|St Mary’s Parish Church|
At the beginning of the reign of Charles II in 1660 there was a growing movement amongst the triumphant Royalists for the imposition of a uniform Anglican faith. In 1662 this resulted in the Act of Uniformity by which all Anglican clergy were forced to accept in full the Book of Common Prayer by 24th August of that year or be evicted from their livings in the Anglican Church. Around 2,000 clergy refused to accept this condition including Thomas Leadbetter, the Vicar of Hinckley. Ironically in 1645 Thomas Cleveland, a staunch Royalist, had also been evicted from his position as Vicar of Hinckley during the time when the 'Puritan Parliamentarians' were victorious. Leicestershire was a centre of dissent in the heart of England with some 35 clergy being ejected from their parish churches. The idea of dissent in Leicestershire had a lengthy heritage which included John Wycliffe and George Fox. Legislation to prevent attendance at services conducted by those who called themselves dissenting ministers followed the Act of Uniformity. A Conventicle Act imposed penalties for those who attended services not conducted according to the Book of Common Prayer and in 1665 a Five Mile Act prevented dissenting or nonconformist ministers from living in or visiting any place where they had previously served as ministers.
Despite the pains and penalties imposed on dissenters it was recorded that in 1669 Matthew Clarke, John Shuttlewood, Nathaniel Stephens, William Smith and Richard Southwell were all conducting clandestine acts of worship in the wider Hinckley area. In the same year there were some Twenty Presbyterians of the Ordinary Sort in Hinckley and Dadlington.'
The government of Charles II found it difficult to impose a uniform Anglican faith and in 1672 the King issued a Declaration of Indulgence which permitted the licencing of premises for dissenting services. In Hinckley Samuel Ward's house was licenced for this purpose. However this more liberal approach was soon followed by a Test Act by which anyone holding public office was obliged to take the sacraments in an Anglican Church. Henry Watts MA came to Harwell as a dissenting minister in 1678 and remained in the area ministering until his death in 1690. Watts was succeeded by John Southwell who received an annual stipend of £5 and continued in his post as a Presbyterian Minister until his death in 1703.
A great change had taken place in 1689 when the new monarchs, William and Mary, had replaced Catholic James II on the English throne. An Act of Toleration was passed allowing for the free worship of dissenters although this did not include Roman Catholics or groups like Unitarians. By the 1690s Presbyterians and Congregationalists had begun to co-operate in setting up a common fund for the building of chapels.
|The Great Meeting|
No definite location for these early chapels can be identified in Hinckley although they were probably near the outskirts of the town. In 1705 William Bilby BA became Hinckley's Presbyterian Minister and we know his parsonage was located close to the end of Baines Lane opposite the entry to Stockwell Head. Bilby kept a detailed diary and from this we know that on 26 January 1720 a plot of land was purchased as the site for a new chapel. This was opened in 1722 and today is Hinckley9s Unitarian Great Meeting, the oldest nonconformist chapel in the town. Rev Bilby ran an academy for training nonconformist ministers and when he retired in 1722 the Rev Jennings replaced him as minister. One of his pupils was Philip Doddridge who wrote, "At present we have the hurry of building and nothing can be seen from my closet window but bricks, timber and sand. However, I hope this will not last long, for the meeting place goes on very fast and will be finished before Christmas...
We have a Congregation of 500 people and all perfectly united". Dissent had now become a feature of Hinckley and with many denominations continues to serve the local community today.
Author: Hugh Beavin
Written for: Hinckley Historian Magazine