The History of St Mary’s, Bathwick

For over a thousand years, a Christian church has served the community we now know as Bathwick. The earliest church is lost in the mists of history, but a plan of the present St. John’s Church, close to Cleveland Bridge, clearly indicates that the mediaeval high altar occupied the position of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel altar in that building, and it is a reassuring thought that worship still continues on that hallowed site within our modern United Benefice of Bathwick.

Aerial View

Aerial View

When the new St. Mary’s was built, the old church was demolished, but from its stones arose a mortuary chapel close by the site of the previous building, the ruins of which may still be seen today. The font from the old church is now housed in St. Mary’s, along with one or two pieces of church plate: the registers, dating from 1668, now reside in the safety of the County Records office in Taunton.

Bathwick was always a village, and much of its village character remains today. The two churches of St. Mary the Virgin and St. John the Baptist remain very much at the heart of this community, and their work and witness is very much appreciated not only by the “villagers” of Bathwick, but also by members of their respective congregations who travel from a wide area to worship here.

It is to the “elder sister” of these siblings that we welcome you now, and we trust that you will find not only a friendly welcome, but also a spiritual haven within the walls of St. Mary’s church here in Bathwick.

There is little in the outward appearance of Bathwick to suggest a thousand years of church history. Few, if any, of its houses are older than the Georgian period, and the parish church has yet to celebrate its 200th anniversary. Until towards the end of the 18th century Bathwick was in fact a tiny village, separated from the city of Bath, with which it was not incorporated until 1835, by the River Avon and a mile or so of swampy meadows.

Traces of prehistoric habitation have been found in Bathwick, and in particular a British trackway which ran a semi-circular course, avoiding the Avon flood-level, from Bathwick Hill to the ferry near the present Cleveland Bridge. Its existence at the rear of the Holborne Museum could still be defined within the past one hundred years, and it is possible that a pathway unearthed during the 1967 excavations for the parish hall to the south of St. Mary’s was also a part of this trackway. It developed into the village street with a straggling row of thatched houses.

Historical records begin with Domesday Book (1085-6). The entry in that famous survey is worth quoting fully, since it settles the question of the extreme antiquity of Bathwick’s connection with Woolley. (Bathwick was originally named “Wiche” or “Wicke”, old English for a farmstead, the prefix Bath being added later to distinguish the place from many others of the name.) The Victoria County History of Somerset translates the Domesday accounts thus:

The bishop (Geoffrey of Coutances) himself holds WICHE. Alvric held it in the time of King Edward (the Confessor) and paid geld for 4 hides. There is land for 4 ploughs. In demesne are 3 hides and 3 ploughs and 4 serfs, and there are 1 villein and 10 bordars who hold 1 hide less 11 acres. There are 2 riding-horses and 14 swine and 250 sheep. There is a mill paying 35 shillings and 50 acres of meadow and 120 acres of pasture. It is worth 7 pounds.

To this manor has been added 1 hide in the WILEGE, (WOOLLEY) which Alvric held in the time of King Edward. Geoffrey holds it for the Bishop. There are in demesne 1 hide less 3 acres and 2 ploughs and 6 serfs and there are 9 bordars who have 3 virgates with 1 plough. There are 1 riding-horse and 14 swine and 106 sheep and 33 she-goats. There are 2 mills paying 2 shillings and 20 acres of underwood. It was and is worth 60 shillings.

Mediaeval Bathwick changed little through the centuries. As late as 1781 its population was a mere 150; then there were 45 houses. a mill, an inn (the “Crown” which remains in its modernised form), and the diminutive church of St. Mary, clearly visible in a number of contemporary depictions of the area. A number of drawings of the old church before its demolition are in the possession of the local authority, and indicate that the building was approximately 64 feet in length, 17 feet in breadth, with a tiled roof, a saddle-back western tower some 34 feet high, a south porch, and contained a western gallery for the singers.

The Bathwick Estate

From the days of the Conqueror, who included it among the numerous west country properties which he granted to Geoffrey, Bishop of Coutances, in reward for his part in the Conquest, Bathwick has remained a single estate, with the peculiarity that its owners have never resided here. After the bishop’s death (1093) Bathwick became Crown land, and then passed into the possession of Wherwell Nunnery. At the Dissolution it reverted to the Crown and was bestowed by Queen Mary to the Neville family in the 16th century. Woolley, having lost its manorial connection with Bathwick by a grant of Edward VI in 1552, nevertheless retained its ecclesiastical association until a deanery re-organisation in the 1970s when it was annexed to the parish of St. Saviour, Larkhall. This loss to Bathwick was and is to be regretted. The Nevilles left their mark on the parish in the person of George Neville, who was rector from 1642 to 1684. A surprisingly outward-looking note occurs in the Parish Register of Neville’s time:

Memorandum in the year of our Lord God 1670, was collected towards a briefe for the redemption of captives out of Turkie, ye sum of four shillings and sixpence, the briefe bore date the tenth day of August, in the 22nd yeare of the King’s reigne, it was continued two years and no longer.

From the Nevilles, the estate passed to Capel, earl of Essex, and in 1726 it was purchased by the great Sir William Pulteney, a notable and wealthy politician. In 1742 he was created Earl of Bath, with the minor worthies of Wrington and Hedon, and was succeeded in his estates by his brother, General Henry Pulteney. The next owner was Frances, daughter of the general’s cousin, Daniel Pulteney, and the wife of William Johnstone, afterwards Sir William Pulteney. Their daughter, Henrietta Laura, came into the property in 1782, was created Baroness Bath in 1792 and died in 1808. From that year begins the association with the Darlington-Cleveland family. At the death of the last duke of Cleveland the estate was inherited by Captain Forester, from whence it was administered by the Bathwick Estate Company.

To the Pulteney family belongs the distinction of creating the “new town” of Bathwick. Sir William (Johnstone) Pulteney took the first step by linking the estate with Bath in the building of Pulteney Bridge, from a design by Robert Adam, in 1780. The two Scotsmen, Pulteney and Adam, were intimate friends, and Pulteney’s dream of an imposing architectural development in his Bathwick meadows inspired Adam to produce two schemes, neither of which was he destined to carry out. His plans, considerably modified, were eventually fulfilled by Thomas Baldwin and others. Sir William, who died in 1782, did not live to see the realisation of his visions, for the building of the new suburb was not commenced until 1788. Argyle Street, Laura Place, Henrietta Street and Great Pulteney street arose in rapid succession, and with the later work of Masters, John Pinch and other able architects, Georgian Bathwick emerged in all the splendour and elegance of its gleaming white freestone.

The enormous cost of raising the Bathwick fields above flood-level precluded the completion of a grand design that was to include a continuation of Great Pulteney Street to an equal length beyond Sydney Gardens, which were to be enclosed by a hexagonal extension of Sydney Place, a large group in what is now Henrietta Park to be named Frances Square, a magnificent crescent facing the river, and many other fine buildings.

It is obvious that the enormous growth of the parish rendered its small parish church entirely inadequate. Some attempt had been made to provide for the spiritual needs of the new residents by the erection in 1795 of Laura Chapel, an Episcopal establishment of which the Rev’d. Dr. Randolph became the proprietor and distinguished ornament. Two of the entrances to the Chapel. which seated 1,000, can be seen, appropriately inscribed, in Henrietta Street. The building continued in use until the late Victorian period, when it was closed by Prebendary Tugwell, became a ruin and is now superseded by a row of garages. Laura Chapel (“warm and comfortable in the winter season by fires in its recesses”) must have fulfilled a useful purpose before the erection of St. Mary’s.

The urgent need for a new church resulted in the formation of a committee about the year 1810. Two Acts of Parliament were obtained and Trustees appointed to carry out their provisions. The Earl of Darlington, afterwards Duke of Cleveland, showed himself an interested patron of the living by giving the site at the bottom of Bathwick Hill. John Pinch was entrusted with the design and by 1814 all was ready for a foundation-stone ceremony. This took place on September 1st of that year during the short-lived peace following Napoleon’s abdication. The inscription on the stone read:

GLORY TO GOD IN THE HIGHEST – ON EARTH PEACE. The most sanguinary conflict ever recorded in the annals of History had ceased, and the downfall of Napoleon, the despot of France, had taken place, when the Nations of Europe became united in the bond of Peace. At such a joyful period……the foundation stone of Bathwick New Church dedicated to St. Paul, was laid……

St. Paul! Yes, four newspapers and other contemporary accounts tell the same story. It can only be assumed that old St. Mary’s was expected to co-exist with the new building, and that another dedication would be necessary. But demolition overtook the little church at the other end of the parish by 1818 and its services “on Sundays at a quarter past 11 in the forenoon; Sacrament four times a year” were held no more.

There is abundant evidence that the ancient dedication to St. Mary the Virgin was decided upon for the new church soon after the foundation-stone had been laid. To dispel any possible doubts about this matter, here is the title-page of the service form used at the consecration:

St Mary's church

St Mary’s church

Bathwick Church: to be consecrated on Friday, February 4th, 1820, and to be dedicated to and for the service of Almighty God, as a place of divine worship, to be called and taken to be the Parish Church of Saint Mary’s, in the Parish of Bathwick.

The consecration was performed by Bishop Ryder of Gloucester, age and infirmity preventing the presence of the Bishop of Bath and Wells. Despite the “auspiciously fine day” coinciding with the local proclamation of George IV, “upwards of one thousand tickets of admission were delivered at the door”.

Before leaving 1820 and George IV, it may be mentioned that this monarch’s unhappy relations with his Queen, the ill-fated Caroline, had startling repercussions at Bathwick. On November 11th 1820, when the Queen had been vindicated by Parliament to the great joy of the populace, “a considerable mob proceeded to the house of the Rev. Mr. Gunning, of Bathwick, and committed the most violent outrages on the premises; bursting open the gates and breaking his windows, avowedly as a means of enforcing that respectable clergyman to restore her Majesty’s name on the liturgy”.

The Rev. Peter Gunning had much compensation for these troubles as Rector of a handsome new church. Over £14,000 had been spent on the fabric, and no expense was spared upon interior furnishing. The minute books of the Trustees contain all the details: the west gallery organ, by Gray of London (and reputed to have done duty as a temporary instrument in Westminster Abbey), cost nearly £800; the bells £263 4s. 8d.; an altar piece incorporating the painting of the Nativity presented by the artist Benjamin Barker and now hanging on the west wall of the gallery, £160 6s. 10d.; the clock, by Thwaites & Reed, £217 6s.; the three-decker pulpit at the west end towards which all the pews faced, £224 1s. 9d.; oil lamps for the nave (elegant Grecian things suspended from the gallery and still remembered by one or two parishioners), £160; Sacrament plate, £60; “arches” £120; velvets, £50; etc, etc. A rather dilapidated model of the church now in the sacristy shows its appearance with the original east-end apse, which preceded the building of the present chancel.

A more recent authority, Mr. Walter Ison, had much praise for the building, which he couples with another work of the Pinch family, St. Saviour’s, Larkhall, as “by far the finest of Bath’s Georgian churches”.

St Mary's