The history of the Church was researched by one of its members, Edgar W. Pitcher, at the time of its centenary celebrations in 1926. Edgar recorded his findings in a paper called ‘The Thornbury Congregational Church’ which included some notes made after that date. In Edgar’s words:
“Among the documents in the possession of Thornbury Congregationalists are two old deeds each being a conveyance of a ‘ruinated Barne, toft or tenement in a street called Nelme Street’. One of these deeds is dated 15th May, 1718 and the other 30th August, 1718, three of the seven purchasers named in the latter being Michael Pope and Isaac Noble both of Bristol and Joseph Timloe or Twemlow of Cam and the property was conveyed to them upon trust. Michael Pope was Minister of Lewins Mead Meeting, Isaac Noble was Minister of Castle Green Chapel and Joseph Twemlow was Presbyterian Minister of Cam and Dursley. The association of these names is suggestive and interesting for while there is nothing in the deeds to indicate for what purpose the ‘ruinated Barnes’ were bought, yet the fact that the purchasers were dissenting Ministers makes it clear that the ultimate object in view was the erection of a Meeting mouse. It is quite evident, therefore, that the Presbyterian cause was already in existence in Thornbury and doubtless the three Ministers named had ministered to the flock and were willing to help them to secure a building in which to worship.
Where the money came from to build the Chapel is not known but it was built between the years 1718 and 1733 for in the latter year new Trustees were appointed by a deed which stated that the ‘ruinated Barn’ had been pulled down and an edifice erected on its site which was then used for a Meeting of an Assembly of Protestant Dissenters commonly called Presbyterians to hear God’s Word. Joseph Twemlow now retired from the trust and one of the new Trustees was the Reverend George Gibbs who was then the Pastor of the Church.
Having built their Meeting House the thoughts of these early Independents turned to the support of the Ministry, and in the same year, 1733, having obtained from various sources a sum of £255, they bought 10 1/2 acres of land in the neighbouring parish of Hill and somewhere about the same time a generously-minded lady, Miss Mary Barnes, gave the cause 12 acres of land at Newton, near Thornbury and revenues from these properties were to be devoted to the support of the Minister.
From time to time, as occasion required, new Trustees were appointed but as all written records (except title deeds) previous to 1825 have disappeared nothing is known of the history of the cause between the years 1733 and 1825. There is, however, a Monument on the Chapel wall which commemorates the Ministry of the Rev. William Jones of whom we read there that ‘he was a pious Christian, a Sincere Friend and the faithful Pastor of this Church for fourteen years’.
Something like a century had passed by since the Chapel was built when a move was decided upon and a nearby site was acquired in 1825 for a new building from a Daniel Pitcher for £142. The prime mover in the matter was evidently the Pastor, the Rev. Thomas Palmer, who, in December 1825, obtained an estimate from a local builder for the erection at a cost of £727 of the present Chapel, the dimensions of which were to be in length 50ft, breadth 38ft 8in and height 231/2ft.
No time seems to have been lost in proceeding with the building and in September 1826 a certificate of Registration of the Chapel for Worship was granted to Mr. Palmer by the Bishop of Gloucester. All that is known of the opening ceremony is the following entry in an old account – ‘Cash paid, Opening Dinner for 15 at the Swan £2.13.0.’ A very lengthy Trust Deed vested the property in 20 Trustees, two of whom were the Rev. John Angell James of Birmingham and Dr. John Leifchild of Bristol. Building accounts which fortunately have been preserved show many interesting items of expenditure and we find from them that the Rev. Thomas Palmer was confronted with a total outlay of over £1,000 towards which the members, who were very few in number, only contributed £94, a visit to London produced £45 and friends in Bristol and other places sent a further £55. The Builder, however, naturally got impatient and so loans to an extent of £600 were obtained from various sources but money came in so slowly that in September 1827 the Trustees found that over £900 was required to clear off the debt which had been incurred.
After the lapse of a century it is impossible for us to say whether Mr. Palmer and his members should be blamed for their apparent foolishness in building without money or deemed worthy of praise for their faith and vision in embarking upon such a bold enterprise but they built for the future. Thornbury Congregationalists ever since have had good cause to be thankful for the substantial, if severely plain, Chapel they built. The years from 1827 to 1831 must, however, have been a very anxious time for the members. They were without a Minister (for Mr. Palmer left them in July 1827) and very heavily in debt and then in response to an invitation sent him, signed by 16 members and 13 subscribers, the Rev. William Dove accepted the pastorate in 1831. The call and acceptance were recorded in full in the Minute Book which Mr. Dove started. He was without doubt the right man in the right place. The financial muddle was made known to him for he stipulated that ‘when begging for the Chapel his expenses (provided they were moderate) and the expenses of supplies should be paid’. Said he, ‘I say nothing about salary, it is a subject that has not caused me a moment’s anxiety’, and evidently it had not caused the members any anxiety either for their invitation, likewise, said nothing about salary’.
Now Mr. Dove was a modest man for although he wrote up the Minutes of Church meetings he has chronicled nothing there to indicate what steps he took to get rid of the incubus of debt but some old papers which he preserved and which his surviving daughter, Miss Dove, who later lived at Falfield sent me, throw much light upon the subject. Buying what he called a begging book, Mr. Dove journeyed far and near; he visited Stroud, Bristol, Frampton, Chepstow, Newport, Cardiff, Castleton, Paulton, Radstock, Gloucester, Cheltenham and London appealing for help and obtaining substantial sums of money, keeping a watchful eye on those moderate expenses he mentioned – here is one ‘Bread and Cheese in Chepstow, twice, 1/-‘ – and by January, 1835 the debt was reduced to £403 and eight years later, when he resigned to take up the pastorate at Falfield, there was but £180 owing.
The portrait of the Rev. William Dove with other Ministers’ portraits hangs in the Vestry and Thornbury Congregationalists of today and of days to come should remember with gratitude his efforts for the cause in those far-off days when money was scarce and members were few, so few indeed that time and again we read under the monthly date ‘No meeting’. During Mr. Dove’s ministry the little chapel at Crossways (1 1/2 miles distant) was built but here again we have nothing recorded.
That Mr. Dove endeared himself to his flock and that they held him in great affection is evident from his letter resigning the pastorate which he had filled for almost exactly 12 years. What happened between the years 1843 and 1846 is not known but in the latter year the Rev. Joseph Edkins became pastor for a brief period. Early in 1849 the Rev. James Alsop accepted the pastorate and during his short ministry of about two years there was a great purging of the Church Roll, thirteen members were deprived of membership for absence from the Lord’s Supper. To the credit of some of these, they were afterwards readmitted to fellowship. Evidently Mr. Alsop did not get on very well at Thornbury and closed his ministry in 1851 by giving rather less than a week’s notice. But, although in his letter of resignation he had a tilt at his flock saying ‘that he was going among people more in harmony with his own views and feelings and that it was a well-known fact that Ministers remained with you but a short time’, he bore them no malice but contributed a generous sum towards the debt upon the Chapel.
In 1853 the Rev. Thomas Gallsworthy became Pastor at the magnificent (sic) stipend of £60 per annum and remained until 1857 when the cause began to decline. This created apparently a feeling of dissatisfaction among the members and led to the resignation of Mr. Gallsworthy. The members sent him what they termed ‘An address upon the decaying state of the cause of Christ among us’, in which they suggested the necessity of some effort being made by him, etc.
Nearly a year passed after Mr. Gallsworthy’s resignation before any steps were taken to fill the pastorate. The members were evidently in some doubt as to the ability of the Church to find the money to pay a Minister’s stipend but before the close of the year 1858 at a meeting attended by 20 members it was resolved to invite Mr. John Morgan of Chard. The call was accepted and Mr. Morgan commenced his labours on Sunday, January 2nd, 1859. His ordination service was not, however, held until the following August and we read that at the service the attendance was ‘very large and highly respectable’. The Church had an earnest pastor in Mr. Morgan. Membership grew steadily and a determined effort was made to get rid of the long-standing debt, an effort which proved successful, for, in April, 1860, the Pastor was able to announce that the Chapel was free from debt. Mr. Morgan was evidently not satisfied with the methods adopted of raising funds for current expenses by means of Pew Rents, Subscriptions and Quarterly Collections and he suggested that weekly offerings should be dropped in boxes to be placed at the doors (the boxes are still there) but it was a long time before the change became productive. After a pastorate of about six years Mr. Morgan resigned.
The Church did not long remain without a Pastor, the Rev. John S. Binder commenced his ministry on April 1st, 1866, preaching in the morning from Ezekiel 17.9 and in the evening from 2 Cor. 2, 15,16. This pastorate lasted until 1873 when, owing to ill-health, Mr. Binder felt bound to resign. Good progress was made during his ministry, the membership increased and finances improved to such an extent that the County Union Aid was dispensed with and the wages of the Crossways caretaker were increased from 3/- to 3/6 a quarter ‘she being dissatisfied with the former amount’. One wonders if her dissatisfaction was removed by this generous treatment
The memory of the next Minister, the Rev. Thomas Donaldson, is still cherished by one or two of the older members. He was a great man for the younger people and when a call came from Scotland after a short Ministry of three years which proved too strong to be resisted, his resignation was accepted with great regret, especially by the younger members. A great improvement in the interior of the Chapel took place during his day, the old pews being removed and the Chapel reseated at a cost of £148. About this time, too, a growing and healthy Sunday School demanded attention. There was no separate schoolroom; classes were held in the Chapel and the Vestry and something had to be done to accommodate the scholars who attended in large numbers. Having, therefore, secured a small piece of land adjoining the Chapel a contract was entered into on 19th October, 1876 for the building of a schoolroom with classrooms. Over £50 was obtained by penny-a-week subscriptions and the entire scheme was completed at a total cost of £365.
Many remember gratefully the pastorate of the Rev. Charles Gayler who entered upon his Ministry in 1877; in him the church had a vigorous and able preacher, a wise counsellor and a welcome fighter for Liberal principles upon the political platform. His weekly Bible class was an outstanding feature of his Ministry. In 1883 Mr. Gayler was able to report that there had been a steady increase in membership during the past 15 years. To him must be given the credit of inaugurating Sunday School excursions to Weston-super-Mare, a tremendous adventure in those days and many and stringent were the rules he drew up for the behaviour of the scholars on those occasions. Leaving Thornbury in 1888 Mr. Gayler shortly afterwards became Minister of the Church at Clacton-on-Sea.
The next Pastor was the Rev. D. D. Evans, a warm-hearted Welshman, who ministered from 1889 until 1895. During his Ministry the little Chapel at Crossways was improved and the increase of Membership spoken of by Mr Gayler continued. Since 1897 Ministers have been the Rev. A. O. Moore, the Rev. E. Griffith Davies, and the Rev. William Johnstone who came straight from Lancashire College in 1910. In September, 1914 Mr. Johnstone joined up as a private in Bristol’s Own and remained in the Army until the end of the War. He was one of the few who went through that calamity without a wound.
Then in 1918 the Rev. Frank Tarrant, an able man and a thoughtful preacher, came from London and after remaining for six years accepted a call to Windsor. The next three years was an anxious time for the Church. The Sunday services were conducted by Students and Ministers, one of the latter being the Rev. J. Pugh Perkins of London, who for six months proved a tower of strength and encouraged both young and old by his splendid zeal and ability in and out of the pulpit. In October 1926 the centenary of the erection of the Church was celebrated by meetings and services which were most enthusiastic and helpful.
There was general satisfaction when in July 1927 the Church heard that the Rev. Frank Harker had accepted a call to the pastorate and few who were present at his Induction services on November 3, 1927 will forget them.
Of Laymen who have served the Church at Thornbury mention may be made of two – one was the late Mr. Charles King who was transferred from Zion, Bristol in 1851, remaining a member and deacon for some 60 years, during 50 of these years he was the Superintendent of the Sunday School. It can truly be said of him that he served his Church and School with the utmost zeal, rejoicing in its success and refusing to be downcast when difficulty arose. Another who devoted his time and abilities to the service of the Church was the late Mr. George Whitfield for many years Deacon, Church Secretary, leader of the Men’s Bible Class and Sunday School Superintendent. Memorial tablets on the Chapel walls testify to the esteem in which both these friends were held.
A few facts concerning the service of praise may be interesting. A century ago a string band led the singing and although in 1826 money was badly wanted for the new Chapel, yet in that year John Gough, ‘Musical Instrument Maker’ of Thornbury was paid £10 for a Double Bass and a new Bow for it cost 18/-. Nearly 40 years after there is another entry in the accounts ‘Sale of Bass £1.5.0.’ In 1861 George Elliott got leave to place an Organ of his own in the gallery ‘at his own expense’. The bellows of this organ blew up one Sunday owing to the presence of a faulty board.
In 1868 Jesse Cossham (father of Handel Cossham) wanted the hymns sung right through without the Minister reading them a verse at a time but this was too great an innovation for the Church meeting so it was decided only the Chant and last hymn at each service should be so sung. Some of the hymns of bygone days were quaint indeed. One of the oldest Members recalled that two lines of one ran as follows: —
‘So Samson when his hair was lost
Fought with the Philistines to his cost‘.
At Crossways the singing was at one time led by a flute played by the Sunday School Superintendent who found it to be a handy rod of correction for unruly boys.
In 1877 the ‘Anthem Question’, as it is described in the minute book, was thought so important that a special Church meeting was held to consider it but good sense prevailed and the question of more singing in Public Worship was left to the discretion of the Minister and the Choir. It is said that on one occasion Acts 20 was the Lesson selected by the preacher after the Choir had sung an Anthem.
Many incidents grave and gay might be told concerning the Church – of the highly-strung preacher who was so upset by the persistent and noisy crowing of a cock in a neighbouring garden one Sunday morning that he abruptly closed the service in the middle of his sermon – of another preacher who, labouring under the belief that some of his members thought more of this world’s goods than they should, declaimed vigorously one Sunday against the evils of thinking too much of ‘property, property, property’. Of the student who set out one Sunday afternoon for Crossways and, missing his way, walked into a Church of England school and conducted a service there, giving an address which, so it was reported later, was greatly enjoyed by his audience.
Congregationalism in Thornbury has generally been a struggle against adverse financial conditions but it has usually emerged victorious from the fray. Benefactions have been few, of the £255 obtained in 1773, £190 was given by the wills of five people and a century and a half passed before another legacy came, then Jesse Cossham left the cause £150, later his niece, Miss Esther Saise bequeathed £120 to the Sunday School while the late Mr. S. M. Wilmot’s gifts were very welcome additions to the endowment funds.
For a long time the lack of a residence for the Minister was felt to be a drawback when inviting a Pastor but this was remedied and a suitable house was bought in 1927 at a cost of £750″.