Notes on the Heritage of our Buildings
The current buildings of Broadway Baptist Church date back just over 100 years to 1901. The present congregation is greatly indebted to previous men and women of God who had the vision and courage to provide such outstanding premises, the chapel of which back in 1901 was stated to be “the largest Nonconformist building in Buckinghamshire, providing accommodation for 1,000 people”. It is a testament to the faith, vision and sacrifice of those former members that these buildings still find themselves so greatly used today.
It is important to acknowledge that the current buildings were not the first on this site and the year 2006 marks a notable anniversary for the church, it being 300 years since a Baptist congregation began to meet in the locality, borne initially out of a joint congregation of people from Chesham, Berkhamsted and Tring. An old memorial stone built into the current building indicates that the first meeting place, known as the General Baptist Chapel, was built in 1712. This old chapel stood further back in the Broadway than the current chapel. The pews were enclosed, and furnished and an organ was included.
The old chapel also had two notable features, one with the pulpit coming out to be among the people, so that the preacher was really in the people's midst. This feature illustrates a trend common to many non-conformist churches and Baptist churches in particular where the preaching of God’s Word is considered of primary importance and significantly influences the chapel’s design. The second notable feature was the inclusion of a room allocated to mothers, who were able to bring their children; even babies, and join in the worship of God on Sundays. This feature illustrates the strong desire to enable all to take part in worship, leading to another Baptist emphasis of the functionality of the building being more important than the decorativeness. These emphases are evident in the design of the current buildings also, though the chapel is not without its own unostentatious charm and appeal.
As far back as 1878, the matter of having a new meeting place was brought forward. By 1897 two thirds of the money had been raised by the members but a new schoolroom proved a more pressing need and so with the addition of some new land, this was accomplished, inevitably depleting the funds needed for a new chapel. Despite this by 1901 half the funds for the new chapel had been newly raised. By demolishing the old chapel and by purchasing the old Co-operative Society building, room was created for the new chapel, now standing four-square in the Broadway and much nearer to the road than the old chapel. During the rebuilding use was made of the previously built schoolroom for use by the whole church. Memorial stones were laid in 1901 and the new chapel opened in 1902 with opening celebrations lasting a month. Shortly afterwards the new organ was added, although now the pipes are purely decorative.
The money was raised by generosity and strenuous effort and the buildings stand as an example of great achievement as well of the capabilities of the architect (J. Wallis Chapman) and the builder (J. Honour & Sons, of Tring). An illustration of the enthusiasm and generosity, which can still be seen, is the initialled bricks which form part of the exterior walls. For the sum of half-a-crown (12.5p in current money) or more a brick bearing the donor's initials was incorporated in the wall of the chapel which faces the car park. At this spot also are built in former commemorative stones and brick taken from the earlier chapel buildings.
One little item as an example of unstinted giving. All those who worship in the chapel for the first time notice the handsome dark blue columns of Labradorite granite (believed to be from Italy) which support the galleries. The fine columns were not in the original contract, but when suggested there was at once an offer from members to meet the extra cost.
Also evident in the new chapel is the raised pulpit with its curved balustrade and spiral spindles, designed so that the preacher is readily visible from both the ground floor and from the galleries. This again shows the primacy of the preaching of God’s Word. No Baptist church is complete without its baptismal pool (or baptistry to give it its technical term) after which the Baptist denomination is named. Although not the only Christian tradition which Baptists adhere to, obeying Christ’s command to be baptized as one of his disciples is one that is still closely followed. The baptistry is located underneath the pulpit, and illustrates the designers desire to show that baptism is about obedience to Christ in God’s Word. Visibility of the baptismal pool was made easier for the congregation by the inclusion of a sloping floor at ground level with the rearmost pews being perhaps one metre higher. The actual act of baptism, in going down into the water and then back up again, is a vivid symbol of Christ’s death and resurrection, and of the new life that we too can experience in Christ.
Externally the church is more functional than decorative, but does include one striking feature, namely the domed tower at the northwestern corner. This is an unusual feature in non-conformist churches, as is any tower or spire in fact, and serves no functional purpose; it has never served as a bell tower and is not accessible. There has been much speculation as to the reason for its inclusion, with the likeliest reason we believe being competition between churches in the late Victorian period when it was built! Chesham and the surrounding area is noted as having historical strong non-conformist roots. However Chesham itself has a domed clock tower at the south end of the High Street, which although of much more modern design, has clear echoes of the church’s domed tower.
Not many obvious changes were made to the buildings in the 100 years since they were built. The chapel still has the largest auditorium in Chesham, although its capacity has been reduced by the removal of pews and the inclusion of lobby at the entrance from the Broadway. The ground floor has been levelled to make it more accessible – the visibility of the baptismal pool is today improved by the use of a live video camera!
We look to God to help us to be faithful to the vision He gave our forebears and look forward to how we can continue to use our buildings to serve God’s purposes in Chesham.