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Dinner with the Countess' Sister!

Joe Gregory, President of The Connexion, tells us about his unexpected dinner date with the Countess of Huntingdon's sister.

I must say I thought that being President of the Connexion would allow Elizabeth and I to travel to new places around the country and meet all sorts of interesting people.

However, I was not expecting to have dinner with the Countess of Huntingdon’s sister so early on in my term of office.

No, I didn’t use a time machine, there really is a Countess of Huntingdon alive today - I had no idea.

I was contacted by a chap called David Wakefield of Tunbridge Wells, who was asking if it was possible for a representative of the Connexion to attend a special ceremony he was organising.

A bit of history ...

Selina, Countess of Huntingdon financed the building of the Emmanuel Church in Tunbridge Wells and it opened on July 23 1769. Selina was concerned about the 'spiritual destitution' of a town whose only established church was closed in the off season.

The first service was held out in the open because of the numbers of people in attendance, and the preacher was George Whitefield, who was Lady Selina's chaplain. The text he used was 'This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of Heaven'. 

That first chapel had seating for 500people, and this was replaced by a larger stone building in 1867 which could accommodate 1000 congregants! Sadly, numbers declined greatly during the 20th century and the church closed in1970.

However, the church had its own graveyard, and this meant that the bodies had to be disinterred and then re-interred in the Tunbridge Wells Cemetery at Hawkenbury. This took place in 1973.

Eventually the church building was demolished to make way for a hospital car park in 1974.


Early 2003

David Wakefield and his wife Ruth were long standing members of the chapel and were married in Emmanuel Church in 1960.

David felt that it would be a good thing to mark the 50th Anniversary of the reinterment with a ceremony and unveiling of a memorial stone to commemorate the lives of those buried in their final resting place.

David is a keen local historian and he and Ruth arranged for the short service to take place on their 63rd wedding anniversary. He was thrilled when I informed him that Elizabeth and I could attend, and we were invited to Sunday dinner at their Georgian town house. He then told me that he had invited the Countess of Huntingdon to dine also!

Well, it turned out that Selina Hastings couldn’t make it, but her sister Lady Shackleton could. She would be accompanied by her daughter Emma.

I must say in the lead up to the big day Elizabeth and I felt a bit uneasy at having to socialise in such esteemed company. I’m not sure either of us had met a Lord or Lady before, we don’t come across many of them on the Isle of Sheppey.

Ceremony 2023

Parking in Tunbridge Wells is terrible, especially in the rain but we eventually found our way to David and Ruth’s house.

Our nervousness was soon dispelled because everyone was lovely. It turned out that Lady Shackleton had married the grandson of the great explorer Ernest Shackleton, hence the name.

Conversation flowed as we talked about our Countess, and I had researched Ernest Shackleton just in case. It turned out that Lady Shackleton’s daughter Emma was training to be a social worker. We were then driven to the cemetery, and I was surprised to see quite a large number of people gathered together in the drizzling rain.

David gave a speech, and his wife Ruth unveiled the magnificent memorial stone. Emma laid a wreath and then Felicity from the civic society read out the names of the deceased. All told it was a moving ceremony, which concluded with me sharing a prayer and a blessing.

We then retreated to the chapel in the cemetery, where a local historian named Dr. Ian Beavis gave a fascinating talk on the Countess of Huntingdon, the Great Awakening in the 18th Century and her impact on Tunbridge Wells. It was said to be a town of ill repute in the 1760’s, but the building of Emmanuel Chapel and the preaching of George Whitefield changed all that.

The event concluded with the inevitable tea and cake, and it was good to be able to chat with other local people. It was a really unusual event to be invited to, but all the people we met were delightful and it was a real privilege to be invited and play a small part.

It was great too to hear the role played by the Countess in revival and early Methodism, and to be reminded of the rich history of the Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion.