Thornbury Baptist Church History

The old Thornbury Baptist Chapel

We are grateful to Thornbury and District Museum and to the Baptist Church in Thornbury for allowing us to use their resources when we were collecting this information.  We have also made much use of the church’s own booklet about its history “250 years – Thornbury Baptist Church 1747 – 1997.”

The Baptist Church in Thornbury can trace its origins back to 1747, a time when in the absence of any other suitable meeting place the Baptist services had to be held in private houses.  It was necessary to obtain a licence from the Bishop of Gloucester to authorise religious gatherings of this kind.  Before 1689 it had been illegal for more than five people aged 16 and over (besides the household) to meet together for any kind of religious worship other than that of the Church of England.  The Toleration Act of 1689 allowed Nonconformists to meet provided that they were prepared to take certain oaths of allegiance and provided that during their meetings the doors were left unlocked.

This new freedom for Nonconformists was effectively a reward to Protestant Dissenters for their refusal to side with Catholic James II when the Glorious Revolution brought the Protestant William and Mary to the throne in England.

The first such licence was issued on 23rd October 1747 for meetings at the home of John Rawlings.  Gloucester Archives holds a document of this date to the effect that “some of his Majesties Protestant Dissenter subjects intend to hold a Meeting for the Worship of Almighty God at the Dwelling House of one John Rawlings of the parish of Thornbury.”

We understand that from 1752 the licence was issued for the home of John Whitfield to be used.  Sadly we know nothing further about either John Rawlings or John Whitfield at this time.

1789 Building of first Chapel.  It was not until 1789 that a purpose built church on the site of the present Baptist Church was licensed to hold services.   The booklet “250 years Thornbury Baptist Church 1747 to 1997” tells us that first stone for the building of the new Baptist Meeting House was laid by James Eley on 15th August 1788.  Records held in the safe of the Baptist Church include indentures of Lease and Release dated 26th and 27th June 1789 signed by William Osborne of the first part and Caleb Evans, Robert Hall, John Harris, John Page, Robert Norton, Thomas Birchell, Thomas Shepherd, John Shepherd, James Eley, Joseph Limbrick, William Reed and Joseph Parslow of the other part. In these documents it is clear that by June 1789 a Meeting House had already been erected on the site.  The land on which the Meeting House stood had been previously owned by William Green and in June 1789 was only recently bought by William Osborne of Kington.  We have copies of deeds relating to a property here called ‘Burgage Hill’ which passed through William Jones in 1681 to the Coventry family, then Ann Burgess, the Corp family, William Green and finally in 1782 to William Osborne.

The application for the registration of Thornbury Baptist Church was dated 28th July 1789 and signed by James Eley, Daniel Reed, William Reed, John Shepherd and Thomas Shepherd.  This Registration was granted on 1st August 1789.  Again we have slightly confusing information in the church’s own booklet as it says that the church was opened for public worship by Rev. Caleb Evans on 27th May 1789 which is before it was licensed for worship.

We have further information about many of those who appear in the documents quoted above and who are presumably leading members of the church in Thornbury, including James Eley, the banker and land owner Joseph Parslow and William and Daniel Reed.

Further changes in the church building.  The booklet about the church history tells us that even in the early days the church was continually growing and modernising.  There are references to a vestry in 1797 (costing £30 2s 4d), an enlargement to the meeting house in 1806 (costing £17 13s 1d) and a baptistry in 1811 (costing £1 2s 7d).

1834 – Extension of the church. William Jarman Cross was minister of the church from 1832 to 1844 and his ministry proved to be very active time with great expansion and change.  Click here to read about Rev Cross. 

We understand that the the chapel was extended during this period and that other chapels were opened in Morton (1834), Berkeley (1835) and Tytherington (1842).  Read about the Morton Chapel and its history

In May 1844 Rev Cross wrote a letter which was copied into the minutes of the church meetings.  The letter finished with a statement that there were at that time 78 members of the church and four baptised people.  There were 210 children in the Sunday School with 25 teachers.

1838 – on 6th June 1838 the Baptist Meeting House in Thornbury was registered for the Solemnisation of Marriage by Richard Scarlett, the Superintendent Registrar of the District of Thornbury.

1848 – the minutes of the church meetings include a memorandum dated 1st May 1848 signed by W.O. Maclaine who stated that “I have this day sold to the trustees of the Baptist Chapel at Thornbury a piece of land on the north west side of the said chapel measuring 61 feet in length by an average of 8 feet in width for the sum of five shillings.”

1893 – Church Renovation.  The church continued to make further improvements as it grew.  On September 2nd 1893 the Bristol Mercury announced that the Thornbury Baptist Chapel had reopened after a thorough renovation.  The newspaper said that fundraising had produced £115 to repair the chapel. As is frequently the case the estimated cost of the actual work had risen from £140.10s to £161 10s.  The newspaper did not explain precisely how the shortfall was to be met but it was hoped that “friends interested in the chapel will not allow the balance of the debt to long remain a burden”.  The work was done by the firm of Tucker Bros (Read about Frank Tucker and George Tucker).  It included replacing the old pulpit and “straight pews” with a pitchpine rostrum and “open pitchpine seats”.  Although the article refers to “seats” photographs taken later in the church’s history show that they were simply a more modern version of pews.  It was not until 1985 that the church has a record of removing the pew and replacing them with chairs.  The church was given new entrance doors and what was said to be a pretty tiled lobby.  A public meeting and a tea for over 140 people were arranged to celebrate the occasion.

It is possible that the photograph here on the right was taken about this time.  Certainly we believe that it shows George Rees and so it seems that it was taken before 1902.

1895Building of Schoolroom and extension of Burial Ground.  On 31 December 1895 Mr William Sutcliffe Marsh a civil engineer living in Swansea sold a portion of the land fronting Gillingstool Hill and known as Pigeon House Close to a group of trustees representing the Baptist Church in Thornbury for £50 10s and an undertaking to pay the sum of 7s 6d annually to the Manor of Thornbury.  The trustees of the Baptist Church at that time included Rev George Rees, George Stone and  Edward Liddiatt, as well as other leading members of the congregation.

The conveyance came with many restrictions as Mr Marsh had to approve the plan to build on this land and the frontage of any new building could not be closer than six feet to the highway.  The purchasers also agreed to erect a stone wall not less than six feet high on the north and east boundaries of the property.  They also had to erect a “neat iron railing” on the boundary of the property where it fronted the public highway.

The minutes of the church meeting of 9th December 1895 showed that they had to borrow a further £50 towards building costs.  It is possible that the burden of debt from both this purchase and the earlier refurbishment was to remain a burden for some time.  We note that in 1904 the church was able to celebrate not only the centenary of the circuit but also the removal of debt, although the same year saw a new Sunday School added to the chapel at a further cost of £300.

We have a brief account of the chapel at this time from Rev Harold Ball whose father was converted by George Stone a Baptist Church deacon in the first quarter of the twentieth century.  Harold recalls that when he was a small boy he saw water flowing from the chapel down the road on Monday mornings and he was told that this was the the emptying of the water used for baptising new believers on the previous day.  It seems that the church was continuing to grow rapidly!

1971 – Extension to Schoolroom.  On March 13th 1971 after a long period when the church seem to go without major improvements, the Dursley Gazette reported on the opening of a new extension to the schoolroom which took place on 6th March 1971.  The opening ceremony was performed by Herbert George Pullen a life Deacon and a Sunday School Superintendent.  We have a photograph taken at this time,  It shows Rev. Voice, Mr and Mrs spill, Mrs Pullen and Mr Pullen. 

The new facilities included an additional schoolroom, a kitchen, new toilets and two rooms upstairs.  The building firm chosen for this project was called Sodbury Vale Builders Ltd and the architect was Mr J A Cole.  The scheme had taken a long time to come to fruition as it had started seven years earlier when the church held its first gift day in April 1965.  This raised £655 and as the funds grew a plan to extend the schoolroom was drawn up in January 1967.  Eventually after a series of further fund raising events the church raised the sum of £3495 and received loans of £1,500.  The final contract price for the build was £4,593.40.

This extension required the church to move some of the grave stones to the periphery of the grave yard and a new garden of remembrance was provided in the churchyard.

The land was bought from Emily Winifred Higgins the widow of Oliver Higgins who lived at the Forge on Pullins Green.  The land was a section of what had been known as Pigeon House Close.

This whole close of land covered an area from near would now be Crispin Lane along Gillingstool Hill to St David’s Road and included Colin Close.  At this time however only a small section of the land was acquired by the Baptist Church.

1978 – 1988 The new Church building and adjoining sheltered accommodation.  The need for larger premises led to negotiations which in 1978 resulted in the purchase of a much larger area of the adjoining land known as Pigeon House Close and to the setting up of a Building Committee.  The land was bought from Miss Joan Dorothy Higgins, the daughter and heiress of Emily and Oliver Higgins.  By this time Miss Higgins owned several properties in Thornbury, including her home at what once had been her father’s forge on Pullins Green.  A conveyance dated 18th February 1980 shows that Miss Higgins sold a piece of land described as plot 833 to this committee for £3000.  The committee included Wilfred Humphries, Howard Conway Lewis, Edwin Herbert Pullin Thomas  Elliott, Edward Oakley, Hubert Spill, and many other leading members of the church at that time.  Some of these people came from well known families in Thornbury and we have written a little about these families elsewhere on this website.

The newly acquired land was to be used for the erection of both the new sheltered housing complex, known as Rockleaze, and a new church building.  We understand that the expansion at Thornbury coincided with the closure of an associated church at Woodford in 1979 so that the proceeds of the sale helped to fund the new building.

The first stage of the project began with the planning and building of 28 sheltered housing flats for the elderly.  These were originally conceived under the auspices of the Baptist Housing Association but the flats which were completed in 1986 no longer have any direct connection to the Baptist Church.  

In 1985 whilst this work was under way the original chapel building was again renovated.  The main cross beams were replaced or repaired, the floor replaced, the walls re-plastered and new individual chairs to replace the pews.

1988 Schoolroom demolished

The next phase of building was to construct a new worship area with capacity for 350 people together with other meeting rooms, kitchen and toilet facilities.  The last services were held in the old chapel in May 1988 and work on the new project commenced with the demolition of the old Sunday School building (shown in the image on the right).  The congregation had to evacuate to other premises during this work, namely the Armstrong Hall and the Methodist Hall.  One year from the commencement of work, the new church centre was opened in May 1989, following a public dedication and procession from the main town car park.  The old chapel was converted into a two storey facility for youth work.

Expansion of the fellowship’s activities developed rapidly in the new premises with the book shop, lunch club for the elderly and the mums’ & toddlers’ or ‘Two by Two’ all commencing during 1990.  The ‘Upper Room’ non-­alcoholic bar was opened for young people in the old chapel building.

Thornbury Baptist Church has an excellent website which shows something of how it is today (2014) and the many facilities it now has.  Please click here to see this website