Perry Hill Chapel (Worplesdon United Reformed Church)
For the early history of the Chapel, we are indebted to 2 sources: Firstly, a rather esoteric 1908 book written by one Edward Cleal entitled The Story of Congregationalism in Surrey. Secondly, a manuscript of the history of the Chapel 1822-1914, written by Herbert Farris (son of the 1890 minister, William Farris) in 1971. It was (fortunately) found in the loft of Herbert Farris’s house in Guildford.
Later, we have the personal reminiscences of Stella Harris and Anne Philps (2012), both of which are available on the Chapel website, as well as more recent memories from Stuart Davies, and the story of installing the new organ (2010). They are all good reads, and I recommend them to anyone who is interested in this aspect of Rickford life.
The chapel was originally built as a Congregational Chapel, ie a Protestant chapel in which the congregation independently and autonomously ran its own affairs. It was funded by Surrey Mission and Guildford Church. The foundation stone gives a date of 1822, the year that Percy Shelley died in a boating accident, and the year that the last person in England was hanged for shoplifting. A matching stone on the other side states restoration by W Farris in 1896. There is also a memorial stone in the left gatepost to Miss C Farris, who died in 1951.
But before we look at the chapel, who or what was the Surrey Mission? In 1797, a group of ministers and other Christians were, according to Cleal, “deeply concerned for the deplorably dark state of the county”, and so they formed the Surrey Mission with the object of propagating the gospel in those villages of the county where it was not preached. From the first it was resolved that the work should be purely evangelistic and non-denominational. These ministers visited Surrey villages, and in the winter the agents of the society were employed in house to house labours. Eventually chapels came to be established in various localities, which formed the centre of operations for surrounding villages.
Cleal speaks highly of the early work of the Mission: “Its agents have been amongst the most devoted men the county has known, and nonconformity in many a rural district owes not only its strength, but its very existence, to the work of the Surrey Mission”. The Mission declined in importance in the second half of the 19th century, after the Surrey Union was formed (having been designed partly to be more inclusive of Congregational groups).
Now to Perry Hill Chapel itself. There are 4 distinct phases in the life of the Chapel, and we will cover each in turn:
• 1822-1869: The early years
• 1869-1890: Association with the Pirbright Providence Chapel
• 1890-1972: As an independent entity
• 1972-date: Under the wing of the United Reform Church
We will cover each of these in turn.
1822-1869: The early years
Once the Chapel had been built, the first preachers were Messrs. Leifchild, Forsaith, and Ivimey. The Rev William Roberts, curator of St Mary’s in Worplesdon was probably involved somehow. He had owned a property and had been living in the Perry Hill area since at least 1806. Possibly he was Guildford Church’s representative at the Chapel. Maybe he was a participant in the construction of the chapel. He purchased one of the neighbouring Nightingale Cottages in 1832, but died in 1833.
In 1824, Benjamin Haymes, a Hackney student, was invited to become the resident preacher, with Flexford and Normandy being included in his role. He remained in post for 25 years, and must be given credit for the establishment of the Chapel in its formative years.
Some of Mr. Haymes's letters give an idea of the labour of the county evangelist in those days. "One Sabbath day (he writes in 1843) I thought I must have given up the service owing to the drifted snow, but I went through it and found some waiting to hear the word of life. The nights have been so dark and chilling that I think nothing short of the love of Christ could have induced the poor creatures to leave their homes to attend our prayer meetings."
On Tuesday, October 16, 1849, Mr. Haymes attended the annual meeting of the Surrey Mission at Croydon, and thence proceeded to London on business. Returning home on Friday he was seized with cholera, and after a few hours of great suffering died in the fifty- seventh year of his age. A tablet to his memory is erected in the chapel (pictured below). It is understood that he is buried beneath the lawn in front of the Chapel.
Mr. Hardiman, another Hackney student took over in 1850, and in 1851 married Mr Haymes’s daughter. One might wonder if that was the primary reason for accepting the post, but in any case, he laboured faithfully until 1859, at which point he moved to Essex.
At this point, the Surrey Mission, through lack of funds, was having trouble giving support to its Chapels. Meanwhile services were maintained at Perry Hill with tolerable regularity, first by local brethren, and then by Mr. Colebrook, a lay preacher from Guildford.
In 1862 the Mission again took charge of the district, and in October of that year appointed Mr. Lynn to Perry Hill, also covering Pirbright. He introduced singing classes, lectures, and popular readings in order to interest and instruct the villagers. In Pirbright, these were so successful that a large room in a cottage was used for services.
Mr Lynn moved on in 1867, and The Rev WM Hawkins replaced him. It was during Mr Hawkins’s tenure that the Providence Chapel at Pirbright was built.
1869-1890: Association with the Pirbright Providence Chapel
In August 1869, a Mr. Benjamin Smith of London Wall built the Providence Chapel at Pirbright, with a manse adjoining. He had owned the property since 1866, but why he had chosen to buy property in Pirbright and then build a chapel on the site is a mystery. He handed the Chapel and the manse over to the Mission, and this began a period of association between the Perry Hill and Pirbright Chapels.
Mr Hawkins resigned in 1870 to enter Nottingham College. Excerpts from the local newspaper report are revealing: He was "a man who fearlessly urged on the work of civilisation generally, irrespective of creed. He did his best to set the ball rolling. Well known for his indefatigable efforts to intellectualise the agricultural population of this village. He was pre-eminently a man of the times. He leaves pleasant memories behind him and bearing with him the good wishes of all".
Job Fifield (born in Gloucestershire in 1830), who had previously been evangelist at Ewhurst, was appointed minister of the Perry Hill Chapel, but also had a responsibility for Pirbright as well. He lived in the manse, next door to the new Providence Chapel in Pirbright. At a meeting to mark the second anniversary of the opening of the Chapel, he said “His desire was the formation of an evangelical union, eschewing all denominationalism, for the 2 parishes of Pirbright and Worplesdon.” He noted that his predecessor, Mr Hawkins had “battled with Sunday cricketing, and had raised his voice on the Village Green against Sabbath desecration”, and noted that “even now, on his way to Perry Hill on Sunday morning, he saw boys, youths and even men indulging in that highly intellectual pursuit of pitch and toss”. He reported that around 50 people attended the Perry Hill services, and 70 attended at Pirbright (out of a total population of around 2,800).
[If you’re interested, pitch and toss is a game in which all players toss a penny at a mark (eg a stone), and the player who pitches their coin nearest to the mark has the first chance to toss all the coins, winning those that land heads up. It was played until the 1960’s]
In 1871, Job Fifield started a Band of Hope at Perry Hill Chapel. This national organisation had been formed in 1847 in Leeds with an objective to teach children the importance and principles of sobriety and teetotalism. It must have tapped into a real social issue of the times, as by the end of the century it had over 3 million members. Thereafter it declined in popularity, and it exists today as the charity Hope UK (covering not just alcohol, but all drugs, including cigarettes).
During the 1880’s Perry Hill and Pirbright Chapels dissociated somewhat from each other (the reasons may have been denominational – the Pirbright Chapel had leant towards Baptist teaching – but this distinction is outside the author’s area of knowledge). We will leave the Pirbright Chapel to itself, and restrict ourselves here to coverage of Perry Hill Chapel, but not before recording what happened to Job Fifield. Job remained as pastor of Pirbright Providence Chapel until his death in 1892. By then he had also taken on the role of Non-conformist chaplain at the Woking Necropolis (now known as Brookwood Cemetery). The Rev W Farris (see below) conducted the funeral service. In 1898 Richard Fifield (a son of Job) became pastor at Pirbright, but soon after, he became a colporteur employed by the Metropolitan Tabernacle Colportage Association.
[In case you don’t know, a colporteur is a door-to-door peddler of religious books and tracts....]
1890 onwards: As an independent entity
In 1874, Perry Hill Chapel had been adopted by the Guildford Congregational Church, and William Farris (who was an assistant minister with that Church) was assigned responsibility for the Rydes Hill, Normandy and Perry Hill Chapels. In 1882, Mr Farris gave an address to the Perry Hill Temperance meeting, “setting forth many reasons why working men, of all people, should be Total Abstainers”.
By 1890, the local parishioners sought independence from the Guildford Congregational Church, and applied to the Surrey Mission for permission to become independent of it. We are very fortunate to have the manuscript notes of Herbert Farris (William’s son) to shed light on what happened next.
The minister at Guildford and some of the deacons there opposed this move to independence, but William marshalled enough support to win the day. One of those supporters was Lord Henry Francis Hope Pelham-Clinton-Hope, a gentleman who owned an estate at Deepdene, Dorking, and who became the 8th Duke of Newcastle-under-Lyne in 1928 on the death of his brother. Lord Hope was living in Worplesdon at the time, and had stated that “people should have their freedom”.
As a standby, in case the local community lost their bid for independence, and thereby lost the use of the Chapel, Lord Hope had a Mission Hall built, at his own expense, in the grounds of Perry Hill House, with the permission of Mr & Mrs Samuel Burch, who lived there and were staunch supporters of the Chapel. It became known as Hope Hall. This proved to be of great benefit to the Worplesdon congregational community, but things ended less well for Lord Henry. The future duke married an American actress in 1894, lived an extravagant lifestyle, and became bankrupt in 1896. During a world tour, his wife fell for an American gentleman, and refused to return to England. The couple divorced in 1902. Meanwhile Lord Hope had to sell much of his property, including Deepdene, in order to pay his debts.
In 1890, William Farris was appointed as minister at Perry Hill. He also lived locally (at Highclere), and is notable not just for his energetic work at the Chapel, including the restoration work he was responsible for in 1896, as stated on the stone, but also for being the father of Henry Freeman Farris, who built 2 houses adjacent to the church (Farris’s Cottages).
There was a drama on the day of William’s appointment. His son relates how, that Sunday, both William and the Guildford minister arrived to conduct the service. The congregation did not know what to do until the Chapel secretary arrived, waving a piece of paper from the Surrey Mission, confirming that the Chapel was now independent. William entered the Chapel to take the service, while the Guildford minister returned to Guildford. High drama in Worplesdon, indeed.
It is a little known fact that 2 young (less than 1 year old) children were buried by William Farris in 1890 in front of the Chapel. This might seem a little odd to us today, but perhaps this was William exercising his right to do this as some sort of statement. Whatever the circumstances, future burials of Rickford residents took place in St Mary’s churchyard, as they had done previously.
The congregation increased significantly over the next few years, perhaps encouraged by the various social activities which had been introduced – outings, parties, tea meetings, etc. However Herbert Farris describes the Chapel in those days as “a rather dreary place...a coke burning stove for heating, and oil lamps for light”, and by 1896, more space was required to meet the needs of the enlarged congregation.
£400 was raised to fund the building work required, which comprised a new roof, new vestry and new rostrum, and the resulting renovations are now commemorated on the foundation stone at the entrance to the Chapel. However the work was not without its complications: Early excavations showed that the Chapel had no foundations, which created rather a problem for installing a new roof. The architect’s solution was to build 7 buttresses to provide the necessary support, which required additional fundraising efforts to the tune of £200. Mr Hope gave £10, and the Surrey Mission provided £5 (which seems rather paltry).
Henry Rance had been invited to join the Chapel Committee during the year, and we must assume that he was involved in the building work – possibly as the main contractor. One can only wonder whether, in those days, there was a requirement to put such work out to competitive tender. Or was it possible that William Farris simply asked the builder who lived a few doors down the road to do the work? Mr Rance was a regular at The New Inn, and so he and William would have had some philosophical differences on certain matters, I’m sure.
William Farris was clearly a character. At a public meeting in 1899, an external speaker congratulated the church on its vitality, remarking that “the tone of its services was a striking contrast to the usually hum-drum services at the generality of village chapels”. Albert Enever relates how William used to thump the top of the pulpit while delivering his sermons, and on one occasion he thumped so hard that the candles used for light jumped out of their sockets, and one landed on a lady’s lap. He also notes that William was short in stature, and had to stand on a box to see over the pulpit. On one occasion, he had just delivered the line “a little while he shall see me, a little while he shall not”, when the box broke. William fell behind the pulpit amid much laughter from the congregation.
The congregation of the Chapel formed a cricket club – named The Hope Hall Cricket Club – and they played on the space opposite the chapel, described in more detail here, which Herbert describes as “a lovely level patch of grass”. Clearly there have been some small changes in the vegetation over the years... Reports of some of their matches appear in the local newspapers of 1906 – 1906. One of these is shown below – there are some familiar names, but it was not one of Hope Hall CC’s better days, I’m afraid.
Herbert Farris (one of William’s sons) and his sister formed the Worplesdon and District Temperance Society, which had no religious ties, but soon gathered more than 100 members. He also started an Excursion Fund, which paid for some of the older residents to visit the coast (at that time the South Eastern Railway ran an excursion each week from Guildford to towns on the Kent coast). For many of these older residents, it was the first time they had ever seen the sea. Herbert related how “What a joy it was to see their faces when they first caught sight of it”.
William Farris died in 1914 and his death was reported prominently on the front page of that week’s Surrey Advertiser (see cutting below). He was clearly a popular man, and had done a lot to promote a strong community spirit, based around the Chapel. He also had a good relationship with the Rector at St Mary’s, Duncan Tovey. The Manse was built after his death as a memorial to him in an old orchard in Merrist Wood Lane (now Coombe Lane), donated by Samuel Burch. There is a plaque dedicated to him and his wife in the Chapel (pictured below)
Samuel and Ann Burch, whose lives are described here, were also key members of the Chapel at this time. Samuel was Church Treasurer, and presided over the Sunday School. Herbert Farris has this to say about him: “What a man he was! He gave freely of his time and energy to do anything that he could, because of his love for the Chapel”. As we have already mentioned, not only did Samuel and Ann allow Hope Hall to be built on their property, but Samuel also donated the land for The Manse to be built as a memorial to William Farris.
Herbert Farris also mentions 2 other people who played a big role in the Chapel activities in the early part of the 20th century.
Firstly, Amelia Philps, who was the wife of Frederick Philps, the secretary and treasurer of the Church, and who left £500 for the benefit of the Church. Fred Philps would have been a well-known character in Worplesdon, as he ran the smithy on the Green for several years (which, after his retirement, became Philps Garage – 1980’s photo below left). Amelia was the organist at the Chapel for an astonishing 65 years (1884 – 1949), and she presented to the Church a new pipe organ (value £300) in 1937 in memory of her husband. Upon her death in 1963, she left her house, Sunnyside (next door to the New Inn, or White Lyon as it is now) in trust for the support of the Church, and it remains as the property of the URC Wessex Trust. Below right is a photo of Amelia standing in front of Sunnyside c1915.
Secondly, a “Mrs Heather”, who was involved in the Sunday School. This is presumably Maggie (nee Birkett), who married James Heather in 1890, and then Samuel Burch in 1916, after which she and Samuel presumably ran the Sunday School together.
As a general comment, it is evident from newspaper articles in the first half of the 20th century how many of the local Rickford people were involved in the chapel, and this is supported by the number of burials of local people which William personally performed. The chapel must have been a very important focal point for the local population at the time. A question does arise though: Did existing Congregationalists move into the area specifically because of they wanted to be close to the chapel, or did the local people become Congregationalists because of the proximity of the chapel? If I was a gambling man I would bet on the latter, but who knows?
After the deaths of William Farris (in 1914) and Samuel Burch (in 1927), the personnel changed, but the strong community spirit centred on the Chapel continued.
In 1916, at the request of the tenant who was then living at Perry Hill House, Hope Hall was physically moved from the grounds of Perry Hill House to the rear of the Chapel. In 1935 the hall was rebuilt, enlarged and renovated.
We know about some of the other people involved from the accounts of Stella Harris (nee Tickner) and Anne Philps (great-niece of Amelia Philps).
In 1936, Beatrice Quennell, who lived at Nightingale Cottage was appointed head of the Sunday School, a position she held until 1957. Stella Harris reports that she did her best at the Sunday School, “but there were 2 or 3 boys who used to lead her a merry dance”. Perhaps those boys are in the photo below, which shows Beatrice and the Sunday School, c 1953.
David Chuter, who lived at St Breward, served as Church Secretary from 1938 until the time of his death in 1955. He left a cottage in Rickford Hill in trust for the Church.
Charles Burch was deacon of the Congregational Chapel, and secretary there for 25 years. A plaque honouring his years of service hung on the wall of the Chapel. The Burch family has a page devoted to it on another page of this site.
Anne Philps describes in the 1940’s “sitting in the Chapel with 3 behatted ladies, Mrs Burch, Mrs Chuter and Great-aunt (Amelia Philps), whose heads nodded in agreement at the wise words of Mrs Barber in the pulpit”.
Stella Fletcher (nee Hope), Muriel Wallis and Lily Criddle all played the organ at the Chapel, as did Anne Philps (carrying on the family tradition set by her great-aunt Amelia). Their families lived close to the Chapel, and are mentioned elsewhere on this site.
Dorothy (“Dorry”) Tickner (nee Burch) was the daughter of Alfred Burch (and the half-sister of Jack, Samuel and Charles), and the mother of Stella Harris (nee Tickner), whose account of the recent history of the Chapel we have drawn on above. Both of these ladies were long-serving members of the Chapel, and are commemorated by plaques in the Chapel (pictured below). A photo of Dorry is also shown.
Less well known is that, shortly after the war, we had living in Worplesdon one of Britain’s best-loved comic actors. Richard Briers CBE, then a 12 year-old schoolboy, was living with his parents at Perry Hill Lodge (opposite the Memorial Hall). They only lived in Worplesdon for 2 or 3 years, but Richard appears in the following photograph of the St Mary’s Church Choir (along with Samuel and Ethel Burch, and Eric Tickner, who was one of Dorry and Fred's 7 children). Richard's innocent smile was in evidence even then!
1972-date: Under the wing of the United Reform Church
In 1972 the Chapel joined the newly-created United Reformed Church.
In 1979, after the retirement of the Rev Edward Barrow, the Worplesdon URC (as the Chapel was then known) was invited to join 3 other local URC groups (at Westborough, Normandy and Bellfields). This was a harmonious arrangement to start with, but did not seem to work out very successfully, and allegiance was transferred to Woking URC. There was no minister, but a number of lay and in-house preachers.
In 1987, Worplesdon URC decided to share a minister with York Road, Woking URC. This was a radical step, partly because the first minister (Roberta Sears) was an American. According to Stuart Davies “Many people found this remarkable firstly that the church had an American minister but that she was also female! Others thought that it a Robert A Sears who was coming.” This arrangement with York Road URC lasted until 2004, when York Road URC decided to join St Andrews Woking URC.
In 1993 Hope Hall was replaced by a purpose-built hall.
In 2004, Alison Toplas, a member of Guildford URC who was in ministerial training, joined Worplesdon URC as a non-stipendiary (ie unpaid) minister. The following year saw the death of the long-serving Church Secretary, David Kelly.
Amelia Philps’s old organ was replaced in 2010. The organist at this time was Anne Philps, Amelia’s great-niece (whose photo is below). The entertaining story of the replacement operation is related on the Church website at worplesdonurc.wordpress.com/our-history/
So the Chapel has a wonderful history, but in recent years, it has seen - along with many other places of worship - a significant decline in membership, particularly amongst younger people. The closure of the Chapel was announced in September 2020, just 2 years before what would have been its bicentenary.
Three recent photos of the Chapel are shown below.
Here is a list of ministers since 1890:
1890-1914: William Farris
1915-1918: Rev William Timms
1919-1921: Rev Dr Stephen Aldridge
1922-1927: Rev AJ Owens
1929-1933: Rev TE Moore
1934-1936: Rev W Lettington
1937-1943: Rev John J Barber
1943-1948: Mrs Eleanor Barber (widow of John J Barber)
1948-1953: Rev G Sydney Morgan
1953-1957: Rev Gomer Davies
1957-1961: Rev PJ Spooner, BD
1963-1965: Rev JFS Solomon, MA
1971-1979: Rev Edward Barrow
1987-1990: Rev Roberta Sears (shared with York Road, Woking URC)
1991-1998: Blair Kirkby (shared with York Road, Woking URC)
2000-2004: Rev Howard Reed (shared with York Road, Woking URC)
2004-2020: Rev Alison Toplas
Photos of some of these individuals are shown below.
As a footnote, the “Miss C Farris” (who died in 1951 and was immortalised on the Chapel gatepost) was one of the daughters of William (and therefore a sister of Henry Freeman and Herbert Farris). She never married, and was aged 80 at the time of her death.