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Wiltshire Community History

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Congregational Chapel, Horningsham

Congregational Chapel, Horningsham Date Photo Taken 2005
Uploaded 11/11/2005 13:06:43
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Original Media Location: Helen Taylor

The chapel is well known by its description as 'the oldest nonconformist chapel in England'. Whether or not this is true has been the subject of discussion for many years, and there is no documentary evidence. The story is that Sir John Thynne hired a number of Scottish freemasons to help build Longleat House. As there was no Presbyterian Chapel for them to worship in, they held their services in Penny's Wood until Sir John gave them permission to build a chapel.

All the early records for the chapel have unfortunately been lost. The oldest part of the meeting-house probably dates from c.1700 when a lease tells us that 'a newly erected building standing in a close of pasture or garden ground in possession of George French' was registered for worship. In time there were numerous repairs and enlargements carried out, particularly thatching. These alterations seemed to coincide with a pastor who spent many years ministering to the needs of the Horningsham flock.

The first enlargement took place in 1754 when Lebbeus Driver was pastor. He spent 39 years in Horningsham and was so successful at encouraging villagers to join his chapel that it needed to be enlarged in 1754 and was extended to the east. In 1816 it was further extended, this time to the west. These alterations cost £400, of which one person gave £100. The next phase was in 1863, during the time of James Mansfield who was pastor for 22 years. A new floor was laid, new thatch and redecoration. The old box pews were removed and replaced with the present ones. The brass candlesticks were sold for £5 and replaced with oil lamps. In 1935 the chapel was again thatched, floored and painted. In 1959-60, when the thatch was again being replaced, death-watch beetle and damp were discovered. This resulted in the roof and ceiling being replaced, apart from the main timbers. The most recent work took place in 1988 when a major appeal was launched for £25,000. Donations came in from all over the country and even America to pay for thatching, decorating, re-leading windows and a French drain. The final cost was £50,000.

It is a tribute to the many people who have lived and worshipped here down the centuries that, whatever the cost, both the money and the desire to maintain the building have always been present. Let us hope that this historically important building will always be open for both worshippers and visitors alike.

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