In order to understand the growth of the dissenting movement in Thriplow it is necessary to refer back to the reformation and the early fragmentation of the English Church.

‘In the first half of the seventeenth century religion continued to dominate men’s thinking just as it had done before the Reformation; it was an all-embracing force that shaped their ideas and gave meaning to their lives’ (1). The parson was a major influence on the lives of his parishioners, most of whom were happy to follow his example. Of the nine wills of Thriplow inhabitants extant from the years 1560-1572, all but two are signed by the Vicar and all with one exception profess belief in Jesus Christ as their only Saviour and declare Queen Elizabeth to be the Supreme Head of the Church (2). The one exception appears neutral, professing no particular religious beliefs.

In 1638 Bishop Matthew Wren of Ely, a staunch supporter of the ‘high church’ Archbishop Laud accused Thomas Carter, Vicar of Thriplow, of ‘Scandalous and Immoral behaviour’. His list of ‘crimes’ included ‘communion table not railed in, no book of preacher’s names, no terrier, no poore men’s box, parishioners have not received the communion at the Holy Table, by reason they had no rayle so it is administered in the chancell as usually they had done’ (3). As the churchwarden’s for 1639 show, Carter conformed and he escaped ejection from his living (4). Many Thriplow names were added to the general petition sent to Parliament in 1638, complaining about the persecution by Bishop Wren, and in 1640 he was finally imprisoned for the next eighteen years.

It was now the turn of the Puritans to influencethe religious lives of the people. In 1640, Ecclesiastical Courts, Bishops, and the Book of Common Prayer were all abolished. In 1643 an ordinance called for the removal of all idolatrous icons and William Dowsing was made Parliamentary Visitor for Cambridgeshire. His orders were to remove all superstitious relics from Churches, anything that distracted the eye, and represented the host of heaven. He visited Thriplow in March 1643 and “brake about 100 Cherubims and superstitious pictures and gave Order to take down 18 Cherubims and a cross on the steeple and to level the steps” (5).

At the restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, opinion swung strongly away from the puritans and another round of ejections began. Two popular preachers, Francis Holcroft (1632-1692) and Joseph Oddy (1628-1687) were ejected from their livings in Bassingbourn, eight miles, and Meldreth three miles from Thriplow, and from their Cambridge Colleges. They were both imprisoned in Cambridge gaol for their beliefs, but were occasionally allowed out by a lenient gaoler to preach in the surrounding villages, including Thriplow. They formed a ‘gathered’ church and drew many hundreds throughout the counties of Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire to them by their doctrine of pre-destination, a belief that only the chosen ‘elect’ would be ‘saved’ from eternal damnation. Francis Holcroft is generally considered to ‘have been the chief promoter of independency in that county’ (Cambridge)(6) died in Thriplow in 1691 (7).

Margaret Spufford in her study of Holcroft’s influence on the beliefs of Cambridgeshire villagers, states that there is a noticeable lack of Calvinist dedicatory clauses (‘there is none that shall be saved but such as are elected”) in Cambridgeshire wills, and that references to election are very rare indeed (8). But from a study of the 88 wills (between the years 1556-1696) from Thriplow, 37 (42%) declare general puritan beliefs, i.e. “Trusting in the merits of Christ’s blood and passion to inherit eternal salvation”, and 9 (10%) declare themselves to be ‘God’s Elect’. If the figures are taken from 1639, the date in which the word ‘Elect’ is first used, then the percentage rises to 20%, a sure indication of the influence of Holcroft’s preaching.

Whereas the Compton Census of 1676 shows the national average for non-conformity as 5%, and the figure for Cambridgeshire as 4%, the percentage of non-conformists in Thriplow is 30% (48 dissenters and 110 conformists). Of the villages within a five mile radius only Shepreth with a percentage of 22% is close to this figure (9),
On Thursday 19 July 1759 John Wesley wrote in his Journal

I walked from Stapleford to hear Mr Berridge at Triplow, and saw many other companies, some before, some behind, some on either side, going the same way,.fifteen hundred or two thousand were assembled in the close at Triplow. The only unpolished part of the audience were the few gentlemen on horseback. They were much offended at the cries of those in conviction, but much more at the rejoicing of others, even to laughter; but they were not able to look them in the face for half a minute together.” (10)

Wesley stayed over-night with Berridge and was persuaded to preach to the crowds the next day. John Berridge (1716-1793) was vicar of Everton, Bedfordshire from 1755-93. In 1756 he ‘Fled to Jesus alone for Refuge’ and spent the rest of his days travelling and preaching in Cambridgeshire and surrounding counties (11). He lived until 1793 and was obviously a most influential preacher. A baulk (a path between cultivated strips in the open field system of farming) in Thriplow where he used to preach was named Berridge’s Baulk in his honour (12). The Return made by the Rural Dean in 1783 states that ‘The Schoolmaster is a Follower of Mr Berridge’s Disciples’ and that ‘The greatest Part of the Parish are Dissenters’ (13).


The story of non-conformity in Thriplow in the nineteenth century is mainly the story of three men, father, son and grandson, each with the name of Joseph Ellis, who between them spanned the best part of a century. By hard work, good management, and the aid of the Act of Enclosure in 1840, the family rose within three generations from tenant farmer to become of Lord of the Manor, J.P. and owner of most of the land in the village, employing 80 men and boys. (Fig.4).

In the late seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a village such as Thriplow, with a population of around 400, practising mainly subsistence agriculture on the rich soils of South Cambridgeshire, was moderately prosperous, moderately independent (most land was held by ‘Copyhold’ of the absentee landowners, Cambridge Colleges and the Dean and Chapter of Ely), and moderately self sufficient. The greatest influence in a village where ‘about eight ninths are of the labouring classes’ (14) would be the farmers and the vicar.

The personality of the vicar could therefore affect the whole tenor of the parish and events seem to bear out this theory. The Rev Francis Gunning, Vicar of Thriplow from 1759 to 1789 seemed capable of holding together, for the good of the community, all shades of opinion within the village (15).

Throughout his incumbency and for a while after, the village oligarchy ran the civil and religious life of the village, rotating their official positions and undertaking their duties with responsibility and co-operation. His successor, the Rev Butler Berry 1789 to 1832 held several livings within the area, though he lived and was buried in Thriplow (16) and seemed to live in some style. Vinter recalls ‘it is remembered of him that he used to ride round on horseback, and if he found no congregation at one church he passed on to the next, and so on’ (17). He married twice and had nine children.

Joseph Ellis I is described as a follower of John Berridge, walking over 20 miles to Everton to hear him preach (18). When his father Thomas, died in 1769 Joseph then aged 24, took over the running of the farm. He became one of the first deacons of the Independent Chapel (built in 1780) in the next village of Fowlmere (18) whilst continuing to be churchwarden of Thriplow Parish Church until his death in 1829.

His name first appears as churchwarden in 1790, and he kept the churchwarden’s accounts continually until his death in 1829, but they were not signed by the Vicar from 1790 until 1818 a period of 28 years; indeed, during all this time the accounts were passed on only three occasions, an indication, it would seem, of a rather lax attitude towards church affairs on the part of the Rev.Butler Berry. When Joseph Ellis I died in 1829 his son Joseph Ellis II took over from him until 1832. Between them,Joseph I and Joseph II were churchwardens for 58 years (19).

The surviving parish records for 1764-1832, show both anglicans and dissenters holding parish offices. Churchwardens, overseers, surveyors and constables rotated between the same few names year after year; indeed at the back of one of the Account Books is a list of ‘Overseers by turn – Simon Purdue; Benjamin Prime; John Faircloth; Thomas Hawes; Joseph Ellis; Jacob Prime; and Bennett Cranwell’ (20). Of these seven names, five were signatories to the first applications from Thriplow in 1800 for a ‘licence to hold Meetings for religious Worship by a Congregation of Protestant Dissenters from the Church of England’. Of these seven, three – Bennett Cranwell, Joseph Ellis, and John Faircloth, all farmers, were Churchwardens at various times.

The first applications to set up a Dissenting ‘meeting place’ was made in 1800, in a room in a house in Middle Street owned by Thomas Prime known as ‘Wig’ Prime. As congregations grew and more space was needed, two more requests were made in 1812 and 1818 for meeting places on Joseph Ellis’s I property. (21). At least five of the names on all three documents were at some time churchwardens – what had caused them to rebel? Why should they suddenly want to leave membership of the parish church? Could it have been the pluralist and worldly character of the Vicar, the Rev Butler Berry, that encouraged these men to form their own religious centre?

In 1832 the Rev John Jenks became vicar of Thriplow and Joseph Ellis II ceased to be churchwarden. Joseph had been churchwarden since 1829 when his father had died, but the year that John Jenks took up his office, the churchwarden is named as Thomas Prime. (The same as ‘Wig’ Prime?)

The churchwardens’ accounts consist of amounts spent on the upkeep of the fabric, communion wine and bread, and journeys connected with church affairs, and the income came from a church rate set each year and charity bequests: the difference was either owed to the churchwarden or owed by him to the parish. In 1833 Ellis claimed the amount due to him from the accounts, a sum he had never bothered to claim before. At the end of that year he signed the Church accounts at the annual Easter meeting as Overseer, and continued to do so until 1838 when there was a gap of three years before he resumed signing the accounts until 1856 two years before he died.

That gap of three years is significant, as it was on July 25 1838 that the Rev John Jenks wrote a letter to the newspaper, The Cambridge Chronicle accusing Joseph Ellis of dismissing a lad in his employ for taking time off to be Confirmed. He accuses Ellis of not only dismissing the lad, but of not paying his church rates and of ridiculing the church in front of his men. (Appendix A). Since 1794 the Ellis family had leased the ‘Parsonage House’ or ‘Rectory’, the property of Peterhouse (the lay rectors) and with it the right to the great tithes which were worth £634 13s a year(22). In comparison the vicar’s income was a mere £137 15s (Jemks seems to have had no other livings (23) and in the years 1846-1847 and 1849-1850 even had to pay Joseph Ellis rent for land on Bacon’s Manor which Ellis owned (24). The vast difference in incomes coupled with the fact that the recipient of the Church Tithes was a leading dissenter must have been galling indeed to John Jenks. Ellis refuted the accusation in the Cambridge Chronicle of August 4 1838 (see Appendix A). Thus it seems clear that the conflict between the Vicar and the leader of the Dissenters was not ideological but envy of his affluent and influential position.


In 1835 it was reported that the congregation had grown so large that the barn put aside for non-conformist services could not hold all the people and Joseph Ellis II built a small Independent chapel in Middle Street (25).(Fig.5)

In the 1851 Religious Census (26), 100 people attended the evening service there, the morning service being held at the neighbouring village of Fowlmere where a chapel had been built in 1780. This census shocked the nation by revealing that well over half the population of England and Wales did not attend church, and that of those that did, over half attended a non-conformist chapel. These figures are borne out in Thriplow – out of a population in 1851 of 521, 196 people attended the parish Church and 100 attended the dissenting chapel, excluding the children at Sunday School, a total of 296 or 56%, the proportion of non-conformist to anglicans is 33%

In his reply to the Bishop’s Visitation Returns in 1873, the Rev Thos Andrew states that ‘there is an Independent Chapel and a Primitive Methodist’, so it would seem that the Primitive Methodists took over the Middle Street Chapel for Sunday evening services sometime after 1853 (27).

The Rev John Jenks died in 1849, but though the rift that had formed between church and chapel became more equable, it never became as close as it had been during the last years of the eighteenth century.


  1. Howard Shaw The Levellers (Longman, Green & Co. 1968) p.8.
  2. Cambridge Record Office hereafter CRO Ely Probate Records
  3. G.O.Vinter Thriplow, some notes, (Pendragon Press, Cambridge 1975) p.6.
  4. CRO P156/5/1
  5. Vinter, Thriplow p.7.
  6. Cambridge City Library, Dictionary of National Biography hereafter DNB Ed.Leslie Stephen (Smith Eldred Co.London 1885) Vol.IV p.393-4.
  7. A.G.Matthews Calamy Revised (OUP 1934).
  8. Margaret Spufford Contrasting Communities (CUP 1974) p.289
  9. The Compton Census of 1676, a Critical Edition Ed. Ann Whitman (OUP 1986)
  10. The Journal of the Rev.John Wesley, A.M.Ed. N.Curnock (Epworth Press 1909-1916).
  11. Dictionary of National Biography Vol.IV, Ed.Leslie Stephen (Smith Eldred Co. London 1885) p.393-4
  12. Rev A.W.Johnson, Fowlmere and Thriplow Congregational Church, A Historical Sketch 1880 MS by Mrs Ison, Fowlmere.
  13. Cambridge University Library hereafter CUL, EDR B7/1 1783
  14. CUL EDR C3/25 1873
  15. CRO As above P156/12/1
  16. Alumni Cantabrigienses Compiled J.A.Venn (CUP 1944)
  17. Vinter, Thriplow, p.9
  18. Johnson, Fowlmere & Thriplow Chapels Ms 1880.
  19. CRO P156/5/1,2.
  20. CRO P156/12/1
  21. CUL EDR B4/1 & B4/4/92 1800, 1812 also EDR B4/4/171 1812 & EDR B4/4/280
  22. CUL T1 Tithe Map and Apportionment 1842
  23. Alumni Oxonienses Ed. Joseph Foster (Parker & Co. Oxford 1888) Vol.IV.
  24. CRO 413/M16 Bacon’s Manor Rent Book 1842-1887
  25. CR
  26. Ecclesiastical Census of Great Britain 1851 (13 & 14 Victoria Cap.53)
  27. Cambridgeshire Collection Cassey’s Directory 1864