Bury St Edmunds Union workhouse

Historical Background

Suffolk in the 1830s was a very different place to the one that we know today. Many years of rural poverty and degradation had led to discontent among the poorer classes. It is estimated that in Suffolk more than half the population were on some form of parish relief.

In 1834 the Poor Law Reform Act was introduced to cut the cost of relief, but with the result that many unfortunate people were forced into the increasing number of workhouses. Life was indeed very tough.


Map of Bradfield, 1892 (click to enlarge)

Origins of the church

Our story begins in that same year of 1834 when a 30-year old woman called Abi Last returned to the little village of Bradfield to look after her elderly parents. Many years earlier Abi had left her home in Suffolk to work as a servant girl in Taunton, Somerset. During her time there she became a Christian and was baptised.

On her return to Suffolk Abi attended the newly opened Baptist church at Garland Street in Bury St Edmunds – but she had a great concern for her neighbours in Bradfield. It was not long before she had persuaded her minister, the Rev. Cornelius Elven, to visit Bradfield to preach the gospel.


From today’s perspective it may seem surprising that a Baptist preacher would be persecuted by the established church – but that is exactly what happened. Opposition came mainly from the Rector at Rougham who was the son of a local family of powerful landowners and much opposed to non-conformist church groups. The Rector, who lived in the Bradfield Rectory, owned most of the local woodlands including Bradfield Woods. The livelihood of poor families could be threatened if they were refused the right to extract timber from woodlands. Most cottages were rented from local landowners and there were no tenancy agreements.

It was against this background that the Rev. Cornelius Elven came to Bradfield in September 1834. It took six weeks before he could find someone prepared to risk opening their home for him to preach; even then the large cottage could not hold all those who attended and many had to stand outside. The Rector’s wife collected the names of all those who attended the meetings and as a result some were evicted from their homes. Two weeks later the venue closed. A number of open-air meetings were then held on the Bradfield village green.

(Thankfully the Baptist and Anglican churches in the area now enjoy an excellent relationship of co-operation; what a difference 150-years can make.)

A safe meeting place

The local believers prayed earnestly about this difficult situation and in 1835 a local man offered the church a 14-year lease on a freehold parcel of land. This is believed to have been located at the rear of what is now ‘Woodside’ in Freewood Street, Bradfield St George. A cheaply-built meeting place was soon constructed on the land and for the first 12-years the church was led by a Mr Thomas Ridley – supported by visiting pastors and lay preachers. Many heard the message about Jesus and were saved; baptisms were conducted in a local pond. The Sunday School for children was well attended.

small old church building 2

(The 1850 church building)

Solid foundations

In August 1847 Pastor G Ward of Shelfanger was called to be the church’s first pastor. The following year an opportunity arose to buy a piece of land with freehold tenure. A committee was soon setup to oversee the building of a new church on the site.

In May 1850 Mr Thomas Ridley laid the foundation stone and on the 19th September 1850 the new church was opened – it was built using bricks fired at the local Bradfield brickworks and cost a grand total of £360. Many people travelled to church by pony and trap, so in 1851 a stable block was added.

(Interior of the old building)

A period of growth

In 1853 a week of revival prayer meetings were held for the church, the children of believers, the Sunday School and for the surrounding villages.

The Church continued to grow under new leadership; Pastor Howell from January 1858 to September 1861 and then followed by Pastor Dowsing of Occold from February 1862. In 1864 the Harvest Tea was enjoyed by some 140 people.

During the leadership of Pastor Wright, September 1865 to 1869, a day school was started for village children. They met in the church vestry. Regular missions to three other villages were also established.

The average Sunday afternoon congregation during the time of Pastor Debenham from Maldon, 1869 to July 1874, was 200!

In 1875 Pastor Howell returned to be pastor, but sadly he died soon after in 1877. It was during this period that the James Stiff Almshouses were built in Rougham to be let to ‘non-conformist widows’. James Stiff also gave generous gifts to the chapel.

The longest serving pastor

In 1877 Pastor Dixon, a member from Garland Street, became pastor and stayed until 1922. Over 45-years of faithful service that encompassed some major changes in British society, including those caused by the Great War.

In 1881 there were evangelical Tent Meetings at a nearby farm where the barn and yard were used to stable the horses.

(Miss Abi Last)

The founder at rest

On the 3rd September 1882 Miss Abi Last died aged 78. She had been a guiding influence and a tireless worker in the church for nearly fifty years.

The text that she chose for her funeral was Mark 13, v37; “What I say to you, I say to everyone: Watch!” from the passage ‘The Day and Hour Unknown’.

In May 1883 Mr Thomas Ridley, a local grocer, offered a quarter of an acre near to Bradfield green to build a church manse, to be known as the ‘Abi Last Memorial House’. The church also bought the adjacent land to serve as a burial ground.


The first pastor to occupy the manse was Pastor LR Gerrard, 1923 to 1930. During his leadership, in 1924, the Mission Hall at Hessett was re-opened. It is thought that it originally opened in 1890 – a map from this period shows it was on the opposite side of the road from Malting Farm – where Chapel Cottage stands today.

It was during the short period of ministry of Pastor HH Gladstone, 1931, that Olive Sharpe asked to be baptised! Olive became like an Auntie to many at the church and she wrote many moving poems about her Lord Jesus that are still sometimes used during our services.

Following Pastor T Lynch, 1935 to 1938, the church passed through the difficult years of World War II without a pastor at the helm.

AJ Lankester

In 1947 Pastor AJ Lankester was called to the ministry at Bradfield and Rougham. During his time as pastor the Association Meetings were revived after a 39-year lapse. Part of Pastor Lankester’s ministry was to conduct Evangelistic Missions in Suffolk and Norfolk. He also launched ‘The Messenger’, a monthly church magazine that was published until recently and which lives on in the form of our weekly newsletter.

In October 1964 Pastor Lankester was badly injured in an accident involving a bus in Ipswich town centre; sadly he later died in hospital. He was a much loved pastor and this sudden loss was a great shock to everyone at the church. A new pulpit, still used today, was built and dedicated to his memory.

GW Pibworth

In 1965 Pastor GW Pibworth of Gadebridge, Hemel Hempstead, was called to serve the church. The church minutes record that ‘welcome and greetings’ were brought from the rector of Rougham church and from the Bradfield Gospel Hall.

In 1967 plans for a new church hall were approved; it was soon built and opened in 1968. The new hall contrasted with the old church and manse which were becoming a constant burden of maintenance and repair.

With the departure in 1974 of Pastor Pibworth it was seen as a good opportunity to sell the old manse and buy a more modern property. A suitable house in Orchard Close, in the heart of Rougham village, was purchased to become the new manse.

Arthur Stone

In 1977 Pastor Arthur Stone was welcomed as the new minister; during his time at Bradfield and Rougham the church was continually blessed and built up.

It was under Pastor Stone’s leadership that the church had the vision to rebuild for the future, literally – by demolishing the 1850 church building.

On the 31st July 1979 over 200 friends attended the service when Pastor Stone laid a foundation stone for the new building.

With the willing help of so many volunteers, the building made good progress and on the 5th May 1980 the new Bradfield and Rougham Baptist Church was opened.

The key verse for the dedication service was Mark Chapter 11 v17, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’.

If you look carefully you will see a slightly younger version of our recent pastor Bryan Brown seated next to Pastor Stone in the pulpit at the opening service.

Pastor and Mrs Stone retired in 1987 to live in Scotland near to their son, daughter-in-law and family. We missed their enthusiasm to serve the Lord with all their hearts.

Based on his research of the church’s minutes and history, Pastor Stone wrote his book ‘The Church in the Fields’ covering the history of Bradfield and Rougham Baptist Church over the period 1834 to 1984. The book closes with the words – ‘God even our own God shall bless us’; Psalm 67 v6. How true those words are as we look back over the years following the retirement of Pastor Stone. Little did he know of events to come – but he always trusted and loved his God who can do all things and is willing to bless his people.

(Old building demolished)

(New building under construction)

(The new church building)

(Opening service in the new church building)

Trevor Low

The members continued to seek the Lord’s guidance to another man of God to lead in the shepherding and ministry; some three years passed-by with a visiting speaker preaching each week. Then one Sunday Trevor Low, a Pastor from Northern Ireland, was speaking at nearby Wetherden Baptist Chapel where his brother was the minister.

Both Trevor and his wife Dorothy were invited to come on various occasions at which Trevor preached. The church then felt God’s leading to invite Trevor to be pastor at Bradfield and Rougham Baptist Church. Both Trevor and Dorothy served the work of the church for over twelve years from 1990 until 2003 when they were called to minister at the baptist church at Abingdon, Oxfordshire. Trevor and Dorothy have since retired to Northern Ireland.

Two pastors - Bryan Brown and Kenny Ross

Following the departure of Pastor Trevor, the church spent over a year without a pastor while the Deacons prayerfully sought guidance from the Lord regarding a new pastor. During this time our Church Secretary, Ivan Sharpe worked hard to fill the pulpit each week with visiting preachers. Some of those invited to preach were potential new pastors, but God was not leading in their direction.

During the early part of 2004 Pastor Bryan Brown was invited for an informal chat to see how he felt about part-time pastoral work along with shepherding a younger man – possibly straight from Bible college. We believe God’s hand was leading in this direction and so plans were set in action and on 5th September 2004 Pastor Bryan Brown and his wife Sandy were welcomed into membership and commenced the work of serving God here at Bradfield and Rougham.

Bible colleges were then contacted to seek out a younger man for full-time ministry and for him to receive help and guidance from the senior pastor. An Irish pastor had recently left us, a Welsh senior pastor was now working with us, little did we think the Lord would call a Scotsman from the very north of Scotland to this very English corner of His vineyard – but He did. Following Kenny Ross’s preaching in early 2005 the church felt it right to call Kenny to be the full’time pastor. The Manse was quickly decorated to accommodate the new pastor, his wife and their four children. In early September 2005 Pastor Kenny Ross and his wife Gillian joined us in membership and Kenny commenced his ministry.

Having helped Pastor Kenny Ross for two years to become established in his ministry at Bradfield and Rougham, in June 2007 Pastor Bryan Brown was moved to accept the call to ministry at Colchester Road Baptist Church in Ipswich. On Sunday 3rd June the church gathered together for a fellowship meal to say goodbye to Pastor Bryan and his wife Sandy.

Kenny Ross

Pastor Kenny picked up the mantle and over the next 6 years provided exceptional teaching and pastoral guidance on his own. He grasped the BRBC Vision Statement and through his preaching and commitment led the church forward.

In 2011 he established the BRBC Academy whereby students were taught by himself and other qualified tutors on a two year structured course and as a result at least two young men entered full time ministry elsewhere.

All members and attenders were challenged by Kenny’s unique style of preaching and the church grew in diversity and numerically with many baptisms. Some felt the call to full time Christian work elsewhere, and missions in Borneo, Bangladesh and Kenya have been supported by the church both financially and by sending teams of workers for short term service.

BRBC became a home to many American armed forces families serving in the UK and, to help Kenny with pastoral work, the church welcomed David & Shirley Romberger from the USA for a period of three years, from 2010 to 2013.

In 2012 a work was established on the Moreton Hall housing development in Bury St Edmunds with a group meeting every Sunday morning for a service in the studio of a local business. Pastor Kenny therefore regularly preached three times each Sunday requiring remarkable commitment and energy, as well as being a faithful pastor to anyone who needed help in difficult personal circumstances whatever the time or day.

Sadly, Kenny’s ministry came to an end in August 2013 when he and his family returned to their homeland of Scotland with a call to the Baptist Church at Culloden, Inverness.

A rollcall of former church leaders since 1834

The following table lists those former ministers who led Bradfield and Rougham Baptist Church from 1834. The gallery shows the ten most recent former ministers during the 136-year period from 1877 to 2013.

1834 – 1847 T Ridley (Leader)
1847 – 1857 G Ward
1857 – 1861 J Howell
1862 – 1865 Dowsing
1865 – 1869 W Wright
1869 – 1874 J Debenham
1875 – 1877 J Howell
1877 – 1922 W Dixon
1923 – 1930 LR Garrard
1930 – 1931 HH Gladstone
1935 – 1938 T Lynch
1947 – 1964 AJ Lankester
1965 – 1974 GW Pibworth
1977 – 1987 A Stone
1990 – 2003 T Low
2004 – 2007 B Brown
2005 – 2013 K Ross

Looking to the future

The Lord has been good to us, He has heard our cry, has blessed us and we pray will continue to bless us in the days to come for His Glory and the furtherance of His work here at Bradfield and Rougham Baptist Church.

The leadership team has an exciting vision for the future of God’s work in the surrounding area.


These notes draw heavily on research conducted by Arthur Stone (Minister 1977-1987) for his book ‘The Church in the Fields’, a history of Bradfield & Rougham Baptist Church from 1834 to 1984. Other information comes from research by Angie Steele at the Suffolk Records Office, including the unpublished notes ‘A history of Bradfield St George’ by LA & DW Aves.