The History of Above Bar Church

Above Bar Church

Formation of the Church

Before Henry VIII’s reign Roman Catholicism was the religion of England. Henry VIII split from this church in 1536, and formed the Church of England (CofE) as the established church. People not subscribing to all that the CofE held dear met privately in people’s homes, for fear of persecution. In 1662 a parliamentary act called The Act of Uniformity was passed which decreed that unless a Cof E clergyman would consent to the Book of Common Prayer in its entirety, he would be stripped of office. Over 2000 refused to subscribe to it, and their ejectment from office became known as The Great Ejection. (On 7.2.2012 the United Reformed Church and the CofE held a service of reconciliation and commitment recognising the 350th anniversary of the Great Ejection). Rev. Nathaniel Robinson, Rector of All Saints Church, Southampton, was one of these dissenters. According to the records of All Saints Church, on a fast-day in 1643 “he delivered himself in an unbecoming manner”. Three years later the records say that he was sent to the Audit House and “be advised to preach no more, except he procure himself to be legally ordained according to the ecclesiastical law of the realm. But answer was returned that he was gone out of town”. Two days later the town council met to consider what course to take with Mr Robinson who was not an ordained minister and yet preached publicly. It is very certain that he never did receive episcopal ordination. In October 1648 he received £33.6s.8d as a share of the chantry money from St Lawrence church, and was still there in January 1649, where their record of rectors list him as a Presbyterian. It appears he moved back to All Saints by 1653, but was ejected in 1662 in The Great Ejection. The people who didn’t conform to the established church became known as nonconformists. In Southampton, the nonconformists, (which included Presbyterians as well as Congregationalists), invited Nathaniel Robinson to come and lead them. Interestingly the first constitution of this congregation, in 1668, appointed two Elders and two Deacons. Isaac Watts was one of the first elected deacons of this Independent Congregation; and his son, also called Isaac Watts, was the first name on their baptismal register in 1674. Isaac junior wrote hymns for the congregation before, and after, he had left to become a private tutor and nonconformist minister in London. After the Great Ejection, minsters and members of this congregation were almost continuously in trouble in the Quarter Sessions. On 24.8.1688, following the Glorious Revolution, when a protestant monarch came to the throne, The Toleration Act of 1689 allowed freedom of worship to nonconformists. This group of nonconformists became a distinct and separate church called Above Bar Chapel, which developed from the congregation which had been meeting in people’s homes. It was the first nonconformist congregation in Southampton, and one of the oldest in the country. Having been licensed in 1689, it could hold baptisms and burials, but marriages were not allowed until 1837.One of the conditions of Mr Robinson’s ministry was that The Lord’s Supper was to be administered on the first Lord’s Day of every month. Mr Robinson was not wholly satisfied that elders should govern the church, but he accepted it.

Buildings. The church began as a congregation of people meeting in private homes. The first purpose built place of worship was erected in 1690, and was situated just outside the city walls, north of the Bargate, in Above Bar. (Primark stands here today.) The building of this place of worship was made possible largely by the will of Mr Robert Thorner, who was a wealthy merchant from London. He retired to Baddesley and came to worship at Above Bar, becoming an elder at the foundation of the congregation. He died 2 years later and gave the church £200 to maintain a minister. He also gave, in trust, the remaining interest in the lease of his house, which enabled the congregation to build their first church. In the early days of the congregation monthly fasts were held, at which collections were made for the poor, and the proceeds used to support people in other towns, and sometimes the Protestants in Ireland and France. Mr Robinson died in May 1696 and was buried on May 27th 1696 at All Saints church along with his wife Elizabeth, who had predeceased him by 5 years. In 1719 the congregation bought the freehold of the land at the rear of the church from Mr Isaac Watts senior for £150, and in 1727 the chapel was replaced with a larger building. At this time the Above Bar Congregation was still the only gathering of nonconformists in Southampton. John Wesley visited the town several times on his way to the Isle of Wight, but noting the vigorous and missionary zeal of the congregation, he decided to leave the Southampton mission field to them. The ladies of Above Bar established a charity school, at the church, in 1792. The church was enlarged in 1802. During the building work the congregation met in the Long Rooms. These public assembly rooms had been built in 1761, and were situated opposite the entrance to Simnel Street, on West Quay. Despite the enlargement of the church, there was a need for an even bigger building. The first stone of the new chapel was laid on 1st April 1819, and a year later on 26th April 1820 it was opened with morning and evening services. It was built to seat 1500 worshippers. It was further back from the road than the original church had been, and was built by church members Henry and William Roe. Up until six weeks before the building works were completed the congregation was able to worship in the old building, while the new one was being built. During the final six weeks the congregation met in the Baptist chapel in East Street. This was during a period of great expansion of nonconformism in this country. In Southampton many Anglicans were being driven to worship in dissenter meeting houses, such as Above Bar, which were thriving, when their own established churches were being ill served by their clergy, who were unable to provide for the growing number of people in the town. The Above Bar church was enlarged again in 1841 by William Hines, who had also built Northam Congregational Church. In 1875 the Watts memorial hall and classrooms were built to celebrate the bi-centenary of the birth of one of its most renowned members, the hymn writer Isaac Watts. In 1889 the fourth Above Bar Church was created as a re-ordering of the 1820’s building, with a new frontage and increased seating capacity for 1100. The Robinson Hall, named for the church’s first minister was built nearby in 1911, and celebrated the 250th anniversary of the congregation.

Church Life.

In the eighteenth century the worshippers included Presbyterians and Congregationalists. We know this because the Ministers’ Housing Trust Deed, dated 1745, furnishes for the material needs of the minister of the Above Bar Church “be he Congregationalist or Presbyterian”. The Above Bar Church, in the early part of the 19th century was considered to be one of the most active centres of Free Church life in England, as well as one of the oldest. In 1828 the Test Act and the Corporation Act were repealed. Previously, only members receiving communion in the established church could serve in civil and public office, but, after this change in the law, nonconformists could join them. Members of Above Bar enjoyed this new privilege, but they still had to pay compulsory rates for the maintenance of the fabric of their parish church. In the days of persecution nonconformists paid these rates willingly so that their worship would be tolerated. However as Free Church worship began to grow, attitudes began to change. In 1834 meetings throughout England were held, asking for removal of the compulsory charge to free churchmen. In Southampton feelings were not as strong as elsewhere. The local paper therefore referred to the Above Bar Church as “an extremely respectable meeting of Dissenters”. The resolutions passed by the congregation started with an expression of respect for the established church before praying for relief from being made to support it financially. Other changes that nonconformists petitioned for, which had not previously been allowed, were equal admission to Oxford and Cambridge Universities, the right to be married and buried by their own clergy and the registration of their own children. By 1837 these last requests had been granted with the civil registration of births marriages and deaths, but not the payment of church rates. Rev Thomas Adkins of Above Bar Church was unwilling to interfere with the Established church, but stated that more and more of his congregation were paying rates to other churches. Anglicans who paid the rates, but did not attend their church, could let out their pews for an income to other Anglicans. Dissenters had to pay rates, but had no pews to rent out. Most dissenters were ready to petition against compulsory rates, but would not openly rebel. They would pay up until the law changed. By 1842 however the Above Bar church members were beginning to divide over this issue. The British Anti State Church Association was formed in 1844. Its purpose was to actively campaign for church disestablishment. The congregation of Above Bar was divided over this. The two factions were led by Rev Adkins, and, William and Joseph Lankester. The Lankesters were brothers, and were middle class radical nonconformists and worked for their father’s firm of tinplate and wire works. Rev Thomas Adkins was minister from 1810-1868. In 1861 he lived at 3 Prospect Place Southampton. He was a good looking distinguished man, who dressed amongst the best in the town, which as a result gave him the nickname of “the beauty of holiness”. In 1836 he had been elected by the Master in Chancery as one of the trustees in control of the town charities, so was held in high regard by the establishment. The Lankesters however felt that the minister’s influence was too moderate and apolitical for their taste, and they headed a schism. The more radical members of the Above Bar congregation, led by the Lankesters set up the Albion Chapel, not far away. Thomas Adkins, minister of Above Bar, generally abstained from politics except for what he considered to be moral issues. Apart from being in favour of abolishing church rates, he also became a prominent member of the Anti-Corn Law league, and became chair of the anti-corn law conference for nonconformist ministers in Manchester. Corn Laws were designed to protect cereal growers from cheaper foreign imports, but kept the price of bread too high for lowly paid workers. Meetings were held at Above Bar on the Corn Law repeal. Its congregation was almost 100% liberal. Rough men paid by conservatives tried to disrupt the meetings. At one meeting Adkins tried unsuccessfully to call magistrates to protect his members, so the next meeting was held with the doors and windows barred; and a posse of coachmen, who worked for church member Richard Andrews, armed with wheel-staves, guarded the stairs. These men tried to prevent doors from being forced open, but failed, and the conservative, hired mob broke in, interrupted the speeches, and the meeting broke up in disorder. Some rioters were imprisoned and the liberal nonconformists resented the conservatives for some time afterwards. Adkins was also opposed to slavery, and spoke vehemently against it at a meeting in Southampton in 1824 which was considering petitioning parliament to grant abolition. The draft petition had emanated from nonconformist circles and yet was fiercely opposed by some Anglicans at the meeting. Adkins continued as minister of Above Bar until 1866, and he died in December 1868 aged 81. At the end of his life the animosities between the church and chapel, which had taken up much of his energies in the first half of the century, had subsided after the removal of many obstacles to the established church. On 2.1.1870 a spectacular event marking this relaxation of hostilities occurred. Before 1869 public bodies had been prevented from worshipping in any church other than the Church of England, but in that year parliament removed this prohibition and Mayor Frederick Perkins invited the Borough Council to accompany him in solemn procession to Above Bar Chapel.

An interesting statistic, from the census of 1851, shows that the population of Southampton was 35,305. On the day of the census the attendance figures for Above Bar Chapel were 1,264 in the morning, 308 in the afternoon, and 960 at the evening service. This is over 7% of the town’s population in one church on that day. The membership of Above Bar at the beginning of the 20th century was 353 and this increased to 427 in 1914. On November 30th 1940 incendiary and high explosive bombs flattened Above Bar, and the church and Watts Hall were destroyed. Please click here to read an eye witness account of this event. Luckily there was no loss of life and the records and deeds were recovered safely from the safe. The day after the destruction the congregation met in Mr and Mrs Tomlinson’s house. Later they used the Friend’s Meeting House for worship. They were joined there by Northam Congregational Church, a daughter church of Above Bar, which had also been destroyed by enemy action. The city corporation made a compulsory purchase of the Above Bar site, and would not allow another church to be built there. In April 1942 St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church invited Above Bar and Northam churches to worship with them, but as a separate congregation. Above Bar and Northam had lost their buildings, and St Andrews had lost its minister in 1940, so the Rev Maxwell Janes from Above Bar became the minister of the new united congregations. In 27.1.1946 Rev W.G. Kite was inducted as minister to both congregations and was succeeded by Rev W.T.Hinsley on 29.10. 1947.

The money received by the Above Bar congregation, from the Government, as War Damage Compensation, was put to many uses. Some was used to reconstruct the interior of St. Andrew’s church building, which had also received some war damage. Some went for building projects in local congregational churches, such as Bitterne, Bitterne Park, Hythe, Peartree, Totton and Winchester Road. Winchester Road Congregational church used their share of the money to complete their new building and renamed it Isaac Watts memorial church. The members of Above Bar had, through the years, been buried in the Above Bar churchyard. In July 1951 the Southampton Corporation discovered a burial ground when they were clearing away the bomb damage. The remains were re-interred at Holybrook Cemetery. Above Bar did not disappear with the destruction of its building. After surviving as a separate congregation in the St Andrew’s building, in 1948 the two congregations, one Congregational, and one Presbyterian, joined forces as one congregation and became St Andrew’s United Church. Being one of the first Free Churches in the Country it finally became part of one of the first joint Presbyterian/Congregational churches, and was a forerunner of the United Reformed Church. The plaque of Isaac Watts’ head that had stood above the doors of the Above Bar Church, and which had survived its bombing, was rescued from the rubble and placed inside the entrance of the United Church, to remind members of their heritage. After the merger of St Andrew’s with the Avenue church the plaque now stands in the Courtyard of Avenue St Andrew’s church as a reminder of its rich heritage.

Ministers of Above Bar

1662- 1696 Nathaniel Robinson

1694-1734 William Bolar

1726-1752 Henry Francis

1753-1763 John Bertram

1764-1809 William Kingsbury A.M.

1810-1868 Thomas Adkins

1858-1885 Henry Hermann Carlisle LL.B., (co-pastor 1859-1868)

1886-1895 Thomas Nicholson

1896-1902 William Frederick Clarkson B.A.

1904-1920 George Stephen Samuel Saunders A.T.S

1921-1931 G. Hartley Holloway

1932-1945 Maxwell O. Janes B.A., B.D.

1946-1947 William George Kite B.A.

The archives of Avenue St Andrew’s church hold photos of the Above Bar Buildings, and also a booklet on the history of Above Bar Church 1662-1908.