by Colin Sully, Neil Rees, Marian Tomkins and Barnaby Usborne
By the middle of the 19th century, a strong non-conformist tradition was well-established in parts of the parish.
The Methodist chapel, situated in Oxford Street, Lee Common, dates from 1839.
The original carved plaque can still be seen in the front wall – although a Methodist congregation had been first registered in 1836. The chapel was built by local people as a ‘Primitive Methodist’ church (indicating that they were conducting themselves in the ways of Wesley and the original Methodists).
In the 1840s and 1850s the chapel was also used as an infant and day school run by the non-conformist British and Foreign School Society.
In the religious census of 1851 the church steward Thomas Batchelor reported congregations in the morning of 73, in the afternoon of 103 and in the evening 104. He also reported that the church had on average 170 in the Sunday School!
One of the main families at Lee Common Methodist Church was the Beeson family. Charles Beeson became a Methodist preacher at the church in 1867 and by 1874 he was also holding evangelistic services in Ballinger schoolroom. When the new Ballinger School was built, the old schoolroom became the Mission Hall and, later, St Mary’s. Charles continued these services until his death in 1880.
In 1885 additional land was purchased for an extension to the Lee Common chapel and it has been further modernised over the years. In 1986 it was completely refurbished and is now a fine multi-purpose hall, with its art deco stained glass windows and pinewood ceiling and shutters.
Lee Common is the oldest Methodist chapel in continuous use in the Amersham circuit of churches and it continues to provide for its congregation, for visitors and for the local community.
By the late 19th century a number of Mission Halls had been created around the parish – Emanuel Hall, at Swan Bottom, the Springfield Mission Hall in Potter Row (at a place called the Chalet) and the Mission Hall in Ballinger (now St Mary’s). The halls were created mainly for workers and their families employed on the land – local Mission Halls were a way of bringing the church closer to them.
Arthur Beeson (son of Charles) was a local farmer and also a Primitive Methodist preacher. He formed some of his farm workers into a choir which for a while met at Russells Farm. In 1883 Emanuel Hall, Swan Bottom was built for these farm workers and their families to attend. A memorial stone at the top of the chapel reads: “Emanuel Hall, 1883, erected by Mr Arthur Beeson as a Thanksgiving to the Lord” and over the doorway was written “Jesus invites you all to come”.
The chapel was enlarged in 1887 and after Arthur died in 1900 his sons took over its running.
Emanuel Hall ceased to function as a chapel in 1990. Following initial refusals by the district council to allow a change of use, it fell into a state of disrepair. More recently it has been sold, renovated and converted into a private dwelling.
For many years the local Strict Baptists had to walk into Townfield Chapel, Chesham on Sundays (Strict Baptists only allow baptised believers to share communion).
A cottage at Grove Wood, The Lee belonging to Mr George Chilton became their first local place of worship and then, in 1827, the congregation bought a piece of ground nearby and built a chapel on it. After some years and a falling attendance, it was converted back into cottages and the Baptist congregation then met in different people’s houses. The original chapel building no longer exists.
A few years later, the local landlord’s agent purchased a plot of land in front of Lee Clump farmhouse, where a small new building was erected for their worship. However by the 1840s the church had shrunk to no more than a dozen people who used to meet in the vestry because the chapel itself was too large.
The story is then told that in 1877 local man James Pearce was working in the fields around The Lee one day, when he had a vision that would change his life. He knew from this vision that he would be lost forever if he continued in his sins. From then on he gave up his old friends and devoted his entire life to the church.
In 1883, with the old Baptist chapel now falling into decay, a part of the former British School at Lee Clump was converted to a fine, new Baptist chapel under the patronage of Joseph Butcher of Chesham.
In 1883 the Baptists used the schoolhouse for meetings and called it Providence Chapel. Soon after vacating the old chapel it was demolished. A house called Inglenook is now on the site.
In 1900 the schoolhouse was rebuilt into a chapel and a gallery was added. It could now seat 150 people. Some of the adjoining land was also made into a burial ground. In 1909 Frederick Butcher gave the chapel, the house and the adjoining ground to the Strict Baptist congregation.
In the same year James (Holy Jim) Pearce was installed as pastor. His preaching and writings were full of biblical and religious fundamentalism until his death in 1929. In 1909 the chapel had 19 members, but had 66 children in the Sunday School, taught by seven teachers.
The last service at the chapel was held in October 1968. The chapel was then sold and converted into a private dwelling (Chapel Farm).
At the beginning of the 20th century, the original parish magazine, founded and edited by Arthur Lasenby Liberty, included regular contributions from all the non-conformist chapels in the parish – a very ecumenical gesture at the time and perhaps a reflection of Arthur’s own non-conformist origins in Chesham. An annual Sunday School party was also held at the Liberty’s manor house for Sunday School children from all of these churches (Anglican, Baptist and Methodist).
The Baptist chapel and Emmanuel Hall are both now private residences. The Methodist chapel is the only non-conformist place of worship in the parish. It retains its place at the heart of Lee Common whilst, at the same time, maintaining strong links with St John the Baptist church… and with this Newsletter.
In the next instalment we move on to learn of the events of 1916 – for The Lee, a year to remember.
1. One Hundred Years in The Lee, Edited by Barnaby Usborne (2000)
2. Centenary Service, Provident Baptist Chapel (September 1927)
3. Workers Together, A Brief Record of Mr and Mrs James Pearce, (1935)
4. The Lee Methodist Church, Bucks Examiner, (14th July 1939)
5. Emanuel Hall – A Short History of Thirty-eight Years’ Work (1921)