Chapter 2

Through many days of darkness, through many a scene of strife

Over the years hundreds of different people have preached at Girton and several of those involved with the cause have been famous in national circles. At various times students from the university were involved with the Cambridge Village Preachers Association, but in the early days such involvement resulted in persecution and one related that on taking his degree he was hissed for holding Nonconformist services.[18] Among those who have taken an interest in Girton was the Revd. J.T.F. Hallowes, “who in his undergraduate days did good service at Girton”.[19] John Francis Tooke Hallowes was at Cambridge between 1864 and 1867. Afterwards he was ordained in the Congregational Church holding pastorates in Barnsley, Birmingham and Sheffield. In 1898 he became Principal of Cliff Missionary College and later was a Wesleyan missionary in India 1910-4, where he died in December 1914.

In 1870 a new minister, William Piggott, commenced work at Histon Baptist Church. Part of his contract, set out in the Histon minute book states that he should “visit and preach at Milton and Girton as often as he may find himself able to do without neglecting to visit at Histon or Impington.”[20] This arrangement continued under the following Histon minister, C. Chapman (1873-6), but ceased sometime during 1877. These years, 1870-7, are the only time in the nineteenth century that Girton features in the Baptist Handbook. It is listed, along with Milton, as a subordinate station of Histon.[21] Looking back it is not clear exactly what the arrangement with Histon was, or why it ceased with the next minister. The CVPA annual report of 1877 speaks of the Girton station as “flourishing”, so it may genuinely have been the case that ministerial help from Histon was no longer required.[22]

Whatever the true state of the church in the late 1870s, its health throughout the rest of the century was far from rosy, it is frequently referred to in CVPA reports as “Poor Girton”.[23] The problem seems to have been a natural decline in the membership, first there was the death of William Hoppett and then the loss of some of the well-established families. George Farey died in 1873, and on the death of William Batterson in 1880, his sister Susanna moved to live with another brother, Ephraine, at his farm in Impington. Of the Sanderson family, Charles Sanderson is recorded as being Churchwarden from 1872, so his own involvement with the Baptists may have ceased then, a son died during the 1870s and he was a widower when he left Girton to return to his native village of Cottenham in 1893.[24]

If Girton had purely been a local village church it is unlikely that it would have survived beyond the nineteenth century, for the older members were dying and the younger people were moving away. It had though the support, both prayerful and financial of the CVPA and in particular several men who took charge of the station during various periods.

Although sadly we do not know the exact date, an article looking back at the early days in Girton tells us that, “For some time Professor Harris mainly took charge of the cause and it somewhat improved.”[25] J. Rendel Harris (1854-1941) is best remembered today as a theologian and author of several books on the New Testament and discoverer of important Christian documents, previously lost for centuries. He lectured in Palæography at Cambridge from 1893, but as the reference to him was written in 1893, it must be referring to an earlier time in Cambridge and we know that between 1878 and 1882 he was at the university lecturing in his first subject, Mathematics. In a tribute written just after his death, Harris is described as,

A man of action, delighting in the fray when some great cause of freedom or justice required defence. Easily aroused to indignation at cruelty and unfairness, he yet never harboured rancour, bitterness or malice. His friendship was ready for any that would have it, and was open without restriction to learned and simple rich and poor. Class and other distinctions scarcely existed for him. Anyone who wanted his help and advice was welcome, even when – as often – it meant turning aside from important work.[26]

A few years after Rendel Harris was involved, William Chivers took charge of the Girton cause. As owners of the Jam factory at Histon, the Chivers family were well known and respected in the area, they were strong Baptists and several of them were members of the Cambridge Village Preachers Association. Born in 1852, William was the eldest son of Stephen Chivers and sadly died quite suddenly at the age of fifty. He belonged to the CVPA for many years and was an outstanding preacher, well known all over the county as an able exponent of the gospel. He was a deacon at Histon Baptist Church and Superintendent of their Sunday School, moderator (president) of the Cambridgeshire Baptist Association in 1894, and nationally was a member of the council of the Baptist Union of Great Britain and Ireland. He was a keen backer and generous subscriber to the BUs Twentieth Century fund and at the time of his death he was writing a series of articles for the Baptist Times setting out his ideas for supporting ministry. It says a great deal about the man that somebody as busy William Chivers could find time to keep an eye on a small struggling concern like Girton, but whatever he undertook, he did wholeheartedly to the glory of God. Many small village churches, apart from Girton, “Found him a brother to whom to appeal to in financial and spiritual difficulties.”[27] He was a man of “transparent goodness”, who always tried to see the best in others and inspite of his wealth (he left £48,000 in his will) and his position, he himself was a very humble man. It is characteristic of his modesty that when he laid the foundation stone for the new Sunday School at Histon Baptist Church, he would not allow his name to be inscribed upon it. Whereas the ornate stone on the new church has several names, the plain stone on the Sunday School simply states, “This stone is laid to the glory of God”.[28]

Yet still the work in Girton fluctuated and in 1892 we read of the CVPA making efforts to, “Revive the work in this village by various means.”[29] A public meeting took place in Girton on Thursday 7th April 1892 when about eighty people (including children) sat down to tea. Mr. Apthorpe who presided at the gathering shared his belief that, “Prayers for Girton would yet be answered”.[30] Reflecting on the prosperous times the Chapel had known in the past he acknowledged that much of the success had been due to the “Godly life of Mr. Hoppett”, who he held up as an example of the type of consecrated life that was needed in the place. During the evening Mrs. Prior sang Sankey’s new solo ‘Throw out the lifeline’ and the “pleasant and successful meeting” concluded with the singing of ‘God be with you till we meet again’ and prayer by the President.[31] One of the Village Preachers, Mr. Perry, is recorded as taking a direct interest in the Girton Station. He tried to start (or re-start) a Sunday school, but met with “difficulties and prejudices in the way – some of them long standing”[32] and the venture was dropped. He did though succeed, at least for a while, with a class for young people held before the start of the afternoon service. In May 1892 a good number of helpers from Cambridge conducted well-attended services, both in the Chapel and in the open air. A report exists on the Harvest Festival for 1892:-

The harvest thanksgiving service was held at the above chapel on Tuesday Sept. 27, when an appropriate sermon was preached by Rev. F. Griffin. In addition to the Pastor of Zion, we were favoured also be many members of the choir. The sermon was an excellent one, and was much enjoyed. The singing was also much appreciated and conducted very much to the success of the meeting. The chapel was pettily decorated by the Misses Whybrow and Asplin, and a number of the Zion choir. The collection amounted to 12/5, to which the choir kindly added 5/6, making in all 17/11.[33]

The same report also states that week night meetings were being held, and comments on the “good attendance of young people, although not so many older people as we should have liked”.[34]

By all accounts, Mr. Perry was doing “his very best to watch over the interests of the place, and his efforts have been great and untiring”,[35] yet his labours were largely unrewarded. Sadly, Mr Perry resigned his role at Girton and shortly afterwards resigned from the CVPA. We have no way of knowing from this distance exactly why he took these actions, but by all accounts they were probably brought on by exhaustion. The CVPA minute accepting, “with regret”, Mr. Perry’s resignation also adds the hope that “he would renew in a short time”,[36] to the best of our knowledge he never did.

Throughout the 1890’s and into the start of the new century, the Girton cause was in a state of terminal decline, although there was certainly no lack of prayer offered up for the cause.

We trust by the blessing of God that a brighter day is dawning for our little cause here, which for a long time has been a source of much consideration and to an extent sorrow. Prayer is earnestly desired for this portion of the CVPA’s sphere of labour.[37]

A hundred years on it is difficult to see a clear reason why the work was not progressing, although there was definitely an underlying need for local people capable of running the church. This might though have been just one of many reasons, for at the time, not even the CVPA themselves could say why the cause was so fluctuating.

We cannot exactly tell. There is a reason and someone will doubtless be called to give an account one day by Him that knoweth all things, and we who have had most to do with the place may well ask ourselves, “Is it I?”[38]

Whatever the problems though at the turn of the century one thing continued unrelented, the spirit of prayer offered up for the cause in Girton. It would be some years before the prayers were answered, but the fervour of those prayers was persistent and the belief that one day they would be answered remained resolute.

We may feel sure that the time will come – and, we hope, soon – when the Spirit of the Lord shall be poured out, and the Lord’s cause will prosper at Girton, and many souls will be saved. The daily prayers of some of the servants of God will not go unanswered. The Lord hasten that day, and to Him shall the praise be given.[39]

[18] Cambridge and County Baptist Quarterly Magazine, January 1914

[19] Thomas Pask “a sequel to ‘A half century of village preaching by the late J. Gillings'” in Cambridge and County Baptist Quarterly Magazine, January 1916. (We think that Mr. Pask particularly mentioned him because of his recent death.)

[20] Histon Baptist Church Minute book, 3.4.1870 (In practice it probably meant that he took a Sunday service at Girton bi-monthly)

[21] Baptist Handbook, 1870-77

[22] Unfortunately we have been unable to trace a copy of the 1877 report. This note comes from Bashford and Bolgar, p.49. Their information came via Rev. Pollard and we have seen a copy of the letter from the then CVPA secretary to the Rev. Pollard giving this information re. 1877.

[23] e.g. Gillings “A half century of village preaching” in Cambridge and County Baptist Quarterly Magazine, July 1915 and Cambridge and County Baptist Quarterly Magazine, January 1913

[24] Once retired to Cottenham he must have returned to the non-conformist cause for when he died fifteen years later at the age of eighty-eight he was buried in the dissenters’ cemetery.

[25] The rise and progress of the work of the Village Preachers Association” in St. Andrew’s Street Church Magazine, June 1893.

[26] William Hazelton “Rendel Harris at Woodbrooke”, in Friends’ Quarterly Examiner, June 1941, p. 153

[27] Obituary published in Cambridge Independent Press, 14.2.1902

[28] Foundation Stone, Histon Baptist Church Sunday School

[29] Report on Girton in St. Andrew’s Street Chapel and Mill Road Mission Hall Magazine, June 1892

[30] ibid

[31] ibid. (This is the first mention of one of the Prior family. Henry Prior was later to play a large part in the life of the Church)

[32] ibid

[33] Report on Girton in St. Andrew’s Street Chapel and Mill Road Mission Hall Magazine, November 1892

[34] ibid

[35] The rise and progress of the work of the Village Preachers Association” in St. Andrew’s Street Church Magazine, June 1893.

[36] CVPA General Council Minutes, 11.6.1902

[37] Report on Girton in St. Andrew’s Street Chapel and Mill Road Mission Hall Magazine, June 1892

[38] The rise and progress of the work of the Village Preachers Association” in St. Andrew’s Street Church Magazine, June 1893.

[39] ibid

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