Thy heralds brought glad tidings to greatest as to least
The date on the foundation stone at Girton Baptist Chapel is April 6th 1860 and although that date is significant for the building, for the origin of the church we need to go back a few years into the first part of the nineteenth century. In 1831 an organisation was formed called the Cambridge Village Preachers Association and the history of the work in Girton is very much tied up with the CVPA.
The Village Preachers were a group of men who banded together to preach the gospel in the villages surrounding Cambridge. At Coton meetings were held in a converted barn and at Barton, Mr. Adams, one of the founding fathers of the association, built a small chapel that continued to be used until the present building was erected in 1892. Elsewhere meetings took place in the homes of local non-conformists, and it was in such a cottage meeting at Teversham in 1852 that C.H. Spurgeon preached his first sermon. The story is told of how Mr. James Vinter, then one of the leading lights of the CVPA, invited a few young men, including Spurgeon, to go to Teversham on Sunday “for a young man was to preach there who was not much used to services, and very likely would be glad of company.”  It was only while they were walking to the village that Spurgeon found out that he was preacher Mr. Vinter was encouraging the others to hear!
Another person who joined the CVPA at a similar time was George Apthorpe. Although not known nationally like Spurgeon, the name of Apthorpe became loved and respected throughout the county. George Apthorpe was born in Cambridge in February 1827. He was brought up in the established church, but on leaving school at fourteen he took up an apprenticeship in Soham and while there he became a Baptist, enthusiastically throwing himself into the Lord’s work. On returning to Cambridge he became a member of St. Andrew’s Street Baptist Church, becoming a deacon there in 1880. He had the distinction of being a member of the CVPA for over fifty years (from 1852 until his death in 1908) and for the greater part of that time he was the president. He was instrumental in starting a mission room in the Romsey Town district and later when that work developed into the present church at Mill Road, (1895) he was, for four years, it’s first pastor. Described as a genial character, a contemporary report goes on to say that, “His sermons are full of fire and earnestness and have often been productive of great blessing.”
George Apthorpe was probably one of those present when a few people from Histon and the city came together in early 1859 at a prayer meeting in Girton. They first met in Mrs. Asplen’s cottage and although we cannot be certain that this is the place referred to, a contemporary description of the village lists “Asplen’s cottages” as standing in the lower part of the High Street near to the present entrance to Gretton Court. The prayer meeting was a success and as the numbers attending were too great for the cottage, a decision was soon taken to build a chapel. Three friends, Messrs Gifford, Shippey and Apthorpe met together at a house in Sussex Street, Cambridge, and decided to start a subscription fund with each one of them subscribing £1. Although we do not know the exact dates of these significant meetings, it seems likely that either the initial prayer meeting or the subscription meeting took place in mid-February, for the church anniversary was celebrated in that month until the 1950s.
Elliot Smith, Esq., a local farmer and, then, mayor of Cambridge, gave the corner of a meadow and Messrs. Unwin and Pigott of Milton built the chapel for £190. Work started in 1860 and the foundation stone was laid by T. Coote Esq. on Good Friday, 6th April. Thomas Coote (born 1817) whose family home was at Oaklands, Fenstanton, was a local corn (and later coal) merchant. A liberal and non-conformist he became High Sheriff of Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire and the Isle of Ely. The newspaper report of the event mentions a large number of people who were present including John Keed, then minister of Zion Chapel Cambridge, who along with Mr. Coote gave an address. After prayers and hymns the company dispersed for tea in Mr. Farey’s barn behind the George and Dragon. In the evening at a public meeting there were more addresses by Mr. Coote, and Reverends Keed, Wooster (Landbeach), Player (Great Shelford) and Blinkhorn (Willingham) together with Messrs Wetenhall, Gifford, Wisbey, Vinter, Long, Cooper and Apthorpe.
The opening services were arranged for the end of June 1860, but unfortunately when the day arrived the building wasn’t quite complete. As the date had already been advertised and the Reverend W.G. Lewis of Westbourne Grove Baptist Church, London invited to preach, the celebrations went ahead in a new barn kindly lent by Mr. Sanderson. The Sanderson family had originally lived in a farm, across the road from the chapel situated between Red House Farm and St. John’s Farm, but following a fire they rebuilt at Chestnut Farm on the Cambridge Road. According to the newspaper report Mr. Lewis preached two earnest and energetic sermons to a gathering of about 150 people. The text for the afternoon meeting was from Isaiah 27 v. 13 “in that day, the great trumpet shall be blown, and they shall come which were ready to perish” and in the evening the narrative of the son of the widow of Nain formed the text. In between the two services the assembled company sat down to a “capital” tea and the proceeds from the refreshments together with the offerings added £15 to the building fund, which then stood at £155.
The chapel in Girton probably didn’t open until September 1860. A conveyance dated 10th September records the transfer of the land on which the chapel stood from Elliot Smith to nineteen representatives of the Cambridge Village Preachers Association for the sum of £1. These trustees included James Vinter (gentleman), William Johnson (gentleman), Jacob Wisbey (draper), George Apthorpe (grocer) and Henry Wetenhall (hop merchant). Although it might not seem it, the ownership was significant; Girton Baptist Church, at least in its first fifty years, did not function as we would understand a Baptist Church to function today, it was not an independent church, but a preaching station of the CVPA. The Village Preachers were eventually to have nine preaching stations; four east of Cambridge at Teversham, Cherry Hinton, Swaffham Prior and Great Wilbraham and five to the west of the city at Barton, Coton, Comberton, Grantchester and Girton. The services in the chapels, usually afternoon and evening, were taken by one of the Village Preachers according to details worked out in a quarterly preaching plan. Because the villages were more remote in the nineteenth century than they are today, it was usual for the preacher to walk out to take the afternoon service and then after taking tea with a local member of the congregation they would conduct the evening meeting before returning home.
There are no records of the original furnishings at Girton, other than the fact that when replaced in 1912 the original seating was described as being old and uncomfortable. It seems likely though that the seats were little more than benches arranged either side of a central aisle. The newspaper report of the June opening states that the building “is capable of seating nearly 200 persons”, but it is difficult to imagine a congregation of that size seated in the chapel, unless they were sitting on very narrow benches. There is a memory, written down in 1915 of “the chapel clerk” who sat in the “table pew”, so presumably such a seat of office was at the front of the chapel. Again it is thought unlikely that the pulpit was original to the building, for when removed in 1998 the wall behind revealed evidence of earlier panelling and some marks in the floor boards could be an indication of where a previous pulpit or stage extended to.
When the chapel was first opened there was quite a strong non-conformist presence in the village. Along with the Sandersons and Fareys (already mentioned) two other notable families were the Battersons and Whybrows. The Battersons, William and his unmarried sister, Susanna, were tenant farmers who lived nearby at St. John’s farm. The family of Nathan Whybrow lived even closer, in the house next door to the chapel, which could explain why the building was erected on the very edge of the land given by Elliot Smith.
Another member of the early church was William Hoppett, a stone-breaker on the roads. Although only a poor man, he lodged at one time with Mr Farey, he was “rich in faith” and much esteemed by all classes. He found difficulty in the various hymn metres when he led the praise, but his were “the effectual fervent prayers of a righteous man.” Although we can’t be certain that William Hoppett is being referred to here, it seems very likely that he is the “Chapel Clerk” spoken of in the following wonderful description from the earliest days at Girton,
Amongst the members was a man who belonged to the “old school,” who held the position of “Chapel Clerk.” He was a man in humble circumstances, and evidently realised the dignity of his office and sought to live up to it. There was always an old world air about him, but on the Sabbath he was seen at his best: then he appeared to gather unto himself the traditions of past generations, and he would enter the table pew arrayed in the old time quaintness of knee breeches, and careless of all rules of pronunciation, would announce the hymns thus: “Let us now sing, to the praise and glory of God the 465th hume.”
William Hoppett died in 1872, he was a widower and left no children. Girton chapel does not contain any memorial plagues on the walls, but one was once suggested for William Hoppett. That the idea came some forty years after his death and people were still talking about him in 1915 is a token of the affection in which those who remembered him held the man.
He was fearless in testimony, he had occasional chats with the old Rector and once asked him if he could point to one soul saved during his long ministry, he replied that “he moralised them,” and added “What do you dissenters mean by conversion, does it come by the telegraph wires?” Our old friend answered with quiet dignity, “Evidently, sir, you know nothing about it.”
His death marked a turning point in the fortunes of Girton chapel for “when the Lord saw fit to remove him by death there being no one exactly to fill his place.”
1 C.H. Spurgeon writing in Sword and Trowel 8th Jan. 1880
2 Cambridge Independent press, 20.6.1902
3 Bashford and Bolgar, Girton, An historical survey of a Cambridgeshire Village, p. 52. (Mrs. Asplen’s cottage may well be one of the two white cottages that still stand today at 9 and 11 High Street)
4 Reference to the Anniversary in the CBA handbook of 1951 describes it as the 92nd, meaning the church was founded in 1859, but a report in the Cambridge Independent Press (1.3.1951), states that the 1951 anniversary was the 91st.
5 Mr. Farey was landlord of the “George and Dragon” (now “The George”)
6 From other items in the newspaper at the time it is clear that 1860 was a poor summer and that might explain why the building was delayed. It is unlikely that any blame was the builders, for the same firm was almost immediately engaged to build Coton Chapel, opened New Year’s Day 1861.
7 Although the barn has now been demolished, the house still stands next to the florists, opposite the end of Hicks Lane.
8 Bashford and Bolgar, Girton, An historical survey of a Cambridgeshire Village, p. 49. (It is interesting that although Jacob Wisbey was the first minister at Histon BC, 1858, he is recorded here as being a draper)
9 Great Wilbraham didn’t become a VPA station until the 1880s, but the other eight were functioning as such from the early 1860s
10 CVPA Executive Committee minute book, 3.11.1911
11 Gillings “A half century of village preaching” in Cambridge and County Baptist Quarterly Magazine, July 1915
12 Cambridge and County Baptist Quarterly Magazine, January 1914
14 Gillings “A half century of village preaching” in Cambridge and County Baptist Quarterly Magazine, July 1915
15 CVPA General Council Minutes, 13.6.1912
16 Cambridge and County Baptist Quarterly Magazine, January 1914