Back to the Past with historian Ed Grimsdale
It’s possible that Keach’s Chapel in Bell Alley, Winslow is the first dissenting chapel in Britain.
It’s a secretive place, built, apparently, in 1625, 15 years before the birth of its infamous preacher, Benjamin Keach, in Stoke Hammond.
Apprenticed to a tailor in his native village, Keach joined dissenters who met in a chapel by their village green.
These ‘Baptists’ were influenced by Arminianism and Benjamin grew to be a formidable critic of infant baptism.
In or before 1660, Keach moved to minister from Winslow’s tiny chapel. This building was set in a gated, defensive enclosure and shaped like poor man’s cottage.
It was secreted, its worshippers hoped, in Pillar’s Ditch on the edge of Winslow.
Because Keach and fellow “fantaticks” were rocking the foundations of the established church, cavalry were despatched across Bucks and one troop surprised Keach mid-sermon.
He was taken, bound, abused, and threatened with being trampled to death before the wiser counsels of their officer intervened.
Keach was driven to publish, in 1664, The Child’s Instructor, an ‘easie primmer, that rejected with contempt the official Church’s baptismal teaching.
Printed editions spread from Winslow and London.
Underground copies followed, which the authorities found a most worrying development.
They cried: “Stop Keach!”
They had his house searched and recovered copies of his primer.
Keach was thrown into Aylesbury’s ghastly gaol.
Liberty of thought and conscience were trifles to the intemperate judge , who threatened Keach with death and came to blows with a juryman.
Mind you, Keach didn’t mince his words:
“Tis a shame that Parents professing Godliness, should be so allured by the Devil to please their Children’s natural and pernicious Appetites; by which means they become meer [sic] Slaves to Lucifer, by sending their little Daughters to School to learn to Dance.”
The judge sentenced that Keach should be placed in a cage and then in the pillory in Aylesbury Market, followed by a session in Winslow’s pillory, where the common hangman burned Keach’s primer in front of his eyes.
Keach was disgusted by such unrighteous and intolerant treatment that made his family feel unsafe in Winslow.
In 1668, Benjamin Keach moved to London where he continued preaching, writing books and composing 300 hymns more notable for strength of conviction than poetry.
Back in Winslow, Keach’s Chapel remains unrestored due to the ‘aspic of neglect’.
It’s a Non-Conformist shrine – a testament to one man’s fight for freedom of press and speech.