By Jill Bryant
The fast-approaching 200th anniversary of the opening of Tolpuddle Old Chapel got off to a cracking start with a visit from the Wessex Morris Men.
After dancing in the street, history was made when the performers and followers went into the old chapel and sang the first hymn to be sung there in 174 years – ‘Men plough the fields and scatter’.
David Chiplen, a retired conservation officer for West Dorset District Council and member of Wessex Morris, told stories about the history of the building and the performers sang songs about rural life in the 19th century.
The success of the evening is a good indicator of future community use of this unique little building once it is finally renovated.
To mark the bicentenary of this, the original historically significant Methodist Chapel in Tolpuddle, there will be a special celebration on Sunday 14 October at 3pm.
The Rev Steph Jenner says that during that the opening of the Old Chapel will be celebrated, remembering the violence of that first opening and looking forward to the future. The afternoon service will start at the present Methodist Chapel and move on to the Old Chapel.
“Everyone who comes to the celebration is invited to bring a small stone to be added to the new construction as a sign of reconciliation, our ecumenism and moving forward together as a village community.”
Anyone is welcome to attend and it is hoped to re-create the much-crowded chapel full of people praising God. Tolpuddle Old Chapel Trust is working to collect Match Funding to clinch the £329,300 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund that will allow renovation works to start in 2019.
The Old Chapel was built in 1818 by the Dorset Labourers on land adjoining Thomas Standfield’s cottage in the centre of Tolpuddle.
The little chapel was used for Non-Conformist worship from 1818 until 1834. It was a place of Bible study, hymn-singing and prayer. Under the guidance of the lay preacher, George Loveless, the congregation grew in their understanding of the social injustice of their harsh living and working conditions.
In 1833 a group of them met up with the fledgling union of The Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers. In 1834 six of their number swore an oath and formed their own branch of the Union. They were subsequently arrested, tried in Shire Hall courthouse in Dorchester, sentenced and transported to Australia.
In 1862, a new chapel was built at the other end of the village. The Old Chapel was used for housing livestock and its interior was altered. At the turn of the 20th century it fell out of use and was largely forgotten. Until fairly recently this delightful little building was covered in vegetation.
A letter to the editor of The Blackmore Vale magazine in 2009 was the turning point and in 2014 a Building Preservation Trust and registered charity was formed.
The building was bought from the landowner in 2015 with the aid of a loan from the local Methodist circuit. The first trustees were Andrew McCarthy, Rob Brunt, Rev Steph Jenner and the artist, Adrian Whittlesea. In 2017, David Willey, curator of the Tank Museum, joined them.
The Heritage Lottery Fund, Historic England, the Architectural Heritage Fund and local councils contributed financially.
Following the purchase, English Heritage (now Historic England) funded emergency repairs to stabilise the building which is Grade II* listed. The intention is to renovate this unique and historically important building for use as a ‘quiet place in the heart of this historic Dorset Village’
Further information about their work and about how to donate can be found at tolpuddleoldchapeltrust.org