Freewill House

This building is one of the earliest Nonconformist chapels in the North Pennines and was an important meeting place for dales people during the 18th and 19th centuries. It is situated in Briscoe, Baldersdale, about three-quarters of a mile east of the Hury Reservoir dam.

The property originally had a roof thatched in heather from the local moorland. It was accessed by the congregation at first floor level where a porch led into two larger rooms in the now derelict section. One was used for meetings and the other as a supper room.

Freewill House circa 1910 with heather thatched roof

There is also a small sitting room which may have been used by the preacher prior to the service. The ground floor housed the chapel keepers, adjacent to the area where sheep were kept. The two-storey section at the end of the building was added at a much later date and was accessed from both floors. Its purpose is unknown.

The chapel keepers

The job of the chapel keeper would have been a highly sought-after position as it provided accommodation in the property, together with use of its productive garden and the surrounding land, originally divided into three small fields.

The role of chapel keeper was combined with that of a shepherd on the moor. One of their most important tasks was to house sheep under the meeting room overnight on Saturdays to warm the room for the Sunday services.

An early record exists of chapel keepers John Killen and Ann Addison who married in 1746 and lived in Freewill House where their children were born. The Killen family would have been able to keep sheep, hens and at least one horse to be ridden around the extensive area of moorland when shepherding the sheep. They would have lived a very hard life. Water would have been drawn from the stream and electricity did not reach the dale until over 200 years later during the 1960s.

The day of rest

Sunday was regarded as a day of rest and many people believed, until as late as the mid-twentieth century, that it was a sin to work on the Sabbath. The Sunday service provided a welcome break from daily routine and was well attended.

Some members of the congregation would have travelled several miles to be there. Many would have arrived on foot, while others travelled on horseback, by horse and trap or on bicycles. It was an opportunity to dress up, meet friends, share news, celebrate the completion of seasonal work and in some cases even meet a future husband or wife.

Members of the congregation chat outside Freewill House

After the service the congregation would move into the supper room where a meal of sandwiches, cakes and tea would be served before beginning the journey home.

Life in the dale

Many farmers lived on small holdings and worked on neighbouring farms or practiced a trade. Farms were very labour intensive. The twice daily milking of cows, feeding and managing animals, haymaking with horses, shearing sheep by hand and caring for flocks of sheep, particularly at lambing time, was very hard and time-consuming work involving whole families.

Some farms also produced butter and cheese which they sold at the Butter Market in Barnard Castle on Wednesdays. Resident workers were essential due to the variable working hours required, and together with larger families, this resulted in a high local population.

The new chapel

At significant times of the year, such as Harvest Festival, services were very popular and there became a perception that a larger chapel was needed. The Teesdale Mercury, the local newspaper, recorded that over 70 people, present at a Saturday evening meeting at Freewill House on 20 January 1897, expressed a strong belief that a new chapel was required. A community fund-raising effort, driven by the Cotherstone station master Henry Park, eventually resulted in the building of the Briscoe Free Mission Gospel Chapel.

Harvest Festival at Briscoe Chapel in 1914

Opened in 1905, Briscoe Free Mission Gospel Chapel appears to have remained close to its original roots. Standing near to Freewill House, the foundation stones of the new building were laid by the fund raisers. Their names are recorded on the stones including that of a Mrs Park, the wife of the Cotherstone station master.

Nicholas Wearmouth (1875-1932) a local stone mason and farmer and his brother Frederick (1879-1962) originally from West Briscoe, built the new chapel. Nicholas and his wife later left the area, moving their family of six children to West Yorkshire, using only a horse and cart. Fred later farmed at Bowes where both brothers are buried.

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