The Early Church in Even Swindon
The Great Western Railway capably catered for the social, religious and cultural needs of its earliest employees. However, a variety of religious denominations having no connection with the railway, came to Swindon at this time, targeting the spiritual needs of the town’s population. The various churches and chapels, which came into being, naturally also became centres for social gatherings. These, with the schools and the local working men’s clubs, which offered sickness benefits as well as recreational facilities to their members, helped to create the strong sense of community that still exists in Rodbourne today.
In the early 1880’s, preachers from the Brinkworth circuit introduced Primitive Methodism to Rodbourne, and by 1882 they had built a chapel in Percy Street. The Wesleyan Methodists built themselves a chapel in Rodbourne Road. The Stratton Baptists began missionary work in the area soon after this, and they erected a corrugated ‘Tin Temple’ in Rodbourne Road on the site of the existing Iris Redman Court. Their full immersion baptisms took place behind the Temple.
Thought to be a former church schoolroom, and built about 1873, on the site now occupied by Daniel Gooch House, the great stone Rodbourne Cheney District Room, Rodbourne Road, became a mission chapel in the early 1880’s within the ancient parish of the early 13th Century Church of St Mary Rodbourne Cheney. The St Augustine’s Church inventory records that the licence for the performance of Divine Services there was issued on 2nd April, 1881. The earliest known surviving chapel record, a baptism register dating from 1885 is now held at Trowbridge Records office, confirms that the building was then known as the Mission Church of Rodbourne Cheney parish.
The elderly vicar of St Mary’s, the Rev W Mould, was also chaplain to Queen Victoria. He found it difficult to cover all the services at the chapel, therefore, he made arrangements for the clergy at St Mark’s Church, the closer parish to the chapel, to conduct many of the services and make pastoral arrangements for the growing Rodbourne population.
The vicar of St Mark’s at the time, the Rev Hon John M G Ponsonby (Canon of Bristol) and his team ministry cared for the Mission Church, until the arrival from Bath in 1902 of Rev Henry B Harvey. On 26th October 1904, the inventory records that Rev Harvey BA received his licence as missionary curate in St Augustine’s district, formed our of the Parish of St Mark’s and Rodbourne Cheney. Rev Harvey was to serve the church in Rodbourne for a total of 29 years, and he received two accolades for his dedication. After almost 25 years’ service, he was made Honorary Chaplain to the Bishop, an honour given to few, and on completion of 25 years’ service, he was again honoured by being made and Honorary Canon of Bristol Cathedral.
Rev Harvey was a man of vision and action, and at the instigation of the Bishop of Bristol, he was encouraged to form a new Parish out of the parishes of St Mary Rodbourne Cheney and St Mark’s Swindon New Town. He and his wife moved into 133 Morrison Street, where they remained until the specification of building work for St Augustine’s Vicarage in Morris Street was prepared in January 1913, the schedule of conditions of building was agreed in November of that year and the building was completed.
Early confirmation classes were held in the front room of 133 Morrison Street. The new priest’s first major task was to raise money to build a chancel, in order to give the Mission Hall the appearance of a church. This he quickly achieved and his congregations worked extremely hard raising funds to cover the Mission Church expenses. The former Church School soon had a stove in the middle of the room and a small raised platform at one end. The choir sat at the southern end, near a small lectern and portable harmonium, and there was a small font at the northern end. Anthems and solos were joyfully sung and our oldest choir member today, Arthur Done, remembers with pride the day he sang his first solo in the Mission Hall. The teachers at school heard about it, and the next day he was persuaded to give a repeat performance for his peers.
Mission Hall expenses were covered by Easter teas, sales of Christmas trees, concerts and so on. Many church organisations were to make use of the Mission Hall; which later became the Parish Hall. Catechism classes were large (over 300 youngsters aged 14 and over were counted), and this reflected the enthusiasm of Rev Harvey. Sunday School was also very well attended, with over 600 children attending classes. As the congregations increased, it became obvious that in spite of development of the Hall, it was not large enough for everyone, so it was arranged for services to be held in Even Swindon schools until a Parish Church could be built.