The History of the United Reformed Church in Thornbury

The United Reformed Church, located in Chapel Street, Thornbury, has an interesting history.  For most of its life, it was called the Independent Chapel or Thornbury Congregational Chapel until 1972 when the Congregationalists merged with the Presbyterians to form the United Reformed Church.

We are also grateful to the Church Elders and in particular to the Church Secretary, Robin Pencavel and the minister Rev Stephen Lewis for allowing us access to the church’s records and to use them on the website.

Before we start with the history, we feel we should give a warning about a claim that a Presbyterian Meeting House was set up in 1662.  It was reported in  a few sources, including Caffall’s study of 17th Century Thornbury and the Bristol Evening Post in 1879, that Francis Haim/Haine, a minister of the Established Church,  was ejected from that church and set up the Meeting House in Thornbury.  This claim was referred to on the Millennium plaque placed on the church porch in 2000.  However the claim has not been corroborated by later research and there is no evidence that Francis was living or serving in Thornbury at that time, although he did set up a meeting house in Dursley in 1672.

We are also grateful to Robin Pencavel for the information that there were other houses in the area that were licensed for use as Presbyterian Meeting Houses.  One of these was registered in 1692 and was the home of Thomas Collins and was said to be in Thornbury but sadly at this time  we do not know where.  The following year (1693) the home of Daniel Iles of Falfield was also licensed for this use.

It appears that the congregations outgrew private homes and steps were taken to acquire a larger premises.

Amongst the documents in the possession of the Thornbury Congregationalists are three old documents, each being a conveyance of a ‘ruinated Barne, toft, or tenement in a street called Nelme Street’.  This property was located further down Rock Street in an area now covered by St Mary Street car park.  One of the deeds is dated 15th May 1718 and the other 30th August 1718.  There is nothing in them to indicate for what purpose the barn was bought, but the fact that the purchasers were a group of dissenting ministers makes it clear that the ultimate objective was the erection of a Meeting House.  Where the money came from to build the Chapel is not known, but it was built between 1718 and 1733 at which time the indenture stated that the barn had been pulled down and an edifice erected for a ‘Meeting of an Assembly of Protestant Dissenters, commonly called Presbyterians, to hear God’s Word.’

In 1825 a new site was acquired nearby for a new building at the junction of the two streets now called Chapel Street and Rock Street.  The land was acquired from one of the Church’s Deacons, Daniel Pitcher, a Thornbury saddler.  Daniel had bought the land from the Edmunds family to whom he paid £100.  A further £45 was paid to Mary Edmunds in September 1825 to compensate for her life expectancy on the property following the death of her husband, Thomas Edmunds.

The new building costing £727 was built by Daniel Burchell and completed by September 1826 when a certificate of Registration of the Chapel for Worship was granted.  The old meeting house was exchanged as part payment for the new site and the Trustees of the Independent Chapel paid Daniel Pitcher a further £100 and thus became owned by the Pitchers.  It was used for some time as a brewery and then became part of the house which was later known as 14 Rock Street.

The expense of the new building must have remained a debt hanging over the church for some time.  The Minutes of the Meeting of the Church for March 25th 1834 say that this still amounted to £530 13s and that it was payable to the following individuals: George Motley £270.00, D. Pitcher £50.00, John Lane £64.00, John Lippiatt £53.00, Samuel Ball £16.00, John Cook £30.00, Nicholas King £20.00, Executors of James Tanner £10.00, Executors of James Workman £5.00, Borrowed from D. Palser for Lippiatt £7. 13, Borrowed from G Motley £5.  By January 1835 it had been reduced to £403 10s 1d.

Crossways Chapel

The Crossways Chapel was opened in 1837 (according to the tablet on the building) near the far end of Crossways Lane.    It is most notable as a place where the young Handel Cossham preached before he moved away from the area – he was one of the Trustees.  A list of local chapels in Thornbury URC says that the “Crossways Room” held 80 people, had an afternoon congregation of 45 and a Sabbath school of 50.

In 1839 the Minutes of the Church Meeting resolved on August 3rd that the Congregational Hymn Book should be used as a supplement to Watts Hymn Book.

On July 13th 1859 the minutes of the Church Meetings show that

“It was also unanimously decided to have the chapel colored and painted and in future to light the building with gas instead of candles … be fixed in the centre of the ceiling.”

A few days later on 18th July there was very good news for the chapel.  The legacy left to his wife by Mr W Motley “entirel y removed the debt which for many years had been standing in the chapel“.

In 1861 George Elliott got leave to place an organ in the Chapel ‘at his own expense’.  The bellows of this organ blew up one Sunday following a faulty board.  On October 28th 1861 the committee agreed to make certain repairs and improvements to the chapel.  Mr Parker and Mr Olds agreed to gravel the path round the chapel, Mr Whitfield was to repair the boundary walls.  Mr C King and Mr H Knapp were to erect a lamp over the entrance gate.

We have some evidence about the way in which the church generated an income.  The church meeting in September 1863 for example discussed the tenders for the tenancy of the land owned by the church at Rockhampton.  In this instance there were three people applying and Mr Baylis of Thornbury was chosen and he agreed to repair the gates and “farm the land in a proper manner.”  Funds were quickly put to good use and at the same meeting the deacons having reported that there was now the sum of £9.00 in the sacramental fund it was decided that some of this money should be given to the pastor to be given to the poor as he saw fit.  That year the minutes of the church meeting contained a statement of all the parcels of deeds held by the church.  These consisted of deeds for land in Newton and Hill as well as for the chapels in Thornbury and Crossways.

From July to September 1875 the chapel was closed for renovation.  A new schoolroom with classrooms was built in 1876 behind the Chapel at a cost of £365.  Previously, Sunday School classes had been held in the Chapel and Vestry.

In June 1878 the minutes of the church meeting show that deeds were deposited at Highbury Chapel in Bristol.  The deeds included those for the chapel itself, the new school buildings at the rear of the chapel, the village chapel at Crossways, land at Hill and land at Rockhampton.  Should it be necessary for anyone to consult these documents an order for that purpose would need to be signed at a Church Meeting.

At a meeting of 1879 it was suggested that “a more suitable stool or platform should be made available for the pastor to stand upon.”  In January 1882 it was noted in the minutes of the church meetings that there ” was a great need for some more suitable instrument to lead the singing in the Sunday Services.” It was decided that when the “present debt is cleared off some steps be taken to collect money for the purpose of purchasing a new instrument.”  In March 1882 it was decided to install an “American organ at a cost not exceeding £30.”  Mr Whitfield’s attempts to get the church to consider buying a large pipe organ were in vain.  Perhaps subsequent events proved Mr Whitfield may have been right.  In 1899, the Church Meeting agreed to install a new organ at a cost of £213.  The organ was situated behind the pulpit, but was later moved to its present position on a side wall.

In January 1886 dissatisfaction was expressed with the gas lighting in the chapel.  The gas supply was an ongoing concern in Thornbury for many years. Read more about gas in Thornbury

We know that there were “village stations” for the church as well as the chapel at Crossways.  One example of this was at Grovesend where in 1887 Mrs Summers was paid 10/- a quarter “for the use of her house for the Preaching Services.”

The state of the church funds seem gradually to become an issue. The consequences of the problem become clear in a series of minutes of meetings in 1887.  In September of that year attention was drawn to a “small adverse balance” and people were asked to make extra gifts in the weekly offering until the debt was cleared.  By November there was a discussion about the pastor Mr Gayler leaving and the need to issue him with “a second invitation.”  Later that month the terms of this second invitation were spelled out.  The pastor could stay on with a stipend reduced to £100 and “all that comes in over, after all the ordinary expenses of the church have been paid” or he could stay on for six months at his original salary of £120.  Mr Gayler chose the latter option.  This situation was in spite of the fact that Jesse Cossham had died on 20th May 1887 and left the church £150.00.  However Jesse Cossham’s legacy came on specific terms and was to be used on general expenses but not on the pastor’s salary.  The financial difficulties at this time appear to be due to the outlay on the land at Hill.

In January 1890 the minutes of a meeting at the church noted that Mrs Wilmot had made a thoughtful and generous gift of £35.  A letter from Mrs Wilmot explained that at the time that the church had bought land on which to build the new schoolrooms she had wanted to donate it herself but she had not then been in a position to fulfil this wish.  Her circumstances had since changed and now she was able to give them the £30 they had paid for the land and £5 for their legal expenses.

The minutes of a church meeting in February 1903 show that the Treasurer Mr James Bevan was able to make the very welcome announcement that for the first time in some years the church was no longer in debt and in fact had a surplus of £6.00.

In 1908 it was agreed that £175 was to be paid on building work.  This included removing and reconstructing the organ and altering the rostrum and choir seats.  At the same time an organ chamber was to be built on the west side of the chapel and that “it be built out into the grave yard as far as possible without disturbing the coffins & that a brick arch be built over the organ chamber in the chapel wall.”  The pulpit was also to be moved back to its original position.

The improvements continued as in 1910 the minutes of the church meeting show that it was decided to upgrade the “schoolrooms and classrooms.”  They were to be coloured and painted and the large schoolroom was to be partitioned off for the classes.  This seems to be a period of comparative prosperity as even more changes were under way.  Tucker Brothers had agreed to do not only the decorating but also to alter choir seats etc for £39.9s 4d, Joseph Sainsbury was to charge £4 4s 4d for varnishing and presumably, most welcome of all, “heating apparatus” was to be installed for £58 15s.

Chapel and car park

For a long time the lack of a residence for the minister was felt to be a drawback when inviting a Pastor.  In December 1909 £20 was to be paid into the Post Office as a nucleus for the fund to buy a manse for the ministers and this plan eventually came to fruition in 1927 when a house in Pullins Green (now known as number 1 Pullins Green) was bought for £750.

The Crossways Chapel closed around 1954.  It was let as a store for the Thornbury Amateur Dramatic Society (TADS) for about 30 years until 1991.  It was then sold and initially used as an artist studio until it was converted into a private house.

Finally we here on the right a photograph of the Congregational Chapel which was probably taken in the 1960s.   It is of less interest for the chapel than for how bleak, almost derelict Thornbury became at this period.