A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 8, Warminster, Westbury and Whorwellsdown Hundreds. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1965.
This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.
In 1642 a woman was presented for disturbing the minister of Warminster in church and holding conventicles at the house of Elizabeth Cripps. (fn. 1) The group of people who were opposed to the preaching of the vicar in 1648 (fn. 2) probably included many of the early supporters of nonconformity in the town. William Gough, a puritan who was afterwards ejected from a living in Berkshire, was preaching and keeping a school in Warminster before 1653. (fn. 3) In 1659 the vicar complained that over 300 parishioners refused to pay him his dues. (fn. 4) There is thus considerable evidence for sectarian activity in the town before the Restoration. In 1662 64 people were presented for not coming to church but going elsewhere to hear other preachers; they included members of the families of Wansey, Wilton, and Buckler, all of considerable wealth. (fn. 5) In 1669 a congregation of 200-300 men and women, rich and poor, was meeting at St. Laurence's Chapel and at William Buckler's house. They were described as Presby terians, Anabaptists, and Independents 'promiscuously'. Their teachers were six ejected ministers, all of whom lived at a distance, one as far away as London. (fn. 6) In 1672 another ejected minister, Robert Bartlet, who was a Presbyterian, was licensed to preach at Buckler's house. (fn. 7) Two years later the churchwardens presented two Anabaptists and two Quakers by name, and 'great multitudes' more, for frequenting conventicles. (fn. 8) In 1675 there were 56 nonconformists in the town compared with 544 churchgoers. (fn. 9) Of these nonconformists of the earlier part of Charles II's reign, the largest group appears to have been the Independents and Presbyterians, who were clearly the forerunners of the Old Meeting. No early congregation of Baptists formed in Warminster, and Baptists from the town went to Crockerton to worship. (fn. 10)
For some years after the first period of indulgence in the 1670's the history of the group which had met at William Buckler's house is obscure. John Buckler was probably preaching in the town before 1687, and was imprisoned for being unlicensed in 1690. (fn. 11) Nonconformists were clearly numerous and influential in and around the town in 1683, (fn. 12) but during the period of persecution it seems most likely that Horningsham was to Warminster what Southwick was to Trowbridge (fn. 13) -a meeting place near enough to reach but distant enough to discourage interference. In 1719 there had been until lately several Warminster families who 'always belonged to Dr. Cotton's church at Horningsham, and used to be ranked with the disaffected here'. (fn. 14) At the second Declaration of Indulgence in 1687, a congregation began to meet openly in the town, and from then the continuous history of what was generally called the Old Meeting can be traced. (fn. 15)
In 1687 the group fitted up temporary accommodation in a barn in Beastleys Meadow belonging to Edward Middlecott of Portway. Compton South, who had been living at Donhead St. Mary since his ejection from Berwick St. John in 1662, was invited to take half the services, and did so, although still living at Donhead, until his death in 1705. On other Sundays the pulpit was taken by a variety of preachers who included John Buckler and Rowland Cotton, minister of the Independent church at Horningsham, and William Dangerfield, minister of the Presbyterian congregation at Bradford-on-Avon. (fn. 16) In 1691 a plain meeting house was built not far from the barn, in what was later known as Meeting House Lane, now North Row. In 1704 some adjoining land was bought and the meeting house demolished and rebuilt so that it could seat 500 people. (fn. 17) The names of those who subscribed to the cost and bought pews in the new building are eloquent of the social standing and wealth of the congregation. They included Edward Middlecott, lord of the manor of Portway and probably the richest man in the town; William Temple, lord of the manor of Bishopstrow; the heads of the land-owning families of Halliday, Buckler, Bayly, and Langley, and the clothing families of Slade, Warren, and Wansey; and a number of prosperous tradesmen. The new building was opened by Cotton Mather, an eminent divine from Boston, New England, who was apparently a relative of Rowland Cotton. (fn. 18) After Compton South's death in 1705, Samuel Bates was appointed as resident and full-time minister. His doctrine soon caused a schism in the meeting; a minority of his hearers suspected him of Arianism, and seceded to form the New Meeting whose history is traced below. In 1719 a defence of Bates's position which exonerated him from the charge was subscribed by 44 members of his congregation; it shows that it was little impaired in wealth or influence, for most of the principal families remained, including the Middlecotts and the Temples. Four years previously the congregation was reckoned at 800, including 4 members whose estates totalled together £90,000, and 20 voters for the county. (fn. 19)
After the secession the Old Meeting was usually described as Presbyterian. (fn. 20) Bates's long pastorate, from 1706 to 1761, was afterwards peaceful, and most of the important families remained faithful. Bates lived for many years with the Middlecott family at Portway House, (fn. 21) and received £40 a year from the congregation. The cause declined greatly in the time of his successor, William Lush, whose sermons were critical dissertations on the accurate meaning of a sentence of scripture which the poor could not understand, and which were made duller by the extreme slowness of their delivery. Nathaniel Andrews, 1782-94, was a more lively preacher, who began a Sunday School in 1785. Some difficulty was experienced in finding 'a minister of free sentiments' to replace Andrews. (fn. 22) Thomas Tremlett, who was eventually appointed, began to preach the Unitarian doctrine which had forced him to leave Oxford. Theophilus Browne who succeeded him was an Anglican clergyman who had become 'fatigued with the Trinitarian Forms of worship'. While he was at Warminster he published a statement of the principles of Unitarianism and a new translation of selected passages of scripture. The introduction of the latter into the services was one of the numerous subjects on which he quarrelled with the congregation before he left in 1807. (fn. 23)
The change in doctrine under these two men was permanent, although the meeting was still called Presbyterian until its end. Tremlett's teaching is known to have alienated two members of the Butler family who left for the New Meeting, (fn. 24) but the trustees appointed in 1805 comprised 4 Bucklers, 3 Wanseys, a Warren, and a Hinton, (fn. 25) all of families which had supported the meeting a century before. They were typical of the prosperous clothiers, maltsters, and tradesmen who formed the backbone of the congregation. So too was John Langley who at his death in 1799 left £400 to provide yearly payments of £6 to the pastor, 10s. to the clerk, and 5s. each to 38 poor members of the congregation. (fn. 26)
In the 19th century the Old Meeting suffered a steady decline. Many of its poorer supporters were attracted to newer meetings, (fn. 27) while economic changes reduced the prosperity of the richer ones. Apart from Langley's gift, there was no endowment to pay the pastor which probably accounted for the succession of short pastorates, seven between 1825 and 1850. In 1829 there were 250 attenders, (fn. 28) but in 1851 on a Sunday in March there were not many over 50, and many of the pews were out of repair. (fn. 29) In 1845 the Vicar of Warminster claimed that most of the poor that attended did so from motives of gain. He had refused to bury a Unitarian in the churchyard, (fn. 30) and the vigour of his attack on this, as on other sects, may have furthered its decline. The last settled pastor left in 1866, (fn. 31) and the chapel was closed in 1868. The last communicants were members of the family of Buckler and Wansey. (fn. 32) The meeting house was sold in 1870, and in 1881 the proceeds were assigned to augment the trust fund of the Conigre Unitarian Church at Trowbridge. (fn. 33) The endowment of Langley's charity passed, as the donor had provided, to augment that of the other charity he had founded. (fn. 34) The set of five pieces of plate, also given by Langley in 1790, was eventually deposited with the British and Foreign Unitarian Association, and later lent to congregations in London. (fn. 35)
The meeting house was later used as the Girls' British School, (fn. 36) and was in 1962 used by the Avenue School as an annexe. The building of 1704 has been little altered. It is very plain, of brick with stone dressings and stone mullioned windows; the double roof is supported in the centre by massive square columns of timber.
The origin of the congregation of Independents called the New Meeting is to be found in the dissatisfaction of some members of the Old Meeting with the teaching of Samuel Bates, whom they suspected of Arianism. Within a few months of his coming to Warminster Bates had offended the Butler family, (fn. 37) and in 1709 John Butler, who had been a trustee of the Old Meeting, certified a barn or shop at the back of Richard Lott's house as a place of worship. (fn. 38) Lott was no doubt the bellfounder of that name who worked in Common Close, (fn. 39) so that the building was probably near the site of the later meeting house. It seems that a further secession from the Old Meeting to the New took place in 1719, apparently occasioned both by doctrinal difference and by a dispute over the copastorate of Joseph Pike. In 1715 Pike was associated with Bates at the Old Meeting, (fn. 40) but was not approved by most of the congregation. A group, led apparently by Nathaniel Butler, left and no doubt joined those already worshipping in Common Close. (fn. 41) At the same time the doctrinal dispute was renewed, the Old Meeting asserting its orthodoxy in an entry in the church book and the New publishing a vindication of the secession written by Pike. (fn. 42) The seceders were joined by some families from the town who had been worshipping at the Independent chapel at Horningsham, and the congregation built a meeting house in Common Close which was licensed early in 1720. (fn. 43) Although at first clearly inferior to the Old Meeting in wealth and numbers, it included several prosperous families such as the Baylys, Butlers, Slades, Adlams, and Aldridges. In 1734 four members united to buy the freehold of the chapel, and in 1754 it was vested in trustees who included a maltster, a tanner, a clothier, and two woolstaplers.
Little is known about the size of the congregation in the first half of the 18th century. Daniel Fisher, minister from 1752 to 1771, was said to have added many members, and also kept a boarding school. Thomas Gibbons, 1786-93, was evidently a zealous pastor who began to hold services on Monday evenings in a house at the Common. (fn. 44) He also began a Sunday School at a house in Portway, and during his ministry village evangelization began with the building of a chapel at Sutton Veny. (fn. 45) Gibbons's successor, Edward Dudley Jackson, was a powerful preacher, whose influence made the chapel too small for the crowds that wished to hear him. In 1798 it was pulled down except for the front wall and rebuilt with new galleries and pews. He continued the work at the Common, expounding the Pilgrim's Progress on winter evenings, until in 1802 a chapel was built there in Bread Street so that evening services could be held on weekdays. (fn. 46) A girls' school held on Saturday afternoons at the Bread Street chapel was also begun during his pastorate. After Jackson's early death in 1803, Joseph Berry carried on the work of his predecessors with vigour. The Sunday School flourished, and many members were added to the congregation. During his time chapels were built at Hindon, Heytesbury, and Codford St. Mary. It was probably due to these vigorous pastorates that the Common Close society was by far the largest in the town in 1829, when its congregation numbered 900, and 150 attended at the Bread Street chapel. (fn. 47) In 1836 school rooms for the Sunday School were built at a cost of over £1,000, and three years later a further £2,000 was spent on the entire rebuilding of the chapel. In 1846 side galleries were added, so that the accommodation was 700, and an organ was installed. In March 1851 the morning congregation numbered 292, afternoon 232, and evening 470, and there were 140 pupils at the Sunday School. (fn. 48) Classrooms and a vestry, designed by W. J. Stent, were added to the north of the chapel in 1862, (fn. 49) and in the same year open stalls replaced the old pews. (fn. 50)
In the 19th century bequests for the benefit of poor members of the congregation were made by Thomas Morgan (£200 in 1809), John Barnes (£200 in 1837), John Everitt (£100 in 1838), Jane Rebbeck (£100 in 1847), and Anne Butt (£100 in 1865). These sums produced in the 1950's about £20 a year, which was distributed to needy members in sums of £1 and under. Morgan also left £100 for the benefit of the Sunday School, and in 1894 Albert Lucas left £100 to provide a choir picnic fund. Caroline Carpenter's gift of £50 in 1901-2 was to provide a yearly distribution of coal, and is still so used. (fn. 51) A house and malthouse in Common Close were bought in 1886, and the income, which amounted to £18 a year in 1903, was applied to general chapel expenses. (fn. 52) In 1907 W. F. Morgan left the reversion of £5,000 to the congregation for general expenses and to buy a manse. No. 22 Boreham Road was bought in 1930. In that year Frank Moody left £100 to provide an income which was to be spent on giving parcels of groceries to poor members at Christmas. (fn. 53)
The two Quakers who were presented in 1674 (fn. 54) were the forerunners of a small group which appeared openly after the Toleration Act. One of them was joint author of a pamphlet containing an apology for Quakers directed to the people of Warminster in 1693. (fn. 55) The house of James Hedges was certified for Quaker worship in 1701; (fn. 56) it may have been the building in Common Close which was remembered as a Quaker meeting house in the 19th century although it had long been converted into a malthouse. (fn. 57) There were still a few Quakers in the town in 1783, (fn. 58) but the last one died in 1794. (fn. 59) Their burial ground was in a field near Cley Hill, where it could still be seen in Daniell's time. (fn. 60)
Methodist preachers first visited Warminster in 1753, and held services in cottages at the Common for about three years. (fn. 61) John Wesley preached in the town in 1758, (fn. 62) but no group formed until 1770, when Warminster was termed a new place with 14 members. (fn. 63) It met in Back Lane, where a house was licensed in 1773, (fn. 64) but soon encountered cruel persecution. On one occasion the pulpit and stools were taken from the meeting house and broken into fragments which were hung on the direction post at Emwell Cross, and on another the fire engine played water over the preacher. Two of the ringleaders were prosecuted and bound over at the Assizes in 1773, (fn. 65) but the society was reduced to 6 members, and dissolved in 1776. (fn. 66)
From 1780 a group of poor people met privately in the town; in 1789 they obtained a room at the junction of Pound Street and West Street, (fn. 67) but it was used only for prayer meetings and scripture meetings. Until 1804 all Methodists in the town attended the parish church and took the sacrament there. In that year the group built a chapel in Chain Street (now George Street). (fn. 68) About 1818 the congregation was torn by internal dissension; some of the oldest members were expelled, many others left, and numbers were reduced by nearly half. (fn. 69) In 1829, however, there were 200 attenders, (fn. 70) and in 1835 92 members. (fn. 71) Further strife followed, and in 1850, according to William Daniell, perhaps a jaundiced witness, the cause was languishing and saddled with an oppressive debt. (fn. 72) In 1851 the average attendances at morning and evening services were 50 and 90 respectively, and there was a Sunday School with 25 pupils. (fn. 73) In 1861, however, the society had recovered sufficiently to rebuild the chapel, to a design by W. J. Stent. (fn. 74) An organ by Nelson Hall was installed in 1862. (fn. 75)
From the earliest visits of Methodists to Warminster Common in the 1750's, there is a fairly continuous record of prayer meetings, scripture readings and preaching in cottages there by groups more or less influenced by Methodist teaching. (fn. 76) Typical of them was probably that held for many years in the house of Jeremiah Payne, a blind man, where ten or a dozen people regularly met for reading and prayer on Sunday evenings. In 1803 the Methodists from the town borrowed the Independent Chapel in Bread Street and held services for a short time. In 1807 a fresh start was made at a cottage in King Lane where services were held on Sunday afternoons and Friday evenings. It was enlarged in 1809, but still proving insufficient, the Independent Chapel was again borrowed for Sunday evenings, and used until 1818. In that year the town Methodists left the Common; their leaving was either a cause or a consequence of the quarrels which took place among them at that time. The work was taken up by a group of those whom they had expelled, and especially by William Daniell.
Daniell, who was styled in his later days the Bishop of Warminster Common, has left a vivid description of his work there. Even before 1818 he had been active in forming a Bible Association and holding 'Christian Experience' meetings. When he began services at the Bread Street chapel, only four or five members took an active part, while a gang of men and youths interrupted them with curses and stones, breaking the lanterns and damaging the clothes of the worshippers. 'I have been sometimes obliged', wrote Daniell, 'to stop the service, and go and lay hold of the offender, and by physical force, single-handed, drag him out from among the congregation and throw him out of the door.' In spite of such annoyances, which only abated very slowly, the cause prospered, and the cottage used on Sunday afternoons was often crowded to suffocation. In 1827 the congregation was able to build its own chapel, in what was afterwards called Chapel Street, with accommodation for 300. Sunday afternoon attendances soon rose from 50 to 250, and a new gallery was made in 1838. In 1841 the congregation suffered from the zeal of the new vicar, Arthur Fane, whose opposition lasted until 1846. In spite of this a new vestry was built in 1844, containing a boiler which could provide tea for 500 people in 40 minutes. In 1851 average attendances at the afternoon and evening services were 170 and 150 respectively, and there was a Sunday School 160 strong. (fn. 77) Daniell had always concentrated on the instruction of children since the earliest days of his work at the Common, holding tea meetings, catechizing, and distributing tracts among them. In 1846 a schoolroom was built for the school.
Daniell's work continued until his death in 1860. (fn. 78) The cause had never been affiliated to the Wesleyan Conference; the chapel and two houses in Bread Street, bought in 1844, were vested in trustees who were to allow Daniell to use it for life. After his death the meeting seems to have languished. The chapel was let to the Salvation Army later in the century, (fn. 79) and is still occupied by them in 1963.
An Independent Methodist Chapel in Pound Street was licensed for worship in 1842. (fn. 80) It provided accommodation for 150, and in 1851 the average attendance at three Sunday services was between 40 and 60, while 25 children attended the Sunday School. (fn. 81) The congregation still survives in 1963.
No early Baptist congregation formed in Warminster, and any Baptists from the town attended the ancient chapel at Crockerton. (fn. 82) In 1810, however, Ebenezer Chapel was built in Meeting House Lane (now North Row). The congregation, small at first, gradually increased, (fn. 83) and in 1829 numbered 250. (fn. 84) On a Sunday in 1851 the attendance at morning and evening services was 160 and 175 respectively. (fn. 85) A schoolroom was built in 1858; (fn. 86) in 1861 the organ was moved from the gallery to a platform behind the pulpit, and the old square pews were replaced by stalls. (fn. 87) The meeting received an important bequest in 1913, when J.E. Halliday left the reversion of his estate, amounting to some £17,000. (fn. 88)
A Christian Scientist Meeting began in the town in the 1930's, and in 1963 was still meeting in the former police station in Ash Walk.
In 1822 a small burial ground for the use of the nonconformists of the town was laid out on the Boreham road. (fn. 89) Its contemporary railings and gates and a small free-standing entrance arch of stone, inscribed Mors Janua Vitae, still remain. The ground was levelled and turfed and the stones arranged round the walls in 1950. (fn. 90) In 1907 W. F. Morgan left £100 to the trustees to provide wages for a caretaker. (fn. 91)