The “Old Lady” of Wood Street

This history was written by a member, Tom Lloyd, when we launched the Building Repair Fund. It was printed in our magazine in June 1991.

Within Wootton Bassett there must surely be many a lady, young or old, christened with a Biblical name. Yet, I expect, I am on to a ‘sure’ thing in claiming that not a person in the town will be found named “Hephzibah”, (which, translated from Hebrew, means “my delight is in her”), – for in all truth, this particular lady is hardly a well known character of the Old Testament.

Yet, architecturally speaking, there is indeed a lady of Bassett, called Hephzibah in whom the people of the town do delight. She can be found, on the left, down towards the end of Wood Street; for thus is named the local United Reformed Church which, before unification, was the Wootton Bassett Congregational Church.

Congregationalists were the oldest sect of Non-conformists, who held the belief that each church should be independent of all forms of external ecclesiastical authority. Nonconformity is often confused with the term Protestantism; a term more correctly applied to those churches which severed their connection with Rome at the time of the Reformation. Nonconformism, on the other hand, can best be thought of as the attitude of all these Christian bodies not conforming to the doctrines of the established church. To be even more pedantic, this means non Church of England in England and non Church of Scotland, (Presbyterian) in Scotland.

History has it, that a small group of just eight people, classed as Nonconformists were living in Wootton Bassett in 1676; and yet their faith as a group kept them going – and growing – for longer than a century with no fixed meeting place. At last. however, a licence giving them the permission to gather together and hold religious meetings was granted to the group in 1779 and later a certain Rowland Hill, (not the Sir Rowland Hill, of the penny-black stamp fame, but a reverend gentleman), came to Wootton Bassett and managed to obtain a tenement in Wood Street Lane (as it was then called) for these Nonconformists; not a stone’s throw from what is these days called Priory Cottage built on what is believed to be the site of a 13th century Priory.

A legal agreement was formulated between the Rev Rowland Hill, a John Sutton and a Jacob Viner for a messuage to be sold to Mr Viner but which was to be used by such persons as Mr Sutton should decide. The word, ‘messuage’. being quite unknown to me, sent me searching through my “Cassell’s” dictionary, where I found it defined as an old legal term for “a dwelling-house with the adjacent buildings and curtilage for the use of the household”. On the first day of June 1797 this tenement, or messuage, (call it what you like), now converted into a meeting house (or church)for the worship of Almighty God for a Society, or Congregation of Protestant Dissenters, was conveyed by John Sutton, (notwithstanding it, as stated above, having been sold to Jacob Viner), to a Rev John Bartholomew of Wootton Bassett along with trustees, with the added condition that it had to be handed back to John Sutton, if the congregation’s use of the building was ever discontinued for a period of more than twelve months.

A religious fellowship which had lasted longer than one hundred years without the use of a meeting place of its own was, however, not going to disappear now a building had been provided.

Twenty eight years later, when the minister was the Rev Martin Slater, the half a dozen regular members took a very brave decision, namely to build a proper church structure, which remains to today; and to which, for reasons I know not, they gave the name of Hephzibah. Old Testament reference to her can be found in the second book of Kings, the twenty-first chapter and verse one, where she is described as the mother of Manasseh, (the son of Hezekiah), who began his evil reign at the age of just twelve years. The name, Hephzibah, was also used symbolically for the restored city of Jerusalem; and as such can be found in some of the older translations of Isaiah, chapter 62, verse 4, where one reads -“but you, (Jerusalem), shall be called Hephzibah, My delight is in her – -” Such names were often bestowed upon nineteenth century Non-conformist churches and chapels in contrast with the usual ‘Saints’ of the Church of England. It is perhaps a strange coincidence that the Wootton Bassett Parish church should be known as St Bartholomews, while the original tenement building for the early congregationalists had been conveyed to the Rev John Bartholomew.

Membership increased and more land to facilitate the building of a Schoolroom and Infants classroom plus a vestry was acquired by purchase in 1862, from the then land owner, the Earl of Clarendon. An extra pair of classrooms were added eighteen years later.

1936 saw Hephzibah’s one hundred and eleventh birthday, an anniversary which turned into a rather special occasion in the form of a “re-opening” of the church building following renovation and the fitting up of electric lighting. For this much needed facility the congregation of the church was very pleased to have received a most generous legacy from one of their former Sunday School teachers named Thomas Henley, who left the church on emigrating to Australia, where he prospered and was later knighted. A plaque in his honour was unveiled by Mr W Angelinetta, with thanks for making the modernisation to the old building possible. The Angelinetta family have been stalwart supporters of the church since the first Signor Angelinetta came to Wootton Bassett, from Italy, more than a hundred and ten years ago.

In 1972, the Congregational Church in England and Wales and the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, decided to unite to form the United Reformed Church and thus Hephzibah now goes under the title of Wood Street U.R.C.; and as such joins in with the other three main Wootton Bassett churches in a process of ecumenism within the town.

As a recent ‘convert’ of about eighteen months to the United Reformed Church, after over fifty years as a Methodist, I am honoured to be one of their representatives at the Ecumenical Synods based in Wootton Bassett, where endeavour is made to work together in the community, weaving together the various strains of Christianity.

Old churches, however, need a lot of upkeep; and it came as somewhat of a shock to the Wood Street congregation, when a recent survey stated that over £25,800 would be needed for essential work to the building – and that figure did not include interior decoration. At the latest Church Meeting, a committee was set up with the purpose of finding various ways of obtaining the funds so that this, now ‘listed’, building, located within a designated conservation area, could be preserved. So expect to hear lots of events, like ‘Coffee Mornings’, Special Concerts, Fayres, and various sales taking place in, or for, the Wood Street Church over the next year or two.

However as this old building represents the very foundations of Nonconformism I do not doubt that, with Gods help – for God’s work, the needed finances will be provided and the church will develop to become the ‘Hephzibah’ for future generations in which they too will delight.

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