The New Chapel

Watchfield Minute Book (BRO. D/Epb C126)


At a meeting of the principal Rate Payers of Watchfield held at the house of Mr Bowles this 18th day of Feb, 1857. Resolved:


1. That it is desirable that the Chapel of Ease at Watchfield should be rebuilt on the piece of ground belonging to the parish called Chapel Ham and that the money arising from the sale of the old materials of the former Chapel shall be applied to this purpose.


2. That the under mentioned four Rate Payers be a Committee for carrying the above resolution into effect:- Mr Bowles, Mr Ferriman, Mr Giles, Mr Atkins.

Picture 31.

Picture 54. The Chapel centre, built new in 1857, on the piece of ground called Chapel Ham

     Watchfield Parish Register (BRO D/P 112C/1/1) states that, Watchfield Chapel having been examined and found in bad repair was taken down in 1788, the materials sold and the money arising from the sale of the materials was vested in the purchase of £260.4.1 three percent consols (Annuities) and the interest was appropriated and pay a Schoolmistress to instruct a certain number of the poor children of Watchfield. In consequence of the pulling down of the chapel the inhabitants of Watchfield were obliged to go to the Parish Church of Shrivenham, this being found inconvenient and the cause of many never coming to church at all. It was determined at a meeting held at Mr Bowles’ at Watchfield in Feb 1857 that the chapel should be rebuilt on a piece of ground called Chapel Ham and that subscriptions should be commenced forthwith and the following persons and societies kindly gave their assistance.'

The Ven Archdeacon Berens, Vicar          £300

Viscount Barrington                                   £100

The Earl of Radnor                                     £100

Diocesan Church Building Society            £100

The Incorporate Society                             £90

The Bishop of Oxford                                 £10

Miss Cleaver                                               £30

The Rev E. Bouverie                                   £10

Alfred Sartoris Esq                                     £20

The Rev J.F. Cleaver                                   £10

Mr E. Fairthorne                                         £10

General Fox                                                 £5

The Rev C.B. Calley                                    £5

Mr Bowles                                                   £5

Mr Ferriman                                                £5

Mr Giles                                                       £5

Mr Carter                                                    £2

George Atkins Esq                                      £5

J. Belcher                                                     £5

Mr Rickards                                                £5

Mr A.W. Fairthorne                                   £5

Mr Willis                                                     £5

The Queens Advocate                               £5

Rev W. Chambers                                      £5

Henry Calley Esq                                       £5

Mr W. Browne                                           £1

Mrs W. Browne                                          £1

Sale of Old Materials                                 £240.7.3

Collection on the day of Consecration     £22

     The new chapel was designed by Mr Steer, Diocesan Architect, and was built by Mr Burchall of Shrivenham. The Foundation stone was laid by Lady C. Berens, wife of Archdeacon Berens, Vicar, on Mon, May 18, 1857, and the chapel was consecrated by Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford on March 4, 1858. The prayers were said by Rev C.B. Calley, Curate. Mrs Calley played the Harmonium, Viscountess Barrington and the Hon Misses Barrington led the singing. The chapel was dedicated to St Thomas the Apostle, which was the same Saint the former one had been dedicated to. The chapel Yard was consecrated at the same time.'


Picture 55. The front entrance off the High Street to the new chapel.

     But why should the Anglican hierarchy, some 70 years after the demise of the old chapel, decide that a new one was needed at that particular time? The reason cited within the parish register was that travelling to Shrivenham was inconvenient and became the cause of many parishioners never attending church at all. However, it has been suggested by Steven Carter of Nottingham, whilst researching his family connections in Watchfield, that other, more pressing reasons, were likely to have been the catalyst. A Religious Education teacher, Steven notes that, ‘The Congregationalists (or Independents, i.e. independent from any bishops or other ruling system) reached Watchfield by January 1824. Robert Carter, grandson of churchwarden John Carter, registered his house to be set apart “for the worship of Almighty God”, as was required by law. Robert’s petition was co-signed by George Peapell and Samuel Brown. Samuel Brown later appears co-signing with Isaac Jefferies and Henry Larter when William Gardner petitions to register his Watchfield dwelling on 28 October 1829.  In October 1833, Samuel Brown and Henry Larter co-sign when John Brooks petitions to register his Watchfield dwelling.


     With the 1830s came Primitive Methodism. Steven Carter notes, ‘In December 1833 Henry Hayes successfully applied to have registered for non-conformist worship a house of the Primitive Methodist Society at Faringdon. Sometime during 1833-5, Hayes and other pioneers of Primitive Methodism visited surrounding villages, including Watchfield. By May 1836 Thomas Carter’s house (or barn) was the centre for Primitive Methodist worship in Watchfield; and this continued for nearly 18 years, into the 1850s.’


     In 1847 the Reverend Thomas Gilbert, late of the Congregational Church at Wheathamstead, Hertfordshire, commenced his ministry at the Zion Chapel in Highworth. His work would take him all around the neighbourhood including Watchfield. His mission to Watchfield in 1857/8 was sponsored by the then Lord Radnor of Coleshill and within the Berkshire archives several documents have survived which show this complicity. (BRO. D/Epb C124). A letter from Thomas Gilbert to Lord Radnor, dated 12 January, 1857 makes reference to, ‘the dire need of a decent size Chapel.’ He even submitted a little drawing of how he thought the chapel should look. He also noted ponderously, ‘One thing I know, that a fearful responsibility rests upon me to do the best in my power for the poor, ignorant people of Watchfield and its vicinity.’


     The well-to-do ratepayers of Watchfield were content to let the labouring poor drink away their problems, but Non-Conformist preachers (with some socialist tendencies) were more of a threat. Primitive Methodism may have touched only a few, but Gilbert's successful Congregationalist mission in 1857-8 stirred many in the village, and galvanised the respectable classes into action with the rebuilding of the Chapel of St Thomas. By the time it was built, Thomas Gilbert was already preaching to very large crowds of villagers. In a letter to Lord Radnor dated 10 July, 1858 he notes, ‘On Sundays, Divine Service has been regularly performed and the attendance has been varied from 90 to 120 persons. I have endeavoured to preach “Christ and him crucified” and I have known nothing else among the people the most earnest attention is manifested, and in many cases great seriousness. The Wednesday evening service has from necessity been discontinued for a short season as the labouring classes are all more or less engaged till late. I shall so resume it again as soon as practicable. The attendance on a week evening has been good, from 70 to 80 being the usual number.’


     Where could Thomas Gilbert have been holding such meetings that would have allowed him to accommodate 90 to 120 people? The quality of the venue had no relevance to Congregationalist teachings. A normal size house would be impractical and the unpredictable nature of the weather would require a roof. We know that he had a specific building provided by Lord Radnor as he states in a letter, ‘I am very pleased with the place of Worship at Watchfield. I hope to open it on my return,’ (he’s going away for a week to 10 days), but then adds, ‘I observe there is no door to the pulpit. I once nearly fell out of one without a door.’ It could only be a barn.

     The Census of 1861 provides us with the answer. Below is a copy of that census and it's significant to note that the entry for the, 'Independant Chapel' is directly next to the entry for Watchfield House. There was a huge barn that stood very close to the entrance to what was known as Blagrave's Lane, which led to Watchfield House. It makes complete sense that the Census Commissioner would have placed them together as it would have matched his walk order.

Picture 56 (above) A page from the 1861 Census

Picture 57 (above). All that remains of the Barn that was used by Thomas Gilbert in the 1850's. The road in the left of the picture is the entrance to Blagrave's Lane that led to Watchfield House. The modern flats of Squires Road and Maidens Close now stand on this spot.


     This would account then, for why so much attention, time and money was expended in re-building a new St Thomas’. The Non-Conformists were capturing the heart and minds of the labouring classes in huge numbers. What was happening in the sleepy little village of Watchfield mirrored what was happening in the rest of England. The Anglican church was entering a period of rebuilding its machinery. Watchfield became a priority as local rate payers wanted to win back the local inhabitants from the influence of a nonconformist preacher.

  © Neil Maw 2013