Jerome K. Jerome and Cirencester’s
Sheep Street Chapel
Edited from contributions by Richard Reece and Katharine Ashley.
The association of writers with particular places is always of interest and here is one which links directly to the construction period of one of Cirencester’s interesting but perhaps lesser-known buildings, the non-conformist chapel in Sheep Street.
Jerome K. Jerome is best known for his Three Men in a Boat saga, first published in 1889 and described as a ‘masterpiece of unquenchable comedy’. In his later work, My life and times (first edition, London 1926) he relates a local connection to Cirencester:
My mother’s family were Nonconformists, “and my father came of Puritan stock….My father was educated at Merchant Taylor’s School, and afterwards studied for an architect; but he had always felt a “call”, as the saying is, to the ministry. Before his marriage, he had occupied his time chiefly in building chapels, and had preached in at least two of them. I think his first pulpit must have been at Marlborough. A silver salver in my possession bears the inscription: “Presented to the Reverend Clapp Jerome by the congregation of the Independent Chapel, Marlborough, June 1928″. And at that time he cannot have been much above one and twenty. From Marlborough he went to Cirencester. There he built the Independent Chapel; and I see from a mighty bible, presented to him by the “Ladies of the Congregation”, that it was opened under his ministry on June 6th 1833. Altered out of all recognition it is now the Cirencester Memorial Hospital on the road to the station. I have a picture of it as it appeared in my father’s time. From an artistic point of view the world cannot be said to progress forwards.”(Chapter I, Birth and Parentage, p.10-1)
Further details of the chapel’s construction and opening are to be found in a feature entitled ‘Another centenary record’ in the Wilts & Glos Standard a century later (which gives the opening date as a week later, on 13 June 1833):
Here is another item of a century ago relating to the opening in 1833 of the Independent Chapel in Sheep Street (formerly called Wharf Road in allusion to the establishment of the wharf of the Thames and Severn Canal, the Cirencester branch of which was brought to the town over forty years before, the wharf being the end of the thoroughfare).
This item is copied from the Wiltshire Gazette (Devizes) which was founded in 1816 in the City of Salisbury … extracts of 100 years ago are reproduced from time to time in its pages from the old files, and this item has been forwarded by the present editor. The actual date of the opening of the chapel thus recorded was, I believe, June 13, 1833. Curiously enough, a local history of Cirencester gives the date as 1839, six years later. In 1833 there was no newspaper in existence between Cheltenham and Gloucester on the one side of Cirencester and Devizes on the other, and this record is probably the only one extant of the opening of the old Independent Chapel, which after the lapse of the lease to Earl Bathurst and the building of the new Congregational Church in Dyer-street, was turned to secular uses as Apsley Hall, and later, by Lord and Lady Bathurst’s generous gift, became the finely appointed X-Ray and Massage Department of the Cirencester Memorial Hospital.
Opening of the Old Independent Chapel in Cirencester
With this explanatory introduction, there is now appended the Wiltshire Gazette’s account of the opening of the chapel a hundred years ago:
“On Thursday last was opened the new Independent Chapel, Wharf-Road, Cirencester. Several circumstances had occurred, through an extensive circle, to excite a lively interest in its prosperity – an interest which the services of the day combined at once to gratify and cherish. The Rev Jerome Clapp, the minister of the place, commenced the engagements. Prayer was offered by the Rev. Mr. Edkins, of Nailsworth; the Rev. Mr. Jay of Bath, preached from Isaiah 45, 23, and the Rev. Mr Tozer, of Marlborough, concluded with a prayer. In the course of his address the venerable preacher referred with gratitude to Earl Bathurst’s liberal grants of the land on which the chapel was erected, his lordship having in a town of nearly seven thousand souls, possessing but one parish church, and till very lately having only one sermon on the Sabbath through the greater part of the year, encouraged the erection of a Chapel for the ministration of the Gospel. In the afternoon the Rev. Mr Bueder, of Stroud, delivered an address on the doctrinal and practical principles of Congregational Churches; and in the evening the Rev. Mr. Leifchild preached from I Timothy, 1,5. The Rev. Mr. Lacter, of Highworth, and the Rev. Mr. Slater, of Wootton Bassett, took the other parts of the service. Mr Leifchild congratulated the congregation on the very commodious and elegant building in which they were assembled, which he thought would prove a model for the erection of many others. It is built in the Tuscan order, with a portico beneath the gallery, elevated 9 steps above the road, and inclosed with iron palisading 120 feet in length; the dome roof, which is of iron covered with zinc, springing from a diameter of 40 feet square, and rising in the centre 40 feet above the ground in circles, a skylight shedding an abundant light over the area of the building in which the seats descend beneath each other, so as to afford every hearer the opportunity of seeing the minister without obstruction.”
The dome roof covered with zinc, with the accompanying skylight, was later discarded for another method of lighting.
Much altered as mentioned above, the building still stands, perhaps best known now for its First World War Roll of Honour memorial façade. From its earlier use, one wonders whether “the mighty bible” survives anywhere as a small piece of Cirencester’s history?
The building as it is today.