The end of a era

Dec 1995/Jan 1999 Brenda Dawson, who lives in Royal Oak Lane, recalls Childhood memories of a Pirton chapel long since disappeared.


This is the site of the baptist chapel

I now reveal the mysteries of the Strict Baptist Chapel which was destroyed by a V.1. Rocket in the early hours of March 22nd, 1944.

The old Baptist Chapel was damaged and then demolished later.

We attended this chapel until the beginning of World War II, presumably from a very young age, until we were mature enough to choose our own form of worship, which coincided with the beginning of the war.

I remember the chapel as a brick building which was situated at the back of the Bury End Cottages, not far from Toot Hill.  It was clearly seen from Great Green.  A thatched cottage stood on one side of it and Mr Jack Lawrence’s shoe repair shed was nearby.  There were the usual hard benches to sit on and a combustion stove in the centre, around which the Sunday School gathered in the winter.  A pulpit stood in the front.

Jack Lawrence outside his cobbler’s shop

There were very few people who attended.  The Thrussell family were the mainstay, John conducting the service.  My family, the Castles, except for my father who was brought up a “Wesleyan”, all attended.  My grandmother, Polly French, her sister, and family (who were also Dawsons) were regulars until they moved away.  Mrs Abbiss who lived in the cottage next door and who, I recall, was very deaf, attended.  I used to find the hymns for her as she was unable to hear the number called out.  Her two daughters also attended when they were home from their employment, both being cooks of some renown.  Two more ladies, whose names I am unable to recall, attended infrequently.  Occasionally new residents came but did not repeat the event.  Another family, named Hare, also attended on occasions; they lived in Hitchin and walked across the fields, returning the same way after the service.

The chief man who preached the sermon was known to all as “Dabber” (everyone had a nickname).  I think his real name was Handscombe.  He always wore a black bowler which, according to my husband, was a wonderful target for snowballs.  If he had any employment I do not know, he appeared to be at least ninety, but was in fact probably much younger!  He, too, was deaf and I am unable to remember ever seeing him smile.  His sermons if I ever listened, concerned hell, fire and damnation.  They went on for a very long forty minutes.  My sister, brother and I taught ourselves the deaf and dumb alphabet and quietly carried on our conversations.  As he was deaf, his voice rose to a great crescendo at times.  We sang hymns, many of which were old favourites as found in “Ancient and Modern”.  There was no accompaniment as we had neither organ nor piano, but someone gave us a note of a tuning fork to get us going.

We attended three times every Sunday – morning and evening services and Sunday School in the afternoon.  We would read from the Bible in turn and Mr Thrussell, an exceedingly clever man by any standards, would discuss the passages with us.  (My sister and I aways say we have a good understanding of the scriptures!).  My sister also recalls Mr Thrussell teaching himself French, enough to translate, but unable to speak the language.  They each had a French New Testament and took it in turns to read and translate.  This must have been before my time as I have no recollection of it.  Our attendances were rewarded once a year by being given a book dealing with the scriptures.  The last one I received was “Paul’s Last Journey”.  These books, together with the Children’s Encyclopaedia were the only reading matter we were allowed on Sundays.  No games were played, no riding bicycles or other means of pleasure; not even homework.  Sometimes I hear the young of today saying they are bored!  How I would like them to endure a Sunday as we did.  I greatly envied my friends who, after going to church in the morning, enjoyed the rest of the day in their own way – but not for us.

The Thrussell family

The great day in the calendar was Anniversary Day.  This took place on a Wednesday afternoon in the summer.  The Chapel was then filled to capacity.  Coaches arrived from Luton, Barton, and Hitchin.  The same type of service as held on Sundays was conducted, followed by tea.  There may have been sandwiches, I do not recall – but, oh the cakes!  Ted Walker the baker in Royal Oak Lane baked them.  They were made in tins approximately 14” by 10”, turned out and cut in slices.  There was a delicious cherry one; but for me, the ultimate was the fruit cake!  No one makes cake like that today!  I can see it now.  Large pieces of cherry in the fruit, all cut in slices, standing on plates which in turn were on very white tablecloths.  A large urn stood on a trestle table with steaming hot tea.  The crockery was all white with a gold rim and a shamrock motif in the centre.  My mother oversaw the teamaking, which was made with boiling water, boiled in a make-shift kitchen, and then transferred to the urn.  After a long interval for tea, another service was conducted in the evening.  We children, whilst attending Pirton School, were lucky enough to be given the afternoon off to attend the festivities.  Christmas and Easter always passed without recognition.  Neither were we christened or baptised.

The toilet also deserves a mention.  It was situated at the side of the Chapel, being of the bucket variety.  In fact, it was a two-seater!  One at the normal height, the other designated for children.  Squares of newspaper hanging by a string were there at the ready!  Who or where the toilets were emptied, I have no idea!

Each summer we were rewarded by Mr Thrussell taking us children on a camping holiday to either Norfolk or Suffolk.  Equipment and cases were collected by the railway van a few days prior to our departure and on arrival all would be waiting for us.  The large ridge tent was duly erected in the middle of the field and a hole dug for the latrines, surrounded by a canvas screen, some distance from our living quarters, I might add!  We slept on palliases which were filled with straw and, covering ourselves with blankets, all slept in a row – Mr Thrussell by the door.  We made a campfire and cooked our food in billycans, each performing our own, allotted tasks.  The highlight of our holiday was learning to swim in the cold North Sea, known in those days as “The German Ocean”.  Where we washed is a mystery, we are unable to recall any ablutions being performed!  My brother did not accompany us as all the boys in the village, from the tender age of nine or ten, worked on the farms in their summer holidays helping with the harvest.  This they did until they left school.  The money they earned bought luxuries such as bicycles or new clothes.

In our childish minds, I am sure at some time we must have thought – if only someone woujld blow up the Chapel.  Many years later, Hitler came and did just that – but too late for us!

Acknowledgements:   During the years of which she writes, Brenda (Castle) lived with her sister, Barbara, and brother Don in Davis Crescent.  The Baptist Chapel was situated on what is now the garden boundary of Pat and Jeff Lawrence’s house, Springfields, Bury End. 

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