`The Lord does combination love...'
Photographs by the author
A Sunday Visitor to the Sussex village of Northchapel might, on entering a little stone-built chapel set back from the A283, hear a group of elderly people singing this hymn unaccompanied by any music. Not so long ago our visitor could have heard this and many other unfamiliar hymns in several chapels scattered across West Sussex and Surrey. The worshippers were members of the Society of Dependents, founded by John Sirgood, and better known to outsiders as `Cokelers'. They were important for over a century in West Sussex and Surrey, and the hymn expresses a fundamental aspect of their faith and activity that made them impossible for anyone in the district to ignore.
John Sirgood was born at Averring, Gloucestershire, in 1821. During the 1840s he settled at Kennington in south London, where he became a disciple of William Bridges, founder of the Plumstead Peculiars. Sirgood, a shoemaker by trade, preached widely around south London, but in 1850 he travelled to Loxwood in Sussex with his wife Harriet and soon acquired a following amongst farm-workers. This success was in an area with no tradition of nonconformity, and to a degree Sirgood was perhaps filling a need that the conventional nonconformist sects had been unable to address. More important perhaps, was his message. Nonconformity in Sussex was traditionally Calvinistic and seems to have appealed more to small farmers and tradespeople than to agricultural workers.
'family group' of Dependents at Northchapel
Sirgood's emphasis on free will and his rejection of the system in which Anglican clergy had spiritual and usually temporal authority over their parishioners, may well have appealed to farm-workers in a rigidly structured class society, in which clergy were seen as aligned with the gentry and large farmers. Whatever the validity of thus speculation, Sirgood was successful, and eventually the Society of Dependents was formed, so-called because its members were dependent on God for everything. The nickname 'Cokeler' is of very early date, and is popularly attributed to Sirgood's preference for cocoa rather than beer.
This present-day parade of shops in the Sussex village of Northchapel was formerly the Dependent Stores, run by a remarkable religious society. They lived communally 'over the shop'. and their church immediately behind it can be seen at the right of the picture.
Most aspects of Dependent belief are fairly orthodox within the Arminian traditions of Protestant dissent. They believed firmly in the people's ability to exercise free will and thereby achieve salvation. Thus, in the nineteenth century, they were closer to Primitive Methodism for example, than to Congregationalism Which was still strongly Calvinistic in its belief in predestination. Like Quakers though. Dependents were and are avowed pacifists and were conscientious objectors during two world wars.
Misconceptions about their beliefs are widespread even in published articles. Taboos against flowers in the home, ornaments, literature other than the Bible, and photographs are commonly listed, hut are not founded in the practice of members of the sect.
Another misunderstanding comes from their preference for celibacy, which once attracted great interest and even hostility . Contrary to popular belief, marriage has never been forbidden amongst Dependents. Many have married and remained faithful to their church. But it is true that celibacy has long been preferred by most Dependents. Ben Piper, an elder of the sect at Warnham until his death in 1948, recalled in a handwritten memoir how his father in the 1870s began to believe `what a deal more liberty and freedom himself and dear Mother would have for Christ's sake if they remained as they were and not bring souls into the world, which if not born again is very sad'.
In Sussex, Sirgood attracted many followers amongst the farm-workers and tradespeople in several areas. Meetings, and soon chapels, were established at Loxwood, Northchapel, Plaistow and Warnham in West Sussex: and Lord's Hill near Shamley Green in Surrey: as well as later, at Chichester. Hove and South Norwood in London. There were also house-meetings as far away as Harden in Kent. By the time of Sirgood's death in 1885, there were some 2,000 Dependents, although by 1904 only about 900 adherents remained. This decline has continued until today; only a handful of people now worship at the remaining church in Northchapel.
As happened to members of many nonconformist groups, early Dependents were often sacked from their jobs, thrown out of their homes and commonly subjected to rough music. Disruption of their chapel services was also common for many years. Whether it was in response to this persecution as well as to the poverty of the farmworker, that the most distinctive aspect of their doctrine `combination' - developed, is unclear. By the late 1870s though, it was a dominant part of their thought.
The former Dependent chapel at Loxwood, Sussex, as it is today.
Dependents define combination as `spiritual oneness'. Through it the faithful might become members of a single body the body of Christ. It was achieved through prayer, scriptural awareness, and frequent collective worship. Unfortunately for early Dependents, work interfered with worship, especially among women, who were often in service and could not easily attend the meetings.
To liberate women from the tyranny of service, shops were set up during the 1870s at Loxwood, Warnham, Northchapel, Lord's Hill, South Norwood, and perhaps elsewhere. By 1885 the Combination Stores at Loxwood was a flourishing enterprise with several departments and in 1920 there was `a whole street of shops, with a large garage and a great steam bakery'. The stores at Northchapel, a village of only 700 people, employed 13 saleswomen and assistants in 1904, besides the drivers of delivery carts. Virtually anything was sold through the stores, which were so successful that by the turn of the century they had practically cornered all trading activities in their respective villages. Most branches remained under Dependent control until after the Second World War, and the last to be sold was at Loxwood some 15 years ago.
Dependents pooled their meagre resources to set up the first store, and they continued to invest what they could. Any member could become a shareholder and large dividends were reputed to be paid. Certainly the labourers who were Dependents were considered to he much better off than those in other denominations. What little wealth accrued to individuals remained in the movement after their death, shares being bequeathed to other brethren. Surviving Dependents acquired their shares in this way: as one remarked to me, 'I never had any money to buy any '. Members did not generally take their dividend, leaving it in the business to accrue for the benefit of the movement. Trade acquired a spiritual significance, but not trade for individual benefit.
During the 1880s. several farms were added to Dependent enterprises, the produce being sold in the stores, but the farms and stores did not themselves embody the idea of combination. This was manifested in the way they were worked and organised. Hired labour was seldom used. Dependents comprised the work-force, and they lived, as some still do, communally, with most staff in each store or farm living under the same roof. Of the handful of survivors, a number still live together under one roof in Northchapel and Loxwood. In the late 1940s, some 16 men and women lived above the stores at Northchapel, although two decades earlier, there had been 26. Of course some members, particularly married couples, lived separately from the rest, but communal living provided the framework for most Dependents. Division of labour was fairly conventional. Men did the usual male farm jobs and crafts, while women were the majority of shop assistants. Frequently though, women held managerial positions in the stores. The able-bodied, young, old and sick, all shared equally of the fruits of labour.
In 1917, the manageress of the grocery section of the Loxwood stores. and resident there for over 50 years, described their lives. Meals were taken communally, men and women eating together. Brethren received a small wage out of which they had only to buy clothes, from the stores of course: all else was found. Chapel services were held on Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 7 until 9 o'clock; while on Sundays, services Were from 10.30am to 1pm: 2.30 to 4pm and 6 to 8pm. Dependents attended each of these services whenever possible. Work was preceded and followed by private prayer and scriptural reading or pastoral work filled the evenings. Leisure was simple.
Martin B Snow and contributors all