Papers of Open Brethren Assembly, Woolpit, Suffolk

Scope and Content

This collection consists of archive material relating to the activities of the Open Brethren Assembly in Woolpit, Suffolk, between 1939 and 1993. A number of items relate to the administration of the Woolpit Assembly including a minute book and appointment books containing details of activities and events. The collection includes a number of legal documents relating to the premises and land at Woolpit and papers concerning the appointment of Trustees. There are also plans relating to proposed building work, a photocopy of the burial ground and a number of death certificates. The archive contains a series of correspondence from 1869-1874 relating to the legal ownership of the Woolpit Room and related premises, including several letters from G.V. Wigram. There is also general correspondence concerning the Woolpit Room and letters relating to missionary work and the commendation of Brethren members. In addition there are a small number of photographs relating to the assembly and premises at Woolpit.

Please note that the photographs in this collection were previously catalogued and have retained their original reference numbers: BPC/1/45, BPC/1/46, BPC/2/16.

Administrative / Biographical History

A Brethren assembly was established in Woolpit, Suffolk, in 1841. Prior to this, meetings had begun in the nearby village of Tostock in 1839 where a local landowner, Mrs. Brown, had a house with a barn and granary licenced for Dissenting worship, although it has been suggested that Anglican clergy were initially invited to preach there. These meetings took on an increasingly Brethren character and drew worshippers from surrounding villages, some converted under the ministry of a Captain Towers.

The Meeting Rooms at Woolpit were erected for the use of believers and the building had space to accommodate 300 worshippers. It included a cottage, stables and there was an adjoining burial ground. A significant Brethren community developed at Woolpit which reflected the strong Brethren presence being established in West Suffolk as a whole. The Suffolk returns from the census of religious worship of 1851 recorded an average of 100 worshippers at morning meetings. The records show that the Woolpit Assembly attracted worshippers from further afield, for example a large number of believers came to Woolpit from Rawstorne Street, London, in 1844. It is believed that John Nelson Darby and George Vicesimus Wigram may have preached at the Woolpit Meeting Rooms.

The collection includes a series of letters from 1869 to 1874, a number of which were written by G.V. Wigram to the Woolpit Brethren claiming that he was the true landlord of the premises at Woolpit. The Brethren replied objecting that the room and the cottage had been built by Mrs. Brown for the use of the believers meeting there. Wigram was the 20th child of Sir Robert Wigram, a prominent Irish merchant and shipowner in Wexford and London. G.V. Wigram wished to take orders in the Church of England but was refused as a result of his extreme evangelical beliefs. He met John Nelson Darby in Oxford in 1827, joining the Brethren at this time. Wigram was later instrumental in supporting Darby when he split from the majority of the Brethren in the late 1840s to form the Exclusive Brethren which rejected the fellowship and open communion of the Open Brethren.

The archive contains an obituary of Henry Heath who became a significant figure in the Woolpit Brethren. While working as a school master in Tawstock, Devon, and studying for holy orders, Heath met Robert Cleaver Chapman, pastor and evangelist, who himself became an influential figure in the Brethren. Chapman invited Heath to Bible readings at his home at No.9 New Buildings, Barnstaple, and this was the beginning of Heath's involvement in the Brethren. After working with Chapman in Barnstaple, Heath moved to Hackney in London in 1848 where he played a central role in the Brethren assembly. He came to Woolpit from Hackney in the early 1870s to conduct the funeral service of the evangelist Captain Towers. Heath remained at Woolpit until his death in 1900 and it is reported that people came from 15 different villages to worship under his ministry and he was responsible for the establishment of a number of congregations in local villages.

On 26 January 1906 the Meeting Room was registered as a place of religious worship and on 17 February the same year it was registered as a building for the solemnization of marriages.

The papers also include an obituary of Arthur Cecil Rhodes Pitter, the son of a Church of England minister who was born in Jamaica in 1844. Pitter joined the army in 1862 and on leaving in 1872 became a gospel preacher. In 1875 Pitter moved to Tonbridge in Kent where he worked with Mr. John Maxted evangelising local villages and he married Maxted's daughter during this period. Pitter spent a number of years in Kent and Eastbourne and then moved to London in 1894, largely working in the East End. He spent the last five years of his life in charge of the work at the 'Woolpit Room' until his death on 20 November 1922. Pitter was buried at the Woolpit burial ground and approximately 300 friends from various assemblies attended the service.

The minute book and appointment books in the collection provide details of the more recent services, meetings and social events held by the Woolpit Open Brethren Assembly who celebrated their 150th anniversary in April 1991.


The archive has been arranged into the following series:

  • Membership registers
  • Attendance registers
  • Account books
  • Minute book
  • Appointment books
  • Legal documents relating to Woolpit Room, Suffolk
  • Plans of Woolpit Room, Suffolk
  • Photocopy of plan of burial ground at Woolpit, Suffolk
  • Death certificates
  • Correspondence relating to legal ownership of Woolpit Room, Suffolk
  • Letters of commendation
  • General correspondence and notices relating to Woolpit Room, Suffolk
  • Photographs

Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open to any accredited reader.

Open parts of this collection, and the catalogue descriptions, may contain personal data about living individuals. Some items in this collection may be closed to public inspection in line with the requirements of the DPA. Restrictions/closures of specific items will be indicated in the catalogue.

Acquisition Information

Presented to the Christian Brethren Archive by Peter and Margaret Cook in June 2000.

Archivist's Note

The cataloguing of this collection was aided by the detailed list created by David Brady.

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies and photographic copies of material in the archive can be supplied for private study purposes only, depending on the condition of the documents.

A number of items within the archive remain within copyright under the terms of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988; it is the responsibility of users to obtain the copyright holder's permission for reproduction of copyright material for purposes other than research or private study.

Prior written permission must be obtained from the Library for publication or reproduction of any material within the archive. Please contact the Head of Special Collections, John Rylands Library, 150 Deansgate, Manchester, M3 3EH.


Tim Grass, Gathering to his Name: The Story of Open Brethren in Britain & Ireland(Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2006 )

F. Roy Coad, A History of the Brethren Movement: Its Origins, its Worldwide Development and its Signifance for the Present Day(Exeter:The Paternoster Press, 1968)