In Sawston the original dissenters’ meeting house was (in 1810) a barn in Common Lane. It is not clear when this was first licensed. There may have been Dissenters in the village as early as 1728. The barn had become too small and in 1811 a new church was built on land, behind the current church, was made available by Mr Brown. This first church was built about 100 feet from the High Street and was approached along a narrow alley. It did not pay in those days to advertise that you were attending a nonconformist chapel. This original chapel can be seen on a photograph taken from the roof of the new church in 1979. It was a redbrick building with a white brick extension at the rear and a rather ugly box added during 20th Century at the front, which was a projection room.
That church became too small and in 1879 the foundation stones were laid for the current church building which fronts the High Street. By this time it had become acceptable to be a nonconformist. The church was run on Congregational lines. The Church later formally became a Congregational Church under the Trusteeship of the Congregational County Union. The church was responsible for funding its own buildings, operation and ministry. Each church member would be expected to contribute significantly to the costs and would have a vote at the Church Meeting where matters of policy and business were determined. The democracy of Church Meetings continues to this day.
When the current church was built it had the benefit of the original manse at the rear.
Built in 1812 this was an extended former Malt House. There was also a caretaker’s cottage situated on the High Street, which is still very visible on the left of the entrance. The manse was replaced in 1994 by the current bungalow. In 1880 the original Church became school rooms. It was known as The Lecture Hall.
The inside of the present church in its original style with pitch pine pews seated about 300 people. It was said that the church was built in a hurry and that as a result the construction shows some signs of distress. You may notice that the walls lean outwards indicating that the weight of the roof has spread them apart. The quality of interior brickwork was also considered to be poor. In order to make the inside look presentable a separate mortar lining was attached to the bricks to give them the appearance of a higher quality. The original building was lit by town gas and heated by solid fuel. Electricity was installed in about 1930 and North Sea Gas in 1980.
When war was declared in 1939 The Lecture Hall was requisitioned by the military. It was used for recreational purposes and they continued to run a cinema in it. The site was also used by the United States Air Force for some of their airmen stationed at Duxford. There is a silver plaque inside the current church recording grateful thanks for the hospitality shown them at that time.
There was a Methodist church in the village. This stood approximately where the Cambridge Building Society now stands. By 1975 it had closed due to insufficient membership and many building maintenance problems. Many of the Methodists had already transferred to the Congregational Church which had become the United Reformed Church in 1972.
By 1978 the United Reformed Church was in need of significant refurbishment with leaks in the roof, dry rot under the organ and choir, and very active woodworm in the pews. In 1978 it was necessary to remove one third of the floor at the front of the Church in order to stop the spread of dry rot fungus. There is a photo of dry rot fungus attached to some floor timbers.
This large nonconformist chapel was in its greatest danger of closure at that time. There was no money to carry out any repairs and the bill for urgent works was all ready in excess of £20,000. Fortunately the church possessed a strong band of young families with a range of skills (civil engineering, architecture, quantity surveying, bricklaying, carpentry and financial skills) which when drawn together under imaginative leadership were able to devise a plan to rescue the building, based heavily on carrying out the work by the members as volunteers. At this time the caretaker’s cottage was used for Sunday school rooms and worship temporarily was moved back into the Lecture Hall. Much of the work carried out by volunteers encouraged others to give money and it was financially possible to engage a local builder (who was also Churchwarden at Sawston Parish Church) to construct the division wall in the church, rebuild the floor and generally refurbish the Church. Volunteers from the United Reformed Church built a foyer linking the church to the old caretaker’s cottage and refurbished the cottage.
The basic church as refurbished then, in 1980, is as you see it today. The old lecture hall was then demolished.
It was in 1980 that a Sharing Agreement was mooted. The Sharing Agreement came about partly as a recognition of the terrific input by young, mostly Methodist, men and their families when the church was refurbished between 1978 and 1980. It was also a recognition of the need for pastoral care for Methodists within the village. It was at this time that the Church Meeting voted to change the name of the Church to Sawston Free Church (United Reformed / Methodist). This more fully reflected the congregation who came from numerous denominational back grounds. Sawston Free Church is a shared church. It is owned by the United Reformed Church but is shared with the Methodist Church.
Congregational and Primitive Methodist practice is for relatively plain building interiors. There should be as few distractions as possible during worship. You may also observe that the organ has a prominent place (originally centre front) and this reflects the importance of music and of singing hymns, which reinforce our faith.
By 1986 it was necessary to consider building a new hall particularly for use by the Boys’ and Girls’ Brigades. Again the planning and design was carried out by volunteers but the construction was again entrusted to the same local builder. This hall was separate from the other buildings to avoid VAT.
In 1994 the new manse was built because the original manse was becoming too great a maintenance burden.
In the late 1990s discussions were held with Opportunities Without Limit (OWL) who were looking for a training centre for people with learning disabilities. A partnership was brought about by which OWL were able to construct a training centre/cafe on the church land. The church also improved its own access arrangements and a new foyer, long concourse, new toilets and easy access facilities were constructed in addition to the cafe at the rear of the church. This work was completed in 2004.