One of the last outbreaks of cholera in the country took place on Soham’s East and Qua Fen Commons. This led to demands for better drainage throughout the parish and all the cemeteries were full, so it was decided to create a new cemetery for the parish. On April 14th 1855, agreement was reached to purchase three acres of high, dry gravel ground on the road from Soham to Fordham. Tenders were sent out to construct and design the new cemetery, a custodians house and a pair of dissimilar chapels. Several designs were put forward but the designs by Mr Wheeler of Greys Inn Terrace, London were eventually accepted.
For a short period between 1840 and 1870 it was fashionable to create what were termed ‘dissimilar pairs’. Chests of drawers and buildings were the most popular and had commenced with cemetery chapels, even though only twenty were ever built. As the free churches; Baptist, Methodist and Congregational, became more popular and wealthy it was decided that even though they worshiped the same God they did not want to use the same buildings. Consequently the chapels were constructed to be similar but on closer examination they would have subtle variations.
After the plans were accepted there was a serious delay in there building. The Bishop of Ely was in London and he would not return to consecrate the ground. Eventually it was decided to send a box of soil to him so it could be done, as the law at that time demanded. Work finally started some eighteen months later. The cemetery was opened with the entire cost of building the chapel, lodge and hearse house for 1084.8s0d.
For some eighty years the chapels continued in use until in 1991 when the Town Council made a decision to demolish the Free Church Chapel, always referred to as the North Chapel. It had been used as a tractor shed and it’s condition was rapidly deteriorating. After considerable outrage among the inhabitants of the town a petition was created in which 920 of Soham’s 8000 inhabitants signed. Although this petition was presented and refused by council the Chapels were saved by the intervention of our representative on the Rural District Council, John Palmer and given grade two listing by English Heritage. This halted demolition which had already begun.
The Chapels were now left in the most precarious state in their existence. A chance meeting between Timothy Clark and the Chairman of the Heritage Lottery Fund secured a grant of 30,000. This was eventually matched with a further grant from East Cambridgeshire District Council.
It was recommended that a group of trustees be set in place to repair and complete the restoration of the chapel; now known as the Soham North Chapel Charitable Trust, under the chairmanship of John Palmer with Timothy Clark as treasurer. New tenders were undertaken for the work and although Messrs Valiant of Barrow, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk did not submit the cheapest tender, it was decided that their knowledge of restoration was worth the extra payment. The restoration was completed in February 1998 and the Chapel re-opened to the public.
The buildings are presently maintained by the sale of memorial plaques for those who wish to remember their loved ones in the shelter of the Chapel. The Chapel itself provides a quiet place for retreat and prayer, in of one of the rarest buildings in the country.
Plaques may be purchase via Timothy Clark, Netherhall Manor, Tanners Lane, Soham, Ely, Cambs.
Piece by Mr Timothy Clark
Edited by Elizabeth Johnston