The Ongoing History of Bexleyheath Grace Baptist Chapel
Copy of the original waxed map showing the Bexley Heath New Town enclosure as it was in 1819 after the act of parliament allowing the open ground to be built on. Allotments of various sizes were awarded to 107 people of means and the area rapidly changed The triangular island just below center is where the Clock Tower stands with the Broadway running below it along the breadth of the map, named the Dover Turnpike Road at the time. The first road running north to the right of the map is Gravel Hill; Highlands Avenue, Pincott, Victoria Road and Townley Road being just farm lanes and boundaries between land at this time. Turning left off Gravel Hill towards the centre you will see to your right 6 parcels of land before coming to the triangular island; the second parcel was a half acre owned by Mr. Tomas Dunn. On this land stood a detached cottage rented to John Masters, the man responsible for starting the work both at Crayford and Bexleyheath. Photocopy used courtesy of Bexleyheath Local Studies centre.
Moving on to the 1862 Ordnance Survey Map you can see not only the detached cottage where the work started (just in from the right of the map half way up and with three trees in a row behind it) but you can also see the Church’s first permanent building dedicated for public worship set a little back from The Broadway to the left of the map. The Chapel was built in 1927 with a graveyard to the rear, thus making it the first Church building in Bexleyheath. One can clearly see from the number of trees that much of the area was dominated by agricultural industry as opposed to the textile industry of Crayford or the gun powder industry of Erith.
Beginnings & Buildings
The Particular or Strict (now called Grace) Baptist church can be said to have been started in 1823 by one Mr. John Masters who had lived in the area since 1810 and had also been responsible for commencing the work in Crayford amongst the largely industrial employees that made up that area whilst Bexleyheath was still farms and orchards. John Masters himself seems to have been a man of some means as well as evangelistic skill as tax records show him renting a cottage from Mr. Isaac Scheldon (who owned Long Lane Farm) as well as land from William Bodel and Thomas Shearly at the cost of £20 a year (a teachers wage at the time). John Masters himself lived with his wife in a substantial detached cottage built on half an acre of land owned by Thomas Dunn.
With the 1819 Act of Enclosure the Heath was rapidly becoming populated along the old Roman Dover to London road and so with the help of believers from the Woolwich and Crayford Church a core group of believers constituted themselves as a new church, meeting at the cottage in a small square room assessed for church rate until the Old Baptist Chapel could be built on what became known as ‘The Broadway’ in 1827.
The chapel was erected just back from the main thoroughfare on ground rented from a number of men for £5 a year for 76 years from the 24th June 1827. The new ‘Old Baptist Chapel’ was opened by George Comb with Mr. C. Collins as the first pastor. The Church continued to meet at this site until 1956 when the CO-OP pulled it down to make way for their shop.
Prior to this they had been in consultation with the then Pastor Mr. Edgar J Wood who reported to the Church that the CO-OP were offering them more land on Townley Road in exchange for the site on the Broadway.
And so on Saturday the 18th August 1956 a final service was held at the Old Baptist Chapel after which Pastor E J Wood, accompanied by Mrs. New (the then oldest member whose Father had come into membership in 1863), opened the doors of the ‘Townley Road Baptist Chapel.’ This was a less elaborate wood panelled structure but was made more permanent looking latter on by the addition of an external brick surround which included a small flat to the rear to serve as a Manse.
The Stay at this site was to be a short one however for plans were afoot in the early 1970’s to change the entire centre of Bexleyheath into a pedestrianised shopping area requiring an artery road to the south (Albion Road) to by pass the proposed complex and rejoin the Broadway at its Westernmost end. It just so happened that the church stood right in the middle of where the council needed to put their road! And so in November 1975 after years of negotiations with the local council the Church came to occupy its current position on Albion Road.
Under the ‘Equivalent Reinstatement Value’ clause the church did very well, especially with the size of the manse which should really have just been a bungalow the size of the flat the council wanted to knock down. As a bungalow did not fit the general look of the area a large house was built instead with a commanding view South down Oakhouse Road. Amazingly the Manse is in a direct line southwards of John Masters cottage where the work started in 1823!
The Church has always been an active Church when it comes to going into the highways and byways to compel sinners to come to Christ and below are some of the many ways God’s people have sought to spread that wonderful message “Jesus saves”.
The Church’s first ‘full time’ Pastor Mr. Cornelius Slim wrote a tract in November 1845 called the ‘Watchman’s warning.’ 1000 were printed and distributed by the ladies of the Church who were received with ‘respectful attention.’ This would not be the first literary enterprise undertaken in the name of the Church and for many years in the 1960’s the Church distributed a Church news letter periodically as well as operating a small mobile bookstall called the ‘Good News trailer.’ The latter was operated up till the early 1980’s when it became unmanageable. Right up to the present day hundreds of invites go out to the houses round about the present site inviting people to Easter, Harvest and Christmas services. Tracts have also been faithfully distributed both around the houses near by as well as in the Broadway shopping area on the 4th Saturday of each month.
Better than a hundred leaflets put through one hundred doors is one good conversation with a local resident. The Church has been blessed in having a number of people who God has gifted in this area like for instance the calling of Mr. Michael Toogood in December 1960 to be the district evangelist for two years prior to becoming the Church’s pastor. Prior to this and concurrent with this calling was the ongoing efforts of perhaps the most notable members in the Church’s history so far – Mr. & Mrs. Allan who had since the 1940’s gone round the doors inviting people to church. Mr. John Allan also preached in the Broadway and was responsible for the maintenance of the work with the previously mentioned ‘Good News trailer.’ More recently the church had been favoured by having within its membership retired London City Missionary Mr. Jimmy Whyte who did much for His King in this area before being called home in 2009. And then there is the present pastor (me) who having been previously called to serve Christ as an evangelist with SASRA finds himself as a Pastor with an evangelists heart.
Work amongst the young people has always been a key feature of the Church down through the years with the Church minutes recording 30-40 children attending Sunday school in 1846. In 1908 a large Sunday school building was built onto the back of the Chapel directly on top of the old graves. The graveyard itself had been closed to all burials in 1897.
Dorothy Coe remembers her time at the Sunday School in the Broadway;
‘A knock on the front door of my parents’ house and an invitation given by Mrs. Allen to go to Sunday School. It was 3.00 pm on a Sunday either late 1948 or early 1949 when I first attended Sunday School at the Old Baptist Chapel in the Broadway. I was 8 years old! I knew nothing about Jesus, or the Bible, as I didn’t come from a Christian family. How I enjoyed hearing about how God had created the heavens and the earth, and Adam and Eve, about Noah, Joseph and the birth, life and death of Jesus. Each week we would be given a verse from the Bible which we had to learn and if we could recite it the next Sunday we would receive a coloured text of Scripture to keep. The verse I remember learning was John ch 3 v 16. We would also learn choruses which we sang very loudly, and probably out of tune. Every year in May we would have prize giving, In 1949 I was given a Bible, the first Bible I had ever owned. It is still in use today, although it is somewhat worn round the edges, the pages well thumbed. when the Church anniversary was celebrated the Sunday School children were asked to participate. I remember standing at the front of the pulpit singing The Old Rugged Cross with my cousin and Paul, who was in our class. The highlight of the year was the Sunday School outing when we went to Broadstairs for the day. Mrs. Dowset was my Sunday School teacher and Ms Taylor the Sunday School Superintendent. Mrs. Dowset was a great influence on my life at that time. I was 14 when I stopped going on Sunday as I had so much homework. I lost touch with the people I knew at Church but 30 years latter I met up once again with my Sunday School teacher when I went to a carol service at the Grace Baptist Chapel. Meeting her again brought back happy memories of my time at the Sunday School and the things I was told about Jesus, my Saviour. I’m so pleased I accepted that invitation so long ago.’
Whether the Sunday School is well attended or poorly attended it can be a very profitable time with the children asking many important questions and raising a smile from time to time as well. One Sunday morning the Sunday school teacher asked the question, ‘Why do we not sacrifice a lamb anymore?’ to which came the response, ‘Is it illegal?’
The work with the young people continues with Adventurers on Tuesdays between 5:00 and 6:15 pm. Again numbers at Adventurers vary but it is a great opportunity to work with the 5-11 year olds. More recently a ‘Drop in’ style youth club was started on a Friday night. This is hard work but exciting. This is not the first time such a club has existed and from looking at the Church minutes it was just as tough in the 1960’s as it is now.