Unbroken sunshine on the day of the opening of the new hall at Whipton was happily in keeping with the whole occasion. Large numbers were present at the afternoon and evening gatherings, and heard Mr. John Alford, who used to farm at Whipton Barton, tell of the beginning of the work in the early days of the present century when Whipton was a village quite separate from the city of Exeter.
About the year 1906 Mr. Marsom, later of Bristol, became very exercised about the spiritual welfare of the village children. Although he realized that he was ungifted as a children’s teacher, seeing that no one else was doing anything of the kind he began to gather them together to tell them of the Saviour. Part of the Alford’s farmhouse was used for this purpose, but the effort met with determined opposition, for it was at a time and a place where teaching the Bible was regarded as the sole prerogative of ‘the established Church’. Eventually the work was closed down.
The re-birth of the work, which has since prospered so well, can be said to have arisen out of a Christian’s ‘misfortune’. The eldest son of the Alford family met with an accident which rendered him a permanent cripple, but whilst confined to bed he was converted to God. When later he was able to get about a little, it was only with the aid of crutches. But for this fact religious prejudice would probably have resented his witness, but sympathy for his plight opened hearts and doors which otherwise would have been closed.
A sick child, unable to go to school, often met this crippled brother and became a frequent visitor to the farm. Our brother taught the child to read and finding that he knew nothing of the Bible, told him of the Saviour who died for him. Discover-ing that other children in the village were equally ignorant of the Bible stories and of the truths of the Gospel, he suggested to his father a Sunday School in the store-room at the farm.
Although the latter was hesitant in case it were simply passing enthusiasm, the work began, it lasted and it grew. At first there were only five children but largely through the efforts of the sick child others were brought along.
The work had not been running very long before the invalid brother died at a comparatively early age. His brothers, and especially his sister, felt that they must continue the work and it soon outgrew the store-room and overflowed into the dining-room, the kitchen and the corridors. Because of the interest shown by the children, adults began to come for Bible classes. A stumbling-block constantly encountered was that when children came to what was regarded as the age for ‘confirmation’, they were ‘claimed’ by the Church and it became extremely difficult to keep them beyond this age.
When Mr. Alford’s brother George (now with the Lord) who did so much in this work in its early stages, had to go to London to study, Mr. Henry Hitchman was able to get the use of the Village Institute and the work continued there. Large numbers of children were interested and this has been a feature of the work ever since. A hall was built by Mr. Alford’s father in 1931 and the Sunday School has long been held there in two sessions to accommodate the children. The new hall, seating over two hundred, joined to the old hall by a kitchen and toilet block will solve this problem. Today the premises stand in what has become a huge housing estate and with these enlarged facilities the assembly sets itself to gather together more from the thousands of unreached children.
An interesting ‘post-script’ was given by Mr. Charles McEwen who, as a small boy, attended the children’s meetings at die old farm. He was not then converted but now has worked as an evangelist for many years. He produced a photograph marked ‘June 9th, 1906. Whipton Children’s Meeting’. Several who were in the photograph as children, fifty-five years ago, were present at the opening of the new hall. Fruitful work had been carried on, not only among children, but also among women, and some recalled the days when Mr. McEwen’s mother and Mrs. John Alford could be seen diligently visiting the homes in the district. Also present at the opening were the architect, a former Sunday School scholar, and the builder who is in fellowship in the local assembly and who has been associated with Whipton for sixty-three years. He related how the Lord’s good hand had been with them in the erection of the building; needed materials had arrived when scarcely expected – even at night time. He also mentioned that gratifying harmony had been maintained among the workmen. Material structures are, however, simply a means to an end and we were reminded that ‘he builds too low who builds beneath the skies’.
It was a cause for thanksgiving that the sum of considerably over £5,000 needed for the new hall had been given before the opening, without any appeal being made outside the assembly. Long before there was any thought of such buildings, the field which forms the site was known as Chapelfield; for this reason the name Chapelfield Hall stands over the new entrance.
Quite a number who came together for this occasion were from small village assemblies and a word of encouragement was given to them to maintain their service for the Lord in the day of small things, for it was out of such faithful con-tinuance in the early days that the present prospering work at Whipton had grown. Appropriate addresses were given by J. H. Large and Charles McEwen, the first dealing with the New Testament’s disclosure of the unremitting attempts of Satan to frustrate any work of God and the directions given in the epistles for the safeguarding of the churches against his varied devices; and the second woven around the words ‘the place where we dwell … is too strait for us’ coupled with the answered prayer of Jabez for an enlarged coast.
A. C. Wadey