Village Nonconformists


The Protestant Reformation movement was first triggered by Martin Luther, in Germany. It swept through Europe in the 1500s and resulted in doctrinal separations from the Roman Catholic Church.

In England, Henry VIII decided to made his own split with Rome enabling him to overcome objections to his marriage to Anne Boleyn.  The separation resulted in the creation of the Church of England and the dissolution of the monasteries; Henry was also able to sell off huge amounts of church land generating a great deal of money for the state.

Some, in England, resisted these changes; for others, the changes did not go far enough.  Many in the latter group coalesced into groups known as either “dissenters” or “nonconformists”.  They comprised: Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists and Calvinists.  In due course there were also Methodists, Unitarians, Quakers and others – all with fundamental principles at odds with the Church of England and resulting in them setting up their own institutions. 

A common theme related to the monarch being declared head of the English church – similar to the Pope’s role in Catholicism. Rather than celebrating the role of an individual, nonconformists regarded the Christian Bible as both the fundamental basis and focus of their faith – without the need for an institutionalised “chief”.

Nonconformism had a strong following in certain parts of the country – especially within this local area. In a similar vein, Norfolk largely supported the parliamentarians (and Oliver Cromwell) in the civil war, with a few exceptions – Knyvett, L’Estrange, Paston, etc.

Maria Burton’s Bible

Maria Burton and her brother of William Ottey Burton, lived at Burton’s Farm [today “Poplar Farm”] and both are understood to have been nonconformists.

Maria Burton had written the date 4th February 1841 inside the black leatherbound copy of her bible. 

Whilst the title pages provides the date “1615”, was this the date of it’s print version rather than the date it was actually printed?  Remaking printing plates was probably expensive.

Whatever the printing date, Maria’s bible appears strikingly old – certainly much earlier than the date of her inscription. It has also seen professional paper repairs being undertaken over the years so was clearly treasured.

NB February 1841 was one year after the death of her father, William Burton snr.  Had Maria’s bible once belonged to him?

Bibles in the late Middle Ages

There were alternative English bibles published at this time. “Geneva” Bibles were first published in the mid-1500s. This was less than 100 years after William Caxton’s introduction of the printing press and became the primary Bible of 16th /17th century English Protestantism.  Users ranged from Shakespeare to Oliver Cromwell and was also one of the Bibles taken to America by the Pilgrim Fathers on the Mayflower in the early 1600s. It is believed to have been used by many of Cromwell’s soldiers during the English Civil War not many years after that.

A notable feature was its extensive use of explanatory notes inserted to the left of the main text.  An aspect which particularly appealed to nonconformists was the anti-monarchy sentiments liberally spread through these notes. 

When James I came to the throne, he commissioned what has since become known as the “King James Bible” (see above Maria Burton example) – which specifically did away with those notes.  Nevertheless, for many years, both versions remained in print. The Geneva version being the nonconformist’s preference.

1851 Church Census – Wreningham listing

For 1851, the government had decided to include a Church Census to run alongside the national census. In recent years, old standard Census documentation has had wide circulation and forms the basis of much family tree research. The 1851 Church census is much less well known. In Norfolk, in the 1990’s, the county’s 1851 Church Census document was collated into bookform and published by the Norfolk Record Society. There were three places of Worship in Wreningham – probably one more than most villagers may be familiar with. All three are listed below.

The unexpected place of worship was for “Protestant Dissenters” (Record 508, shown above). From the details, it is clear this was at Hill House Farm – owned by William Ottey Burton, in 1851.  Today’s owners were surprised to uncover extensive wood-panelling when they stripped back the very old downstairs wallpaper, after first moving in.  At the time of this discovery, they had commented that the panelled walls reminded them of a place of worship!

The above census extract (Sunday 30th March 1851) tells us this “Dwelling House” had a “Protestant Dissenter” congregation of 75 during both the morning and the afternoon.  That number is considerably more than the village’s All Saints Church – which only declared a congregation of 45 on the morning of the same Sunday.   When the attendance figure for the Independent Chapel is also taken into account, the village’s All Saints Church only accounted for about one quarter of all village worshippers!

In 1856, John William Bullimore had been given the job of farm steward for the three farms under William Ottey Burton’s control – including Hill House Farm. Putting that together with information from John Bullimore’s 1861 diary suggests he also provided two sermons there every Sunday.

These are a just a few of the recently discovered collection of booklets in which John Bullimore wrote out his sermons – presumably to be given to his regular congregations at Hill House Farm. 

The farmhouse is relatively large. The above book extract states it had been constructed in about 1740. At various points in it’s history, it has had multiple occupancy and the building has often been split, internally. In the early 1850s, Barbara Denny arrived as a new tenant. Barbara Denny was born Barbara Bullimore and was John Bullimore’s aunt.

Maria Burton died in 1870 and bequeathed Hill House Farm to John Bullimore – who then married and lived there until his death in 1906. As a result, Barbara Denny became the tenant of her nephew. However, in 1876/7, following his aunts death – when John Bullimore received a substantial bequest from her, he commissioned a major rebuilding project at the farmhouse. He spent nearly £500. For comparison, that sum is greater than Wreningham All Saints Church had spent on constructing a North Transept, not many years before!

The rebuilding work was carried out by a team led by local man, William Long and took nearly a year. It’s not clear whether these modifications included changes to benefit the congregations, but it’s likely that they did.

We don’t know when Hill House Farm ceased being a place of worship. It is worth noting that the existing Independent / Methodist Chapel a few hundred yards down the main road was reconstructed in the early 1900s – with the plan for its reconstruction being launched at almost the same time as John Bullimore’s death in 1906. Was there a connection between these two events? Did the rebuilt Chapel take over the remaining “Independent” / “Protestant Dissenter” congregations of both?

NB  The 1851 church census was subsequently criticised in parliament for for being unfair to many religious organisations outside the Church of England. It was therefore decided that this experiment would never be repeated.  Hence, no records were taken for any subsequent years.

Going back in time:

To provide a context for John Bullimore’s involvement in nonconformist religion, it’s worth looking back to the first half of the 1800s.

John Bullimore and his sister Anna had been brought up by brother and sister William Ottey Burton and Maria Burton. The Bullimore children had been given up by their father, Mark Bullimore, after Mark’s wife, Sarah, had died from tuberculosis – whilst Mark appears to have remained in poor health.  This was in late 1827 – and just nine months after John’s birth. Both children had been born in Norwich and their father, Mark, ensured their births were registered at a Norwich Baptist Chapel.

Both Mark and Sarah Bullimore had visited Wreningham about two months prior to Sarah’s death. We don’t know who they visited but it’s reasonable to suppose it involved the Burtons.

William Ottey Burton’s (1851) ownership of Hill House Farm – being used as a “Protestant Dissenters” place of worship makes it clear that both he and his sister Maria were nonconformists – and Mark’s involvement with the Baptist church suggests he was on common religious ground with the Burtons.

When John Bullimore was still only six years old, Mark had written him a four page letter (solely) exhorting him to pursue the Christian faith and put it above all else.  We might presume John Bullimore’s eventual sermon-giving was a manifestation of his subsequent commitment.

Mark Bullmore died aged 51, in 1844, when John was still in his late teens. Mark was interred in the burial ground at Worstead Baptist Chapel, North Norfolk.

John Filby Childs (1783-1853) – Bungay, Norfolk

In April 1841, William Ottey Burton (acting as John Bullimore’s guardian) had sent a letter to John’s father, Mark. The letter described how the 14 year old John Bullimore had just left school, for good, following a very difficult working relationship with his teacher.  There was no school operating in Wreningham at this time so the indentity of John’s school remains unknown.

William Ottey Burton’s letter told how he rode to Bungay with the young John Bullimore – presumably in a gig (carriage) pulled by a horse. Their journey was to determine if a Mr John Filby Childs, who owned a printing works would provide an apprenticeship to John Bullimore. The Bungay printing works employed about 100 at the time. 

Although John Bullimore appears to have been offered the apprenticeship – and was even offered the chance of local accommodation to go with it, we don’t believe he accepted.

Perhaps of greater interest, is that the printer, John Filby Childs “a staunch nonconformist” was also a printer of bibles. In 1831, he had told a House of Commons select committee that he had been printing “cheap bibles” for a quarter of a century and that they had printed copies of “the bible with notes”. As a result, John Childs paid no taxes on them. Presumably, “with notes” is a reference to these being Geneva Bibles at a time when most regular bibles were the King James version.

In 1836, John Filby Childs had been jailed after “the Braintree Case” where he had declared his “conciencious refusal to pay church rates” – the church in question being the Church of England. This jailing was subsequently debated in the House of Commons where John Childs had become known as the “Bungay martyr”. In 1841, John Childs with his brother Robert and others, helped to establish the “Nonconformist” newspaper.

Is this nonconformist association the reason William Ottey Burton chose to take the 14 year old John Bullimore (on a very rough road, back then) all the way to Bungay, when there must have been many other apprentiship possibilities just up the road in Norwich?

John Child’s printing works remain today. They were bought from his descendents during the 1870s by the Clay family arriving from London.

Local Nonconformist connections

In Wreningham, George Childs (farmer at Peartree Farm and also a businessman) was a very close friend of the Burtons. George Childs was even present at William Ottey Burton’s death in 1857. In due course, George Childs worked alongside John Bullimore on various projects, too.

[We can’t find any family link between Wreningham’s George Childs and Bungay printer John Childs.]

During the 1800s, the Burtons, George Childs and John Bullimore all regularly engaged the services of Norwich solicitor, Jacob Henry Tillett – a well known nonconformist. Tillett was the appointed solicitor following the deaths of William Ottey Burton, Maria Burton and George Childs and had worked closely with both George Childs and John Bullimore regarding their various business investments.

Norfolk solicitor Jacob Tillet was also an established Liberal politician. He was Mayor of Norwich in 1859 and successfully stood for parliament on several occasions between 1870 and 1885. (On two other occasions, his candidacy was declared void due to irregularities!)

The above references to Wreningham nonconformists is clearly just scratching the surface. From the 1851 Church Census it’s very clear there were a great many others.

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