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  • Writer's pictureSarah von Allmen

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Week 10.

Week 10 – Worship.

For the second week of Women’s History Month, I look at two sisters whose place of marriage came as a surprise to me and led me to discover a relatively little-known denomination.

In the course of trying to reconstitute my great-grandmother’s family and overcome what turned out to be two generations of illegitimacy and pseudonyms, I bought two marriage certificates which (in spite of the “wrong” surname) proved to be those of her two sisters: the first one witnessed by the second sister and her future husband and the other witnessed by my great-grandmother herself. These certificates were major elements in helping me establish the family group and lead me to my 2x great grandmother’s irregular liaison with a prominent Bath solicitor, but when I went back for a second look, the place of marriage intrigued me: the sisters were married about six weeks apart in 1875 in the Countess of Huntingdon’s Chapel, Vineyards, “according to the Rites and Ceremonies of the Lady Huntingdon’s Connexion”.

Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion

Selina Shirley, daughter of the second Earl Ferrers, was born in 1707 and married Theophilus Hastings, ninth earl of Huntingdon, in 1728. She was drawn to Methodism (which at this time was still a movement within the Church of England) through the preaching of George Whitefield and joined the Wesley brothers’ Methodist Society in 1793. After her husband’s death she became increasingly committed to bringing Methodism to the upper classes, initially by inviting Whitefield and others to preach to her social circle as a kind of after-dinner entertainment.

As a peeress, she was under the misapprehension that she could appoint chaplains at will, and she established the first of what would become a nationwide association (or “connexion”) of chapels in Brighton in 1761, paying for it by selling some of her jewellery. More chapels followed, principally in fashionable areas likely to attract the upper classes, who paid a quarterly “ticket” for the privilege of having a reserved seat, although a limited number of places were available without charge for the hoi polloi.

In 1779 Lady Huntingdon’s right to appoint clergymen within the Church of England was challenged in the London consistorial court and she lost her case. Her chapels were therefore registered as dissenting places of worship under the Toleration Act and her ministers had to take the oath of allegiance as dissenting ministers or leave their posts.

In 1851 there were over a hundred chapels in the Connexion, but only around 20 are still active today: the building in Vineyards now houses the Museum of Bath Architecture.

Why were my relatives married here? Traditionally weddings take place in the bride’s home church or parish, which implies that this was their regular place of worship. However, until these two marriages this branch of the family had no previous link to the Methodist Church.

Geraldine Jones (aka Geraldine Jones Dowding or Geraldine James) was born in Bath on 2 October 1853 and her sister Louisa Jones (aka Louisa Jones Dowding or Louisa James) on 14 March 1856. I haven’t found a baptism for them or their siblings, but their mother Harriet Louisa Jones was baptised in Bath Abbey and all marriages and baptisms in her generation took place in the Anglican Church.

Geraldine married Richard Brodribb Harding, a chemist, and their first child was baptised at St Swithin’s Church, Walcot, but I haven’t found baptismal records for their subsequent children, most of whom died in infancy. Louisa married John Jennings, a musician, and had one child: again, I haven’t been able to find a baptismal record for her.

So far, the evidence for a genuine conversion to Methodism is slim, and it would be tempting to think that they simply attended the chapel for its social status. However, I’m on surer ground with my great grandmother Helen. Although she never married, her son was very active as a young man in the Methodist Church, married another practising Methodist, and brought their children up in the Congregational Church.

The Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion therefore seems to be the bridge between my Anglican ancestors in Bath and their non-conformist descendants. Whether Lady Huntingdon would have approved of the Lutheran church I belong to in the depths of rural France is another matter!

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