Our Ancient Meeting House

Our Ancient Meeting House: Some Account of the Fabric of Christ Church, Dampiet Street, Bridgwater

By Clement Edwards Pike F.R.Hist.S.

Published by the Eastgate Press, after 1911

Our Ancient Meeting House

THE Congregation which worships in Christ Church, Bridgwater, traces its origin to John Norman, who was ejected from the ministry of the Parish Church in that town, for nonconformity in 1662. Sixteen months later, imprisonment followed ejectment, and this imprisonment in Ilchester Gaol lasted for eighteen months, so that as Norman died at Bridgwater in February, 1669, his ministry, after the ejection, must have been a brief and troubled one, and not a period favourable for building. It was almost certainly after, his death, though how long after we do not know, when the first Nonconformist place of worship was built in Bridgwater. That such a building was in existence in July, 1683, we know from the account of its demolition at that date in a letter written by Lord Stawell, who had come to the town to search for arms. “Found the House of Worship, which was sooner pluckt down than built.”The materials were carried to the Cornhill where a bonfire was made of them “fourteen feet high, a topp of which was placed the pulpit and cushing.” … “We stood round the bonfire and healths were not wanting.” . . . he adds ” The Mittig hous was made rown like a cock-pit, and once held some 400 persons.”—(Roberts’ Life of Monmouth, vol. 2, 284-5.)

Five years after this event, in 1688, a Church was built on the present site, and the following pages will record, as briefly as possible, the repairs and alterations which it has undergone, from that period to the present time. These are recorded in the earliest Church book, dating from July, 1688, in a second and larger book from 1730 to 1880, in the minute book from 1815 to 1858, in the later minute book, and other sources.

On the front of the building are two dates carved in stones let into the brickwork. One immediately below the gable is “1688,” and on a more decorated stone below it, is the word ” Rebuilt 1788.” These stones are liable to give the impression, that, having been constructed in 1688, the building was taken down a century later, and reconstructed on the same site, and that with this the matter began and ended. If it were so the writer’s task would be short and simple, but the documentary evidence reveals a much more complicated story. Evidence of alterations and repairs both before and after 1788 is abundant, but, for some inscrutable reason, no account of a rebuilding in that year is to be found in the authorities that have been mentioned. Aural testimony does not help us here, as the last survivor of the worshippers before 1788, Isaac Manchip, died at the age of ninety-seven, in January, 1855. That there was some rebuilding in 1788 seems evident, and a gap in the account of repairs from 1787 till 1806 may suggest it, but its extent is a matter of doubt. It may have been limited to the front, and even then it is doubtful whether it included that remarkable decorative feature, the shell over the door. In January 29th, 1729, Henry Hooper was “paid for labour and mort abt the shell over ye door as. rd.” This proves that a shell existed in that early period, and from the character of the work, it seems probable that it was the one which is there still. In the same year, 1729, is an item headed—”Voluntary Contributions for raising fifty pounds formerly laid out in enlarging the Presbyterian Meeting House in Bridgwater.” As the amount carried with it four years interest the date of this enlargement may have been 1725.

An earlier item for repairs is “December 2 Anno 1704,” when £62 17s. 9d. was paid “for the clearing the Meeting House, &c.” £21 of this is “for what they were out abt the Gallery.” Also £1 9s. od. “from Thomas Davis being money he gathered for the pulpitt.” In 1709 there are items for ,painting and whitewashing the Meeting House, also for mending the shoote.”

The pillars which support the roof in the interior of the building, are a characteristic feature, and it would be interesting to know their date. In February, 1727 a seat is described as “the second new pew from the pillar,” showing that there were pillars at this period. In 1740 we have Voluntary Contributions for the New Pillar, and repairing the roof, of which the total cost was £19 6s. 1d.

In May 11th, 1787, we have a payment for examining the roof and making an estimate ’15/-. A “Vestible in the Meeting House” was erected in 1814. At a Meeting held on October 13th, 1816, it was “resolved that a Vestry for this institution is desirable and necessary,” but the item “paid Slocombe’s bill for building the Vestry, and removing the pulpit, &c. £52 14s. od.” in December, 1827, shows that a considerable interval elapsed between the resolution and its accomplishment. It may be noted that both Bath and Bristol, through their Fellowship Funds, contributed to defraying this expense. In 1845, together with other alterations, which will be considered later, this Vestry was enlarged three feet, the end wall being token down for this purpose, and rebuilt at that distance from its former position.

Very considerable alterations were proposed, and partially carried out in 1835, and as these mark the first considerable, change in the old method of seating, it may be well to revert to it.

An early entry in the oldest Church book is headed “Seats that are sold in the Meeting House, August sat, 1699.” A number of these are devoted to ‘men, and others to women, the separation of the sexes being very marked. Gradually some of these seats were, at the expense of those who occupied them, converted into pews, and, on the death of an owner, were allotted to the next of kin. No. 22, described as “Being the inner-most seat on the left syde of the Meeting House within the Ballasters was sold by Mrs. Ann Whitehead to Mr. William Cornish and Mr. Nathanyell Galpin as also liberty for their servants to sitt on the bench before the Mayor and Aldermen’s Seat.”

For many generations the Corporation of Bridgwater was provided with a seat in what was commonly called the Mayor’s Aisle, but at a Meeting held 17th February, 1833, it was resolved that “the rapidly increasing numbers of the Sunday Scholars require that further accommodation should be provided for them, and as the upper end of the Chapel formerly appropriated to the use of the Corporation, and called the Mayor’s Aisle, is in a bad state of repair, it has been suggested that the present seat, might be removed so as to convert it to a gallery for the children ” . . . “Also provided a sufficient sum can be obtained for the purpose to re-model the middle pews of the Chapel so as to afford greater accommodation for families and to allow the congregation to sit facing the minister.” This resolution was only partially carried out, but in 1835 attention was again directed to .the subject, and it was considered desirable “that the central seats be united by filling up the middle aisle, and making the whole into ranges of sittings all to face the pulpit.” “Before this alteration was fully carried out, the first payment to the Bridgwater Gas Light Co., on January 18th, 1836, discloses the fact that gas had been substituted for candles.

In 1837 the organ was removed, the gallery was fitted up, and the centre of the Chapel re-seated at a cost of £94 13s. 5d. The next considerable expense for repairs and alterations was incurred in 1845. About £80 was spent in “removing the seats and pews behind the pulpit, for lowering the whole with other parts of the Chapel, for making three new long seats, for continuing the side pews to the end of the Chapel, for removing and fixing the pulpit,” and for the enlargement of the Vestry which has been already alluded to.

In the Autumn of 1849, the Chapel was cleaned, coloured, and ventilated, permission to close the Chapel for one Sunday having been obtained.

Four years later Mr. William Browne, then Mayor of Bridgwater, purchased an organ which had been built for the Hampstead Unitarian Chapel, and presented it to the Congregation. Its entry involved alterations in the Organ Gallery, “the pew for the Choir had to be reconstructed, and the staircase to be removed.” The opportunity afforded by these alterations was taken advantage of for repairing and painting the interior, and for thoroughly repairing the roof. The hope was expressed that many years would elapse before a similar outlay would be necessary, and this hope was realised, for the next considerable expenditure on alterations takes us to the year 1867. In that year Mr. John Browne made the munificent donation of £500 for repairs to the Chapel and Organ; this together with a bequest of £100 from Mr. William Browne for the roof, was spent under the direction of an architect. Mr. Down. The alterations included new windows at the south end, and the building up of three side windows, sky-lights in the ceiling being substituted, a new platform and pulpit, encaustic tile pavement, and the cumbrous, and inefficient heating apparatus, which has recently been abolished.

In 1870 there is another outlay of £11 16s. 6d. for repairs and for cleaning, and until 1880 amounts varying from £11 8s. 9d. to £7 8s. 2d. are devoted each year to this purpose. In 1896 the windows at the south end were reglazed at an expense of £37 10s. 7d. But for a long term of years no structural alterations are apparent, though an expenditure of nearly sixty pounds in 1905 on the stone work of the front should be recorded. It only remains briefly to narrate the improvements that have been made in the last few years, during the present ministry. In 1908 the clumsy gas chandelier was removed, and fittings for lighting by incandescent burners were substituted. The increase in the number of Sunday-school Scholars had made their accommodation in the vestry insufficient, and in 1910 to obtain more space the end wall of the vestry was, for the second time, pulled down and twelve feet added to the room. In 1911 a pew which had been used for coke and other things was thrown into the vestibule, thus making a separate room, and the screen continued as on the other side, and in the same year, the inefficient heating apparatus, below the building, was discarded, and gas radiators substituted for the Church and School-room.

This record of alterations and repairs, extending over a period of more than two centuries, shows the constant attention which a building requires to adapt it to the needs of the different generations which occupy it. Many interesting reminiscences cluster about this venerable house of prayer, which it would be beyond the scope of the present narrative to record ; but it is thought the fact that Samuel Taylor Coleridge preached in the building in June, 1797, demands some permanent record, and possibly before long this may be effected by the erection of a tablet.


Hymn I.

ALL people that on earth do dwell,

Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice;

Him serve with fear, His praise forth tell,

Come ye before Him and rejoice.

The Lord, ye know, is God indeed,

Without our aid He did us make:

We are His flock, He doth as feed,

And for His sheep he doth as take.

O enter then His gates with praise,

Approach with joy His courts unto;

Praise, laud, and bless His Name always,

For it is seemly so, to do.

For why? the Lord our God is good,

His mercy is for every sure;

His truth at all times firmly stood,

And shall from age to age endure.

Hymn II.

PROTECTOR of our fleeting race,

Who art and aye shalt be,

Our fathers in this hallow’d place

Held fellowship with Thee.

And here the psalm, the hymn, the prayer,

From fervent hearts arose:

Here pastors sought with loving care

To comfort human woes.

The mournful sigh the, starting tear,

A loftier joy supprest,

As souls were taught Christ’s cross to bear,

And in His love to rest.

The generations rose and pass’d,

And rested neath the sod:

The walls they rear’d their lives outlast,

And speak to us of God.

The brazen scroll, the marble fair

Recall the good and wise;

Those who of yore could do and dare,

In faith’s great enterprise.

Such memories consecrate the place,

And past and present blend.

O Father of our fleeting race,

Be with us to the end.

Hymn III.

THE Syrian King in days of old,

By holy impulse moved,

Prepared a store of gems and gold

To deck the house he loved.

And all the Princes of the land,

And those of low degree,

Their gifts bestowed with generous hand,

And offered willingly.

Shall we less generous be than they?

Shall we our blessings hoard?

Nay, gladly we’ll our tribute pay

To this loved house of God.

May He approve whose piercing eye

Perceived the widow’s mite,

The offering of her penury,

Was precious in his sight.

Or large, or small the offering be,

So it but be our best,

It’s tendered Lord in faith to Thee,

Thy blessing on it rest.

Hymn IV.

ETERNAL God, we gather here,

Where, in the days of yore,

Our fathers met for many a year

Thy goodness to adore;

And mindful of their lives of stress,

And of their faith in thee,

We also to the goal would press,

And share their victory.

No easy path was theirs to heaven,

No smooth and pleasant road,

By blasts of persecution driven,

They sought the martyrs’ God.

They would not bend compliant knees

To tyranny and pride,

Nor ever for inglorious ease

Faith’s deep conviction hide.

Steadfast in faith, with honest zeal,

They raised this house of prayer,

That here might generations kneel,

And freedom’s worship share.

Now to their sacred purpose true,

As they were true of yore,

Our vows of service we renew,

Our fathers’ God adore.

Hymn V.

GOD the all-merciful King who ordainest

Seed-time, and harvest, and darkness and day,

From the high realm, where in splendour thou reignest,

Stoop to our weakness, and bless us we pray.

God the omnipotent, generous Giver,

Blessings from Thee have descended like showers,

Thine was the bounty that flowed like a river

All that we offer is Thine more than ours.

From the high realm, where in splendour Thou reignest,

Deign to accept our thanksgiving we pray;

God the all-merciful King who ordainest

Seed-time and harvest, and darkness, and day.

Hymn VI.

NOW sinks the sun once more,

Steals one the night,

Father, Thy radiance pour,

Let there be light!

Now deeper shades are cast

Over our way,

Father, we hold Thee fast,

Be Thou our stay!

Birds to their nests return,

No more to roam,

Father, for Thee we yearn,

Be Thou our home

Hush’d is all tumult now,

Earth’s noises cease,

Father, to Thee we bow,

Grant us Thy peace!

More on the modern congregation can be found here.