A History of Harston Baptist Church: 1786-1986

C Bates 2016 summary of Arthur Wisby's fuller 1986 version

Present Baptist Church, Chapel Lane 2014

In 1986 Arthur Wisby wrote a booklet:Two Hundred Years of Witness: A History of Harston Baptist Church: 1786-1986. This has been more briefly summarised below.


200 years ago seems very far away. Then, there was no great industry, little education, and farming was done by man and horse. A Dissenter was considered a rebel, but a few people preached the gospel simply and fervently, in houses, barns, or on village greens.

This was the setting for the beginnings of Harston Baptist Church. Records of this time are patchy, as few kept written records. But clearly, there were many great and interesting characters, whose spirit of love and outreach deserves to be remembered and celebrated.

The village at the time of founding of the church

In the late 18c, Harston was much smaller and quieter than today. Its houses were mainly those in Church Street plus some cottages on the west side of the present High Street. The latter was then ‘The Crofts’, with an extensive public ‘Moor’, known as ‘Moor Street’, opposite (on the east side). In 1872, a new turnpike road (now the A10) replaced the original (muddy and rutted) Cambridge road, with its horse-drawn carts and carriages. The toll road demanded a toll gate at the Hauxton river bridge, and Harston was one of the ‘change points’ for stage coach horses, on the London-Cambridge road.

South of the main village, by the old water mill (Harston Mill), there was a ford across the river Rhee (or Cam), leading west towards Haslingfield via Charity Farm (no road bridge existed then). Harston’s population in 1801 was just 412, but this rose in the 1870s to over 900, at the peak of the coprolite ‘gold-rush’ in Harston and nearby villages. From the 1880s onward, the population fell again, by over a third.

Early non-conformist activities

There were ‘Dissenters’ in Harston as far back as the 17c, but records are sparse. However, their cause was greatly boosted during the final quarter of the 18c, due mainly to John Berridge, an Anglican Vicar from the village of Everton in Bedfordshire, who was inspired to start preaching in the open air. He preached in many villages across Beds, Cambs and Huntingdonshire. Having studied at Clare college and then been a curate in Stapleford, he first preached (to a very large congregation) in Harston in July 1759. The very next day, while preaching again at a house in Harston, none other than John Wesley, well-known for his prominence in the Methodist movement, visited and participated in the proceedings. Wesley was well-acquainted with Berridge and had a high opinion of him. Wesley wrote in his diary: ‘About noon  I preached at Harston…….Berridge’s labour has not been in vain ……  finding peace with God…..a more artless loving people I have seldom seen…….God (gave) a manifestation of love to a woman (who)…… praised (him and inflamed many hearts with love and thankfulness’. Many from Harston later walked to Melbourn to hear him preach again, there;  ‘surely God was in the midst of them’. On 4 Jan 1762, again in Harston,  he ‘preached a whole sermon by moonlight….a solemn season….holy mourning to some….to others, joy unspeakable’.

In 1764 John Berridge fitted out a barn in Harston  for meetings and sermons, and one of the early preachers was Robert Robinson, minister of St Andrews, Cambridge (1761-90). He gave one of his (several) ‘Village Discourses’ to 200 people at Harston in 1786. Berridge’s last sermon here was in 1781. (Cambridge Archives show an  entry in Order Book for the Easter 1764 Cambridgeshire Quarter Sessions gave ‘Permission for the house or barns of John Whitby of Harston to be a meeting house for Protestant dissenters’. The Inclosure map of 1799 locates Daniel & Thomas Whitby’s land in same place as the existing Baptist Chapel).

Helen Greene, in her book ‘Harston 1937’ quotes an entry in Colonel Wales’ grandfather’s pocket book for July 1778: ‘Mrs Lamborn, my 2 daughters, Messrs Bechtot, Brundale & others from Cambridge, (all) went to Harston to hear my niece, Elizabeth Hurrell, preach for ¾ h in a barn with wonder and praise’.

The beginnings of a settled church

In 1781 an ‘Independent’ (Dissenting) church was established in Fowlmere, with many Harston residents attending; this was held by Mr Joseph Harrison. Around April 1786, Harrison came to Harston and raised ‘enough support’ to form a church there, which he led until October 1790, when he moved to Yorkshire. This church later became known as Harston Baptist Church, and in November 1790, a Mr George Compton started to preach regularly, being ordained as full-time pastor in April 1791, continuing until 1817, when he resigned (he died in October 1822  aged 62; his wife Hannah died in 1826 aged 51). From 1788 the services were held in a second barn, known as Heffer’s Barn, originally belonging to Mrs Swann.

Money was then raised by the congregation for larger premises , and was called ‘foreign aid’. This was used to purchase 44.5 poles of land from Mr Swan Wallis, being part of his holding in ‘The Crofts’, and it was administered by the following trustees: Swan Wallis &  John Sergeant, Yeomen; Daniel Goode, Bricklayer; William& Thomas Jennings, Gardeners; Thomas Hatley, Blacksmith, and John Adams, Glover. There was then a new building (on the same site as the present chapel) which was erected during 1799, and opened in January 1800 by Mr Barron of Melbourn.

After Mr Compton resigned in 1817, there were several brief pastor-ships (Mr John Greenwood, Mr Joseph Stevenson and others supplied by the Baptist Academy at Stepney), and for this period, until 1823, the church was ‘at a low ebb’. However, in April 1823, Mr Benjamin Fuller achieved a revival, starting with 17 members and a new covenant deed: “…..we declare before God (having been made sensible through grace of our lost and ruined state) ….. to give up ourselves…to the Lord and then to each other……for the peace & prosperity of the church…..show forth His praise……we profess and desire to adhere to the word of God as our only rule”. “(we will) form articles, settle differences, censure disorders, receive, suspend or exclude members and transact…..church discipline. We agree to receive….those who conscientiously differ from us, as to the mode and subjects of Christian baptism, but not to allow of their having a vote in the choice of a minister……unless…..  (the Baptists) think proper to admit of it”. Mr Fuller was pastor for 11 years, and 28 new members were added. He then resigned in order to accept a position in America in 1835, and was often referred to as ‘our esteemed pastor’.

Moving on

Mr William Hancock became the new pastor in 1835, leaving in 1838 after welcoming 21 more members. He was succeeded by Mr William Garner from Lynn (Kings Lynn), and he remained as pastor at Harston for the next 32 years, after which he resigned due to failing health. The next pastor was Mr Samuel Akehurst, who remained for 11 years and added 86 members. At the start of his incumbency, in 1870/1, the present church building was built, with the dedication stone in the front wall being laid by the Rev. C Davies. The Manse was purchased as a dwelling-house for the pastor, in 1875. Mr Akehurst left in 1881 to go to a new pastorate in Camberwell.

Next, Mr John Bateman came, from the Belgrave Road Tabernacle, Leicester, in May 1882, leaving again in April 1884 for a pastorate in Liverpool. At this time, there was a flourishing Sunday School, Hall Society, Library, a Band of Hope, a Night School, and a Bible Class.

The end of the century

Mr Edward Richards from Lerwick in Shetland, succeeded in August 1885. The centenary of the foundation was celebrated in April 1886, at which time a new schoolroom was under construction. Mr John Watson was presented with a silver trowel in recognition of his 16 years’ service as Sunday School Superintendent. In January 1890, Mr Richards resigned due to ill health and emigrated to New Zealand. Mr Frank Potter, who had been, for 5 years, pastor at the First Ragged Island Baptist Church in Shelburn, Nova Scotia, took over in Harston in November 1890. A new well was sunk to provide water to fill the baptistry, which was then newly-tiled with white glazed tiles. At this time the adult membership was 77, with 169 attending Sunday School, and an average of 30 attending the Young People’s Society. 1897 was Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee year, celebrated especially for ‘the large measure of civil and religious liberty…secured to the Free Churches in the UK, during her successful and honourable occupancy of the throne’.

Into the twentieth century

By 1900, adult membership had reached 101, and the Women’s Meeting, Prayer Meeting and Christian Endeavour all reported increased attendance and spiritual growth. Annual collections were made to support the local (Addenbrooke’s) hospital (as there was no National Health Service then). In 1909, Mr Potter resigned and the church also lost one of its senior deacons, Mr JK Watson, who died after 40 years’ service. In 1910, Mr William Burnett took over, coming from Earls Colne in Essex. During WW1, in order to save fuel, services were held on Sunday afternoons instead of evenings, and the gallery was closed. Mr Burnett retired through ill health in 1918, and was followed by Mr James Schofield and then Mr William Bloomfield and Mr John Causton (temporary) from 1919 to 1930. During Mr Alan Comley’s pastorate (1931-5), electric lighting was installed and a small portable organ was donated for the use of the young people.

The WW2 years (actually, 1937 – 48) saw Mr Frank Goody as pastor, and he also acted as temporary postman and newspaper delivery service (Christian Herald). Cast iron railings from the front of The Manse were donated as part of the war effort. A canteen for troops was set up in the schoolroom, and this facility was taken over by Pye Ltd. (electronics) from September 1943. The present pipe organ was installed in 1943, using a legacy of £100 left by Mr de Satur Metz who was killed during the bombing of London. In 1948, Mr Goody moved to a new pastorate in Tewkesbury.

The post-war years

Mr Douglas Battson accepted the pastorate in June 1948, staying until 1953. Mains water arrived, and the old hot air furnace was replaced by tubular electric heaters. Next, Mr Horace Ely took over, and organised a regular church magazine undertaking a good deal of printing here. He became the founder of the Cambridge and District Evangelistic Male Voice Choir, which was based in Harston for several years. In 1966, Mr Dennis Taylor came from Norton in Suffolk, and oversaw further domestic improvements (fluorescent lighting, oil stove, new sink, storage units, etc.) A covenant (giving) scheme was instituted. Mr Taylor left in 1968 so there were lay preachers until February 1970, when Mr George Papworth came as a lay preacher. He took on new duties in editing and producing ‘The Messenger’ magazine. Resigning in 1979 due to ill health, he was succeeded by Mr Howard Gordon, initially as part-time, but later as full-time, pastor. He received official recognition as the first registrar of weddings at the Baptist church; he was also a part-time Free Church Chaplain in Fulbourn Hospital, and was a member of Spurgeon’s College Council and a recognised Baptist Union Tutor.


Early Records

The earliest are those of Benjamin Fuller (ca. 1823) and included the new ‘Church Covenant and register of members. The first members after ‘re-formation’ in 1823 were those who had belonged to the old church, who wished to continue, and others were admitted ‘ by experience’ or transfer from other churches’. Only later do we read of entry following baptism. The first baptisms were those of Elizabeth Cambridge and William Coleman in May 1837 in the pastor-ship of William Hancock. Regular minutes were kept only from the mid 1880s (during the pastorships of Edwards and Potter).


These were called mainly to discuss and approve new candidates for baptism and membership, fix dates and speakers (anniversaries, harvest & tea meetings) and sometimes, the appointment or resignation of a minister. The first AGM was recorded in 1882 (late March, preceded by tea), and continued until 1912.

Church premises

Initially, in the 1780s, meetings were held in a house or in the open air. This was followed by meetings in a barn (set up by John Berridge), then in a second ‘(Heffer’s’) barn, then, in 1799, in a purpose-built chapel that cost just £270 at 1799 prices. Members each contributed 1d a week to try to clear the debt on this venture, but by 1805, £80 was still owed. Later, a gallery was added, to accommodate increasing congregations. In 1871, a new chapel was completed, at cost of just over £800. An additional land purchase (costing just £37.10s) catered for some new graveyard space and much later, some car parking space. Predictably, the largest building-cost payments were to Mr Stubblefield, the hired carpenter (nearly £346), and Mr Jude (the bricklayer), ca. £221. In 1875 ‘The Manse’ (94, High Street, built ca. 1827) was purchased as an abode for the pastor, at a cost of £400, of which £250 was mortgaged with Mrs Hall of Haslingfield (eventually repaid by 1884).

The church roof contained 2-3 inches of sand-cum-newspaper insulation; this was removed in 1979 to treat the roof timbers for woodworm. Two heavy cast iron boot scrapers were installed in front of the chapel. Inside, some space (devoid of pews) was created to make room for a choir platform, and later on, for a pipe organ. In 1884, fund-raising was begun for new accommodation for the ever-growing Sunday School, and a new schoolroom was begun in 1886 (to be constructed by Messrs H.F. Hall and F. Willers). At the opening service in August 1886, over 160 people attended. A 20-gallon copper (container) was installed in a kitchen area. In 1881, a new coal-fired hot air heating system was installed in the chapel, and this remained in use until 1950, when it was replaced by more reliable and controllable tubular heaters in the pews. In 1955, the old-style iron tortoise stoves in the lower schoolroom were replaced by electric convector heaters, and extra heating was provided by a Colman oil-burning stove in 1966.

In 1895, a new well was sunk in the grounds, to provide the considerable volume of water required for total-immersion baptisms, and this was needed up until 1949 when mains water arrived. Lighting required paraffin lamps (needing frequent trimming) until 1930, when mains electricity arrived. In 1965, heavy wooden forms in the schoolroom were replaced by lighter stacking chairs. In 1940, a partition dividing 2 old vestries was removed to create a temporary, relatively bomb-proof, schoolroom space, but this was requisitioned by the government for use by Pye Ltd during the war effort. In 1971 – 3, the old boiler house was demolished and sundry other renovations were undertaken. New window glass and extra roof insulation was inserted in 1977; redecoration followed in1983. There is an Accousticon hearing aid unit, installed in 1948., and a modern hearing aid amplification system, installed in 1982.

The New Manse

The original Manse, bought in 1875, had to be sold in 1972 as it needed too much repair and modernisation. In 1983, a new timber-framed building was designed (by Mr S Willcocks and Mr Richard Hackett) and construction was begun. The latter was finished by voluntary (church members’) labour, to reduce the cost. A number of interest-free loans were provided, to defray the costs. The pastor and his family moved in, during June 1985.

The Church’s part in education

There are no records of any schooling provided before 1800, but by 1818 the Sunday School had been started, with ca. 60 pupils, together with a day school with 28 (‘The Academy’) which was most active during William Garner’s ministry (1838-70). It was maintained by subscription and the deacons assisted, but there are few records. When the Harston state school opened in the 1870s, the Baptist day school closed.

Children and young people’s work

In 1870, Edward Richards wrote that such activity could be traced back > 70 years, and during his time the Sunday School had 160-170 pupils. Its superintendent and church deacon for nearly 40 years was Mr J.K.Watson of River Farm, Haslingfield; he supervised construction of new schoolrooms. By 1893 there were 180 Sunday School scholars and 14 teachers. The Band of Hope met in 1883 (John Bateman) and continued until 1920. A Young People’s Society reported 50 members and associates in 1891, and in 1894 a Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavour started, ending in 1919, then reviving from 1926-30. In 1970 the Sunday School changed its meeting time from afternoons to mornings (anniversaries being popular), and in the 1960s, Ron Price of the Caravan Mission conducted popular Holiday Schools during Easter; then Mr Ray Mitson of Saffron Walden started a Holiday Bible Club. Alan Comley re-started Young People’s work in 1932; this grew during Mr Ely’s ministry, and popular rallies were held in the New Year.

Women in the Church

Fund -raising for projects such as new schoolrooms in 1880 was usually organised by the lady members. In 1882, Mrs Potter ran a clothing club and sewing classes. Women’s Fellowship meetings were held on Wednesday afternoons, and a popular Women’s Rally (and visiting speaker’s sermon) was held every May.


In 1883, a tract society is mentioned, continuing until 1921. In 1892/3 (during Frank Potter’s pastor-ship), Miss Wells, an evangelist, conducted a mission in Harston, and in 1894, 1898, 1899, 1904 and 1908, Mr Monk of the Evangelisation Society, and others, held meetings. A further mission, by Reg & Grace Tomlinson (who later joined the Bassano Free Evangelical Church in Alberta) was held at Harston during Easter 1967. Sadly, these missionaries were later murdered in Canada.

In September 1979, 30 students of Spurgeon’s College visited, and a team led by Jonathan Bush held a mission here. The Community Centre in Meadow Way was used for a monthly ‘Sing along’ service with refreshments. The bi-monthly ‘Messenger’ Baptist newsletter was delivered to every home in 1986.


Fulbourn Hospital

In 1968, the church began Free Church Services at Fulbourn Hospital every 2nd month, with visits to Mitchell Ward; this continued for several years.

Lay Preachers

Cambridgeshire Village Preachers Association (incorporating Cambs Baptist Lay Preachers Assoc’n) have actively promoted lay preacher involvement.


Christian books, cards, magazines and bibles could be purchased in church in 1986.


The oldest decipherable stone is that of Joseph Scarr, who died in 1799 aged 63. Pastor George Compton’s gravestone notes that he died in 1822 aged 62, and his wife Hannah died 1826 aged 51. Martha Ann Akehurst, wife of pastor Samuel Akehurst died, aged 30 in 1872, and her gravestone bears a homily. Swan Wallis, who sold the chapel site to members in 1798, is buried with members of his family, and John Sergeant and Thomas Hatley are commemorated. James Wallman, son of James and Lydia Wallman, d.1869 aged 49, has a headstone bearing a long epitaph;  ‘One more in heaven  The azure skies have opened…..’ (17 lines in total). Richard Wallis, d, 1862 aged 58 has 4 lines. Many Northfield family members have stones: James, d. 1837 aged 58; Charles, d. 1862 aged 19, Elizabeth, d. 1863 aged 11; Edward, d. 1865 aged 18; James, d. 1873 aged 4 months; Hannah, d. 1897 aged 59 –  most have a poetic inscription.


Joseph Harrison             1786 – 90

George Compton              1791 – 1817

(John Greenwood)            1817 – 19

Joseph Stevenson             1820 – 21

Benjamin Fuller                 1823 – 35

William Hancock               1835 – 38

William Garner               1838 – 70

Samuel Henry Akehurst   1871 – 81

John Bateman                   1882 – 84

Edward Richards               1885 – 90

Frank Potter                       1890 – 1909

William Burnett                 1910 – 18

James Thomas Schofield 1919 – 23

William George Bloomfield 1924 – 29

John William Causton (temp) 1929 – 30

Alan Victor Comley          1931 – 35

Fran Goody                        1937 – 48

Douglas William Battson 1948 – 53

Horace George Ely           1954 – 65

Dennis Taylor                    1966 – 68

George Albert Papworth (lay) 1970 – 79

Howard Hartley Gordon  1980 –

This page was added on 05/10/2016.

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