Wesleyan Methodist Chapel Life in late 1930s Meldreth

Wesleyan Chapel, North End, Meldreth after the 1906 renovation work, as it would probably have looked in 1939
Bell's postcard, 1920s, supplied by Ann Handscombe
Hawkesbury House, North End, Meldreth, pictured in 1956-58. It was previously known as The Laurels when owned by Mrs. D. Bowman, a keen supporter of the Methodist cause.
Photograph supplied by Hilary Jefferys
Hoback Farm, Meldreth Road, Whaddon where the Chapel Garden Fete was held
Wellington Pier and Sands, Great Yarmouth in the 1930s - the destination for the Chapel Sunday School outing

Methodist Churches or Chapels, as they were often known, played a very influential part in the lives of those who attended them, particularly at the height of their popularity from the mid nineteenth to mid twentieth centuries. There were Sunday services, both morning and evening and Sunday Schools for children during the afternoon. In addition to the regular forms of worship there were evening meetings and activities during the week with men’s and women’s groups and a range of fund-raising events. Highlights of the year were the chapel anniversary, Christmas and Easter services and the autumn Harvest Festival.

The Wesleyan Methodist Chapel in North End, Meldreth was very well-attended in its heyday and still thriving in the 1930s. The year 1939 is one in which we find a series of reports in the local press giving an account of events in the life of the Chapel and its congregation. These give us a real glimpse into what Methodism was like in the village as the country hovered on the brink of another World War.

The Cambridge Independent Press of 24th February 1939 carries the first of these – an account of the (delayed) Sunday School Christmas party:

“Owing to illness amongst the children at Christmas, the annual party of the Methodist Sunday School was postponed until last Saturday when a very happy time was spent. After a sumptuous tea, crackers were pulled and games played, and at the close of the evening sweets and oranges were given to the children.”

On the 5th May of the same year a further report in the same newspaper reveals that “The sum of £7 6s 6d was realised from the jumble sale held at The Laurels on Thursday week in aid of Methodist Church funds.”

‘The Laurels’, now known as Hawkesbury House, stands on North End, Meldreth and was formerly the home of the Bowman family, wealthy farmers and landowners, who were strong supporters of the Methodist cause in Meldreth. When the Chapel re-opened in 1906 after major renovation, we are told that tea was served on their lawn as part of the celebrations (see ‘New Chapter in the Life of Meldreth’s Wesleyan Methodist Chapel‘, elsewhere on this website).

Many Methodist churches hold an anniversary service to mark the time when the building first opened or was renewed – or sometimes when the first Methodists met in that area. Meldreth was no exception, as seen in this report from The Cambridge Independent Press of 23rd June 1939, just a few weeks before the outbreak of the Second World War:

“For the Sunday School Anniversary Services on Sunday the Methodist Chapel was prettily decorated. The singing of the children and augmented choir was a special feature and deserved the tribute paid by the Rev. A. Manley at the evening service. There was a crowded congregation in the afternoon when the children performed a flower play entitled “The Little Green Plant” and much credit is due to Miss. E. Mead, who had trained them, and especially small Rodney Plumb, who played the title role. The morning service was taken by Mr. P. C. Easter and Rev. A. Manley presided at the afternoon and evening services. The play was repeated in the evening. The collections throughout the day were for Sunday School funds.”

Fund-raising, as now, was a major pre-occupation. In the summer of the same year we read a report, on 7th July, again in the Cambridge Independent Press, of the Chapel’s Garden Fete, held at Hoback Farm, 163 Meldreth Road, Whaddon. Note: This farm, which dates at least from 1224 when it was known as Holebec, is still shown as being in the possession of the Smith family and is currently (January 2021) one of a series of sites in South Cambridgeshire listed for possible residential development:

“In spite of the inclement weather the fete in aid of the Chapel Building Fund, held by permission of Mr. and Mrs. F. Smith of Hoback Farm, was a success. It was hoped that enough money would be forthcoming to clear off the debt, and although the hope was not realised, the debt has been considerably reduced as a result of the effort. A great attraction was the cabaret presented by Miss. Barbara Leader, Cambridge. There were also the usual stalls and competitions. These included guessing the weight of a chicken given by Mrs. G. Harper and a cake, given by Messrs. Howard Bros. The winners of competitions were as follows: Mrs. R. Chapman (fruit), Mr. Oliver (chicken), Mrs. Coningsby and Miss Jarman (cake), Miss D. Coningsby (potatoes), Mr. L. Andrews (darts), Mrs. C. Plumb (hidden treasure), Rev. A. Manley and Mr. F. Harrup (clock golf). The following were in charge of stalls etc.: Misses E. and J. Mead, needlework; Mr. R. Budge, darts; Misses J Wisbey and G. Creek, hoop-la; Mrs. R. Hale and Miss F. Smith, produce stall and bran tub; Mr. H. Hinkins and Mr. C. Pearce, bagatelle; Miss F. Smith, treasure hunt; Mrs. S.E. Butler, clock golf; Mrs. W. Chapman, Mrs. R. Chapman, Mrs. Harper and Miss Smith, teas; Mrs. G. Harper, flowers and competitions. Mrs. W. Thurley was the gatekeeper, and Mr. O. Bishop rendered valuable help.”

A month later, on 4th August, the same newspaper carried a report of an event which must have been anticipated with mounting excitement by the Chapel’s younger members – the annual Sunday School outing:

“The children attending the Methodist Sunday School, together with parents and friends, went by train to Yarmouth for their annual summer outing on Saturday. The weather being fine and warm, a very happy day was spent.”

Lastly, four weeks after war had been declared, the Cambridge Independent Press for 29th September 1939 described how the Chapel’s  annual harvest celebration had continued unaffected:

“The preacher in the morning at the Methodist Harvest Festival on Sunday was Mr. E. R. Wimpress, the afternoon service (in place of the usual evening service) being conducted by Rev. S. Oakley. The church was beautifully decorated with flowers and fruit, which were sold on Monday, the proceeds going to Addenbrooke’s Hospital. The collections were for the Trust Funds.”

I would like to thank Annmarie Lloyd Jones for her help in researching the history of Hawkesbury House, formerly known as The Laurels.

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