interact with others and providing an important social outlet in the days before Radio and TV. Sunday School teachers were often not much older than the children they taught but were looked on with great affection.

The adults too realised that their children were outstripping them with their understanding of the Bible and so they formed Bible classes where they too could learn to read and write. They became centres for further education if you like. Dennis Potter showed how the Bible influenced the imagination of his childhood days when he said

“I knew Cannop Ponds by the pit where Dad worked, I knew that was where Jesus walked on the water. I knew where the Valley of the Shadow of Death was, that lane where the overhanging trees were “

By the end of the 19th century Chapel life in the Forest of Dean had become a way of life for a large percentage of the population. Ministers were revered and their words taken to heart and acted upon.

Sundays became a day of rest with strict rules and regulations.

“The severity that characterised Sundays continued when we went to chapel for the evening service. We had to sit very still, and to discourage fidgeting, were made to sit on our hands. In absolute silence, hardly daring to breathe, we listened while the visiting preacher delivered his’ message from God’.

But there was also a great sense of community among these nonconformist congregations,

Fred Boughton who was born on Harrow Hill in 1897 remembers The Sunday School treat. He says “We started from [the Upper Chapel Drybrook] with the Drybrook Brass Band in front then two carrying a banner; we marched in twos with the teacher in front of each class. We marched down to the Cross, then up Morse Lane nearly to Ruardean, then back down Morse Road to Nailbridge, then back to Drybrook to Downton’s Field by the New Inn yard. We had marched about four miles and crowds of people had lined the roadside to see us pass and we all tried to look our best. Mother used to make us sailors blouses. The girls had blue skirts and the boys blue knicks. The girls had two long plaits tied with ribbon and we all had coronation mugs hanging round our necks and tied with red white and blue ribbon. We had plenty of sports, everyone was happy and I never remember a wet day on treat day.”

For children the Chapel treat was probably one of the only times in the year when they could eat as much as they wanted, all provided by kindly Chapel ladies probably wearing hats and dark dresses because it was a Chapel do. Then it was off to the chapel where the Minister said a short prayer then everyone tucked into the food before games in a nearby field. Egg and spoon races, tug of war, three legged races and even the bun eating contest. After the younger children were taken home the teenagers and adults took the opportunity to get to know each other and many a liaison was started at one of these events especially if “kissing in the ring” was played.

The Chapel Anniversary was the big event of the year and children practised long and hard with their singing and recitation.

Winifred Foley remembers one such occasion when because she had learnt a 14 verse poem of religious platitudes she was given the leading role. She recalls how she desperately needed a dress for the occasion and prayed for an angel to bring her a white silk frock, white straw hat (with ribbons) white shoes and socks. But money was very tight. Eventually Winifred visited a relation who owned a drapers shop and was given two hats and a dress made up of black and brown squares of silk. After a lot of work the dress was made to fit and the two hats unpicked and reformed. With the addition of a pair of down at heel brown sandals, Winifred shuffled off to chapel only to be confronted by a girl she hated named Eunice clad from top to toe in white except for pink rosebuds and blue forget-me-nots round her hat. Winifred managed to get through her poem and soon forgot her troubles by playing with her friends in the Forest on the way home.

Another occasion in the life of the Chapel community was Harvest Festival and Cyril Elsmore recalls this event at Ellwood Chapel.

The Chapel was decorated with corn dollies and fruit and vegetables in abundance. A very nice service always led by the members of the choir.

On the following evening everything had been taken down to the Sunday School building and then auctioned off to the public. There was very keen competition amongst the gardeners as to who had brought the biggest marrow, or the longest cucumber, or the heaviest cabbage and what had brought in most cash. The ladies also came with plates of queen cakes, lardie cakes, scones, tarts which were quickly disposed of. Then Mr Drake, a quarry owner and a member of Ellwood Chapel, always brought a sack bag full of hazel nuts which his employees had collected during their lunch hour. These were sold at a penny a handful, but some lads had very big hands and were therefore disqualified.

Sunday School outings were another special treat to be looked forward to. One of the favourite early 20th century places for a day out was the privately owned playground at Bishops Cleeve. Everyone got on the bus and craned to see the large Cheltenham houses on their way through. The playground had seesaws, roundabouts, helter skelters and swings. Tea was always laid on, not quite as much as the Chapel Treat tea but bread and butter, cake and a cup of tea.

Some Sunday School outings went to Clevedon or Porthcawl where the children could paddle and walk along the pier and yet other trips would have been to the Malvern Hills.

Many clubs in the Forest of Dean were started by Chapel goers. Not only football and cricket teams but even Ladies Tug of War teams

It would be impossible to finish this section on Chapel life without mentioning the great musical tradition that is probably one of the lasting legacies of the Chapel. Some of our Forest of Dean Bands are champions and many have had several generations of the same families playing in them building on the strength of the community spirit instilled by Chapel life. You only have to look at the close connection of this Chapel with Berry Hill Band to see what an important place music has in Chapel Life. Harry Hawkins was not only one of the co-founders of this Chapel but also of the Band.

And the choirs whose stirring singing evoke memories of the Evangelical vibrant hymn singing of the past. Dennis Potter was moved by the enthusiasm from a dwindling congregation when he re-visited this Chapel (Salem) in the 1960’s. He says “Before, I could not remember seeing it even half empty. This time, however, there were but ten or eleven people there enough for two and a half benches to be partially occupied,…..they were old, One had a deaf aid another arthritis, Often in the Forest I have tried not to hear the phlegmy sharp coughing of those with silicosis from the years of coal dust, but I couldn’t get away from it this time.

But when Bert Harris announced the number of the hymn, they all stood up and sang with surprising throaty vigour so that from the road outside it must have sounded as though the Chapel was nearly as full as it used to be.”

Sadly though, there has been a Decline in Chapel Worship which still continues today

The beginning of the 19th century was the heyday for the nonconformist chapels of the Forest of Dean. As Chapel religion became more popular and more widely respected it came to realise that it was on an equal footing with the Anglican Church. More and more chapels became meeting-houses not just for the middle classes and the labourers but for intellectuals and ‘respectable persons’. It was soon noted that with this new group came money, and that an intellectual ministry would attract more intellectuals. By the middle of the 19th century over 70% of men entering the Congregational ministry were college trained. Preaching was no longer the job of laymen. In 1856 the Calvinistic Methodist Association in Wales decreed that all new members of the ministry should undergo a series of tests to determine their knowledge of the faith.

This new training of ministers soon opened up a social divide. The middle and lower classes complained that the new ministers no longer preached in simple dialect or tended to their communities. Now the energies of the ministers went into chapel building to establish themselves as equals of the Church of England and the evangelism, which had once been the attraction of the chapel’s religion went into decline.

As the ministers were no longer laymen they began to rely on well attended chapels to supply their salaries and soon the travelling preacher on his Circuit which had been the mainstay, for nonconformist expansion began to go into decline.

In the Forest of Dean the membership of the nonconformist religions were often made up of just a few families in the village. Often the younger generations of these families would move away from the rural villages and into larger towns where there was more likelihood of work. They may have joined chapels in the towns but this left the rural chapels with a declining membership.

Sadly the downfall in membership has meant closure for many of the chapels. Most that have closed have been sold into private ownership, some have become storage facilities or been converted into unusual family houses. Fortunately the simplicity and quaint beauty of these buildings has meant that most remain largely unaltered and are still a standing testament to the strength of nonconformists in the Forest of Dean.

Chapels that are still active in the Forest of Dean have managed to solve the problem of declining members by diversifying and many such as Coleford Baptist church make their facilities available to the whole community as a meeting place. Others have amalgamated such as Mile End and Edge End whose chapels will close in September but the community will be made stronger when they amalgamate with Coalway Pisgah chapel.

The legacies started by Forest of Dean communities during the 19th century are a lasting testament to the POWER OF THE CHAPEL.

Averil Kear ©2004

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