The Peculiar People


Various references, especially to the Witham Peculiars.
Note that in later years they were sometimes known as the New Lights.

 (1) General, from

“Peculiar People: This evangelical denomination derives its name from several texts in the Authorized Version of the Bible, notably from 1 Peter 2.9: ‘But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people…’ In this older usage, ‘peculiar’ means ‘special’, not ‘odd’… ”

“Also sometimes known at first as the ‘Plumstead Peculiars’, the sect was founded in 1838 by William Bridges. Its teachings were spread, especially in Essex, by John Banyard”. ______________________________________

(2) Cavendish, Richard (ed.). Man, Myth & Magic: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Supernatural (vol. 16). New York: Marshall Cavendish Corp. (1970), pg. 2157

“The Peculiar People held – and, to a limited extent, still hold – beliefs which distinguish them from most of the Protestant bodies. In particular, their unconditional acceptance of the divine inspiration of every word of the Bible (not in itself unique) led them to interpret literally the injunction in James… ‘Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anounting him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man…'”

“In this respect, the Peculiar People were nearer to Roman Catholic than to Protestant practice, but in other ways they resembled the ‘enthusiastic’ branches of evangelical Christianity… women… wore small black bonnets; the men wore dark clothes and… did not grow moustaches. No musical instrument was used in their worship, but hymns were sung with great fervour… The Peculiar People’s Hymn Book is one of Christendom’s most remarkable hymnals. It contains 1058 hymns… ”

“One outstanding figure in the history of the Peculiar People was Bishop William Heddle, who was born in 1846 and went south to Essex, from his native Orkney… Heddle became so powerful and tireless a leader of the Peculiar People that eventually they elected him their bishop… He… lived until 1948, when he was almost 102.”

“Since Bishop Heddle’s death, most of the Peculiar People have joined with other denominations in the Union of Evangelical Churches, and their distinctive practices… have fallen out of use. Some of the original congregations, however, and some of the older members–numbering a few hundred in all–preserve, in remote Essex villages, the special character of the denomination. ”


(3) Witham extracts from  the book The Peculiar People by Mark Sorrell.

page 28. “In at least eight other places … Witham … the Peculiar People were certainly meeting in cottages and in small groups by this date [i.e. 1853], and most of these places were to have their own chapels in time.”

pages 31-32. “In 1867 … an Elder’s Plan on Methodist lines was drawn up, and the denomination was organised into three ‘circuits’ or dioceses – London, Witham and Southend – with a bishop at the head of each. In 1870, baptism by sprinkling for converted members only was introduced. New chapels appeared at … Witham …’”

page 34. [In the 1870s] “It was in Essex, however, that its main strength lay, and here the primary centres were already vigorously branching. From the chapel at Witham, George Wiles, a baker, had carried the sect north to Cressing village … a few years later a Brother Barnard began open air preaching on Totham Plains …”

page 58. ‘The Liberty churches at Totham and Stanway in north Essex had remained “close” after the reunion, still looking to Edward Brazier as their leader, and these, with the People at Witham, had been noticeably forward in the later 1920s in encouraging contact with other religious groups, particularly Methodist and Baptists: to such an extent that their own services had taken on a markedly Methodist tone”

“They had also been anxious to discard what they regarded as the sillier aspects of Peculiarism  (that is to say, its distinguishing features) and were in the forefront of those who objected to the heavily formal Sunday black, to the separation of the sexes in chapel, and to the absence of instrumental music. Their views on this subject quickly permeated the whole movement, so that by the end of the next decade, the wearing of the quaint Peculiar’s bonnet, for instance, had largely become confined to the older generation, and non-conformity, in dress at least, had all but disappeared.”

(4) General and Witham, from newspapers

Essex County Chronicle, 7 April 1893, page 8
‘THE PECULIAR PEOPLE had their annual gathering at the Meeting-house, in the Maldon road on Good Friday. Both the tea and the religious meeting afterwards were largely attended’.

Essex Weekly News, 8 October 1915, page 8.  ‘ ‘Peculiars’ Harvest Festival. The Witham Congregational Church was lent for the harvest thanksgiving services of the peculiar People on Wednesday, when members of the sect from a wide area assembled. At the afternoon gathering, Bishop Heddle, of Southend, presided and gave an address, being supported by Elder Chignall of Witham. Tea was served in the schoolroom, over 250 being present. Bishop Heddle again took the chair at the evening service, and with him were the elders from many chapels in Essex. The proceedings were marked by the enthusiasm and hearty singing which are features of the services of the Peculiars. Addresses were given by Mr J Thorn, Rayleigh, Mr Joseph Wagstaff, Prittlewell, and Mr F Clarke, Barking. The collections amounted to £1 16s 3d.’

Essex County Chronicle, 8 October 1915, page 4 ‘Peculiars at Witham. A soldier “Saved by Prayer”’. Annual harvest thanksgiving, from various parts of Essex, at Congregational Church. Bishop Heddle of Southend presided. ‘Bishop Chignal’ of Witham spoke. Also Elder J Moore of Canning Town. Farmers and labourers should all have come to thank God. Peculiars had prayed for ‘men they loved who were in danger and those prayers were answered’. Brother Whale’s son came home from war after 14 months, and was in great danger. Stood by gun with shells, set affection in Lord, was saved, attributed it to prayers of his brothers and sisters.’

Essex County Chronicle, 26 November 1915
page 5 . ‘A Witham Objection. A curious situation has been created at Witham in the general canvass which is being made of men of military age for the Army, by an objection which has been taken “on Christian and religious grounds”, by some members of the Peculiar People. While it must not be concluded that all Peculiars have declined their country’s call, the fact is that some have taken this course, and pleaded as their reason the teaching they have received and given on the primitive principles of their form of religion. It the olden days it used to be the Quakers who assumed the non-fighting attitude, but they seem to have now abandoned that role in favour of their modern counterparts, the Peculiars. It is very little use arguing with people who adopt this attitude, but there is a side to it which cannot be overlooked. Preaching a little while ago at an historic celebration at Little Dunmow Church, the Rev E G Maxted, the Socialist vicar of Tilty, stated that no amount of prayers for a cause, simply because it was just, would make that cause prevail. The history of the Jewish race – the chosen people of God – showed that they were continually oppressed and their kingdom laid waste by barbarian forces, in spite of their peculiar advantages in the eyes of God. Of course the moral was that the Jews of old could only hope to defend themselves by taking up arms against their oppressors, and all the love of peace as such went by the board when the wolf approached the sheep fold. How does that contention answer the Peculiars’ objection to military service’.

Essex County Chronicle, 3 March 1916, page 5.
Tribunal re conscription.
‘The Witham Tribunal sat at the Council Chamber … Most of the business was of a formal nature, but some diversion was caused by the applications of two young men, members of the peculiar people’. One was Ernest Joseph Emmens, a postman. ‘Cannot take up arms’, and ‘object to do anything which requires taking a military oath’. So not RAMC for instance. Questioned about what in bible tells him it is wrong. Told some of Peculiars are serving in Forces. He says restoring men to life is so that they can go back and take life again. ‘The Chairman “I think as regards being a regular soldier we are prepared to listen to his objection, but he will find every day he is doing something which is helping the soldiers one side or another”. Another member: “What he is talking about is all rot. He is frightened and scared”. Applicant: “If I had any authority in the Bible to go and fight I would go and fight. I would agree to take a part in the RAMC if you can grant me relief from combatancy”. This was accepted, and the applicant was recommended by the Tribunal as a non-combatant’.

Second man was A V Wagstaff, draper’s assistant, 19, under conscience clause. Wrote “war and bloodshed are the work of Satan”. Nor could he make munitions. Recommended for non-combatant service.

Essex Weekly News, 14 July 1916, page 6, col 4. Tribunal re conscription. ‘Present – Hon C H Strutt, JP, CA, chairman; Messrs S Abrey, Q D Greatrex, P Hutley, JP, CA; Eb Smith, E J Smith, W Taber, and E Wood. Mr P E Laurence, JP,. and Mr E Pelly, military representatives. Mr S Daniel, clerk.’

‘Arthur Heard, 31, draper’s traveller, employed by Mr Oscar Heddle, applied as a conscientious objector for absolute exemption. Applicant said since January 1910, he had been a duly elected minister of the Peculiar People and had taken vows. He therefore argued that he was entitled to exemption. There were six ministers who served the church at Witham and sent supplies to churches in the district. The congregation at Witham would average about 110. Ministers of the Peculiar People had been granted complete exemption by other Tribunals. He was willing to take up agricultural work. Replying to the Military Representative applicant admitted that at the time of the National Registration he described himself as a gardener, and in his application for exemption he said he was a draper’s traveller. Passed for non-combatant service.

George W Cutmore, 27, draper’s traveller, in the same employment also applied, He said he looked upon the war as a worldly affair in which he must take no part. Asked what he would do if a German was after him, applicant said he dare not offer armed resistance. He was told in the Scriptures that he had to offer his cheek to the smiters, and he had to show there was something Christ-like within him. Passed for non-combatant service’.

Essex Weekly News, 19 October 1917
page 6. ‘The late Mr J Chignell. … died … on Oct 7 at the age of 78, the town has lost an esteemed townsman. For 53 years … was associated with the Peculiar People, and of late years was an elder at the Witham Chapel. Shortly after the death of his wife in August he left the town to reside with his daughter in Southend … Funeral … at Witham on Friday … All Saints’ churchyard. Bishop Heddle of Southend conducted the service, at which members of the sect from miles around assembled to pay their last tribute of respect to a highly esteemed comrade. The mourners were Messrs G and D Chignell, sons; Mr and Mrs Warren, son in law and daughter; Mrs G Chignell and Mrs D Chignell, daughters in law; and six grandchildren’.

Braintree and Witham Times, 15 December 1932, page 6
Long article about opening of new Peculiars’ chapel in Guithavon Valley in Witham on 7 December. Photos of this and the previous one (Maldon Road). Scheme first thought up in 1921. On the site formerly occupied by ‘the roller flour mills of Messrs E M Blyth and Son’. Main hall will seat 175 people and schoolroom at back 80. Also vestry, kitchen and heating. Lighted by electricity and centrally heated. Cost £1,515. Sunday collections raised £710, and £25 was left by late Mr J Beadel.

The opening was performed by Bishop William Heddle of Southend, aged 86, present head of movement, father of James Heddle of Southend, president elect of Essex Congregational Union. Another son is Oscar Heddle, ‘well-known Witham draper’. Many prominent Peculiars here including leader S J Whybrew. Hymns, etc etc. Bishop H speech included ref to revival 55 years ago at Prittlewell [presumably 1877], and 5 years ago at Lambert Street, London. Greetings from his wife. Since he married in 1870, ‘never had a cooked dinner on a Sunday and never intended to, as it was not right that work should be done on the Lord’s Day’.
Mr Whybrew said ‘they would continue to preach the same gospel as that which had been preached in the old Friends’ Meeting House for the past 59 years’.[i.e. presumably since 1873] Thanks to the Society of Friends who had let them pay peppercorn rent of half a crown a year.

New place built by Messrs Richards and Sons of Witham. Architect W J Redhead of Witham. Practical assistance by members etc. Also gifts like hymn books. Rest of money had been borrowed. Thanks to Mr W Newman for letting chapel sewer cross his meadow free of charge. Four out of the five sons of Mr Abraham Whybrew of Braintree Road, Witham, are elders in the Peculiars. One of the speakers was W Whybrew of Southend. Peculiars’ preachers don’t get financial reward.

Speech continues with a review of the history of the movement, as follows. ‘It will probably be a revelation to many to know that, compared with other religious bodies, they are really only in their infancy. When one realises that they came into existence less than a century ago it will be generally admitted that they have made excellent progress. At present their activities are confined almost solely to Essex. In all they have 34 places of worship, of which 30 are in Essex, two in Kent, one in Middlesex and the other in London.

The movement originated at Rochford, Essex, the prime mover being one James Banyard, a local Wesleyan preacher who resided in that town. From that source they gradually extended their sphere of activity in many parts of Essex, and are now a force in the religious work of the county.

An acknowledged feature of this religious body is the way its members pull together, thus a commendable spirit of comradeship prevails.

Years ago, when means of conveyance were few and far between, the Peculiars would walk miles to attend their usual Sunday services, taking their food with them. Even now this is done in many parts. The habit of the female Peculiar People of wearing a poke bonnet has now almost completely disappeared, being discarded for the more orthodox type of hat. Some of the older generation, however, still retain this curious type of head attire, as was evinced on Wednesday, when about half-a-dozen poke bonnets could be seen. The sight of many of these ladies wearing bonnets was common enough – in fact, a distinguishing feature – years ago.

A point in this religion which years ago raised much unfavourable comment was the refusal of its members to accept medical advice in the case of illness. This, in years gone by, resulted in many a court action, and it was only natural that the Peculiars were viewed in a rather unfavourable light. Now they appear to take a far more radical view of professional advice and attention, which fact has undoubtedly done much to popularise the movement. Many of the older people will doubtless remember hearing their prayers and supplications at the bedside of a stricken Brother or Sister. An enormous amount of feeling and enthusiasm is infused into their meetings week by week.

A Mr W Horsnell, descendants of whom still reside in the town, first started the movement in Witham, the original meeting place being a house in Church Street (No. 86) [this number is in the original article] now occupied by Mrs Wood [1930 electoral register has Thomas John Wood and Jessie Wood at 86 Church Street]. The old bible table from which the service was conducted in this house now occupies a proud position in the vestry of the new chapel. The only living member of the Peculiars who remembers attending this house for worship is Mrs A Shelley, of Maldon Road.

It is said that Mr Horsnell lost his job because of his activities in this direction, and it is stated that farmers in the district said to him, “If you will give up your religion we will give you work.” His reply, eminently characteristic of those who believe in this religion, was: “I shall want my religion when I shan’t want your work.” This sums up the general attitude of the Peculiar People. Mr Horsnell, it is reported, spent a winter in the workhouse, together with his family, because nobody would employ him.

After meeting for about 12 years in Church Street, the membership increasing, a move was made to the Old Quakers’ meeting house in Maldon Road [the latter in c.1873 according to the above, making Church Street starting about 1861]. There are about 75 adult members and 40 juveniles attached to the Witham Peculiars, the Elders being S Whybrew, A Whybrew, F Emmens and G Smith’.

ERO T/Z 480, Board of Health inspector’s records. July 11 1876, in Maldon Road ‘Society of Friends owners, ‘The New Lights occupiers’. A water closet which had been closed for some years until recently and which is now used by the New Lights who occupy the Meeting House, a great nuisance to the occupiers adjoining’. ‘Give notice to the Owners to connect the Privies with the Drainage Works within 14 days’.
[Wikipedia says “The terms Old Lights and New Lights (among others) are used in Protestant Christian circles to distinguish between two groups who were initially the same, but have come to a disagreement.”


(6) Other details

(a) Church Street chapel, named in 1871 census. The following is a probable comparison with previous censuses 

1851census HO 107/1783, f.234 91 John Parmenter 2 uninhabited 92 William Hastings 93 James Hammond 1 uninhab 94 Daniel Parmenter
1861 census

RG 9/1107, f.93, pages 9 and 10

45 John Parmenter 46 John Hawkes 47 Sarah Sayer 1 unoccupied 48 Jas Hammond 49 Wm Sach 50 Jos Hayes
1871 census RG 10/1695, f.60, p.7 44 Jos Andrews 44a Geo Bintis 45 Hy Sayer 46 Peculiar Peoples chapel 47 James Hammond 48 Abm Fryatt 49 Jos Hayes

(b) Occupiers in rating assessment:

  Occupiers in rates, D/P 30/11    
  June 1869

vol 107

Oct 1869

vol 108

Jan 1870

vol 109

Jan 1871

vol. 111

All Chipping Hill, owned Joseph Beckwith Hawkes, John New lights* See note at end New lights* See note at end New lights*
See note at end
£3 15s £2 5s
Parmenter Smith, Robt Smith, Robt Smith, R £2 15s £1 15s
Rushen Sayer Sayer, N Sayer, N £5.0s £3 2s.6d
Killingback Adams, George Adams, George Adams, Geo £3 10s £2 2s 6d


William Horsnell:

1851 census, HO 107/1783, f.240, p.1, schedule 1, Chipping Hill
[probably Powershall End]

William Horsnail Head M 32 Ag lab born Essex, Faulkbourne
Amelia Horsnail Wife M 27 Labourer’s wife born Essex, Witham
Maria Horsnail Daur U 6 Scholar born Essex, Witham
Shadrack Horsnail Son 7 mo At home born Essex, Witham

1861 census, RG 9/1107, f.110, p.12, schedule 59, Post Hall End
(just after Spa Place)

William Horsnell Head M 41 Ag labourer born Essex, Faulkbourne
Amelia Horsnell Wife M 40 born Essex, Witham
Shadrac Horsnell Son U 11 Scholar born Essex, Witham
Meshach Horsnell Son U 3 Scholar born Essex, Witham

1871 census, RG 10/1695, f.77, p.12, schedule 55, Post Hall End
(just after Spa Place)

William Horsnell Head M 52 Ag lab born Essex, Faulkbourne
Amelia Horsnell Wife M 50 born Essex, Witham
Shadrack Horsnell Son U 20 Ag lab born Essex, Witham
Meshack Horsnell Son U 13 Ag lab born Essex, Witham
Alice Clara Horsnell Dau U 7 Scholar born Essex, Witham

1881 census, RG 11/1809, f.73, p.7, schedule 43, Post Hall End

William Horsnail H M 62 Ag lab born Essex, Faulkbourne
Amelia Horsnail W M 61 born Essex, Witham

1881 census, RG 11/1809, f.72, p.6, schedule 30, Post Hall End

[just after the Victoria]

Meshach Horsnell H M 23 Ag lab born Essex, Witham
Alice Horsnell W 22 born Essex, Rivenhall
David Horsnell S 1 born Essex, Witham

1881 census, RG 11/1809, f.73, p.8, schedule 48, Post Hall End

Shadrach Horsnell H M 30 Ag lab born Essex, Witham
Elizabeth Horsnell W M 31 born Essex, Little Totham

8. 1891 census, RG 12/1425, f.70, p.15, schedule 99, Post Hall End

William Horsnell Head M 71 Laborer Agl born Essex, Faulkbourne
Amelia Horsnell Wife M 59 born Essex, Witham

1901 census, RG 13/1725, f.78, p.9, schedule 56, Powershall End

James Chignall Head M 62 Highway road labourer born Essex, Witham
Maria Chignell Wife M 56 born Essex, Witham
Amelia Horsnell M in law Wid 80 born Essex, Witham


 D/NF 1/1/20 and 21, minutes of Witham Monthly Meeting, Society of Friends

Part of part 1 of accession A7960. Storage 1B62D/4

In 1872 they had let the meeting house to the Primitive Methodists but their records (in D/NM 5/6/1) show they only stayed about a year

30 October 1889 (page 421)
New person put on Committee re Witham. Committee requested to complete an agreement ‘with the sect who now have the use of that house and report’

29th 10th 1890 [29th October 1890] (page 435)

Brought in, rent of cottage agreed for Witham meeting house, also 2s.6d. from the ‘Peculiar People’ for one years rent to 29 9 (29th September).



7 thoughts on “The Peculiar People”

  1. Scotlands People lists two William Heddles born in Orkney in 1846 – one on Shapisay and the other in Kitkwall. Is it known which of the two was the Bishop? Many thanks

      1. Many thanks. Apologies for the literals – the two Heddle birthplaces were actually SHAPINSAY and KIRKWALL. Most of the Scottish Heddles of the nineteenth century seem to have been in Orkney.

      2. Family Search has a potted biography – and I was wrong. There are THREE William Heddles born in Orkney in 1846 and the one I missed was the bishop – William Heddle, son to John, Farmer, Redland, Stromness, and his wife, Janet Isbister, all of whose seven children born between 1839 and 1853, share a single entry in the register. I wondered whether he might have been from a sectarian family outwith the Established Church of Scotland, but the entry seems to be in a common Register of Birth and Baptisms. However, although on the same page other families are shown as baptised by a named minister, these Heddles are not, so the possibility may still be open.

      3. According to the 1851 census, on the other hand, William’s birth took place in Kirkwall – so no firm conclusions can be drawn. The census shows the family in 1851 on a 23 acre farm, Redland, which is close to Evie on the Brough peninsula in the parish of Stromness. This seems to be an area where there was a Baptist presence, and it could, I suppose be that the Register entry ( there was not STATUTORY registration in Scotland until 1855) for all the children in the same entry MIGHT be held to indicate they were possibly Baptists at the time, who wouldn’t undergo actual baptism until regarded as adults. It also seems to be the case that the various Bretheren groups evolved in a way that tended to attract Baptists. Not all that much seems to be known about Bretheren in this part of Scotland at this time. The Peculiar People do sound rather like Bretheren.

      4. Apologies again – my eyesight is worse than I thought. Between 1839 and 1844 the children of John Heddle who farmed at Redland Hall, according to the census enumerator, had been born in Kirkwall. William was the first to have been born in the parish of Stromness. The 1851 Census makes this clear to everyone except me!

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