Bridgwater: Protestant nonconformity

Pages 235-238

A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 6, Andersfield, Cannington, and North Petherton Hundreds (Bridgwater and Neighbouring Parishes). Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1992.

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The vicar held exercises in his house in 1636. (fn. 1) A Presbyterian classis had been established by 1647, a Baptist meeting by 1653, and a Quaker meeting by 1670. (fn. 2) In 1669 there were conventicles in 8 houses under 11 teachers attended by 260 people. Among the teachers, many of them ejected from livings in other parts of Somerset, were John Gardner, a Presbyterian, and Tobias Wells (d. 1692), a Baptist. (fn. 3) Five meetings (three Presbyterian, two Baptist) were licensed in 1672, (fn. 4) three in 1689, and five, of unspecified denomination, 1710-19. (fn. 5)

Humphrey and Robert Blake and the town's recorder, Sir Thomas Wroth, were members of the classis in 1647, (fn. 6) and John Norman, vicar 1647-60, was associated with a Presbyterian meeting from 1662. (fn. 7) In 1672 Presbyterians were meeting in the houses of David Bailey, Roger Hoar, and Robert Balch. (fn. 8) In 1683 Lord Stawell with his militia confined 'fanatics' to their homes and demolished a meeting house in the town, a building 'made round like a cockpit' with room for 400 people; the furniture, piled high in the Cornhill and topped by the pulpit and cushion, was burned. (fn. 9) The building is likely to have belonged to Presbyterians. In 1687 Robert Balch and Roger Hoar were acting as trustees of a house in Dampiet Street, (fn. 10) probably the building described as a meeting house from which stones were carried in 1688 for the reconstruction of the mill dam. (fn. 11) The meeting house was evidently being rebuilt at the time, and in 1689 it was licensed for worship as Christ Church. (fn. 12) An academy was established there by John Moore the elder, and by 1718 there were c. 600 members. (fn. 13) A new Presbyterian meeting house in Friarn Street, evidently the result of secession, was licensed in 1760. (fn. 14) Presbyterians were said to be numerous in the town in the 1770s. (fn. 15)

The theology of the congregation became increasingly Unitarian. From 1809 meetings of the Western Unitarian Society were held at Bridgwater, (fn. 16) and since 1815 the church and congregation have been Unitarian. (fn. 17)

Christ Church is plain and largely of brick but with older stone courses in the lower part of its south wall. The shell hood over the entrance and the main structure belong to the building of 1688, but the church has been several times remodelled, notably in 1788. A gallery pew formerly reserved for the mayor and other members of the corporation was converted for a Sunday school in 1833. Most of the internal fittings date from the 19th century. A plaque beside the entrance records the visit of S. T. Coleridge as preacher in 1797. (fn. 18)

Baptists, meeting since 1653, (fn. 19) registered two meetings in 1672, (fn. 20) were said to have built a chapel in 1687, and claimed c. 50 members. (fn. 21) They built a chapel in St. Mary Street in 1692, (fn. 22) and they claimed 200 members in 1718. (fn. 23) In the 1760s the minister purged the church of Arminians, and by 1780 there were only 29 members. In 1781 the remaining members signed a Calvinist declaration and in 1791 church membership had fallen still further. The chapel was demolished and replaced in 1837. Some members seceded to the Unitarians in 1853 but numbers increased from the 1870s and cottage meetings were held in Albert and Union streets. In the 1880s the church opened a house for sailors on West Quay and formed a temperance association. Membership reached 336 in 1907, and 739 children attended the Sunday school. (fn. 24) Northgate mission had opened by 1914 in some cottages, but both the mission and its Sunday school closed in 1927. (fn. 25) A chapel in Moorland Road, on the Sydenham estate, was acquired in 1965 and closed in 1972. (fn. 26) The membership of the chapel in St. Mary Street was 173 in 1982. (fn. 27) The chapel of 1837, designed by Edwin Down, is of brick, with a stone front formed by a giant pedimented entrance with plain Ionic columns, and was originally hidden from the street by cottages. Galleries were added in the 1870s, and the chapel was enlarged and the Sunday school rebuilt. (fn. 28)

In 1658 John Anderdon, a goldsmith, became a Quaker, and meetings were held at his house by 1670. (fn. 29) A meeting house was licensed in 1689. (fn. 30) William Penn held a meeting in the town hall in 1694, (fn. 31) and a meeting house for 200 was built in Friarn Street in 1722. (fn. 32) In 1737 the assize hall was licensed for use by Quakers. In 1776 Quakers used a temporary booth in the castle bailey; the licence was issued to eight individuals, all from Glastonbury or Street, (fn. 33) and about the same time there was said to be only one family of Quakers in the parish. (fn. 34) In 1801 the Friarn Street meeting house was enlarged and improved. (fn. 35) It was still open in 1991, occupying a brick building, no. 10 Friarn Street.

George Whitefield was welcomed to the town by the vicar in 1739 but suffered popular abuse there. John Wesley preached on several occasions between 1746 and 1769, and a house was licensed for worship by Methodists in 1753. (fn. 36) Bridgwater formed part of the Somerset circuit in 1777 and the Taunton circuit until 1840, when a new circuit was formed based on Bridgwater. There was a chapel in Eastover, with a Sunday school, by 1800. (fn. 37) A chapel was built in King Street in 1816 which by 1860 had been twice enlarged and seated 420. A Sunday school was added in 1924 with seating for 300, and by 1961 the premises included a gymnasium. In 1960 average attendance was 73 at morning service and 118 in the evening. (fn. 38) The chapel closed in 1980, and in 1988 was used as a furniture store. It is a plain building of brick, the main entrance through a portico added in 1860.

A Primitive Methodist chapel had been opened in Angel Crescent by 1852, and another in West Street by 1861. (fn. 39) One of them was still in use in 1875, but by 1880 that in West Street was being used by the Salvation Army, and the Primitive Methodists were meeting in St. John Street, probably in the Mariners Christian chapel. The cause had probably ceased by 1881. (fn. 40)

Wesleyan Reformers met in the market house in 1851, later in Gloucester Place, and from 1855 in St. Mary Street, where their chapel was enlarged in 1858. (fn. 41) The congregation became part of the United Methodist Free Church in 1857. The chapel closed in 1907 when the United Methodists joined the Bible Christians. The combined congregation used the Bible Christian chapel until 1911 when a new chapel was built in Monmouth Street. After Methodist union in 1932 Monmouth Street chapel became the head of a small circuit, which was united with the former Wesleyan circuit based on the King Street chapel in 1951. In 1960 average attendance at Monmouth Street was 74 at morning service and 114 in the evening. The chapel, of brick with Bath stone dressings, and designed by W. H. Dinsley, (fn. 42) was open in 1991. The chapel in St. Mary Street was after 1907 converted to a cinema, and in 1982 was part of a private club. (fn. 43) The United Methodist Free Church also had a chapel in Polden Street, recorded c. 1886. It closed probably before 1904, and the site was occupied in 1982 by a workshop. (fn. 44)

Bible Christians began their mission in the town in 1866 in an iron chapel in Bath Road. Cottage meetings held from 1873 in Chedzoy Lane increased the need for new premises and a chapel was built in Polden Street in 1876. Preaching was also undertaken at the docks in the 1880s. (fn. 45) In 1907 the Bible Christians joined the United Methodists. Until 1911 the combined congregation used the Polden Street chapel, which was then sold for use as an engineering workshop. (fn. 46)

A meeting house for Independents, in St. Mary Street near the south gate, was licensed in 1787, and another, possibly for the same congregation, in 1792. A different Independent congregation met in a disused malthouse in Friarn Street, which was also licensed in 1792. (fn. 47) Yet another group of Independents met in a malthouse in Salmon Lane, on the east bank of the Parrett, but in 1817 their leader took over the Friarn Street meeting house and the two congregations probably united. A Sunday school was added in 1818 and the chapel, known as Zion, was rebuilt in 1822. (fn. 48) It was closed in 1865 and was used as a skating rink before being taken over by the Salvation Army in 1881. (fn. 49)

A new chapel was begun in Fore Street in 1862 and was opened in 1864. Fore Street Congregational chapel was built in a Decorated style in grey limestone with Bath stone dressings, and had seating for 900. Lecture rooms were added in 1877. (fn. 50) The chapel was demolished after closure in 1964, and the congregation moved in 1966 to a new building known as Westfield Congregational chapel (later Westfield United Reformed church) in West Street, next to St. Matthew's Field. (fn. 51) It was open in 1991.

A nonconformist mission for seamen was said to have started in 1817. In 1837 the Mariners chapel was built in St. John Street by a former Primitive Methodist minister, and in the following year was vested in the Mariners Christian Society. (fn. 52) The society had apparently ceased by 1857, but the chapel continued in use. (fn. 53) In 1885 the Congregationalists tried to take over, but in the next year the minister and members asked help from the Wesleyans and invited preachers from the United Methodists in St. Mary Street. From 1889 the chapel was considered to be Congregationalist, although some of the trustees were Baptists. (fn. 54) A Sunday school was begun in the 1880s, and a schoolroom was built in 1911. The chapel continued in use until 1960 when it was sold and converted to a motor cycle shop. In 1961 work began on a new Mariners Christian chapel in Moorland Road, registered in 1963. Ownership and direction were transferred to the Baptists in 1965. (fn. 55)

Services of the Catholic Apostolic church, whose leader Henry Drummond visited the town, were held in the Grand Jury room of the town hall before 1840, when there was a chapel in Dampiet Street. Meetings were also held on West Quay. By 1889 the congregation had removed to King Street, and the chapel appears to have closed c. 1908. (fn. 56)

Plymouth Brethren came to the town in the 1840s and held their first meetings in Gloucester Place. By 1868 they had moved to Friarn Street, and meetings of Open Brethren were still held there in 1988. (fn. 57) The Brethern also had a meeting place in George Street by 1883, a Gospel Hall in West Street and rooms in Northgate by 1897, a meeting room in King's Place by 1906, and another in Court Street in the 1920s. The Gospel Hall was still in use in 1939, but the room in King's Place had recently been given up. The meeting place in George Street was licensed until 1954. (fn. 58)

The Salvation Army 'opened fire' in the town in 1880 with violently opposed meetings at the former Primitive Methodist chapel in West Street. (fn. 59) In 1881 they took over Zion chapel in Friarn Street as their citadel, and remained there until 1970. (fn. 60) The building was demolished in 1971, and in 1972 the Army acquired the former Baptist chapel in Moorland Road, which was their citadel in 1991. (fn. 61)

A National Spiritualist church was established in King's Place by 1937, possibly where the Brethren had met. A Christian Spiritualist church was meeting in the same year and by 1968 occupied a building in Queen Street, (fn. 62) which it still occupied in 1991. The Spiritualist National Union church was meeting in Green Dragon Lane in 1954. (fn. 63)

The Bridgwater Central Mission operated from St. Mary Street by 1937, but it had moved to Green Dragon Lane by 1954, when it was run by the Independent Pentecostal Fellowship. (fn. 64) By 1973 the Elim Pentecostal church had opened in George Street, and the cause continued in 1991. (fn. 65) The Bridgwater Evangelical church was founded in 1969, and in 1982 was meeting in the youth hut at Sydenham school. (fn. 66) Kingdom Hall, the meeting place of the Jehovah's Witnesses in Old Taunton Road, was licensed in 1971. It was replaced by a new building in the Drove in 1986. (fn. 67)

Between 1843 and 1851 six licences were issued for meeting houses of unspecified denominations, in Ball's Lane (later King Street), Friarn Street, King Square, Hamp, and a warehouse near the quay. (fn. 68) The Princeites held a service in Dunwear in 1872, (fn. 69) but evidently made no headway. A town missionary based in Friarn Street, possibly in connexion with the Brethern, was working in 1878 and 1882. (fn. 70) Other places of worship included a Gospel Union mission on West Quay in 1897, a Labour church at Docker's Hall in 1918, and a meeting room in Westonzoyland Road for 'Christians not otherwise designated' in 1971. (fn. 71)


  • 1. S.R.O., D/D/Ca 309, 313.
  • 2. Below, this section.
  • 3. Orig. Rec. Early Nonconf. ed. G. L. Turner, i. 9, 236; ii. 1104; Calamy Revised, ed. A. G. Matthews, 217, 353, 367, 521, 539; S.R.O., D/P/bw. m 2/1/2 (9 Feb. 1668/9), 2/1/3.
  • 4. Cal. S.P. Dom. 1672, 42, 378, 675; Orig. Rec. Early Nonconf. i. 236, 239, 369, 439, 532, 561, 567, 611-12; ii. 1104, 1124; iii. 842.
  • 5. S.R.O., Q/RR meeting ho. lics.
  • 6. T. G. Crippen, Nonconf. in Som. 11; V.C.H. Som. ii. 49.
  • 7. S.R.O., D/B/bw 1626-8; ibid. DD/SFR 8/2; Cal. S.P. Dom. 1663-4, 116; D.N.B.
  • 8. Orig. Rec. Early Nonconf. i. 236, 239, 369, 439; Cal. S.P. Dom. 1672, 42.
  • 9. Cal. S.P. Dom. 1683 (2), 60.
  • 10. S.R.O., DD/OS 1.
  • 11. Ibid. D/B/bw 1636 (1 May 1688).
  • 12. Ibid. D/N/bw. chch 2/1/14.
  • 13. J. Murch, Hist. Presbyterian and General Baptist Churches of the West of Eng. (1835), 176-8; Crippen, Nonconf. in Som. 39.
  • 14. S.R.O., D/D/Rm 1.
  • 15. Ibid. D/D/Vc 88; D/N/bw. chch 2/3/1, 4/3/6.
  • 16. Murch, Hist. Presbyterian and Baptist Churches, 182- 3, 568.
  • 17. S.R.O., DD/OS 3; D/N/bw. chch 4/2/1, 4/3/1.
  • 18. Ibid. D/N/bw. chch 2/3/1, 4/3/1-6; C. E. Pike, Our Ancient Meeting House (Bridgwater, n.d.); above, plate facing p. 89.
  • 19. Crippen, Nonconf. in Som. 15; D. Jackman, Baptists in the West Country, 1; Assoc. Rec. Particular Baptists, ii (1973), 58, 64, 105.
  • 20. Cal. S.P. Dom. 1672, 378, 675.
  • 21. R. W. Oliver, Strict Baptist Churches in Eng. v (1968), 122; H. A. Hamblin and A. J. Whitby, Baptists in Bridgwater (c. 1937), 40, based on a church bk. destroyed in 1870.
  • 22. Hamblin and Whitby, Baptists in Bridgwater, 41.
  • 23. Crippen, Nonconf. in Som. 39.
  • 24. Hamblin and Whitby, Baptists in Bridgwater, 42, 48-9, 64, 72.
  • 25. Kelly's Dir. Som. (1914); Hamblin and Whitby, Baptists in Bridgwater, 76.
  • 26. F. H. Cockett, Partnership in Service (c. 1973), 30.
  • 27. Baptist Union Dir. (1981-2).
  • 28. Hamblin and Whitby, Baptists in Bridgwater, 56-9.
  • 29. S.R.S. lxxv. 45, 57; S.R.O., DD/SFR 8/1.
  • 30. S.R.S. lxxv. 69, 203; S.R.O., Q/RR meeting ho. lics.; ibid. DD/SFR(w) 41.
  • 31. Memoirs relating to the Sufferings of John Whiting (1791), 504.
  • 32. S.R.O., DD/SFR(w) 27; Crippen, Nonconf. in Som. 51.
  • 33. S.R.O., Q/RR meeting ho. lics.; ibid. D/D/Rm 1.
  • 34. Ibid. D/D/Vc 88.
  • 35. Ibid. DD/SFR(w) 4.
  • 36. V.C.H. Som. ii. 61-2; S.R.O., Q/RR meeting ho. lics.
  • 37. S. G. Jarman, Hist. Bridgwater, 220; S.R.O., D/N/bmc 7/2.
  • 38. S.R.O., D/N/bmc 2/3/1, 3/2/3, 4/3/4, 4/3/50, 7/2.
  • 39. Slater's Dir. Som. (1852-3); P.O. Dir. Som. (1861).
  • 40. Jarman, Hist. Bridgwater, 227; Whitby & Sons, Bridgwater Almanack (1880, 1881); P.O. Dir. Som. (1875).
  • 41. Jarman, Hist. Bridgwater, 221.
  • 42. S.R.O., D/N/bmc 3/2/3; 4/2/4, 11-12, 15; 4/3/50; Bridgwater Mercury, 12 Apr. 1911; Monmouth Street Methodist Chapel, 1911-61 (Bridgwater, 1961).
  • 43. O.S. Map 1/2,500, Som. L. 11 (1930 edn.).
  • 44. Ibid. (1889 and 1904 edns.).
  • 45. S.R.O., D/N/bmc 3/2/5, 4/2/4, 4/2/11.
  • 46. Ibid. 4/2/4, 11-12, 15; 4/3/50; Monmouth Street Methodist Chapel, 1911-61.
  • 47. S.R.O., D/D/Rm 1, 2.
  • 48. Rep. Som. Cong. Union (1896); inf. from Mr. J. F. Lawrence, based on ch. rec.
  • 49. Lond. Gaz. 7 Apr. 1865, p. 1942; Bridgwater Mercury, 18 Aug. 1970; below, this section (Salvation Army).
  • 50. Rep. Som. Cong. Union (1896); Lond. Gaz. 7 Oct. 1864, p. 4786; Jarman, Hist. Bridgwater, 224-5; Squibbs, Bridgwater, pl. 198.
  • 51. Squibbs, Bridgwater, 141.
  • 52. Rep. Som. Cong. Union (1896); S.R.O., D/N/bmc 2/1/5.
  • 53. Jarman, Hist. Bridgwater, 222.
  • 54. S.R.O., D/N/bmc 3/2/16, 4/2/1; Jarman, Hist. Bridgwater, 222-3; Rep. Som. Cong. Union (1896).
  • 55. Jarman, Hist. Bridgwater, 223; Som. Co. Herald, 2 June 1960; Bridgwater Mercury, 6 June 1961, 23 Feb. 1965; G.R.O. Worship Reg. nos. 68831, 70391.
  • 56. Co. Gaz. Dir. Som. (1840); Jarman, Hist. Bridgwater, 226; Kelly's Dir. Som. (1906, 1910); A. H. Powell, Bridgwater in the Later Days, 249.
  • 57. Jarman, Hist. Bridgwater, 226; P.O. Dir. Som. (1875).
  • 58. Whitby & Sons, Dir. Bridgwater (1883, 1897); Kelly's Dir. Som. (1906, 1923, 1931, 1939); Bridgwater Dir. (1929); G.R.O., Worship Reg. no. 53205.
  • 59. S.R.O., D/N/bmc 4/2/4; Jarman, Hist. Bridgwater, 227.
  • 60. Bridgwater Mercury, 1 Dec. 1970.
  • 61. F. H. Cockett, Partnership in Service (n.d.), 22; Bridgwater Mercury, 19 Oct. 1971.
  • 62. G.R.O. Worship Reg. nos. 56189, 56907; O.S. Map 1/1,250, ST 2937 SE. (1968 edn.).
  • 63. G.R.O. Worship Reg. no. 62406.
  • 64. Ibid. nos. 56075, 62406.
  • 65. Kelly's Dir. Bridgwater (1972-3).
  • 66. Bridgwater Mercury, 1 Mar. 1983.
  • 67. G.R.O. Worship Reg. 72245; Bridgwater Mercury, 24 Sept. 1986.
  • 68. S.R.O., D/D/Rm 2.
  • 69. Sydenham Hervey Diary, 1-2 Jan. 1872 (TS. in possession of the editor, V.C.H. Somerset).
  • 70. Whitby & Sons, Bridgwater Almanack (1878, 1882).
  • 71. Whitby & Sons, Dir. Bridgwater (1897); S.R.O., D/N/bmc 3/2/5; G.R.O., Worship reg. no. 71251.