This brief history is compiled to the Glory of God and in humble recognition of His goodness and mercy to our forefathers and ourselves throughout a century and a half of Christian witness.
Unhappily our church records for the whole of 19th century and for some years of the 20th century are lost or destroyed. The following story is, in consequence, rather disjointed and very far from complete. Nevertheless some interesting facts have been culled from various sources and the writer is indebted to several friends for their kind help.
The church remains, as it was formed, a Calvinistic Baptist Church of the body that used to be known as “Particular Baptists” because of their adherence to the scriptural doctrine of particular, or definite, redemption (as distinct from “general” redemption) one of the great doctrines of grace taught by the Apostles and re-emphasised by the Reformers. The denomination is now more often known as “Strict” Baptist. The adjective “Strict” refers, not to any personal austerity or oddity but, to the practice; at one time the almost invariable rule of all Baptist churches, of strict, or restricted communion: i.e. a closing of the Lord’s Table to other than true believers who have first been baptised by immersion. Hence we are sometimes called “Strict and Particular Baptists,” the two adjectives referring to the two matters, one of practice and one of doctrine, distinguishing us from our “Open” and “General” Baptist friends.
For many years the church has been called the Old Baptist Church. But why “old” we do not know. The church has never belonged to the “Old Baptist Union” (a Society of six-principle Baptists, who are not Calvinists or strict communionists). Perhaps the term was used to signify that the church did not belong to the Baptist Union, or perhaps to distinguish us from later formed Baptist churches. Or was it a claim to conformity to the primitive church of New Testament days? In any case, that certainly is our claim.
OLD BAPTIST CHURCH LESSNESS HEATH, BELVEDERE
An open-air meeting conducted by two young men on August 10th. 1800 – that is how it all started! One of the two young men was John Chin, who, with a companion, was crossing Lessness Heath on his way to Erith where he had a preaching engagement in the afternoon. The minister’s companion being strongly impressed by a passage of scripture, “The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them ..“ (Isaiah 35:1) suggested that they should pause and on that spot erect the standard of the cross. To the two young evangelists Lessness Heath must have seemed like a wilderness and a solitary place: there could not have been more than a cluster of cottages in the midst of many acres of heathland, but according to Mr. Chin’s biographer they noticed “a group of unoccupied persons in the attire of labourers” and according to another account of the same happening, they “went to the houses to invite the people to come to hear, and a tolerable company was collected by Mr. Chin and his friend who were so encouraged that they determined before their meeting had ended to repeat it on succeeding Lord’s Days.”
Thus it appears that from that day in August 1800, the Gospel was regularly preached on Lessness Heath. Here we may pause to thank God for John Chin, who in 1807 became the first Pastor of the newly-formed church in Lion Street, Southwark where he continued until his death in 1839 at the age of sixty-six. His body lies among many similar worthies in Bunhill Fields’ burial ground, and part of the inscription on his tomb reads: “He was a faithful, zealous and successful Minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. His unwearied labours were owned of God and blessed. His memory was long cherished and held sacred by his flock …” and after these many years have passed we praise God for the seed that John Chin sowed in “the solitary place” long ago.
But what of John Chin’s companion? Who was he and what was his name, we wonder? For everyone whose name we can trace in the records of the past there must be scores whose names and deeds are hidden. Even in that scriptural Roll of Honour (Hebrews 11) the inspired historian adds to his list of heroes and heroines the significant postscript “And others…..” We bare our heads and salute the memory of the unknown other who witnessed for his Master that Lord’s Day morning. “You do not know what good may be done” he is recorded as saying when he urged the witness on John Chin. Let the youth of today do and dare for Jesus Christ and it will not matter if those who come after do not know their names so long as His name is honoured.
Very soon after, one Benjamin Lloyd, a native of Chatham, was led to take a particular interest in the pioneering work at Lessness Heath. This young man was a member of what was then known as “Mr. Freeman’s chapel” at Woolwich (later as Queen Street Baptist Church, Woolwich). Mr. Adam Freeman, with others, had formerly been in membership at “Enon” chapel which, in those days, was an open membership church. With this church order Mr. Freeman and some twenty-one others could not agree, and, failing to change the views of their Pastor and fellow members at “Enon” they separated themselves to form a new church in 1786. Incidentally it is most interesting to note that the erstwhile open-membership church at “Enon” very soon after became a strict-communion church, and has continued so till this day, (note: “Enon” no longer exists – was situated where the current ferry terminal stands) while Queen Street Church, which was formed solely because of an adherence to strict-communion principles, has for many years been an open-communion church.
There was considerable persecution and opposition to the preaching of Benjamin Lloyd, and the small community were obliged to move from room to room. For a year or so services appear to have been held in a timber-built structure erected for them by a local carpenter and rented for £5 per annum, but before long the landlord determined to sell the meeting house. Mr. Lloyd and his friends bought the structure and soon after pulled it down and built in its place a more permanent building with a baptistry at a cost of £300. There is an entry in the old minute book of “Enon,” Woolwich, dated June 17th, 1804, “Mr. Lloyd had solicited for a collection for to assist having a Meetinghouse at Leaving Heath.(evidently Lessness Heath) It was agreed by the church he should have the next in turn.” It is thought that the building then erected is the same as still stands: certainly there is the date of 1805 clearly inscribed on the pediment of the chapel. At the back of the chapel proper there are two small rooms which have always given the impression of being sculleries to former cottages, as though the chapel was originally built on the site of the main rooms of those cottages, but of this we cannot be certain.
It was at this time that the church was actually formed on NOVEMBER 8th 1805 of six persons, three called by grace under Mr. Lloyd’s ministry and three joining from other places. Almost immediately, actually on December 3rd, 1805, Mr. B. S. Lloyd was ordained as the first Pastor of the church. Nor were those days less stirring or events less momentous than recent days or events: while these few Christians were invading the territory of Satan in this part of Kent, Napoleon was planning the invasion of England, and at the very time Nelson was issuing his famous message, “England expects. . .“ Pastor Lloyd was sending forth a yet more vital message that does not date and is still preached from the same pulpit. The labours of Pastor and people were blessed by the Lord so that in less than four years there were forty-nine members. Meantime Mr. Lloyd had become well known and respected in the county and he was honoured by being invited to preach at the Annual Meetings of the Kent and Sussex Association, of which Association the church was a member. But alas, the infant church was soon bereft of its Pastor: in July 1809, he was taken ill, and though he got about again for a while, he was suddenly called home in September, 1809, when only thirty-five years of age.
One of the last three baptised by Mr. Lloyd was a certain William Coleman: he was an itinerant preacher, previously in membership with an Independent Church, worshipping at Salem Chapel, Powis Street, Woolwich, at the time of the Rev. J. W. Percy’s ministry. On one occasion Mr. Coleman felt obliged to preach on our Lord’s Commission (Mark 16:15-16), “Go . . . and preach the gospel . . . he that believeth and is baptised shall be saved.” Though he objected to what he regarded as a “Baptist” text his conscience would not allow him to trifle with God’s Word, and he therefore preached on the rightness of believers’ baptism. This led to the severing of his connection with “Mr. Percy’s church” and his baptism by Pastor B. S. Lloyd. Thus just at the time of their Pastor’s last illness the church at Lessness Heath received into it’s membership this young preacher. William Coleman proved to be a most acceptable supply, and it is not surprising that he was soon chosen as Pastor of the church, being recognised as such on the 26th of April, 1810. The following ministers took part in these special services: Mr. Culver of Woolwich, Mr. Shenstone of London, Mr Adam Freeman of Queen Street Chapel, Woolwich, Mr. Knott of Chatham, Mr. Rogers of Eynsford and Mr. J. W. Percy of “Salem.” Woolwich. Nothing is known about Pastor Coleman’s ministry or of the church at that time. Dr. W. T. Whitley, the Baptist historian records, in his volume “The Baptists of London”, the building of a new Meeting House in 1810, but we are unable to confirm this: more than likely this is a reference to the chapel built about the time of the formation of the church in 1805, as referred to in The Baptist Magazine for October, 1810. Mr. Coleman stayed at Lessness Heath until 1823, when he removed to become Pastor at Colnbrook, Bucks, where he ministered for twenty-two years. He returned to Kent and became Pastor of the Old Baptist Church, Broadway, Bexleyheath in 1846. William Coleman died at Bexleyheath, 4th October 1848, aged seventy-three years: his body was interred at Colnbrook on 13th October, the funeral being conducted by Mr. Cox of Woolwich. Mr. Hamblin of Foots Cray, conducted the Memorial Service at Bexleyheath Chapel the
following Lord’s Day evening, October 15th.
The next Pastors was John Cocks, from about 1837.the following short biography is provided by Judy Buckley, his great great great granddaughter.
John Cock’s parents “ belonged to established church” in Great Torrington, Devon. They were Roger Cocks (1737~1805) a builder, and Rebecca, daughter of Walter Browne, Master of the Bluecoat School. John was the youngest child in a large family and, since his mother died when he was eight “had little instruction or restraint” and after an unsatisfactory childhood “left home for London. There he became acquainted with some pious young men, by whom he was invited to hear Dr. Jenkins, at Orange Street Chapel, and under his ministry he was convinced of his sinful state, and of the need of salvation by Jesus Christ.”
Soon afterwards“he returned home in order to commence preaching at his native place. Here he met with much opposition, through which, however, he continued his labours without shrinking, and with some success. At this time, also, he became convinced of the propriety and obligation of believers’ baptism, and he was baptized in a river near the town.” Much later John wrote about a man killed in an accident on Bideford Quay ‘I fear [he] was not better prepared for eternity than his poor brother that I attended on the gallows at Exeter. It is an eternal disgrace to Bideford for their neglect of that dangerous quay.’
John Cocks was married in 1807 at Bideford Independent Chapel to widow Mary Pashley (nee Heay) and she had born him seven children by the time he was ordained Pastor of the Baptist Church in Calstock Cornwall in October 1818, after having “supplied them twelve months.”
On Lady Day 1821 he moved to Crediton where “with the zealous and liberal aid of the Rev. S. Kilpin, of Exeter, and Opie Smith, Esq., of Bath, was enabled to erect a chapel.” At Christmas 1825 he moved again to Periton near Minehead, Somerset, where “also, he was enabled to erect a chapel, under the patronage of the Home Missionary Society.”
In 1833, he moved to Highbridge, near Bridgwater, and in 1834 became pastor of the Baptist Church at Twerton, near Bath. In 1840, he was “settled over the church at Lessness Heath, Kent.”
Finally in 1841 he became Minister of the Second Baptist Church at Amersham where he remained until his death in December 1850. In a surviving letter dated 1 March 1847 he wrote “in consequence of the severe weather our Congregation has been small and the collections have fallen off.”
Sources: Baptist Manual 1851 pp.42~43
Letters from John Cocks
Torrington records, etc.
The next Pastor at Belvedere was C. Hard in 1842, but unhappily nothing more is known about him. Mr. J. H. Blake. formerly a member of the church at Shouldham Street, Marylebone, accepted the Pastorate in 1848; commencing his ministry in March, and being ordained on Tuesday, 29th of May. Those taking part in the services were Messrs. Wallis of Bexleyheath, J. Box of Woolwich, W. B. Bowes, W. B. Overbury, W. A. Blake and W. H. Bonner.
Pastor Blake does not seem to have stayed very long as he is reported as having become co-Pastor with the Rev.B.Lewis at Trinity Chapel, Southwark, on Monday, 8th December 1851. From Southwark he is thought to have gone to Sandhurst, Kent, and later to have accepted an appointment as travelling agent for the Baptist Building Fund.
A Mr. J. Pearce received and accepted the unanimous call to the Pastorate and commenced his ministry in the spring of 1852. The Recognition services took place on 16th August, 1852. Those taking part being Messrs. W. Woodward of Ilford, C. Hoskins of Crayford, J. Branch and W. Walters of London, J. H. Blake, J. Cox, Whitemore, Blakeman and Whymple. One is constantly impressed by the large number of ministers engaged for special services of this kind: evidently there was no desire for short services a hundred years ago, as there often is nowadays. Mr. Pearce seems to have continued as Pastor for some four or five years, and in 1857 is thought to have gone to a church in Newington Causeway. This, however, is uncertain.
The next Pastor was Ebenezer Davis, and he was destined to have a disturbing influence on the church. He was recognised as Pastor on March the 12th. 1862, when Pastors J. Teal, J. Adey, H. Crasweller, J. Coutts, F. T. Gibson, C. Collins and S. March took part. From about this time Lessness Heath began to be known as Belvedere, the district taking its new name from the large mansion then known as “Belvedere Park,” now as The Royal Alfred Aged Merchant Seamen’s Home (note: sadly this building no longer exists). The owner of “Belvedere Park” was Sir Culling Eardley, Bart., evidently a Christian gentleman of staunch Nonconformist principles. In 1848 Sir Culling built a place of worship in his own grounds. and part of this building still exists on the site of what is now a home for deaf and dumb people (note: neither of these buildings are now standing).
Some five years later “All Saints” Church was built, as a Free Church with a baptistry. It wasn’t till 1861 that this building, in compliance with the dying wish of Lady Eardley, was consecrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury, though some five years previously it had been handed over by Sir Culling Eardley to the Church of England authorities. Thus emerges the interesting and unusual fact that there was a Baptist witness in Lessness Heath over fifty years before the Church of England witness began, and our chapel was the sole place of worship for the first half of the nineteenth century. It would appear that Sir Culling Eardley held Baptist principles, but that he favoured open, and not closed, communion. Pastor Davis had himself come to favour open communion and he received, less than six months after he had accepted the Pastorate of a strict communion Baptist church, a letter from Sir Culling, who stated his decision to give, as he had been requested, a site in Bexley Road (now Nuxley Road) for the erection of an open-communion Baptist chapel.
The matter came before the church and the proposal to accept the offer was defeated by sixteen votes against nine, of which number, five appear to have been members of Mr. Davis’ own family. However, the minority were determined to go ahead; they accepted Sir Culling’s offer and immediately launched an appeal for the necessary funds for a new building. We can but admire the staunchness of the majority of the members of the church who declined what must have been a tempting offer, and who stood firm on what they and the Strict Baptist denomination has always held to be a scriptural order, though it meant the loss of their Pastor and nearly a third of their fellow members. But we can be glad to learn that these differences were apparently held without the showing of bad feeling:
Pastor Davis even continuing to serve the old church pending the building of the new chapel! The foundation stone of the new building (situated in the same road some 300 yards distant, on the other side) was laid on the 23rd of April, 1863. and opened for worship as a Particular, or Calvinistic Baptist Chapel, on the following September 29th. Between these two dates the donor of the site. Sir Culling Eardley died. Strangely enough Ebenezer Davis resigned his new Pastorate in the February of the following year though he appears to have served the church in various ways for some time after.
But to return to the old chapel: practically all we know about the next forty years are the names of the Pastors. Thomas Avery, 1868-1878. and W. Cowdry, 1878-1883. Thomas Avery lies buried in the old burying ground at the rear of the Old Baptist Chapel, Broadway, Bexleyheath, and the wording on his tombstone reads:
“In affectionate remembrance Rev. Thomas Avery died at Belvedere December 1878 aged 72 years.” (note: The Old Baptist Chapel moved initially to Townley Road and is now the Grace Church in Albion Rd Bexleyheath.As of 2017, the shop “Primark” now stands on that site in the Broadway.) But not even such meagre information is available for Pastor W. Cowdry. We are left to wonder what he was like; whether he died at Belvedere or moved away to another district; whether he was a young man or older, and how the church fared under his ministry. If the above dates are correct, one suspects that Mr. Cowdry was elderly and that he resigned his Pastorate, but continued to live in the district, for a church letter sent for inclusion in the M.A.S.B.C. Handbook for the year 1889 includes the statement: “Chapel house built for Pastor W. Cowdry.” At this time the church had only twenty members, and by 1897 the number had dropped to eight. When the Sunday School was first formed we do not know, but we have a note dated 1888 which says: “No school has existed for past ten years due to lack of teachers.”
However, in 1890 the Sunday School was reformed by William Coles and his wife, and we believe that this has continued since without a break.
In the year 1889 the church joined The Metropolitan Association of Strict Baptist Churches, to which body it has been linked ever since in appreciated Christian fellowship. In more recent years, in 1950, The Association of Strict Baptist Churches Limited has been appointed Trustee.
In 1893 the church mourned the loss of Deacon Cowdry, and two years later that of Senior Deacon T. Amos.
A Benevolent Society was formed on November 17th, 1898, at a meeting conducted by Mr. Josiah Harmer: thus was provided a small fund from which needy friends have been helped ever since. (no longer a separate fund)
During the year 1896 the following statement was made in the church’s official letter to the M.A.S.B.C… “Threatened with sale of chapel but freehold of chapel and cottage obtained.” This seems to make it clear that through practically the whole of the nineteenth century the premises were held on lease only.
There was an interregnum of nearly twenty years before the settlement of the tenth minister, Pastor Henry Mountford. This period was one of little numerical growth, but early in 1902 an adult Bible Class was formed under the leadership of Mr. W. Brundish, who some years later emigrated to Canada.
Centenary Services were held on June 13th 1905, when the following ministers took part: Messrs. E.White, J. Jarvis, J.Harmer, A. H. Pounds, H. Mountford and C. West.
Just a few days before the centenary celebrations a young couple by the names of Daniel and Annie Orchard joined the church, being transferred from “Zion” Heaton Road, Peckham. For forty-nine years Mr. Orchard was associated with the church, during which time he held, for a while, almost every office. From 1934 and until just prior to his death in 1954, he was Pastor of “Providence” Mote Road, Maidstone. He was a most gracious man to whom the church owes an incalculable debt, and we can only be grateful that his son, grandson and grand-daughter are in membership with us now. Another son, Ebenezer Orchard, serves the Lord with the Strict Baptist Mission in South India. (note: When Ben Orchard returned from the mission field, he served as a Pastor in Hartlepool before being called home to be with his Lord.)
Henry Mountford was a regular supply minister at Belvedere for some time before he accepted the Pastorate. His Pastorate commenced the first Lord’s Day in 1906, the Recognition Services being held on June 5th the same year. The following brethren took part: Messrs. E. White, J. Jarvis, J. E. Flegg, H.Mountford, J. Bush, E. W. Flegg and C. West of Erith.
During this Pastorate in 1921, a detached Sunday School building was erected at the rear of the chapel, at an approximate cost of £300. Stones were laid by Pastor Mountford and Pastor P. Offord of Gravesend.
Pastor Mountford, who had resigned in April, 1928, because of ill-health, passed away early in 1931.
For nearly seventeen years following his ministry the church was without a Pastor and was served by visiting ministers. During this long interregnum the number of church members remained fairly stationary at about 18.
A Fellowship of Youth was formed and started on November 26th 1934 meeting on Monday evenings in the “upper room”.
At a Church Meeting, held on May the 11th, 1944, it was resolved to invite Mr. E. J. Wood, at that time Minister-in-Charge at Sutton-at-Hone, near Dartford, Kent, to conduct the services for three months with a view to the Pastorate. The Church Secretary subsequently wrote to Mr. Wood a letter which he evidently thought a bit too pointed: so he wrote a further letter, but by mistake put both letters in the envelope! The recipient knew exactly where he stood!
The invitation was accepted: though, as Mr. Wood was already in the regular ministry, he could not consent to “preach with a view.” It is a commentary on the times to record that at one of the meetings of the church workers, held to consider these matters, a VI flying bomb (colloquially known as a “doodle-bug”) fell some little distance from the chapel, destroying several houses and causing part of the chapel ceiling to collapse.
Mr. E. J. Wood was recognised as Pastor on Saturday, 9th September 1944. The chairman at the afternoon meeting was Capt. B. T. Leete, and the speakers, Pastor W. S. Baker (Sec. M.A.S.B.C.) and Pastor J. K. Thorpe (Sec. S.B.M.). In the evening Pastor D. Eric Westcott presided, and the following brethren addressed the meeting: Mr. R. D.Orchard (Church Secretary), Pastor W. H. Reeves (President, M.A.S.B.C), Pastor F. T. Waller and Missionary E. Orchard. Tea was served in the Congregational Church school room, by their kind permission.
The Lord graciously blessed the new ministry of Church and Pastor so that within a few months the congregations had trebled, and the baptistry was being used at fairly regular intervals.
But 1944 and 1945 were dangerous years with flying bombs and rockets falling around. The premises had already been damaged and the heavy plaster ceiling in the chapel seemed to be on the point of falling. During the singing of the last hymn one Sunday evening a rocket fell within half a mile of the chapel and so shook the old building that the congregation was peppered with white dust. Following this warning a large tarpaulin was slung up under the ceiling to catch the plaster if it should fall, and this proved a wise precaution: not long after a large part of the ceiling did fall and as the plaster was found to be nearly two inches thick it might very well have caused fatal injury to some of the worshippers. As soon after the end of the war as possible, the war damage was repaired at a total cost of approximately £300.
In 1946 the back rooms adjoining the chapel were extended some five feet. This made a reasonably sized kitchen and vestry, and the upper room above became a most useful room, which has since been used by the Bible class and Fellowship of Youth. The cost of this extension was £366, and the church gratefully acknowledges a generous gift of £200 from the “Balcaskie Road, Eltham” Fund of the M.A.S.B.C., towards this cost. A while later, when the war damage to the school room was being repaired, new windows were inserted in the back and side walls.
One of the most pleasing features of the work during the last decade (1945-1955) has been the steady growth of the Sunday School, the total number of scholars sometimes exceeding 200. Such numbers have taxed our premises and personnel to the utmost, but our teaching staff has continued to do valiantly despite considerable ill-health and our confined premises. Our Cradle-Roll visitor, Mrs. J. H. Harmer, has done good work in keeping in touch with the parents of the babies, and ensuring their entry into the Primary when four years old.
The church was honoured by the Metropolitan Association of Strict Baptist Churches when Pastor E. J. Wood was elected to the Presidency of the Association for the year 1946/47, and before that he had served as a member of the Committee.
On the 17th January 1951, the church suffered a severe blow when its beloved Secretary, Ralph D. Orchard was suddenly taken home at the early age of fifty-one. Ralph Orchard had been associated with the church since childhood, and a deacon since 1931. He was a sunny man: an acceptable itinerant preacher for some fifteen years, and a friend to all. His last evening on earth was spent in God’s House: his last conversation had been about the best things, and his last act one of kindness to his Pastor. And then, apparently, without a moment’s warning, the call came while he was in the street with none but his Lord nearby.
In the autumn of 1952 Pastor Wood, with the unanimous co-operation of the church, responded to an invitation from the church worshipping at the Old Baptist Chapel, Broadway, Bexleyheath, to assume pastoral oversight of this church in addition to the Belvedere Pastorate. Since September 1952, Pastor Wood has continued to lead both churches, preaching at each chapel once each Lord’s Day.
Mr. P. W. Jennings normally conducted the services at Belvedere when Pastor Wood was at Bexleyheath and to him the church expressed its warmest gratitude for his faithful ministry amongst them.
The years 1955 – 2005
The first section of this historical review was prepared for the third Jubilee thanksgiving in 1955. This account is a great tribute to the thorough research conducted by the Pastor E.J.Wood, in the absence of any church books prior to around 1900.
As we continue the story, and as we survey the various minutes and details of meetings over the last 50 years we have to say “Ebenezer – hitherto has the Lord helped us”.
It is interesting to note that the pattern of holding some of our special meetings on a Thursday and of holding the Rest Hour outing on that day was a direct result of the fact that in this area and in Plumstead the half or full day closing was a Thursday. Several of the brethren were involved in shop work and therefore only had Thursday free. There is a photo of the Rest Hour outing to Eastbourne and Wannock gardens. This was probably taken in either 1950 or 51, but this trip continued for many years and was an opportunity for most of the church to get out to the seaside for the day. Another annual event was the Sunday School treat. In the early days of Sunday school work there was a great deal of poverty and the church tried their best to make this a real treat for the large numbers of children who gathered for these occasions. Over the period of the early fifties the treat was held in the grounds of the former Seamen’s Homes.
In July 1954 the minutes record the homecall of senior deacon Pastor Daniel Orchard who is affectionately remembered earlier in this history.
The church “letter” for inclusion in the M.A.S.B.C. Annual Report for 1955. “A year of happy service: all departments of work maintained but little apparent growth and no baptisms. We mourn the death of senior deacon D Orchard after 49 years association with the church. Ministry still shared by Pastor and Mr P.W.Jennings. Organ recently rebuilt. Our large Sunday school thrives. Planning for 150th Church Anniversary in June.”
In 1957 we note that there were 35 members on the church roll.
Up to this time the church had traditional pews and stained floorboards. The only touch of comfort were the carpets down the aisles. It must have seemed quite a break with the past when the pews were discarded and folding wooden seating purchased in 1957 at ten shillings each!! These were replaced in 2004, having given nearly fifty years of service.
Often we are asked by local people who would have been leading the young peoples meetings at different times, as many friends living in the area either attended the Sunday school or the Fellowship of Youth when they were young. As far as we can tell from the minutes Eddie Orchard became F.O.Y. leader in 1952.
James Orchard was still serving as Sunday School Superintendent at this time. The records also show that in 1957 Mr and Mrs Ron Hawkins were baptised and became church members.
In 1958 the church “letter” notes “…by the Lord’s goodness a more encouraging year, 9 have joined the church. Congregation somewhat increased”.
In 1961 the church “letter” states “Faithful ministry appreciated, concern because no baptisms and some defaulters among members. Evangelistic campaign during Whitsun led by the Strict Baptist Open Air Mission. Attendance at Women’s Fellowship and Sunday School declined but F.O.Y. progressed. Junior FOY and Children’s Hour started. Joined with local churches in composing and distributing leaflets refuting J.W. teaching.”
Other names that may be remembered by local people may include Tony Carter and Vera Orchard. They commenced the junior F.O.Y. in 1960. In 1961 the minutes show that our brother Ron Hawkins was appointed a deacon within the church. In 1962 Pastor E.J.Wood ceased helping at Bexleyheath on a Lord’s Day. Despite protestations our brother Phil Jennings felt it right to cease helping with the preaching on a Sunday and also to lay down the leadership of the Bible Class. Phil Jennings had been helping with the ministry for ten years. The letter to Mr Jennings conveying the church’s appreciation of his ministry indicates that Pastor E.J.Wood was already at this time suffering ill health.
It appears that in 1967 Pastor E.J.Wood, as an architect became very interested in the plans for the new town of Thamesmead. He was disturbed however to find that there were no plans to provide sites for independent churches but that only ecumenical centres would be built. Special meetings were held culminating in a meeting at West Woolwich Baptist Church when plans were presented to give a site for a church in the early stages of Thamesmead. By God’s grace the planners of the new town acceded to the representations of the Baptist Union and the Association of Grace Baptist Churches and in 1975 the G.L.C. gave permission for a new church on Thamesmead and Michael Toogood was set apart to pioneer this work.
In 1971 things were changing as far as the annual trips were concerned. We see that the Sunday School outing was to Malden in Essex. We went there several years and for the first few years the outing included a tea. In the same year we see that the Rest Hour/Church Outing went to St Leonards. My recollection of this outing was that it rained nearly all day and many spent the afternoon in the indoor swimming pool.
That year also saw a cedar board lining provided for the schoolroom at a cost of £270, and new carpet for the aisles!
In 1971 the minutes note that Miss D M Linggood retired as South East District Secretary. She was Pastor E J Woods’s (E.J.W.) sister-in-law and had been a very active member of the Sunday School Committee of the association. Many found her quite a formidable character. Her father had been a Bexley Councillor. Also in this year the records show that Ron Higgins, Stan Comber and Paul Orchard were appointed as deacons, and Mr James Orchard as a church elder.
In the minutes of April 1972 E.J.W. expressed a concern at the number of friends that had been “lost from the fellowship through illness and other causes. Much concern expressed over the prayer life of the church”. It was agreed to commence the prayer meeting 15 minutes earlier to give more time for prayer.
In regard to the building it was agreed to do away with the solid fuel stove and to replace with gas heaters.
The following year saw the retirement of James Orchard as superintendent of the Sunday school after serving in this capacity for 37 years. Mr R Hawkins was appointed in his place.
In early 1973 Pastor and Mrs F Harris moved into a cottage in Upper Grove Rd that had been left to the church. Pastor Harris had just retired as pastor at Chatteris in Cambridgeshire. He had formerly been pastor of the church worshipping at Bexleyheath. Little did the church realise it at the time, but the church would look back and see how our gracious God was providing a servant of His with a great
deal of experience and wisdom to guide it through some difficult days of Edgar Wood’s illness and subsequent homecall. Some months later the church unanimously asked Fred Harris to become an elder in the church. After some prayerful consideration he agreed to this.
Evangelism had always been close to Edgar Wood’s heart, which once again shows that a church can hold to the doctrines of God’s sovereignty in election and yet be whole hearted in evangelism. Over the years the Strict Baptist Open Air Mission (S.B.O.M.) had been an occasional visitor to the church with the S.B.O.M. van, and during these years regular house to house work had been undertaken regularly distributing the Gospel Echoes. In 1973 it was proposed that we make use of the Good News Trailer Fellowship run by Rev J Eaton from Wickford. This was taken out on a Saturday morning and provided an opportunity to distribute gospel literature and engage in conversation.
In 1974, Mrs Wood, pastor’s wife had to lay down the leadership of the ladies meeting through ill health. Mrs Violet Orchard agreed to take over the leadership.
The following year saw one of those wonderful examples of God’s gracious answer to prayer. An elderly deacon had prayed many years for his son before he was called home. Then very late in life and well into his eighties, the son started seeking the Lord and was gloriously saved, but was called home before he could be baptised.
Many will suggest that the hymn books that have been associated with a church reveal much of the theological position of that church. So for the record we note that Gadsby’s hymn book had been used in the early years and was followed by Gospel Hymns. In 1975 a new hymn book, Grace Hymns, became available and the church purchased a set of these at 75p a copy. By 1991 the Grace Hymn books were beginning to show signs of age, so careful research was done into available hymnbooks. In 1991 the church agreed to purchase Christian Hymns to use alongside Grace Hymns.
In 1976 the church was approached and asked to accept the remaining members of Enon Plumstead if they so wished to transfer, as the work was being disbanded. This cause had originated from the Church at Enon Woolwich whose site had been compulsorily purchased for the development of the ferry terminal etc. Also that year a major extension was planned to the church linking the schoolroom to the main church building and forming a new kitchen and toilet. The estimate for this work came in at £3,441.
In 1977 the homecall of Mr James Orchard is recorded, aged 75 having been a member of the church for 57 years and having served in the Sunday school, as superintendent and as Church secretary. An extract from the statement from Edgar Wood reads “His lifetime association with the church was characterised by a steadfast continuance in regular worship, diligent service and fervent prayer”.
Mr F Harris kindly agreed to take on the role of church secretary. The church also gave thanks for the Lord’s gracious support of E.J.W in the ministry both at Sutton-at-Hone and at Belvedere.
In 1980 the church faced a new and major challenge when they received a letter of of resignation from their beloved brother, Pastor Edgar Wood. He had been seriously ill for several years with cancer. He stated in the letter that he would be resigning from the 13th Septemeber 1980. In the Lord’s providence he was called home before he actually resigned and in fact the thanksgiving service was held on the proposed date of his resignation! He had been pastor of the church for 37 years and was recognised widely as a wise and faithful servant of the Lord and a gifted expositor of the Word of God. Many will have eternal reasons to thank God for Edgar Wood’s faithful ministry of the word and earnest preaching of the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ. His funeral was held on 11th August and conducted by Pastor J Hoad and Pastor F Harris. A thanksgiving service was held on September 13th when Douglas Jones also took part. This dear brother had worked with E.J.W as a young trainee architect and was converted through Edgar Wood’s witness. Mrs Wood was herself called home in January 1982.
As mentioned earlier the church officers were so grateful to God for the gracious provision of our brother Fred Harris at such a time, as although he was reluctant to take on too much, having just retired, he was able to give wise counsel in officer and church meetings, and very clear scriptural teaching at the Thursday Bible Studies. It was he who encouraged us to think “big” and trust God to provide for a full time pastorate. E.J.W had never drawn a stipend as he was an architect by profession. With increasing responsibilities he asked to be relieved of the secretarial responsibilities and Paul Orchard was asked to take over this office.
Over the years the Lord graciously provides those with various gifts. In 1981 Michael Wayman was appointed as treasurer. The children’s Hour recommenced with Janet Orchard and Joyce Higgins as leaders, and we said a sad farewell to our brother Wally Thompson who had been the chapel caretaker for some years, as he was moving down to Torquay to be near his family. We were able to offer the use of the cottage to Pastor and Mrs Brown who were in urgent need of accommodation.
On 11th June 1983 the church held a farewell service for Mr and Mrs F Harris as they were leaving to move near their son at Shepshed. Pastor W Brown was the speaker and the service was chaired by Ron Hawkins. The small terraced house in which Mr and Mrs Harris had been living in Upper Grove Road was sold by the church and the £24,374 invested through the association.
In January 1984 Pastor David Allen commenced his ministry. Major work had been undertaken to the cottage/manse and he moved into that accommodation with his wife. During the subsequent years the church benefited greatly from his expository ministry and the preaching of the gospel was blessed with conversions and baptisms.
Mr and Mrs Eddie Orchard had recently moved to Ashford for business reasons. This was after many years of faithful service in the church, particularly as youth leaders and Church Treasurer. The minutes of the business meeting on the 8th October 1985 record the transfer of their membership to Grace Chapel Folkestone. More recently they transferred their membership to Union Chapel Bethersden.
Other changes at this time included the resignation of Ron Hawkins from his work in the Sunday school. It was obvious to all that he had a great love for children and young people and many today remember with fond affection his concern for them even when they were being quite rebellious. He had worked in the Sunday school for 30 years and more recently as superintendent. During 1994 the church was greatly saddened by the homecall of our dear brother. Apart from the public areas of service in which he served his Lord so faithfully he spent many hours on the church premises undertaking small repairs and decoration. He always had a warm handshake for friends on the Lord’s Day, a warm greeting for children and young people and an obvious love for the service of his Saviour.
Two interesting figures for October 1985 are the membership figures and the average collection. Membership in that year stood at 29 and the average weekly collection at £153. With our late brother Harris’s encouragement the church had taken a real step of faith calling a full-time pastor. The collections had risen considerably but in November 1987 the treasurer reports that the church was currently running with a £1500 annual deficit. By February 1988 the average collection had risen to £200 a week and the treasurer was able to assure the church that it was now “breaking even”.
Our brother David Allen encouraged the ongoing work of evangelism and monthly open air preaching was commenced from the steps of the church on a Saturday morning. The House to House work continued with 450 homes being visited regularly, but only a relatively small number of the church were involved in this particular work. In addition to this, once a quarter 3500 leaflets were being distributed in the area. Sunday school was quite encouraging with on average 29 children attending. The F.O.Y was now being led by the church treasurer Michael Wayman. Again the Lord had blessed the church with a brother who had a real enthusiasm and gifts for work with the children and young people.
In March 1989 Pastor Allen gave the church notice that he would be resigning from the pastorate later in the year. The statement was detailed and graciously presented.
He noted that he believed many in the church were giving sacrificially and could not have ministered to a finer body of God’s people. The key reasons noted were; the smallness of the manse in relation to his growing family, the unsettledness of the family since moving down south, unease with the way things were moving among some of the associated churches and the financial support available. The letter of resignation was received by the church at the church meeting in September and Pastor Allen concluded his ministry in December. In accepting the resignation of D.Allen the church expressed its deep gratitude to God for the faithful expository ministry of the Word over the past 6 years. The minutes record “Whilst being saddened by the resignation, the church will, by God’s Grace, continue to trust in a Sovereign God both for the provision of another under-shepherd and for the opening up of the way for Pastor and Mrs Allen.”
With the loss of Stan Comber and Eddie Orchard from the diaconate and the ill health of our brother Ron Higgins, the church was only left with two active deacons. In January 1991 the names of Michael Wayman, Cliff Higgins and Ken Winnie were brought to the church for prayerful consideration as deacons. It was noted that the existing officers would deal with any “spiritual oversight” issues while the church was pastorless, and the proposed new appointments would serve solely within the biblical role as deacons. At the church meeting in May these proposed appointments were confirmed.
In October the Bible Class was restarted with Bruce and Margaret Townsend as leaders. In November the church held a week of prayer for a pastor, and it was agreed to hear Mr David Davidson from Bridport for a 3rd time. Subsequently in July 1992 a call to the pastorate was issued to Mr Davidson and he commenced his ministry on the first Lord’s Day in October. Again the Lord had been gracious to us and there was blessing upon the ministry in conversions.
Pastor Davidson was instrumental in starting, what was for many years an annual event in the church, the Holiday Bible Club. The first year this was held in the summer and numbers were only in the twenties, but in later years the club was held at Easter with numbers regularly reaching between 40 and 55 through God’s grace. In more recent years the annual holiday club has been replaced by Kraft@Church held on three Saturday mornings throughout the year.
About this time our brother Mike Wayman felt it necessary to lay down the work of the FOY and Mark and Lisa Tracey agreed to take over this work.
In August 1998 the church accepted the resignation of David Davidson as he felt he no longer had the support of the church officers in a particular matter of discipline.
Over this difficult period several members left who were sympathetic to Mr Davidson’s position. The membership stood at 30 as the church moved into the coming interregnum.
In view of the situation the officers felt it was wise to ask Pastor Vincent from Bexleyheath to act as moderator during the interregnum.
In 1999 the church agreed to contribute £2400 annually for 4 years to support Andrew and Jenny Love as they are sent from our sister church in Erith to work as missionaries in Brazil.
In February 1999 the minutes recall the homecall of Mr Ron Higgins. He had come to the church originally with his family as caretaker. Mr and Mrs Higgins had joined the church and his son and daughter Cliff and Rosemary had been converted and also joined the church. Later he became a deacon and served faithfully in this role. Of recent years his health had deteriorated seriously and although he retained a deep prayerful interest in the work of the church he had latterly been unable to attend on a regular basis.
It has become very apparent that the Lord, in His providence, has used the expertise and interest of Peter Townsend to broaden the ministry of the church through developing technologies. The Church web site www.Free-Grace.org.uk was first started in 1998, and acquired it’s own domain name in 2000. The audio sermons were first added on May 13th 2001. This has been the means of visitors visiting the church and of one brother finding a local church to attend when he moved into the area. Currently over 600 sermons a month are listened to in many countries throughout the world.
The year 2002 stands as another significant year in the recent history of the church as after a long interregnum the Lord graciously led the church to call Mark Gladwell as pastor. The four years leading up to this call had been years of healing for the church.
Mark was born and brought up on the south coast in Sussex. It was there, at the age of fifteen, that he came to know the Lord through the witness of a school friend. Seven years later he met Marilyn in Hove and in 1982 she became his wife. It was during 1983 that his home church, the Baptist Tabernacle in Brighton confirmed that God was calling him to the Christian Ministry. He therefore spent two years training at the London Theological Seminary, and in 1985 he became Pastor of Walthamstow Central Baptist Church in London. Following this, he was called to two further pastorates. The first was to Portslade, where he was pastor from 1989-94 and the second Cheltenham, during the years 1994-2002. It was during 2002 that the family moved to Belvedere where Mark took up the pastorate of the church worshipping at Free Grace Baptist Chapel.
Welcome services were held on October 12th 2002 – Douglas Dawson giving the charge to the church and Pastor MacDougal giving the charge to the Pastor. The family; Mark, Marilyn and their daughters Sarah and Debbie moved into a house in Abbey Wood.
During the year Lee Adby took over as leader of the FOY. He had been serving as assistant leader with Mark and Lisa Tracey. The church appointed David Wayman as deputy leader, Elaine Wayman and Vanessa Higgins as assistant leaders.
Undoubtedly one phenomenon of the 21st century is the growing impact of national legislation on church affairs. Recently the church approved a detailed child protection policy and an asbestos management policy.
When Mark Gladwell joined the church as pastor the church experienced a time of real blessing, with many additions to the church. The church grew to 45 members.
Much of the above is taken from a booklet was produced for the Third Jubilee Celebrations in 1955 by Pastor E.J.Wood which was updated for the 200th Church anniversary in 2005 by Paul Orchard (Church Secretary 1980 – present).
Pastor Mark Gladwell resigned from the Pastorate in 2010 and subsequently became the Pastor at Free Grace Baptist Church, Sidcup. In 2016 Thomas Allen was called to become Pastor at Belvedere. He assumed his duties on 1st September 2016 with a formal welcome service being held on 24th September 2016 where Jeremy Walker from Maidenbower Baptist Church spoke from Ephesians 4:11.