Claxton Opera



Interior of Chapel early 1900s
Interior of Chapel early 1900s - from a postcard

(Taken from "Claxton - A Thousand Years of Village Life")

Part One - The Meeting House

Part Two - Claxton Opera

The first Baptist chapel in Claxton (Strict and Particular) was founded largely by the efforts of Mr Henry Utting, the first pastor who bore most of the principal expense himself.

The original deeds of the Meeting House, destroyed in the disastrous fire of 1993, showed that the present building was erected between 1750 and 1755. The deeds were witnessed by five members of the congregation, four of whom could not even write and marked it only with an X. Such chapels or meeting houses were often built slightly out of the village on land which could be purchased more cheaply. The land was let at first by a local farmer at a peppercorn rent and only granted as freehold in 1779.

The expert opinion, when the building was assessed for listing in the late 1960s, indicated that the lean-to on the west side of the building was part of an earlier chapel or meeting house. It is possible that the main building itself was altered in the early nineteenth century. Certainly the bricks of the lean-to are significantly older than those of the main building and the upper courses of the latter indicate further alteration. The money for the Meeting House was provided largely by the Countess of Huntingdon, a legendary figure and one of several aristocratic women who were prominent in the history of the Baptist Movement. She became the focus of a considerable congregation of members who sought a reformed and more extreme form of worship and lifestyle. Her following became known as the Countess of Huntingdon's sect.

Claxton could boast one of the biggest Strict Baptist churches in the district. Some of its earliest members walked more than 12 miles from the Beccles area to attend services. The Meeting House in its original form certainly reflected the sect's aims. While embodying the ideals of Georgian architecture it remained very austere and plain. Such decorations as there were resulted more from function than from vanity or mere show. Even the door-jambs and doors were re-used from an earlier building. Some examples still exist in the present structure.The panelling of the gallery that ran round three sides of the building and the pulpit were constructed in pine using the plainest possible design. A twenty foot section of this is also still intact.

Standing 45ft square and 18ft high the chapel accommodated five hundred in its heyday, which is remarkable given that current safety requirements permit an audience of just 104 at the annual opera nights. The doors at the front kept the sexes strictly segregated. Bodily ornament was condemned. Women kept their eyes lowered. Sunday morning service lasted three hours. A great clock faced the pulpit and sermons often lasted over an hour. Many picnicked in the summer and took refreshment at long tables in the winter, before a further two hour service in the afternoon.

The most famous minister, Job Hupton began his ministry in September 1794. He was a fire and brimstone preacher and wrote spirit lifting hymns, such as Come ye faithful, raise the Anthem. When he died in October 1849 at the end of a long ministry, he was buried in the Meeting House graveyard alongside two of his wives. He was succeeded by Mr David Pegg who was pastor for 20 years and then by Mr Henry Pawson.

Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century the Meeting House flourished, as the burials indicate in the adjacent graveyard. However the first blow came with the huge expansion of Methodism, and when the Oxford Movement rejuvenated the Church of England it further squeezed the more extreme religious sects. The most devastating blow was the emancipation of working people brought about by the social dislocation of the First World War. The ordered world of deference, privilege and authority was crumbling and people were looking elsewhere for meaning in their lives.

1971 Picture of House
The Meeting House 1971

The Meeting House closed for worship in 1943 and was sold to local farmer Mr Leslie Catchpole who used it as a tractor shed and grain store and burned the pews on his fire! The burial ground disappeared beneath a jungle of brambles, elder and rosebay willowherb and the chapel fell slowly into ruin.

In 1973 musician and teacher Richard White, returning to the Norfolk of his childhood, with his wife Roberta bought the chapel and the keeper's cottage. The family lived in the cottage, made the chapel weatherproof and enjoyed the grand space.

In 1983 the cottage was sold to David and Lesley Hamlyn and Richard converted the chapel into a spacious house. Ten years later the building was gutted by fire, only the four walls remaining. The Old Meeting House was rebuilt and after 18 months the family moved back into their home. A new chapter began with the fulfilment of Richard's long cherished dreams: operas at Claxton. Since then Claxton Opera has presented one opera each year. The living room becomes a theatre for two or three months, complete with lighting rig, orchestra pit for thirty players and a gallery.

The chapel lives on resounding to a rather different sort of music from that heard in the heyday of the Strict and Particulars.

Part Two - Claxton Opera

See also "Glyndebourne and Claxton: Two English Festivals"