The Woodley Chapel - The Early Years

The Old Chapel

Beginnings

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, a tremendous period in the progress of nonconformity, a Prebendary of St. Paul's Church in London was presented with the living of St. Giles' Church in Reading. The impact of this personality could almost be described as traumatic; the subject of his first sermon preached in Reading was "A Dispassionate Enquiry into the Probable Causes and Consequences of Enthusiasm". To us this may seem a more appropriate title for a lecture on Humanity rather than a sermon.

The consequences which resulted from the Rev. Joseph Eyre's delivery of his thoughts divided his congregation. While all seemed to be prepared for a more positive strategy of outreach, only the loyalty of some of his parishioners prevented an avalanche of absenteeism on subsequent Sundays. The parishioners who seceded met on the site of the former County Gaol in Castle Street, recognized nowadays as the building of St. Mary's Episcopal Chapel. To lead these faithful in the name of Jesus Christ came a Congregational minister, Rev. James Sherman. He commenced a program of evangelical activities in and around Reading, with a team of field preachers and the establishment of five mission stations. One of these was at Woodley.

Another newcomer to Reading, who became one of the field preachers in Rev. Sherman's team, was the Rev. Archibald Douglas. His appointment was as minister of Broad Street Congregational Chapel. The richness of the spiritual life of his flock and the immense number of activities he managed to include in his daily life demonstrated a God-given energy used to the full.

A section of the dispersed flock from St. Giles sought a temporary refuge at Broad Street, where they were welcomed as avowed members of the Church of England, even to the sharing of the sacramental table.

Within a year of his arrival, Rev. Douglas started the Evangelical Society at Twyford, formed the Berkshire Association of Congregational Churches, which was later reformed to include churches from other counties. He also promoted the earliest Sunday School in the town and was the first nonconformist secretary of the Reading Auxiliary of the British and Foreign Bible Society, itself the earliest of its kind in the United Kingdom. He also took part in the formation of the Reading Savings Bank and the Literary Institution. Other achievements in the national sphere included being a founder member and advocate of the London Missionary Society (the missionary arm of the Congregational churches), and being elected chairman of the 1st London Provisional Committee of the Congregational Federation which met at Finsbury Park in 1831.

The Nineteenth Century

From records now in the custody of the Berkshire Record Office, it appears that the first service of worship in the Woodley Chapel was on December 31st 1834. Sherman managed to raise the 300 it cost to build and he notes one generous friend gave 50. It was known as "Christchurch" and was an independent congregation served by ministers from the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion. The worshippers were called to worship by a single bell housed in the small tower, which is still in place.

Prior to this date meetings had been held in local homesteads. Many of these homes were occupied by agricultural workers, some of whom had undisputed reputations as poachers. It was not unknown for them to see the inside of the local gaol as a result! To quote Rev. James Sherman's own words - "Just before its (the Chapel's) erection a spirit of sharing greatly prevailed. The villagers might be seen going to the cottage, where the services were held, each with a stool or chair on his shoulders, and the room crowded to excess......the effect of the preaching of the gospel was that poaching was generally abandoned".

There was a split at St Mary's with a new Congregational Chapel being founded on the other side of Castle Street in June 1839. The Woodley Chapel's allegiance followed and it was closely tied to Castle Street Chapel until as late as 1913.

The agricultural workers at this time were protesting regularly in Reading. References to events evidencing this revolt are recorded by W S Darter in his book "Reminiscences of an Octogenarian, 30/12/1874". The first records to hand in the Chapel Minute books refer to an application by the secretary of the Labourers Agricultural Union for the use of the Chapel schoolroom to receive subscriptions for the Union. A terse comment informs us that 'It was resolved that it is not advisable to let the room for this purpose'. Possibly the proximity of the Chapel to the Bull and Chequers public house, at that time sited where the Butts Hill Road/Headley Road roundabout is now situated, influenced the decisions of the supporters of the temperance cause.

In another book of records, concerning the activities of the field preachers, it is learnt that on 3rd July 1844, ten years after the opening of the Chapel, these gentlemen formed the Reading Auxiliary Society for the spread of the gospel. Signatories at this meeting included the Messrs. Exall, Saunders, Morley, Ratcliffe, White and Wells. Mr. Exall later became the Mayor of Reading and was energetic in his involvement in the nonconformist causes in Berkshire.

After Woodley Chapel had been inspected in the autumn, Mr. Exall was requested to supervise some repairs, and also to supply fuel and candles for the coming winter. Another item of interest concerns the appointment of fourteen men to preach at the Chapel services.

Indications of forward planning are evident in the meeting held on 11th December, 1844. Woodley heads the list of Chapels for which Anniversary celebrations are planned.

During 1845 the Trust Deeds were inspected and examined to ascertain whether burials could be permitted in the grounds of the Chapel. No further information is given. (Editor's note: Whether permission was given or not, burials certainly took place in the grounds and there was criticism later for not keeping a register.)

In May 1846 there is recorded the thanks of the Committee to Mrs Munday of Woodley for preparing the tea at the Chapel Anniversary. Two years later a stove is installed in the Chapel. Instructions were given that the cost should not exceed two pounds!

Whatever the committee of field preachers thought about prices for the stove, the Chapel committee did consider the remuneration for two full time workers. In the same set of minutes it is recorded that the treasurer is to resign at the next meeting! For those interested in matters financial, it was recommended that the Chapel Keeper's remuneration be increased by five shillings per annum, making the year's total three pounds in 1876. Another expense was the purchase a harmonium in 1870; the 18 6s 9d was paid back to Mr. Brown by 1878, when two dozen copies of Sankey's Hymn Books for use "of strangers" and at special services. At this time a Mr. Burkitt conducted the singing of the 'Psalmody'. The roof and spire needed repairing in 1877.

Mr. Peaceful, the appointed full time evangelist, worked without a fixed salary. The meeting approved the suggestion that a gift valued at three pounds be purchased at regular intervals. Preaching at services and pastoral visiting were listed as being his duties.

One application for church membership was turned down, but no details or reasons are recorded. One wonders how this was regarded by those outside the fellowship and whether the person concerned found a spiritual home elsewhere.

Discussion took place in the committee about the attendance of teachers - twice per Sunday for Sunday School sessions and three times for Chapel services - compare this with the present idea that once per Sunday is adequate! It was also decided after thirty two years the cottage meetings were to be discontinued. During daylight hours a school for the village children was supervised by a Mr. Wood, the first in Woodley. The state had made grants in aid of popular education since 1833 and a great deal had been done by religious bodies and private individuals in founding schools for the children of the poor.

The Education Act of 1876 compelled the inspection of such schools and the Woodley Chapel Day School was included in this programme. A clause within this Act suggested vesting the guardians of the poor with the power to act as a School Board, should there be occasion for them so to do. Mr. Wood explained that any two ratepayers are competent to call upon the guardians to ascertain if there is sufficient school accommodation provided in the parish, to examine the level of the accommodation and the standard of the education provided and to enforce the clauses of the new Act. He also commented that he did not predict Government interference 'if the education is fairly good and the sanitary conditions passable'.

Members of the Chapel were invited to share their opinions about the school and suggest improvements. Comments which followed included remarks about the 'absence of the teacher' and 'irregularity of the school hours'. An investigation party was suggested, to include two members of the Chapel and friends from Reading. A couple, Mr. and Mrs. Brown, were elected by the meeting to be the 'local visitors' to the school.

Later in the minutes there is reference to a Rev. Wood and it is surmised that he is the same man as the Mr. Wood already referred to as they both had connections with the Day School. Two comments recorded in 1878 - 'Rev. Wood to be approached again about the unsatisfactory condition of the Day School' 'Rev. J Wood reprimanded to improve the condition of the school or to abolish same'.

Woodley Congregational Church Meeting records date back to 1874 when a local management committee was formed, whilst in 1887 a management board was formed. The lists of baptisms and burials back to 1875 also still exist. The full list of records shows what is held at Berkshire Record Office (ref D/N 14).

Investigation into the minutes of the parent Congregational Church, Castle Street in Reading, reveal the following reports which are self-explanatory:

December 6th 1883 - Resolved to hold Special Services at Woodley in the New Year.

August 7th 1887 - Concern expressed about Castle Street's membership; the interest in the village station also declining. Secretary asked for permission to engage with bands (groups) of men connected with Abbey Hall Y.M.C.A. to conduct occasional revival services in the Chapels. It was also arranged to accompany a Mr. Shaw (a missionary from Africa) to Woodley to inspire missionary spirit at village stations.

May 28th 1889 - Rev. G Stewart stated that a meeting of delegates from Congregational churches in the town had been held in the Schoolroom for the purpose of considering the desirability of unity for evangelising the villages around Reading. The following resolution was passed:

"That this meeting of delegates recommends to the Churches which they represent that the Congregational Church form a Village Preachers and Evangelisation Society for the Purpose of Evangelistic Work, including the supply of pulpits at Binfield Heath, Pound Green, Sonning, Wargrave, Woodley, Basildon, Spencers Wood, Sulhampstead, Tilehurst and Cholsey Heath."

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Page last updated 4th March 2022.

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