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Dissenters versus Objectors

April 19, 2012

In 1675 the Dissenting Chapel on St James’ Back shut op one of their doors and put up a wainscot board to replace a curtain to conceal their preacher, allowing him to be heard clearly but not seen. This strange incident, centuries before a similar scene in the film ‘The Wizard of Oz’, was in response to a brutal clampdown on non Anglican religion in Bristol In September 1674 the city had acquired a new Bishop who vowed to exterminate not just the practice of dissent, but the very name of it. He was helped by the lawyer John Hellyer who hunted down dissenting preachers like a wolf, imprisoning for 6 months in Newgate Thompson the Independent from Castle Green and John Weekes who had founded the Presbyterians in 1671 at St James’ Back chapel.

Thompson left prison in a coffin before the end of his term, but Weekes preached to crowds of common people from his prison window. Hellyer later went to the meeting house and dined in their place of worship, then threw chairs and stools into the street and the river; others he burnt. In response, preachers began speaking to their congregations by leaning out of windows of private houses, but they were charged with riot.

In December 1781 Hellyer with assistants again attended Weeke’s meeting, ordered that people there to disperse, and pulled down the pulpit, which he called a ‘prattling box’. Rewards were offered to boys who trashed the premises, breaking down galleries, demolishing windows and taking away plunder. Next day they did the same to the Baptist House on the Pithay and then the Quakers.

It is unclear how long the St James house continued, but in 1704 the congregation moved to an old theatre in Tucker Street, probably in response to it being vacated by the ban on theatres within the city at the time. The move to the former parish of the Knights Templar, known for its independence from the city across the bridge, may also have been to take them beyond the reach of their tormentors. “The entrance.. was through a gloomy passage nearly opposite the Pilgrim Publishing House, at the end of which was a flight of steps leading directly into the meeting house, the door of which was in the centre of a staircase that was somewhat steep.” It was nearly in the centre of what is now Bath Street, almost opposite Talbot Gate. “It was a Gothic structure, formed of one arch, a pulpit low with a canopy and together with the coping on the pews of Virginia walnut. On the back of the pews were short curtains of crimson or scarlet; the pulpit faced the entrance. It was a large building, with 3 galleries and was attended by a respectable congregation.”[ refs]

The building sounds quite extraordinary, redolent not so much of an old theatre but of a medieval merchant’s house, with storage space below and large hall above. The interior tells us the congregation was both numerous and affluent, and their taste seems a far cry from the plainness of the Quakers. In fact, it sounds almost Catholic in its opulence. These Presbyterians drew parallels between themselves and the sufferings of the Jews and early Christian martyrs.

They opened it on the anniversary of St Bartholomew, not to commemorate the saint who was flailed alive for his beliefs, but to remember the 2,000 clerics who had resigned from the Anglican church in response to Elizabeth’s Act of Uniformity, consigning themselves and families to “poverty, disgrace and persecution rather than violate conscience by conforming to things imposed’

After the commissioners for building Bristol Bridge had opened up access to the new bridge to the north, and to the laying out of Bridge Street, they set about improving access to Bath and London. Thomas Paty was Surveyor to the bridge, so had to decide the route so which buildings had to go. One of them was the Tucker Street Meeting House.

In 1779 the Presbyterians were notified that much of their hall with cellar they rented out beneath, and the adjoining tenements would be requisitioned to make the new road. The fact that they considered cutting away part of the hall and continuing at the same site shows their understandable unwillingness to move, but also the fact that they considered the building capable of such modification. But they decided this would leave them too little space to worship, so their trustees began looking for a new site.

Eventually they settles on 2 pieces of adjoining ground on the north side of bridge Street, adjoining the steps leading up to St Mary le Port churchyard and to the yard itself. The main thoroughfares of High, wine, corn and Broad Streets were still home to wealthy bankers and drapers; Bridge Street had been planned to rank beside them, but failed to live up to expectations. Whilst some fine buildings arose there, and the corn factor David Lewis who lived in the 4th house from High Street, once claimed his central location allowed him to provide the cheapest prices [details] , by 1781 the street was still incomplete.

Barratt noted “In the year 1749 this parish consisted of about 96 houses… but is since much enlarged and improved by the new buildings in Bridge Street. The churchwardens used to receive a sum for the pens for sheep and swine, which used to be placed every market day in front of the church and the houses there, before the new present market was laid out.”

The 2 chosen properties had already been sold by the Bridge Trustees to Mr Davis and Mr Turner (whose property also held 2 old houses). Both of them had failed in their undertakings to the developers to build substantial properties on the site. Mr Davis was known by the Feeoffees to be a “man of strict honesty and integrity.” Mr Turner though less known, was “not believed to come quite up to that character.” Believing the latte might be difficult to deal with, they decided to act via Mr Chaunt the house carpenter as a sort of stalking horse.

By the end of 17790 Mr Turner had offered to sell his site for the exorbitant price of £170, having paid only £100 for it himself. The Feeoffees objected to the cost but agreed to pay. Believing the first site to be secure, they then approached Davis who agreed to sell at a price settled by some independent party.

But then Turner began to cause trouble. He refused to sign the agreement, but agreed for Chaunt to commence building. He demanded to see Thomas Symons, clerk to the Bridge Trustees who was away in London, then demanded full payment and to see his lawyer. When Symons finally returned, turner claimed Chaunt had not been serious in his negotiations, and declared he would build on the site himself. Symons ordered Turner to comply with his building covenants by way of resolving the matte. Unfortunately he had to do the same with Davis who gave notice to the congregation who in turn promised to compensate him. Turner for some time began digging foundations though for what is not known. The work proceeded so slowly, and with winter approaching, it was clear he was not serious.

The growing farce took an unexpected twist at Christmas 1780 with the Whigs’ Union Club wishing to build a tavern on both sites. This would have satisfied the Bridge Trustees in their demands that the street be competed and the neighbouring householders who were complaining of the nuisance caused by the empty site. But the good people of Tucker Street insisted Turner’s contract with Chaunt, hence with them, be honoured, so they refused to sell. What happened next is unclear, especially as there seem to have been several men called Davis or Davies involved. Symons’ involvement is also unclear as he was clerk to both the Bridge Trustees, ie the developers, as well as being an attorney in his own right.

It seems the Bridge Trustees bought Turner’s land, then Tucker Street trustees bought it off them by 1781. A note from Symons and Paty in November states the matter was settled. The following month Daniel Hague was paid £9/15/9 to remove rubble from the void ground, but b the following July neighbours were complaining about the ruinous house and the drain over the footway. A memorial was sent to the developers, the Bristol Bridge Trustees I 1781. but this was ignored, so in March 1783 neighbours published a notice to the effect that if the Bridge Trustees failed to solve their complaints, legal action would be taken.
“…their Property in said houses is most exceedingly affected and injured, either from the Inattention or Discouragement to the Public for not taking such void grounds that now remain unlet, or some private notice not publicly known. Various are the subject of complaint we could produce, but trust one, very considerable, will operate with you to produce the intended food effect… Mr David Lewis has a considerable dwelling house and ware house which cost hi a great sum to build… This messuage and warehouse have lain void a considerable time, and quitted for no other reason than from the sustaining great ill-convenience and Annoyance from the adjoining void ground.

Proof of this can be produced if necessary, and not on one instance only. We wish to point out also, that several of he houses on the south side, which cost considerable sums in the building… have been obliged to be rented at very low terms and several tenants to one house, the discredit arising from this to the public view in the centre of this city, the manifest Injury resulting to the landlords….”

The specific nature of the nuisance is not noted but it is possible to make a reasonable guess. In 1722 the inhabitants of Queen Square’s south side complained to the corporation about the dirty state and condition of the vacant ground behind their houses, asking that the area be pitched to prevent dumping of the city’s waste. When building Union Street, gates had to be closed at night to prevent dumping.

Bristol had been one of the first cities to introduce acts for the cleansing and scavenging the streets, but as the contracts were let to the lowest bidders, there were often complaints of the low standards One observer noted how the main thoroughfares were kept clear enough, but the smaller ways were as bad as ever.  This was in the time when everything of any value at all was recycled. Materials of ancient buildings when demolished were either auctioned off or granted to the builders. Old paper and cloth were recycled, so if matter was called waste, it really was waste.

So the residents and other interested people made a series of requests
“We humbly presume, that you immediately advertise the void ground, and to set it at a price the public may be induced to take it at – to compel those to fulfil their contract who have taken ground off you to build on, as well as on your parts to fulfil the conditions entered into with divers Persons interested I houses on the said street – to completely front a cellar adjoining a messuage build by Mr Frampton, now occupied by Mr Saunders in that regular uniform manner with the other houses.”

The Bridge Trustees had clearly been negligent in enforcing their building standards on the fine new street, which is not surprising since they had so much trouble gathering enough of them to have meetings for years. But to be fair, they were rather limited in what they could do. Much of the new building was for top of the range houses, of which only a city like Bath, with lots of aristocratic money, can manage successfully. Getting people to take up sites meant lowering costs; enforcing building standards meant demanding people spend more: they were totally contradictory stands. That said, it does seem incredible in a merchant’s city a group of people could be losing such large sums of money without someone taking action.

In February 1784 H Davis, on behalf of the congregation, was ordered to build on the land or action would be taken against hi. In October, they were involved in a dispute regarding the contents of a tenement, in which a very distressed Daniel Stephens accused the dissenters of behaving more like Jews, threatening they would not have the property at any price. Somehow, the purchase of the 2 houses adjoining Mary le port churchyard was finalised, and on 21st most of the foundations for the new chapel had been laid. On 14 November a public notice called for contractors to build a chapel to a plan already fixed upon.

Yet despite the congregation’s desire to get on with the building, they had to deal with a rival church. “They were obliged to suspend the work for a time, in consequence of a gentleman of high church principles having entered a process of law against the congregation , alleging that the building was on ground which pertained to the church.”a letter from Rev Benjamin Davies, brother of James Davis, the Tucker/Bridge St minister, wrote good naturedly of the “eminent divine” seeming to be the incumbent of St Mary le Port, who seemed to be claiming that an Act of Parliament referred to this. Davis says, “I am sorry for sir D- Surely there must be something much amiss either with his Head or his Heart – If I could mend him, I would; but I fear he must go to the incurables.” Davies states he had discussed the matte with several ministers who all claimed there were no restrictions on where chapels could be sited.

But the matter must have dragged on for some time as the Proceedings of the Bridge Trustees on 2 May 1785 note that Deputy Chamberlain Wintour Harris produced a plan of the intended Meeting House, which was to be “submitted to Mr Thomas Patty for the purpose of Improving the same and that when finished by Mr Patty the Proprietors Build agreeable thereto, and that said Arthur Brown and the Grantee of the void adjoining ground be released from the covenant sin their present Building Deeds.“This was conditional on the plans being approved by several other men whose role is unclear. But on 7 May, Symons and Paty gave permission for the building work to proceed.

It was hurriedly opened in time for 24 August 1786, St Bartholomew’s Day. Mr Manning’s introduction at the first service related, “This building does equal credit to your piety and beneficence. Not a superb and magnificent one fitted to the ostentatious worship of the law, but a house decently neat and elegantly plain suited to the simplicity of that gospel worship. …While, in consequence of your liberal contributions, this house exceed the former in beauty and convenience, prudence has directed you to form the plan and regulate its execution, in such a manner, that it cannot be reflected upon as.. unsuitable to the solemn use to which it is appropriated or the circumstances of the persons who attend in it.”

The proximity of the parish church and the meeting house seems to have caused problems with noise, as Joseph Leech recorded in 1843: “One of the greatest inconveniences of Maryport is its close contiguity to Bridge Street Independent Chapel., with regard to which it stands in a parallel situation little more than, if so much as, twelve yards apart. From where I sat in the church I could se the people rising up and sitting down, and going through all their evolutions close by, and while the first and second lessons were being read, we had the advantage of their melody ‘next door’, with a directness which convinced me that they in their turn must have the full use of our organ. I confess this ‘confusion of tongues’ was far from having a double effect of any very desirable kind upon our devotion; especially as the major part of most dissenting worship consists of singing, which has a rather distracting effect when put in competition with sober reading.”

It seems rather odd that this conflict seems not to have been considered when the chapel was being built, and that the well attended services continued to be held at the same time, suggesting that no attempt had been made to deal with what was clearly a problem. This is even more unusual given that the vicar of St Mary le Port at the time was James Marshall, a former Presbyterian minister.

Leech also confirms the widely held notion of Anglican superiority over dissenters: “It is not strange, when you consider this, that for the lower orders non-conformity should have such attractions: this constant signing, in which all bear a part, has an exciting influence on rugged and undisciplined natures; they mistake the momentary elevation which it imparts to their feelings for devotion; so frequent is this hymning, that the short-lived ecstasy which it creates has hardly time to subside when they hymn again.”

Despite its central location, and its survival until lost in the Blitz, views of the chapel are almost impossible to find, but it was a Georgian gothic box. Their claims that it was plain do not ring true. Despite their often repeated recording of their suffering at the hands of the establishment, they continued to hope to be invited back into the fold, which possibly explains why their chapel was so un chapel-like. It seems to have been a calling card for Anglicans who never responded.

“The font of the chapel is of freestone built in a gothic style, with 2 large and 4 smaller windows. The entrance is from Mary le port churchyard, the only doorway at that time existing was in the centre, leading from a lobby, or back aisle, to the staircase of the gallery on either end. The roof galleries are supported by 4 large pillars; there are 3 aisles and 2 fireplaces. At the west end was a small vestry, which stood at the corner of the steps leading from Bridge Street. The pulpit is large, made of mahogany, with a star in the centre of the front; the coping of the pews, are also mahogany. There are 2 large brass chandeliers suspended from the roof, the gift of the late Messrs Thomas and Nicholas Hale but they are since removed. There were seats for 800 persons.”

The old church in Tucker Street was sold to the Bridge Trustees who paid £840 for the buildings, adding £260 out of respect for it being a religious house, in October 1786. It is not clear how much it finally cost, though estimates exist for £2200 to £2400

As with the Tucker St site, the chapel was built over commercial premises. Downhill, facing Bridge St, were warehouses with cellars beneath, 48 foot by 51, let out to raise funds for the chapel, similar to those of the later General Hospital on Guinea St. these are presumably what the anonymous pamphleteer of St Paul’s talks of having fallen down, though the chapel history makes no note of this. Perhaps the collapse was minor, or perhaps – as they fail to note who designed or built it, such details were simply not recorded.

In December 1786 these were let by auction and taken up by Bush Elton and Bush, the tenants at Tucker St, for the impressive sum of £40 pa. By 1793 they had agreed to pay £63 pa for the next 14 years, so it must have been successful. The main entrance to the church was uphill, the business premises entered from downhill, Bridge St, so the church and cellars worked as 2 separate buildings, which would seldom if ever have been in use at the same time. God and Mammon were kept determinedly separate, but God had the best façade. In 1821 the cellars were let out to a wine and spirit dealer, prompting Mr Mortimer the surgeon of ?Bath St to write a small poem [details

No record seems to exist who the architect was, and the Bridge Trustees clearly state Thomas Paty merely amended the plans; probably more in the role of enforcing building standards. Daniel Hague, responsible for St Paul’s church, was often involved on the site, settling disputes, removing rubbish etc so was probably the main mason. But it seems likely the house carpenter Chaunt may be the same who worked at …. Drew up the original design; he disappeared from the surviving records after the initial land negotiations.

The anonymous pamphleteer of St Paul’s claims this to be the work of the various Patys. The style fits with much of their other work, and they were capable of supplying the fittings as well as the building materials. They had laid out both Bridge and Bath Streets, so must have known the members of the vestry. And churches were often an incentive to develop an area, so they may have encourage the move.

But Bridge Street still failed to live up to expectations. It was a good place for business, and is a remarkable road in being the first stone terrace in the old city of Bristol, but the fine houses failed to materialise. Even Queen Square, home to numerous mayors aldermen and esquires, had specifically banned workshops and warehouses, yet these were still found there, along with various coffee houses.

The original plan had been for a second bridge to be built further upstream, which would have made Bridge Street a major thoroughfare, but most of the traffic seems to have used the old main roads; In 1814 the congregation purchased a warehouse at the east end of the chapel which they fitted up as a vestry room and soon after built 2 schoolrooms above it, so the area seems to have continued to be unpopular, thought the congregation was still thriving. In 1868 the Bridge St chapel was sold and the remnant of the congregation followed the tide of wealth out of the city to a new chapel facing Clifton down, on Beaufort St, yet another laid out by Thomas Paty, but now converted to offices.


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