Victoria County History



A. P. M. Wright & C. P. Lewis (Editors)

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'Cottenham: Nonconformity', A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 9: Chesterton, Northstowe, and Papworth Hundreds (1989), pp. 67-69. URL: Date accessed: 28 November 2014.


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Although nonconformist preachers found ready listeners in Cottenham in the late 17th century, separate congregations were slower to form than in neighbouring villages and it was only in the 19th century that Cottenham became a prominent centre of dissent. In the late 1840s, however, two thirds of burials in the parish took place in the dissenters' cemetery, (fn. 52) and two decades later the rector reported that his parish was full of Wesleyans and Baptists. (fn. 53)

The Quaker George Whitehead visited Cottenham, (fn. 54) perhaps in 1654 or 1659, (fn. 55) and there were Quakers in the village in 1728, when they met there once in every ten weeks, probably in rotation with meetings at Over and Swavesey. (fn. 56) A later tradition asserts that Quaker burials took place in a garden next to Manor Farm. (fn. 57) Cottenham man was a member of the meeting in the 1730s, (fn. 58) but nothing is known of it later.

The Independent Joseph Oddy was licensed to preach in Cottenham in 1672. (fn. 59) His conventicle was centred on Histon in 1675, (fn. 60) and the Cottenham contingent is thought to have amalgamated soon afterwards with the larger Willingham and Cottenham church of Nathaniel Bradshaw. (fn. 61) A meeting of Independents in a barn in 1673 was attended by 100 people, (fn. 62) presumably from a wide district around Cottonham, and in 1676 there were 14 active dissenters in the parish. (fn. 63) In the following decade that number seems to have doubled. (fn. 64) The Willingham and Cottenham congregations separated in the early 18th century and by 1728 that in Cottenham, which numbered 80 families, was meeting weekly and had its own preacher. (fn. 65) Despite two schisms in the mid 18th century, the original congregation continued to meet in a barn in Broad Lane, where the competing factions were reunited c. 1772. (fn. 66)

There were said to be great numbers of Anabaptists in Cottenham in 1775, when they had recently built a new meeting house and employed a former cobbler as their teacher. (fn. 67) The preacher who took charge of the Independent congregation in 1780 shortly revealed himself to be a Baptist, and the Old Meeting Baptist church afterwards dated its foundation to that year, (fn. 68) though compulsory adult baptism was adopted only in 1813. (fn. 69) The Old Meeting chapel in the High Street was opened in 1783 and enlarged in 1798. It had over 100 members in the early 19th century and remained strong despite a secession in 1810. (fn. 70) The total attendance at the three services on Census Sunday 1851 was over 1,000. (fn. 71) The chapel was rebuilt in 1856 (fn. 72) as a large gabled building in local gault brick dominating the north part of High Street. It was extended in 1904. (fn. 73) Membership reached a peak of c. 200 at about that time, but afterwards declined steadily to 100 in 1935 and little more than 30 in 1980. (fn. 74)

The minister expelled by the Baptists in 1810 opened a rival chapel in Rook's Lane in 1813 with 10 members. Later called Ebenezer Baptist chapel, it was led from 1817 by a Unitarian, who became a Baptist in 1823 and remained pastor for 40 years. The building was enlarged in 1828 (fn. 75) and in 1851 had almost as many adult attenders as the Old Meeting and a Sunday school with c. 130 pupils. (fn. 76) The chapel was rebuilt in 1856- 7, (fn. 77) and membership had reached 184 by 1871 and was not seriously depleted in the early 20th century, but it declined rapidly after 1945, (fn. 78) and the chapel closed in or shortly before 1981. (fn. 79) In 1972 it belonged to the Strict Baptist Cambridgeshire and East Midlands Union. (fn. 80)

The Wesleyans founded a congregation in the village in 1842. Served by the Cambridge circuit, it met in a small chapel in the northern part of High Street built in 1843. Adult attendance on Census Sunday 1851 was c. 200, more than half at the afternoon service. (fn. 81) A large new chapel in red and yellow brick was opened in 1865 at the southern bend in High Street. (fn. 82) A minister's house was later put up next to it, probably in 1877 when a separate Cottenham circuit was created. The circuit was recombined with Cambridge in 1952. (fn. 83) The chapel remained in use in 1987.

Primitive Methodists held services in a barn in 1825 (fn. 84) and camp meetings in 1858 and 1862. (fn. 85) They used the old Wesleyan chapel for regular services from 1882 until 1890. (fn. 86)

The Salvation Army opened fire in Cottenham in a barn in Telegraph Street in 1886. The Old Barn in High Street was used from 1888, being replaced in 1937 by a new building which continued in use in 1987. (fn. 87)

After the rector refused to allow non Anglicans funeral services in the churchyard, a dissenters' cemetery was opened in 1845 in Lamb's Lane. (fn. 88) It remained in use in 1987.


52 Gardner's Dir. Cambs. (1851), 341.
53 1st Rep. Com. Employment in Agric. 357.
54 Proc. C.A.S. lxi. 74 n.
55 Cf. D.N.B. s.v. Whitehead.
56 Proc. C.A.S. lxi. 92; C.U.L., E.D.R., B 8/1, f. 7v.
57 Camb. Ind. Press, 27 Jan. 1961.
58 Bewes, Church Briefs, 317.
59 Trans. Cong. Hist. Soc. v. 245 n.
60 Bodl. MS. Rawl. D. 1480, f. 124.
61 Proc. C.A.S. lxi. 77-8.
62 East Anglian, N.S. xii. 114.
63 Compton Census, ed. Whiteman, 163.
64 C.U.L., E.D.R., B 2/70, ff. 46-7; cf. ibid. B 2/66, ff. 22 and v., 48v.
65 Ibid. B 8/1, f. 7v.; below, Willingham, nonconf.
66 Ebenezer Baptist Ch., Cottenham, Souvenir 1811-1911, 3, 5 (copies in Cambs. Colln. and C.R.O.); P.R.O., RG 31/2, Ely dioc. nos. 45, 59, 80, 82, 94, 96, 102, 112, 115-16.
67 C.U.L., E.D.R., B 7/1, p. 31.
68 Ebenezer Souvenir, 5; e.g. Baptist Handbk. (1871), 120.
69 Proc. C.A.S. lxi. 77.
70 Ebenezer Souvenir, 5.
71 P.R.O., HO 129/186 (1), f. 20.
72 Inscr. on bldg.
73 Trans. C.H.A.S. ii. 96; inscr. on bldg.
74 Baptist Handbk. passim, esp. (1905), 42; (1935), 61; Baptist Union Dir. (1981-2), 55.
75 Ebenezer Souvenir, 6-15.
76 P.R.O., HO 129/186 (1), f. 21.
77 Camb. Chron. 17 May 1856, p. 5; 13 Sept. 1856, p. 4; 27 Sept. 1856, p. 7; 11 Apr. 1857, p. 4 (all from card index).
78 Baptist Handbk. (1871), 120; (1876), 165; (1905), 42; (1935), 61; (1955), 83; (1965), 113.
79 Cambs. Colln., index of sale partics., 21 July 1981; Camb. Weekly News, 22 July 1982.
80 Baptist Union Handbk. (1972), 117.
81 Tice, Methodism in Cambs. 45; Gardner's Dir. Cambs. (1851), 341; P.R.O., HO 129/186 (1), f. 22.
82 Camb. Chron. 9 July 1864, p. 4; 7 Jan. 1865 (both from card index).
83 Tice, Methodism in Cambs. 45.
84 C.U.L., E.D.R., C 1/6.
85 Cambs. Local Hist. Counc. Bull. xiv. 13; Camb. Ind. Press, 26 July 1862, p. 5.
86 Tice, Methodism in Cambs. 62-3; cf. C.U.L., E.D.R., C 3/25; C 3/30; C 3/36.
87 G.R.O. Worship Reg. nos. 29717, 31518, 59610; Camb. Evening News, 15 Aug. 1986; inscr. on bldg.
88 Gardner's Dir. Cambs. (1851), 341; inf. from Mr. Garrett.