COCKERMOUTH'S OLD & HIGH MEETINGS
Although its earliest days are documented in splendid detail in its own "Church Book," (for quotations in this article, I have used a typed transcript by J.G. Brooker, copied on a visit to Cockermouth in 1938, but completed when he had returned to Cossipore, Calcutta, India, March 1939: Whitehaven Archive Office ref. YDFCCL 3/2) the history of the Congregational or Independent Church in Cockermouth, Cumbria, in the 18th century is much less clear. In particular, some authorities (including the much-respected Buildings of England volume on Cumbria) assert that the old meeting house (behind the present United Reformed Church, which replaced it in 1850) was rebult in 1735. J. Bernard Bradbury, in his History of Cockermouth (see also his Cockermouth in Pictures, volume 7) implies that his source for this claim is the Rev. J.B. Clark's Story of the Cockermouth Congregational Church 1651-1951. However, Clark's slim and now extremely rare booklet makes no such claim, though numerous earlier works do- notably John Askew's Guide to the interesting places in and around Cockermouth (1866, 1872). The earliest source I have yet found is William Whellan's History and Topography of the Counties of Cumberland and Westmorland (1860). Hence, for example, the historical summary published in the Carlisle Journal on 13 September 1850 to accompany the report of the opening of the new church makes no mention of 1735. It therefore seems most likely that the old meeting house, with its badly-reassembled 1719 porch (pictured at right), is in essence, though much modified, the actual structure which was projected by the congregation in the autumn of 1718 (see W. Lewis's History of the Congregational Church, Cockermouth, pages 123 to 127, 1870).
On the other hand, a very significant year in the congregation's history was 1765. The Church Book reports that long-serving minister Thomas Jolllie (referred to as "Mr Jolly") died in June 1764, and the story is taken up in an article on the history of the church, written just within living memory (part of a "Statistical View of Dissenters in England and Wales" in The London Christian Instructor, or Congregational Magazine, May 1822):
"the congregation were not unanimous in the choice of a successor: some were for a Mr. Popplewell, a student of Heckmondwike (and who was afterwards settled and deceased at Beverley, in Yorkshire); but Mr. Thomas Lowthion became the minister of the meeting house. There being no doubt of the introduction of Arianism, a division of the people took place; and the friends of truth agreed to the opening of another house for religious worship, which, from its situation in the town, was known by the name of the High Meeting."
Arianism is the belief that Christ is not an eternal aspect of God, but was created by God. According to the Rev. J. H. Colligan's article on Great Salkeld Presbyterian Meeting-house in Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society (New Series vol. 8, 1908), Thomas Lowthion was a relative of the Rev. Samuel Lowthion, who had been minister at Penrith Presbyterian church from 1745 to 1752, then founded an academy in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where young Thomas was educated before becoming minister at Great Salkeld in 1758.
Another article from living memory ("Brief Memoir of the Late Isaac Brown, Esq. of Cockermouth, Cumberland." in the Missionary Chronicle, June 1823) puts the situation in the strongest of terms:
"Mr. Brown's family, and others, determined for "the faith once delivered unto the saints;" and which had of old been confirmed by the persecutions and deaths of their martyred ancestors. Another meeting-house was immediately prepared; and here a numerous congregation was collected, and continued to assemble until the death of Mr. L."
Proceeding to the details of the secession- the traditionalists acquired a barn on the eastern edge of the town, and petitioned to have it licensed for public worship. Accordingly, at the Quarter Sessions held in Carlisle on 17 July 1765 (see Carlisle Archive Office ref. Q1/8) the magistrates noted:
"The Barn lately purchased by John Marston now in the possession of John Hodgson Tanner situate in Cockermouth in the County of Cumberland Recorded as a place of religious Worship for the protestant Dissenters."
Although Lowthion's supporters held the keys to the Meeting House, the anti-Arians held the Church Book, in which they recorded much of the subsequent story. Hence the Church Book proudly proclaims:
"1765 Novb 20
The new meeting house was opened and a Sermon preached by one Mr. G. Kettilby minester at Potlebank Lancashire from those words 26 Isaiah 2 3 verses open ye the gates that the Rightious"
Finding a minister proved more difficult. However, the Church Book again records the key stages of the solution, beginning with an entry for January 1766:
"a young man who was at a place near Bernard Castle providentialy called at Mr Neils in Keighley Mr Neil knowing nothing of the man. After some discourse with him he Invited him to stay and preach for him but he could not stay being at a great distance from his congregation they could have no notice, Mr Neil knowing our case as we had aplyed to him for assistance prevaled with the Young man to come and preach at Cockermouth though he never heard of it before he came and preached 2 Lords days with great acceptance, but gave us no Incouragement but wee writ to him again to come and preach to us accordingly he came and stay'd two L'ds days. We then gave him an Invitation he told us he would consult the Ministers in Newcastle etc. Also send us an Answer in 4 Months time accordingly he is now come to us accepting of the call"
The young man's name was Selby Ord, and he now came to share the anti-Arian congregation's problems, for the Congregational Church in Cumberland was at that time completely dominated by Arians, as the Church Book records over a year later:
Mr Ord has been with us a whole Year but not being ordained we could not have the Seal of the Cov'nant administred to us tho wee applied to those Ministers who profes to be Orthodox they refused to give us any assistance unless we would aply to those Ministers whose principles wer opposed which we loked upon as giveing up the Cause we were Contending for and snekingly betray the truth of the gosple into the hands of its oppresers. wee then made application to the Revd Mr James Tetley of Ravenstonedale who is not in Connection with the Cumberland provincial who indulged us with the favour to come and preach to us and administered both ordinances; The Lords super and baptized children which our orthod. had denyed us, April the 9th Mr Tetley administred the Lord super it was a sweet day there appeared abundance of the presence of the Lord with us may the Lord go on to fill our assembly with his presens and his glory dwell with us, wee had a sweet and Lively discourse from those words in the prophet 13 Zaris awake o sword against my foe"
Inviting Mr Tetley provided a temporary relief, and perhaps it was he who inspired the longer-term solution which swiftly followed. This was effected far away from Cockermouth, and so only the locally-apparent outcome is recorded (twice!) in the Church Book:
"1767 June 18
Revd Mr Selby Ord was ordained Pastor att Cockermouth a numerous Congregation present the persons assisting in the solemnity of the day were Rev Mr Fisher from Warminster, Rev. Mr Waldgrave, Rev Mr Allat both from Lancashire, there appeared abundance of the presence of the Lord in this solemnity may the glory of the Lord stil dwell with us and stil fill our assembly with his presence"
"June ye 18 1767
The Rev. Mr. Selby Ord was sperated and ordained Pastor of the Church of Christ Meeting att Cockermouth by the Imposition of hands and prayer By and in the presence of ye Revd
Mr Dan Fisher
Red Mr Waldgrave
Red Mr Allot.
Ye Red Mr. Fisher preached on this ocasion from these words 1 Cor: 1.21 Mr Waldgrave gave exortation
Mr Allot to his confession or examined"
The Rev. B. Nightingale attempted to identify the Lancashire ministers in his "Lancashire Nonconformity" (1890):
"Mr. Waldegrave was minister at Tockholes, near Blackburn, and Mr. Allatt, I suspect, the Forton minister. He was trained at the Heckmondwike Academy by the Rev. James Scott, being one of his earliest students, and so would leave about 1757 or 1758."
More of the story can be found, rather surprisingly, in Nightingale's "The Ejected of 1662 in Cumberland & Westmorland" (1911), included solely because the author became intigued by the controversy when using the Church Book as a source for his main research. He reports:
"It would seem that the sympathies of the Ministers, who formed the Cumberland Provincial, went with Lowthion, and they refused to ordain Ord, with the result that the managers of the Congregational Fund Board took action. The following extracts from the Minutes give the interesting story : —
June 8. 1767.
The Congregational Fund being concerned by their Exhibitions to encourage what they apprehend to be a Gospel Ministry and to support the undoubted Privilege of Christian Communities to choose a Minister by the Approbation of a Majority among them, and it appearing to them that several Ministers in Cumberland who receive the Benefit of their Exhibitions have refused to ordain a Minister at Cockermouth though chosen by a Majority of the Congregation at that place, of unexceptionable Character and of Sentiments agreeable to the Fund — The Board have resolved to dismiss the Ministers who have thus refused (whose names are in the Margin [here below]) from their further Regard till they shall think fit to alter their Conduct in a Point that so evidently Concerns what the Fund conceives to be Evangelical Sentiments and that is so deeply interesting to the Rights and Liberties of Protestant Dissenters.
[the offending ministers:] Mr. Potts of Brampton; Deane of Huddeskew; Sanders Blenerhasset; Thompson Workington; Bigger Keswick; Moncrieff Penruddock "
Oct. 5. 1767.
Letters from Messrs Saunders, Thomson, Biggar, Deane and Potts dated Penreth 19th Aug. 1767 were now read but their Defence was not Satesfactory to the Board.
June 4. 1768.
Agreed that the Ministers in Cumberland who were under the Censure of this Board for refusing to joyne in the Ordination of Mr. Ord at Cockermouth, upon their humble Petition be restored, at the same time that they be inform'd if they offend in a Case of the like Nature, they must expect to forfeit any future Exhibition from this Board."
The High Meeting is the building marked as "Presbiterian Meeting," east of the St. Helens turnpike gate in the Cockermouth town plan on Hodskinson and Donald's map of Cumberland, surveyed in 1770-71 (as featured on my plan above). Unfortunately, references in the Church Book (giving details of the recruitment of new members, mostly female) cease at this time. An obituary of Selby Ord (who died on 10 July 1814 "in the 73rd year of his age"), copied in the Carlisle Journal of 23 July 1814, reports that he moved to Longformacus in Berwickshire after 11 years at Cockermouth. So far I have been unable to work out who was the minister at the High Meeting after that time, around the spring of 1777.
Thomas Lowthion died on 26 September 1781 "in the 43d year of his age" (as reported in the following week's Cumberland Pacquet newspaper, 2 Oct 1781), and, as the.1822 Congregational Magazine article reports, he: "was immediately succeeded by Mr. Smith, a Scotsman, but who soon after resigned this pastoral charge, and returned to his own country. The two congregations now united at the old meeting-house, and presented a unanimous call to Mr. Henry Townsend, of the Academy at Heckmondwike. In the year 1783, Mr. T. commenced his labours among this people."
The 1823 Missionary Chronicle report captures the spirit of the occasion:
"The re-union of the people at the old meeting-house, under the ministry of Mr. Townsend, in 1783, was an event desirable on every account, and communicated much pleasure to all parties, however adverse they had latterly been to each other."
This seems to be confirmed in William Hutchinson's description of Cockermouth a decade later, around the end of Townsend's period of service, in the History of the County of Cumberland (vol. 2 page 118, 1794):
"There is one dissenting and one Quaker meeting-house here; the families of dissenters about 120 in number - the Quaker families about 30."
The isolated High Meeting itself was abandoned- probably with immediate effect. 19th-century maps show the site occupied by a block of three cottages (as is still the case at the time of writing in 2012); it is not clear whether these were formed from the structure of the old building, or built new.