The Vale’s delicious asparagus served quite another purpose when it was enjoyed by a group of dissenting Midlands ministers 225 years ago.
The ministers used the tasty dish as a cover for their risky illegal meetings in Evesham’s Oat Street Chapel.
It all began back in 1782 when the dissenting ministers gathered at West Bromwich Presbyterian Old Meeting and resolved to meet monthly in order to promote and encourage “an earnest and active interest in all matters reflecting religious liberty… particularly in matters affecting equal rights of all denominations before the law.”
At that time it was strictly illegal for non-conformist ministers to gather to discuss seemingly ‘heretical’ ideas but, embellished with delicious seasonal asparagus, the May meetings started to be held at Oat Street Chapel, where gathering under the guise of an asparagus lunch provided the perfect smokescreen.
It is said that if the visiting ministers were questioned, they replied they were simply in Evesham to view the asparagus fields and enjoy an excellent repast.
In those days Evesham was a real ‘hot-bed of heresy’. The latter half of the 17th century saw the formation of various religious ‘sects’, including the English Presbyterians (later to become Unitarians), Independents, Baptists and Quakers. The latter two originated outside of the Church of England while the former arose from the `great ejection’ of 1662.
Nearly 2,000 clergymen lost their livings for reasons of conscience and their unwillingness to agree to the Act of Uniformity, which required ‘assent and consent’ to everything in the Book of Common Prayer. Those who broke away from the Orthodox Church locally included George Hopkins and Thomas Matthew, vicars of All Saints and St Lawrence’s in Evesham, and the vicars of Harvington, Cropthorne, Eckington, Broadway and Bredon.
By May 1664 all non-conformist worship was against the law, field meetings and house meetings had also become illegal and magistrates were fined heavily for failing to disperse any such meetings.
Around this time there was also much persecution of the Quakers. In Evesham, Humphrey Smith and Thomas Cartwright were imprisoned for refusing to swear the oath of allegiance. The Quakers made a representation to Cromwell. describing their cruel treatment. But when they were brought before the Evesham magistrates they kept their hats on and were promptly sent back to jail (Cromwell later ordered their release).
Another Quaker, an early streaker by the name of William Sympson, ran naked through the streets of Evesham, declaring he did this as a ‘prophetic warning to the people’. And when the Quaker leader George Fox came to Evesham, to visit his followers who were in prison, he narrowly missed being thrown in jail himself. As he was leaving town he spied the magistrates coming to seize him but ‘the Lord frustrated their intent’ and he managed to escape.
Being rather staid by comparison, the Presbyterians found all this to be rather extreme behaviour. From 1696 they held their worship quietly in a barn in Evesham High Street, where they stressed, as do Unitarians today, their strong belief in religious freedom and tolerance.
By 1737 a plot of land had been bought from a Thomas Bovey in Oat Street, where a meetinghouse was built. Shortly after the congregation changed their name from Presbyterian to Unitarian (symbolising their general belief that God is one rather than three). Again they kept a low profile by setting the chapel well back from the road, called in those days Ode Street. Soon after, a schoolroom was built (re-built and enlarged in 1862), which separated the meeting house from the street.
The schoolroom provided the perfect venue for the asparagus lunches and the under-cover meetings of the ‘Warwickshire and Neighboring Counties Monthly Meeting of Protestant Dissenting Ministers 1782’.
The meetings were finally legalised in 1813, after which Unitarians continued to campaign for Catholics to have the same religious freedoms. Amazingly, the meetings and asparagus lunches have continued in Evesham for the past 225 years.
Every year in May Midland Ministers and members of the congregation, gathered for a service in the beautiful old chapel followed by for an enjoyable lunch in the schoolroom, where the historic toast to ‘Civil and Religious Liberty the World Over’ is proposed by the president of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches.
“Though our Unitarian community in Evesham primarily focuses on life today, in the 21st century, we’re also proud of our history,” says the Rev Don Phillips, minister of Oat Street Chapel.
“We’re pleased to continue hosting the ancient tradition of the minister’s asparagus lunch – it’s an occasion to celebrate what we’re about, to celebrate springtime, and an occasion to simply enjoy.”