The Baptists in Tewkesbury

by Jonathan Smalley, 2009


Tewkesbury has the oldest Baptist[1] chapel in the world. However, the building with the earliest traceable connection with the Baptist congregation in Tewkesbury is Gupshill Manor – a good place to take refreshment and ponder how the Baptist Church came to be and where it is being led to go.

We could start with King John’s excommunication in 1209, his closing the churches and subsequent capitulation to the Pope; or when, in 1409, the Constitutions of Oxford made it a heresy to translate the Scriptures into English. Even then, by their complaint that the “jewel of the clergy had become the plaything of the masses”: the establishment knew it was man with the Bible, not the gun, who had the power.

The point of looking at the history of some organisation like the Tewkesbury Baptist Church is to show the chain of events as a sort of experiment to understand their causal sequence. 

Wycliffe and the Lollards

The Baptist Congregation at Tewkesbury is best seen as a ‘Lollard’ continuation that emerged with the Baptist name some time between 1612 and 1623. This was stated by Thomas Wilkinson,[2]  Baptist minister at Tewkesbury and Natton for half a century, and Edward Bevan,[3]  pastor from 1958- 1965.

By the mid 14th century, Wycliff uncovered the message of the Bible in English, revealing that the established church had drifted so far from it: Lollards were those who followed his teachings.

The Lollards in this area are said to have been basket makers who lived along the river banks where the willow trees provided the raw materials for their products. In later years, this weaving tradition emerged in the framework knitting industry of Tewkesbury.

The Reformation in England

The Roman monopoly of understanding and possession of the contents of the Bible was fast coming to an end when William Tyndale, from Gloucestershire, gave his life “so the lad who steers the plough could find his way through the Bible” by translating it into his tongue at a price he could afford, exploiting the maturing technology that enabled its mass production. Rome could not resist the ever revealing tide of Tyndale’s Bible. A copy was provided for every parish church. However, this was more for political ends of wresting power from the Pope, than from evangelistic zeal on the part of King Henry VIII.

The earliest recorded history of the Baptist Movement in Tewkesbury goes back to the Anabaptists[4] of these times and is specifically associated with those who owned or lived at Gupshill Manor – the Ransford and Cotton[5] families. Indeed, the 1798 map of Tewkesbury shows the Old Baptist Chapel as the “Anabaptist Chapel”.

The ‘Sabbath Keepers’ of Tewkesbury

Natton Church, 1928, (Mark Sweat)
Natton Church, 1928, (Mark Sweat)Click Image
 to Expand
The Baptist Movement emerged in Holland in 1609 from the 16th century ‘Separatist Movement’. The co-founder, Thomas Helwys, then returned to England in 1612. A Sabbath keeping branch, that is to say one that kept Saturday as their day of rest rather than Sunday, based in Tewkesbury and Ashchurch, goes back to these times – before Benjamin Purser built its chapel at Natton[6] in about 1720, as an annexe to his farmhouse. John Cowell, buried in the burial ground of the Old Baptist Chapel was the senior elder of both branches. Reasons for the demise of the Sabbath keeping branch more than 250 years later have been variously given. The pastor was not a seventh day man, but a Sunday man who lacked heartfelt commitment to their cause; and the Sabbath keeping principle went against the grain of society, which normally kept Sundays free of other commitments. There was no outreach, evangelism or any sort of publicity; and no new blood was brought in or any catering for young people. Consequently, the congregation steadily aged and died. Its massive endowment caused financial disputes, and also allowed the church to become complacent.

Despite its financial backing, the failure to cater for young people ultimately led to the demise of the Natton congregation, and re-absorption into the Tewkesbury Church where the ministry for young people really did foster the next generation.

The Old Baptist Chapel

Looking from the graveyard
Looking from the graveyardClick Image
 to Expand

[An article on the building itself is here.]

The oldest document relating to Tewkesbury Baptist Church is a deed dated in 1623, just after the Mayflower sailed to America, conveying a property to the local Baptist cause. As a building site, it predates the Abbey. As a building, it goes back to a 15th century home of a wealthy person. This building, now known simply as ‘The Old Baptist Chapel’ is situated in an alleyway, leading to the burial ground.

It was the Tewkesbury Baptist meeting house for 175 years. The principles, by which they stood, sharpened by persecution, were recorded when their Messengers met with the other Baptists at Warwick in 1655.

The Old Baptist Chapel, one of the oldest and most substantial buildings in Tewkesbury, was, in some senses, a prototype for the old Baptist chapels in New England. It was modified in about 1710, after the persecution of Dissenters[7]  subsided and such premises could be licensed for worship.

The Barton Street Chapel

Interior of Barton Street
Baptist Church (T.B.C. 1958)
Interior of Barton Street
Baptist Church (T.B.C. 1958)Click Image
 to Expand
By the start of the 19th century the Old Baptist Chapel was too small and its burden of maintenance too great. A new building in Barton Street was completed in June 1805, shortly before Trafalgar, and this sufficed for the next 175 years. It stood behind the Star and Garter coaching inn, and was accessed via Chapel Court. The Old Baptist Chapel was converted to provide two cottages, leaving the central part as a chapel.

Thomas Wilkinson was one of the more prominent pastors of the 19th century. However, one would have to ‘larn yersel Geordie’ to understand this Victorian gentleman, for he was born in Northumberland, in about 1820, near Hexham where one of the earliest Seventh Day Baptist churches had thrived. After training for the ministry at college, he came south, just before Christmas 1851, with his wife and two daughters to fill the vacancy at Tewkesbury Baptist Church: he held this pastorate until driven by health problems to retire in 1884. Meanwhile, in 1867, he had been obliged to oust John Francis from Natton on grounds relating to church membership. It is said that the ousted minister was too keen to baptise people. Thomas Wilkinson held the pastorate at Natton until his death in 1902. During this time he was one of the trustees, and at one time chairman, of the Tewkesbury Baptist Church in a role which, in 1890, obliged him to make a public statement of his views on such responsibilities. In his pastoral roles he had managed to find respect even from those of other denominations, was well regarded for his business acumen and had at one time chaired meetings of the Institute of Mechanics and delivered a lecture there. His death was hailed as the end of the strangest church in England, not least because its independent minister had drawn his salary from the living of an Anglican church.

The Sunday School

Aerial view of the Barton Street Chapel,
showing the Sunday School extension of 1840
Aerial view of the Barton Street Chapel,
showing the Sunday School extension of 1840Click Image
 to Expand
The Christmas present to Tewkesbury in 1809 was the immensely successful Sunday School, founded by Mrs. Oldland and part of the origin of free schooling for all as a national provision.[8] Indeed, the youth work is still an outstanding feature of Tewkesbury Baptist Church, now led by David Hobbs who has been with the fellowship since 1974, and whose main passion has been the young people’s work and in particular the Boy ‘Covie’ (Coventers’) group. The most recent expansion in this direction is the appointment of Rachel Westlake as a professional Children and Youth Work Co-ordinator.

The Outlook after 300 years

The Outlook, the quarterly journal of the Tewkesbury Baptist Sunday School, embraced a wide range of topics from philosophical poetry to school outings and treats and covered just about every department of the Sunday School – a snapshot of Tewkesbury Baptist Church life around the 300th anniversary year of 1923.[9]

The Local Baptist Church Family

Numerous churches trace their origins to Tewkesbury as their mother church. Some have thrived, some have survived and others have had their season. However, it is the people who make up the church. An old Baptist Chapel used as a pub or domestic dwelling is not necessarily evidence of its demise, but landmarks the life of its congregation which may have moved on or into more appropriate accommodation – as has happened twice in Tewkesbury.

To the north-west, Leominster has associations since their earliest days. After the regime of messengers and elders, the first two pastors of Tewkesbury came from Leominster. Ledbury is an alleged church plant from Tewkesbury. Upton-on-Severn Baptist church was originally a Seventh Day Baptist plant from Tewkesbury in the 17th century. The chapels at Naunton and Twyning are also Tewkesbury plants.

To the east are ancient connections with Evesham and Pershore. Hope Chapel in Eckington was a subsidiary of Tewkesbury Baptist Church; and around Bredon Hill are Westmancote, Natton, Kinsham, and Oxenton – all originally Sabbath Keeping plants.

The most significant plant, must be Cheltenham in the mid 18th century. This has grown to include Cambray Baptist, Gas Green, Salem and a host of further generations.

The Churches Together

Fish eye view of interior
of Old Baptist Chapel
showing the baptism pool
Fish eye view of interior
of Old Baptist Chapel
showing the baptism pool Click Image
 to Expand
Tewkesbury churches, of whatever Christian denomination, have enjoyed a remarkable degree of co-operation over the years: for example the Youth work over the last two centuries, the Evangelistic Crusades of the 1970s, and more recently by the ‘Churches Together in Tewkesbury’ organisation, which focuses on Christ at the centre and at the head, with scope for differences in practice in the same town. There was a time, probably less so in Tewkesbury than elsewhere, when denominational loyalties were more important than the common beliefs of the Christian community. Nowadays the emphasis seems reversed: with different congregations serving different tastes, much as different shops in the same town cater for different needs. All are Christians; all are Tewkesburians.

The ‘Ministry of Trust’ 
Another aspect of the history of Tewkesbury Baptist Church concerns the management of its assets and properties, and responsibilities relating to such requirements as to pay the minister, to maintain the fabric of the church, or to give help to the poor. These are administered by trustees. Their biggest headache in recent times concerned the Old Baptist Chapel. 

The ‘Old Baptist Chapel’ Restoration Project

In Tewkesbury, all the buildings that have served as Baptist chapels over the centuries still exist, more or less complete – and not entirely accidentally. From 1964 to 1978, the amount of effort expended on the hot air of debate in the Council Chambers about the cultural acceptability of the work matched that on the cold bricks and mortar of the actual restoration of the Old Baptist Chapel to show how it probably looked in 1720.

It is interesting that, before the printing press of Caxton, copies of Bibles could only be produced by hand. It took at least a dozen scribes a year to generate one copy. That puts a price tag of at least £250,000 on each copy – to think that, restoring the Old Baptist Chapel in Tewkesbury was equivalent to the price of a Bible!

The move to Station Road

Station Road Chapel in 2007 (J. Dixon)
Station Road Chapel in 2007 (J. Dixon)Click Image
 to Expand
Bill O’Leary had arrived in 1978, just in time to take the first service of thanksgiving in the newly restored Old Baptist Chapel. He joined a church with a great deal of physical decay (which as he wryly comments probably reflected the spiritual state of the church that he took on). However, there was also a great deal on which to build and consolidate: to provide the foundations for its next centuries of life and millennium of world history.

The membership in 1979 stood at about 20 members. Bill’s first major project was to move them to Station Road: by 1984 it was not cost effective to restore the Barton Street Chapel yet again. Instead, the fellowship decided, as an act of faith, to build a new, modern church building, with facilities such as a sports hall. For two years they met in the Adult Opportunity Centre next to the plot for the new church on the old railway sidings. During this time, the Old Baptist Chapel was used when Wayne O’Leary, now pastor at Twyning, was baptised. For the first time in nearly two centuries, the baptistery was opened and filled and found its original purpose once more.

Meanwhile, the Barton Street building was sold and, converted into flats, is now known as Chapel House. The work in Station Road began in June 1986; the first service was held on 13 November; and the new building was officially opened on 6 December 1986.

The Expression of Praise and Worship

Inside the Station Street Building
Inside the Station Street Building Click Image
 to Expand
By 1991 the membership had grown to 40, still only a third of those in 1663 – but up to 200 people, mostly aged less than 30, attended Sunday morning service.

The style of Praise and Worship has evolved in response to changing culture, technology and missionary purpose. Its role has not changed, but modern life and technology have impacted on the needs and how to meet them. The evolution from church organ to a well oriented and rehearsed band with drums and electronically amplified instruments is all to enhance the Gospel message through the idiom of the day.

The Vision for Outreach

The church entered the 21st century as a thriving, lively fellowship with an extensive youth work, world-wide missionary interest, and many other activities and looks forward. Under its primary objective, to seek first the kingdom of God, believing that all else will follow, the vision is developed from its mission statement: “Tewkesbury Baptist Church exists to reach the world for Jesus, beginning with Tewkesbury.” The attributes that are deemed necessary to implement the vision are enumerated on its website.[10]

The Baptist movement is now the fifth largest Christian denomination in the world with some 40 million members – and Tewkesbury has contributed to that growth. ‘Mission’ is central: in fact all members should be missionaries wherever they go beyond the fellowship; and a Mission Team meets to pray, allocate funds, and arrange visiting mission speakers.

For many years, the Sunday School offering for Missionary work went to support the Russian Missionary Society,[11] the China Inland Mission,[12]  the British Jews Society,[13] and, in more recent times, the ‘Unevangelized Fields Mission’ and the ‘Far East Broadcasting Association’.

One 19th century pastor’s daughter, Geraldine Brett, married a missionary and both went to China early in the 20th century.[14] In recent years Tewkesbury Baptist Church has supported various missionary ventures abroad, including to China, India, Tanzania and Nigeria. The church has, for many years, supported Lama Ministries, in the Philippines, a residential home for long-term foster care of teenage boys who were living on the streets of Luzon, abandoned by, or who had run away from abusive parents. The mission aims to give them a chance for a better life.

The church sponsors a ‘Dalit’ child. In Hindu society, the ‘Dalits’ are ‘outcastes’, the ‘untouchables’, worth less than animals, subject to abuse, exploitation and oppression. The ‘Dalit Education Centres’ give ‘Dalit’ children a good education, and aim for social transformation. 

The church also supports organisations working to highlight the plight of persecuted Christians around the world.

Physical changes are quickly made: cultural changes can take much longer. In ‘reaching the world for Jesus’, starting with Tewkesbury, the mission field can be our own future just as much as those in the outback; must take in the whole value chain from Tewkesbury to delivery in the world, aware of results and checking for what improvements can be made. There is no big bang, with trials and errors in destructive proportion, but little by little and step by step. And the same would apply to any enterprise to which we might wish to put our mind and apply our efforts. 


First published in THS Bulletin 18 [2009].
I am grateful for the encouragement from the Revs. William and Wayne O’Leary to research the history of the Tewkesbury Baptist Church.

Jonathan Smalley 
 … has lived in many parts of the world but longest in Tewkesbury, since 1992. He is a keen genealogist and local historian who encountered the Society’s President when he joined in the Thursday afternoon ‘Local History Drop-in Sessions’ at Tewkesbury Library, sponsored by Tewkesbury School. At the time Jonathan was researching the history of the Baptist Church in Tewkesbury as a respite from his normal occupation as systems analyst and human factors integration engineer with a particular interest in systems assessment, the use of colour and the impact of culture on the design of computer based systems. He also plays bass guitar.


  1. Baptists believed in the rite of baptism for believing adults (as opposed to infants). 
  2. Thomas Wilkinson, as reported in the Tewkesbury Register, 27 November 1880: ‘the 225th Anniversary of the Baptist Church’. 
  3. Edward Bevan’s sermon reported in the Evesham Journal, 29 August 1964: ‘Baptists recall 400 years of Fellowship’. 
  4. Anabaptists emerged in Germany in the 1520s and included adult baptism of believers as part of their faith. The name derives from the Greek ‘Ana’ meaning ‘again’. They were the precursors to the Baptists who had not necessarily been baptised as infants. 
  5. This might be a welcome clue to the identity of the same Cotton family, which is featured in the article by Karen Banks, ‘A Serving of Metropolitan culture..’
  6. Anyone interested in learning more about Natton and sharing in its preservation should contact Mark Sweat on in the U.S.A. 
  7. Dissenters were those such as Baptists and Quakers who opted out of the Anglican church. The laws were those that comprised the so-called Clarendon Code, The Conventicle Act, and the Five Mile Act.
  8. Harte (1910), These Hundred Years 1809-1909. GRO D4944/9/17 & Horner, Katie (1997), ‘The Baptist Sunday School’ , Tewkesbury Historical Society Bulletin 1997, pp 26-32.
  9. The Outlook, GRO D4944/9/17.
  11. Now the Slavic and Baltic Missionary Society. 
  12. Now the Overseas Missionary Fellowship. 
  13. now the International Society for the Evangelization of the Jews. 
  14. daughter of Rev. John E. Brett, pastor 1890-1897.
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