Formation Of The Shirley & District Group Of Baptist Churches
The members of SBC, although used to working with other free churches, were not so open to linking up with the established churches it seems and when, in February 1968 the suggestion was made that the Roman Catholic Church (St. Boniface) be allowed to join the Shirley United Front (the forerunner of today’s Churches Together in Shirley) another three Deacons resigned over a disagreement within the Diaconate.
Later that year, in June, after approximately 7 years’ service, the Rev. Cyril Davis resigned from the pastorate of Shirley Warren Baptist Church. Rather than employ another paid pastor at that time, the church decided to accept the offer of one of its members, Captain Alf Salomon, to take responsibility for the spiritual leadership of that church and the pastoral visitation of its members, whilst also appointing a team of lay preachers, consisting of Messrs. Salomon, Sharman, Leach and Colonel Head, to lead Sunday services. It was also agreed that the Rev. F.R. Skeet would preach at Shirley Warren on the fourth Sunday of every month.
At about this time, i.e. June 1968, the church decided to change to morning Sunday School, and Mr. Skeet’s stipend was increased to £1,000 per annum plus a £75.00 car allowance. At the Church AGM in November 1969, the secretary referred to a speech by Dr. Russell (Secretary of the Baptist Union) where he said that ‘the Baptist Church had been in the doldrums for the past few years’. She said that she thought that that was also true of SBC, but that we were at last seeing signs of new growth. The membership at that time was 385.
At the end of 1969, the church received yet another request for help, this time from Colne Avenue and Baddesley, and this led them to further consider the formation of the Shirley Group of Churches i.e. SBC, Shirley Warren, Colne Avenue and Baddesley under the leadership of the Rev. F.R. Skeet, Captain Salomon, Messrs. Sharman and Leach and Colonel J. Head. At this meeting Mr. Skeet offered to move to the Colne Avenue Manse (next to the church in Maplin Road) so that the new assistant pastor could occupy 37, Shirley Ave. That, in itself, speaks volumes about the selflessness and humility of the man – to offer to move from a large, comfortable house in the heart of Shirley to a typical council house on the Millbrook Estate for the benefit of the church. As it was, his generous offer was declined by the deacons when they met the next month. They did, however, agree to move towards the formation of a Shirley group, but stated that they would call an assistant pastor and buy another manse for him. Fred Skeet was to be the senior pastor and reside at 37, Shirley Ave!
So it was that the Shirley Group of Churches came to be a reality, and it was recorded on the 9th February 1970 that Colne Avenue and Shirley Warren had agreed unanimously to the idea of grouping (and presumably Baddesley were also satisfied with the arrangement). However, they weren’t the only ones who wholeheartedly supported the idea. Central Baptist Church, on hearing of this plan, offered a grant of £300.00 per annum for 3 years to facilitate it, which must have been a real encouragement.
It wasn’t long before news of this latest development spread further afield and, on the 13th April 1970, the Rev. Richard C. Bennett of Faversham expressed an interest in the joint pastorate of the group. An invitation was sent to invite him to become co-pastor of the group on the 11th May 1970; a new manse at 31, Pirrie Close was purchased during June of that year and the recognition service of Rev. Richard (Dick) Bennett was held at SBC on the 12th September 1970. This was followed by a further Group recognition service for Richard and his family, Freda, Brian and Ruth, on the first day of October. The only deviation from the original plan was that, due to the fact that Fred and Beat’s son had now left home and Dick and Freda had two young children, it was agreed between them that the Skeets would move to the new manse in Pirrie Close leaving the larger of the two church properties available for the Bennett family.
Prior to leading the church at Faversham, Dick and Freda had served with the BMS (Baptist Missionary Society) in India. I remember them as a couple with a real heart for mission who loved curries and other spicy foods. Dick was also a keen sportsman who really enjoyed playing football with the young people and members of The Boys’ Brigade, and John W will tell you all about his exploits on the tennis court. (At this time, SBC was the proud owner of its own tennis court in Lumsden Road.) He was very keen to welcome Indian families living locally to worship at SBC, and I remember him introducing the Nurmahi and Masih families to the church prior to them establishing their own Asian Christian Fellowship some years later.
1971 proved to be another big year for change at SBC. Not only did the U.K. adopt decimal currency in the January of that year, but also a youth camp was planned at Tile Barn under the leadership of Messrs. Head and Sharman; Mr. Salomon resigned from the leadership of the team at Shirley Warren and another bombshell was dropped as, after a ministry lasting 16 years, Fred Skeet resigned from the pastorate of SBC on the 19th July.
On receiving this news, the Deacons of all four churches immediately began making plans for the ongoing pastorate of the group, and we will consider those further next month.
Anyone for Tennis?
John W adds:
“Dick was mad on tennis. We had a tennis court at our home in Belbins, Romsey. So, every Saturday Dick would go round to the Tutte’s house and wake up Keith, Kevin and Mark and ‘drag’ them out to Romsey for a 9.00 a.m. start.
My brother, my Mum and Dad and I would be part of the assembled team and we would all play each other. Dick was incredibly competitive, as well as being a very fine tennis player. We all managed to drag him down to our level every now and then and he would lose a game… he didn’t like that very much!!
He would start querying line calls etc. to try and ensure his winning habit. It was great fun for us … but the early mornings were just a bit too much for a Saturday.
When my brother and I asked for baptismal classes, Dick suggested we hold them at our home, and he would turn up in his tennis gear and cover the main points of believers’ baptism …then it was out on the court to play!!”
Reading what John has said about Dick’s competitive spirit reminded me of the nick-name that the older B.B. Boys had for him. He used to love joining in games of football with them, but he was the sort of man who didn’t temper his play to take into account the age of his opponents – it could be said that he ‘took no prisoners.’ As a consequence, they used to refer to him affectionately as ‘Double D B’ which interpreted meant ‘Dirty Dickie Bennett’. That was in the olden days before “Safeguarding” was invented!
That may give some the impression that he was a proud, uncaring man, but nothing could be further from the truth. He was, in fact, the pastor that Wendy H was referring to in her baptismal testimony (October 2019), who surprised her and her husband by being at their seriously ill daughter, Suzanne’s, bedside with Joy Brown, her Sunday School Teacher, praying for her recovery.