Flower festival at the Riverside church

 

The beginnings

It is difficult to find a starting point for our story, for whilst documented evidence takes us back two hundred years, there were without doubt individual dissenters and possibly even small groups of believers meeting together before this time. Some perhaps stifled their feelings and paid lip service to the Church of England and its services, but in their hearts had many doubts and misgivings. We know that in the Civil War period there was much activity in the area by the Parliamentarians. Cromwell’s forces contained a very large proportion of Dissenters – perhaps some engaged in open air preaching (this indeed happened in other places and church fellowships can trace their origins to this source).

But all this is supposition; let us turn to the facts. In the middle of the 18th Century there were still very few established dissenters’ meeting houses. The nearest to Edenbridge were Bessels Green (near Sevenoaks) and Handcross in Sussex. Although Bessels Green was the nearer, it is in the Handcross meeting that the names of Edenbridge people are first recorded. In June 1791 a Church Meeting was held under the chairmanship of the Pastor, Thomas Humphrey, at which it was decided to form a branch cause at Dormansland for the benefit of those worshippers living in the district. Nine members of the Handcross church were dismissed to form the nucleus of the new fellowship, their names and place of abode being recorded. Of the nine, three lived in Edenbridge: Richard Caffyn, his wife Sarah and William Nicholson. They lived some 17 to 18 miles from Handcross and must have made the journey by horseback or carriage (at a time when made-up roads were unknown!).

Their visits to Handcross would have been infrequent as Pastor Humphrey had for some years travelled himself to Dormansland to conduct a cottage meeting once a fortnight. On the formation of the Dormansland Church these visits ceased and ‘most services were led by local laymen. There is a record of a lay preacher conducting a baptismal service in 1791 ‘in a brook at Edenbridge’ (surely not our mighty Eden!) when five believers were baptised.

The minute book of the Dormansland church shows a number of other Edenbridge residents coming into the fellowship in its early years. In 1795 William Humphrey and Elizabeth Banister were received into membership, but as there was still no baptistry at Dormansland (it was added in 1796), they were baptised at Bessels Green. The names of others from Edenbridge admitted to membership are listed below. Their interest lies mainly in noting that many of the family names are still preserved in the parish:

1802 Thomas Russell
1803 John and Rhoda Chantler, William Gratwick, Mary Russell, Ann Longhurst, Ann Baker, George Piercey, Maria Jefferey
1805 Stephen Doomsby
1807 Susanna Jefferey, Elizabeth Goodwin, Catharine Nicolson, Charles Longhurst, William Sherabridge, James Cooper.
1812 Elizabeth Waghorne
1813 John Page (of Hever)
1817 Mary Wickens
1832 Charlotte Still
1834 Ann Wickens, William Wickens
1837 Frederick Stanford.

Maria Jefferey and John Page are both recorded as being ‘withdrawn to the Independents at Edenbridge’ (the Ebenezer Chapel), Elizabeth Waghome married William Gratwick and held a Dame School in their home.

The formation of Ebenezer Chapel at Edenbridge tested the loyalty of some of the Dormansland fellowship, so much so that the following report was given at the Church meeting, October 29, l809:

Brethren Woodhams and Mills were appointed to visit the members in the vicinity of Edenbridge. “We received their report, and as they do not discover a spirit of opposition but are on the whole friendly, it was agreed to recommend them to fill their places at the Lord’s Table as often as convenient and to the church to cultivate love and tenderness towards them, it being most for the honour of religion and glory of God and that if as opportunity offers and they are desirous of dismission, the church will willingly grant it.

Unfortunately, the minute books for the Dormansland church are missing for the period covering the formation of the Edenbridge Baptist Church, but of the initial membership of seven, five were transferred from Dormansland, and others not on the membership roll must also have been admitted to the new church.

Edenbridge Baptist Church

In 1839 William Gratwick and his wife Elizabeth, members of the Dormansland Baptist Church, opened their home to Baptists living in Edenbridge for worship services. Mrs. Gratwick ran a dame school and it was in the schoolroom that the meetings were held. Numbers attending quickly grew and in 1841 plans were put in hand for the building of a chapel to seat 150. Towards this purpose, it was decided to purchase a plot of freehold land near ‘the Great Stone Bridge’ and when £250 had been collected, the chapel, known as Bethel Baptist Chapel, was built; the building being opened for worship in November 1841 at a special dedication service led by Rev. W. Miall and Dr. Aveling.

In the summer of 1842 the members took steps to have the building registered a place of worship, their letter to the Registrar reading:

To the Right Reverend the Lord Bishop of Rochester
and to his Registrar,

We the undersigned do hereby certify that a certain tenement or building situate in the village of Edenbridge in the county of Kent and diocese of Rochester intended to be used as a place of religious worship by an assembly or congregation of Protestants, dissenting from the Church of England. And we do hereby require you to register and record the same according to the provisions of the Act passed in the 52nd. year of the reign of King George the 3rd. entitled “An act to repeal certain acts, and to amend other acts relating to religious worship an assemblies and persons teaching or preaching therein”. And hereby request a certificate thereof. Witness our hands this sixth day of July, One thousand eight hundred and forty two.

The six signatories included William Gratwick and Frederick Stanford. The building was duly registered on July 21st, 1842.

From 1841 to 1847 Bethel was run as a mission chapel by the Dormansland Baptist Church, but in that year five members transferred their membership from Dormansland to form the nucleus of a separate fellowship, being William and Elizabeth Gratwick, John and Rachel Norman and Frederick Stanford. At the same time two members of Pains Hill Chapel, Limpsfield, Elizabeth King and Elizabeth Driver, also transferred their membership, making the initial membership roll of the new Edenbridge Baptist Church, seven members.

The Gratwicks, the ‘founding fathers’, remained in fellowship until their deaths: William in 1850 at the age of 77; Elizabeth in 1862, also aged 77. They are buried in Edenbridge churchyard.

The call to the first minister was given in 1852, he being the Rev. James Swinbourne. Rapid growth followed and the need of a larger chapel became apparent. It was decided to rebuild on the same site, the new building (seating 220) being erected over Bethel, with services continuing in the ‘inner’ chapel during construction. The foundation stone of the new church was laid by Mr. A. Pellatt, M.P., in 1853. The first baptism in this building was in August 1854, when five candidates were baptised, including Joseph Stanford. He was later to become a deacon (1864) and then Treasurer from 1878 until his death (May 14th, 1900).
The pastor having resigned, the Rev. Alexander Macdonald became minister in 1856, but the office again became vacant in 1859.

The new pastor, Rev. Butlin Dickens, had only recently completed his studies at Regent’s Park College, and his drive and vision heralded another period of rapid growth. It became necessary to erect a gallery in 1864, half the cost being met by the church, the other half given by the minister. Numbers still increased and it became necessary to admit only ticket holders to the gallery for evening services. At this time a Sunday School was run, but as an institution completely separate from the church. This did not mean that the membership saw no need for Christian education; indeed Rev. Dickens and his deacons were the prime movers in the formation of the British School (later Haxted Road Infants School).

In 1872 Rev. Butlin Dickens concluded his successful ministry at Edenbridge to take up the pastorate at Naunton, Gloucs. His successor was the Rev. E. S. Ladbrook, B.A. During his ministry improvements were made to the structure of the church, notably the installation of a heating system at a cost of £40. However, in 1878 Rev. Ladbrook was seriously ill and forced to give up his pastorate. The assistant minister at Trowbridge (Wilts.) Rev. W. Venis Robinson, B.A., came next to Edenbridge in 1879, and further improvements were made to the building at a cost of £240. Half of this sum was raised by a giant bazaar opened by Lady Havelock, Wife of the hero of Lucknow. She was a member of a famous Baptist family: her father was Marsham, the colleague of William Carey, the first missionary to India. At a later date, Rev. Robinson’s son was also to go to India, to become a languages professor at Serampore College.

From Bradford on Avon in 1882 came Rev. R. H. Powell. One of his first tasks was to join the Sunday School firmly to the church as a single unit. A plot of land in Hever Road was presented to the church by Mr. Stanford and on this plot a Manse was built in 1884 at a cost of £727. More alterations were made to the church premises in 1892, including the addition of a mid-week Lecture Hall. (This hall was replaced by a larger, more permanent structure in 1936.) In the previous year Rev. Powell was honoured by being elected Moderator of the Kent and Sussex Baptist Association. The church had belonged to this group since 1857, when it was known as the East Kent and Sussex Association. The minute book of the Association for that year records:

Henceforth the churches at Battle, Edenbridge, Hastings and Lewes be considered members.

The ill-health of Rev. Powell led to his resignation in 1907, and in the following year Rev. Frank Richardson of Upwell, Norfolk, took up the work. The emphasis of his ministry was on reaching the young and he organised lively Christian Endeavour and Band of Hope groups.

More recently the ministers have been:

Rev. A.E. Chennells  (1917 to 1923)   He came from Blissworth (Northants.) and was also minister for a time at Four Elms Congregational Church and Haxted Mission Room, jointly with the Edenbridge pastorate.
Rev. J. Hulme (1923 to 1937) Rev. Hulme came from Hoddesden, Herts., and is the only minister in the church’s history to die in office.
Rev. S. Almond (1937 to 1956) He came from Downton, Wilts. During the second World War he combined his pastoral duties with those of chaplain to the Army and Air Force. In 1956 he became minister at Deal.
Rev. Gordon Hunt (1957 to 1961) Rev. Hunt had a Welsh pastorate before coming to Edenbridge and went on to St. Leonards.
Rev. Richard Weir (1962 to 1967) Rev. Weir later took up a pastorate in North America.
Rev. Brian Oman (From 1968) Rev. Oman was formerly a minister at Southampton.

Perhaps the major event of recent years was the great flood. The Baptist Church site is adjoining the river. On Sunday, September 15th, 1968, torrential rain caused serious flooding and considerable damage was done to the church. For a brief period services were held at the Primary School, until the church could be re-opened for worship.

Marlpit Hill Baptist Church

The earliest mention of Baptist work at Marlpit Hill is in 1876, when the Edenbridge Baptist Church minutes record the provision of lamps for the ‘Marlpit Hill School’ with the added note:

Leaving those who may conduct the preaching services to provide the necessary oil.

The Kent and Sussex Baptist Association year book for 1887 notes that six young men from Edenbridge were running a Sunday School at Marlpit Hill with 70 children on the roll.

It was not, however, until 1888 that a chapel was built by the members at Edenbridge to seat 150 people at a total cost of £227. This Church was thus the ‘ daughter church of Edenbridge, the granddaughter of Dormansland and the great granddaughter of Handcross. The work did not progress as well as had been hoped and for a short time in 1907 no services were held. In that year Charles and Rosanna Sawyer moved to Marlpit Hill from Hawkhurst. Their arrival almost coincided with the re-opening of the ‘Mission Hall’ and there began a family connection which was to last almost half a century.

Mr. Sawyer became superintendent of the chapel and their home, ‘Highfields’, became almost an extension of the church. During the first World War it became an ‘open house’ to forces personnel, notably the Red Cross soldiers from Tandridge. Between the wars frequent visitors to home and chapel included Commander Carey Brenton, a naval officer who reformed the Mexican navy and later returned to Mexico as a missionary; Jacob Vagar, a Latvian Christian; Pastor Ishi, whose work in Japan was supported by the church for many years.

At the close of 1923 the worshippers at Marlpit Hill decided to form a separate fellowship. This matter was brought before the Annual Church Meeting at Edenbridge in January 1924, and was finally approved at a meeting held on February 26th, when the Rev. Hulme closed the discussion with the words:

That the subtraction might eventually result in addition

On March 11th, 24 members were formally transferred to the new membership roll. The following evening a formation service was held, led by Rev. Hulme and Pastor F. Henman of Worthing. Rev. Hulme was confirmed as minister of the new church, with Mr. Sawyer as Superintendent.

In 1925 a dispute arose between the two churches regarding the Norman Legacy – a sum of money bequeathed to Marlpit Hill by Miss Mary Norman, a member at Edenbridge. There followed a long and complicated argument involving the trustees, the Charity Commissioners, the Christian solicitor Mr. Montague Goodman and the officers of the two fellowships. The matter was not finally settled until 1946, but its immediate effect was the termination of Rev. Hulme’s pastorate at Marlpit Hill and of the intervention of Edenbridge Baptist Church in Marlpit Hill’s affairs.

Mr. Sawyer continued as Superintendent until his death at the age of 81 in February 1945, when he was succeeded in office by his son Albert. In 1951 the church purchased a plot of land on its east side for £75, and on this plot an extension to the premises was built, comprising a kitchen and hall. This extension was opened on Good Friday, 1957, but the occasion was overshadowed by the sudden death a few days previously of the Treasurer, Walter Bibby, for it had been largely through his efforts that the premises were enlarged.

The end of the 1950s also brought the close of the Sawyers years of office at Marlpit Hill, when Mr. and Mrs. Sawyer retired to Nutley. The Church secretary, Mr. C. Hall took over the superintendency until 1964 when the church called its first minister. Mr. Patrick Currey of Tollington Park, London, became lay-pastor in May of that year, continuing in office until the summer of 1968 when he became minister at Great Mongeham Baptist Church, Walmer.

Until the Spring of 1970 the church continued without pastoral oversight. It then called Mr. G. Bradford, a member of the church, to be its second minister.

Many thanks to Gary Bradford, who has lived all his life in Edenbridge and has provided such a rich history of our fellowship. He has kindly donated the text from his book, published in 1972 by Durrants of Edenbridge. Gary has been connected with Marlpit Hill Baptist Church for many years and was its Minister from 1970 through to the turn of the century.

Riverside

The Riverside building …

The Stanford family of Lingfield and Haxted Mill joined other Baptist families in moving to the town and gradually built their church at the bottom end of the town, by the Eden River bridge. You can see plaques with their names on the front wall.

There are also height markers for flood warnings against south side of building.

Our fellowship …

The Eden Church was formed by the joining of two Baptist churches (Edenbridge and Marlpit Hill). For a number of years we had worked together, particularly on outreach projects, and this led to a conviction that God wanted us to be one new church. In early 2001 we began to worship together each Sunday and formed a provisional joint leadership team. In 2003 our formal amalgamation took place.

We give praise to God for this new birth!

So why has God brought us together?

Jesus said,

As the Father has sent me, I am sending you (John 20:21)

During 2001/2002 we spent time reading the Scriptures and praying, seeking to understand what it means to be caught up in the mission of Jesus Christ in the world. The outcome of our reflections are expressed in our Covenant of Membership. This Covenant is to be renewed annually by each member signing it individually at a special service. Those coming into membership between these services can add their names to the Covenant at any designated celebration of communion.