Non-Conformism in The Wolfords

Congregational Church Sunday School Certificate

John Ingram, a seminary priest, educated at New College, Oxford, ordained in 1589, was condemned as a Roman Catholic and hung, drawn and quartered at Gateshead on 26th July 1594. He was believed to be a member of the Ingram family, the Lords of Little Wolford Manor, although it is difficult to fit him into the Ingram genealogy. There were certainly local Roman Catholics, the Sheldons at Weston being the major family.

Other evidence is sparse until the 19C, although the churchwardens presentment for Wolford in 1674 records "we have no Papist ..... We have no p(ro)fane or scandalous p(er)son to ye best of o(u)r knowledge ..... no excommunicated p(er)son ..... We have one unbaptized p(er)son ye childe of one Thomas Dennis, a Quaker, about three years of age, but ye father of it is gone and dares not appeare w(it)h us". Earlier in the 1670s, Timothy Dennis and Timothy Cross, both Quakers, were reported as excommunicated. The Compton Survey of 1676 showed neither Roman Catholic nor Non-conformist families in the Wolfords. In the Parish Registers, Thomas Dennis and his wife, Elizabeth had four children baptised in Wolford between 1675 and 1681. Thomas himself was buried there in 1697 and his wife in 1683. Did he repent? Or was he tolerated? We shall never know. Timothy Cross and his wife, Ann had ten children baptised in the Wolfords between 1672 and 1688. Difficult to believe that either family was ostracised locally!

The records of the Congregational Church in Moreton-in-Marsh contain a request, circa 1800, to the Bishop of Coventry from John Mann thus: "This is to certify in your Lordship's Court that an house in the Parish of Little Wolford in the County of Warwickshire in the occupation of John Truby, Senr., tailor, is intended to be used as a place of religious worship for Protestant Dissenters. We therefore request that the said house may be registered in your Lordship's Court pursuant to the Statutes in those cases made & provided & certificates granted accordingly". There is a footnote: "Mr G of S upon Avon has preached in ye village mentioned in the enclosed cell, apprehensive of disturbance. You will oblige him and me by getting this certificate registered in the Bishop's Court". Was the Certificate forthcoming? Non-conformism was stirring!

In 1829, a Survey of Religious Places of Worship undertaken by Warwickshire Quarter Sessions recorded nothing in the Wolfords, and I can find no evidence of further activity until the 1860s when, in 1866, the Log Book of Long Compton Congregational Church Church (1828-1890) recorded: "A new station has also been opened at Little Wolford - opposition by the Episcopal Minister there (i.e. Rev G.D.Wheeler) checked by Lady Phillips. Services well attended and good done". Non-conformism had now well and truly stirred!

Also included in the records of the Moreton Congregational Church is a Printed Note for January 1865 about "The Districts of the Sunday Band". This is a simple preachers' rota for Prayer Meetings held in the locality. The Wolfords are recorded as "added districts" and were certainly not included in the rotas printed for October 1864. This is presumably the origin of the new station mentioned in the Long Compton Log Book as, throughout the period, the relations between Long Compton and Moreton congregationalists were very close.

In 1876 Thomas Davis of Great Wolford was admitted to the Congregational Church. He was recorded as a Tinker and Working Cutler in censuses from 1871-1891 and died in 1901, when the Pastor reported "he had been a member for 25 years & also an energetic Village preacher for a number of years". Sometime before the 1891 Census Robert Haine, his wife Sarah and three children had arrived in Little Wolford from Somerset as tenants of Tower Farm, and it is likely that Robert was the prime instigator of subsequent developments. In February 1890 the Pastor had taken a service and suggested to the Church Meeting that "consent should be given to make preliminary enquiries" about more regular services in the Wolfords. By April it had been agreed to hold weekly services for three months.

Robert was an active member of the Moreton Congregationalists. He presented them with a bicycle for the use of the itinerant Village Pastor and was host to Mr Francis, then a candidate for the Pastor's position.

By 1894 there were "encouraging reports of good work amongst the young". Finally the Church Meeting in January 1895 reported: "There being a number of believers at Little Wolford who wished to be united in fellowship it, was resolved ..... that the Pastor form a Branch Church there, the members to receive their own additions and conduct their business, but that the Pastor or one of the Deacons preside at Meetings, and the Parent Church at Moreton elect their Officers and exercise general oversight over their work". A resolution of hearty sympathy & congratulation with this movement at Wolford was unanimously passed. On the 7th February 1895 the Church at Little Wolford was formed. The ten founder members were Henry Aston, a newly arrived shoemaker; his wife, Louisa; Robert Haine and his wife, Sarah; Grace Gibbitch, a Governess; Frank and Henry Hall, labourers aged 20 and 15 respectively; William Matthews and James Rose, both aged 15; and finally Jane Smith. Robert Haine and Henry Aston were elected Deacons.

The nominated Deacons continued as stalwarts for some time. The younger members seem to have left the Wolfords in an effort to self improve. Matthews emigrated to Canada in 1898. Henry Hall joined the Army in 1899, and the Church Minutes note that "the Brethren were sorry to learn that Frank Hall had left Wolford for Birmingham, yet rejoiced to know that he had already commenced Christian work in that city". In 1895, "the finances of the Branch Church (at Little Wolford) were in excellent condition". The Ashton family gave a Communion Cloth for use in services at Little Wolford and the surrounding villages. Surprisingly, in 1899, "the number of scholars in the Sunday School was 32".

In 1907 a public meeting was held in the Hall (presumably of Little Wolford Manor) "at which the Rev. C.A. Charter, B.A. of Shipston gave an address on "The Preacher - His Character, His Authority, His Message". It was a splendid address and, at the close of the Meeting, Mr Charter was requested to print the same in the local Free Church Magazine". Unfortunately this cannot be found.

Quarterly meetings of the Village Mission Sub-Committee frequently took place at Tower Farm in Little Wolford. In 1909, the Meeting "proved to be a very happy and profitable occasion ..... There was a general discussion of topics which are of great interest to preachers. The hearty welcome extended to us by Mr and Mrs R.J. Haine did us good and made us feel at home. During the Meeting it was suggested that an attempt should be made to make the quarterly meetings more interesting and with this in view it was decided that our Pastor should be asked to read a paper on 'The Local Preacher and his Work'". "Sermon sketches" were discussed at these meetings. In September, 1914 one based on the "history of war between Israel and Judah (King Ahab & King Jehohaphat) on the one side and Syria on the other. Many lessons were deduced from it. It was most timely, our own country being at war and it occasioned a most profitable conversation".

Mr Haine died in 1923 but his wife continued with a heavy involvement. In 1926 meetings of the Village Mission Committee were held at the home of Mr G.H. Nixey at Laureldene in Great Wolford. These brief extracts are surely illustrative of the devoutness of these local non-conformist families.

Neither were social activities ignored. In April 1910, the Moreton Congregationalists had planned to have a picnic "in a field of Mr Rolph's at the Four Shires Stone. The idea was that the refreshments be given but a charge made to all who attended". In June, the picnic was cancelled "owing to the death of the king".

In 1939 a successful garden party was held in the garden of Mr & Mrs Hawes, thanks being expressed "for their kindness in throwing open the garden for the party and for the share they had taken in the work of organising".

The church seems to have thrived until 1939, but did not survive the war. In 1942 it was reported that the Wolford Sunday School "was not functioning at present, Miss Phyllis Haine having gone away and no one else coming forward to fill the vacancy". In 1943 it was reported "that the services at Little Wolford were now being held fortnightly, partly due to the difficulty of providing preachers, but chiefly to the lack of congregation". In January 1944 "the services at Little Wolford were poorly attended and by people who could come into Moreton to services, and probably would do so but for supporting the Wolford service". Finally, in February 1944, the Pastor "had been to Little Wolford and discussed the matter with Mr & Mrs Haine and Mr Nixey. The Haine family were often the only congregation at the services and it was possible for them to attend elsewhere". The services were then discontinued "arrangements with regard to retaining the room for future use and disposal or storage of furniture was left to the Wolford members".

Sadly, this ends the non-conformist presence in the Wolfords.

Lawrie Thompson