The pastorate of John Warburton 1815-1857The Warburton family, John and Lydia, with eight children arrived in the town of Trowbridge on Friday 3 I March 1815. The deacons had arranged a house in the Halve for their use and on Sunday 2 April 1815 John Warburton preached his first sermon as pastor. The room on Wicker Hill which would hold some 300 people was crowded. Warburton records: 'As a congregation we are so crowded on a Lord's day that it is quite uncomfortable.’ During the remaining months of that year 29 were added to the church, 16 by baptism.
It was soon evident that this room in the town centre was becoming too small for the increasing numbers who met for worship and the need for a chapel building was discussed. This was a large undertaking for so young a church. Financially it would foe a struggle, then where would they build? The town of Trowbridge was undergoing much building work at this time. Factories were being built and also houses for the cloth workers. A site was found amongst the factories in Trowbridge, near the river Biss, an area which had a tendency to flooding. But here building commenced and was up to the ground floor window level when a lawyer walked by. Me stopped and enquired what this building was to be used for - another factory? No, he was told, this was to be a Baptist chapel. On hearing this, he offered the sale of land in Union Street which was a better site. The deacons agreed, the builders stopped work and transferred to the new site, which was pan of the manorial land that was being developed. The cost of the land was £124 6s, the cost of building £1,232.
Zion Chapel opened in June 1816 at a service conducted by John Warburton and John Dymott of Hilperton. The deeds for the building indicate that the chapel was • a meeting house for a certain Sect or Society of Protestant Dissenters called or distinguished by the name of Calvinistic or Particular Baptists. The building required to be registered as a Meeting House and this was done on 6 November 1816. However it appears that the application was incorrectly completed as a further application was lodged on 23 January 1817. Until the opening of Zion Chapel die church at Back Street allowed the new church use of their burial ground. A stone was placed on the front of the chapel with the inscription Zion Chapel 1810 - no reason for (he error in date has ever been discovered! It appears that the name Zion was chosen as the name of the building as prior to this the church book records no name for the church. No pictorial record of the original interior of the building exists however we are told that the pews were narrow pews with doors, there was a high box pulpit and the building seated 700.
The fact the people of Trowbridge were mainly poor is shown in the time it took to pay the cost of the building. £500 was paid at the time as the church account shows that in March 1817 loans were made to finance the building. They were from: William Hayward - £500; William Eacott - £100 and James Hayward - £100. These loans were at 5% interest rate and for many years the church struggled to pay them. It was not until 1841 that they were finally paid.
Warburton's salary throughout the pastorate was £3. In 1818 the church agreed to pay the rent on his house, but by the end of 1818 the church accounts show a balance in hand of 2s so the deacons asked Warburton to pay his own rent. They would I however allow him 2 months each year to go away preaching and collecting money from other churches for the work in Trowbridge and they would pay the ministers who preached in his absence. So in the summer of 1818 Warburton set off to London and returned with £62. In August that year William Haywarcl was paid part of the loan due to him.
Baptisms were frequent in those days when open air baptising was the normal practice, large crowds of spectators would swell the normal congregation and Warburton used the opportunity to preach the gospel to thousands at these yearly events. The first place used for baptisms from 1815-1817 is unrecorded, probably the river Biss. In 1818 a move was made to the mill pond at Ladydown Mill when nine were baptised. In the next five years as many as 23 at a time were baptised. The last; occasion the mill pond was used was in 1823. In his 'Memorials' John Warburton Jn. wrote: M, myself have some faint remembrance of my father baptising at Ladydown Mill',
The following year the church used Birds' coal wharf, a site still accessible just off the main Trowbridge to Staverton Road. On this occasion Warburton baptised 24 including two of his daughters Sarah and Elizabeth. His wife Lydia had been baptised the previous year.
In 1825 it was the place for baptisms that brought to a head trouble that had been simmering in the church for several years. There had been, Warburton believed, those who were dissatisfied with his ministry ever since he arrived. They Criticized his salary, they attacked the content of his sermons and then in 1825 he was barred from using, the Ladydown Mill for baptising, as the man who owned the mill felt that Warburton and his church showed a narrow minded and exclusive spirit. One of the deacons was sent around the town to search for another site for baptizing, but he was unable to find anywhere.
The church was called together on 14 September 1825 and agreed to build an indoor baptistry. The voting was: In favour 84; against 74, so the majority in favour was only ten. Work soon began and on 9 October 1825 six were baptised in the chapel.
This however was not the end of the matter as Warburton now received many anonymous letters in which he called a Pope and a Tyrant, some asking how he could sleep at night. He was criticised for taking away what many saw as a witness to the town believing that it was wrong to baptise indoors. Why they were unable to continue to use Birds' coal wharf is unknown. The troubles continued. The members who had objected to the baptistry now brought this matter forward. On 24 October 1 825 the members were asked to sign their names to all the church rules. 130 did so but 30 did not. The minutes for the meeting records: 'We whose names are undersigned have agreed that no member shall come to the Ordinance of the Lord's Supper until they have signed the above rules as a number of members have objected to sign. We have agreed to give them six months to consider it and if at the expiration of six months they have neglected to sign their names we shall consider them as not bring in union with us as a church and shall at the expiration of that time take such steps as the majority of the church shall decide'.
Warburton records that at time there was contention upon contention. A further church meeting held on 21 November agreed that Samuel Kurd and William Chapman, who it appears were the leaders of this group should be dismissed from the office of deacons; 'Our reasons are First- we believe that there is not that union betwixt them and our pastor needful for peace. Second being out on a Lord's Day they (Hurd and Chapman) are seldom at home to fill their office. It was agreed that if any of our deacons should ever go out to preach, he shall give up his office as deacon'.
New deacons were soon elected on 5 December. They were Thomas Ball, James Porter, and Richard Knee. The six month period expired on 24 May 1826 when the church separated twenty seven members from them - these met in the room in Wicker Hill, then built a chapel in Castle Street called Little Bethel. When these members with their friends left, Warburton commented: 'A strange smash it made when they and their connections gave up their seats'.
The outstanding debt at the end of 1826 remained at £ 700. Subscriptions were begun to attempt to clear the debt. Ln 1830 a subscription of one penny a week brought in about £ 50 extra a year.
Soon however Warburton wrote: 'Many of the poor dear sheep that had run away from the fold came creeping back, poor things'! Other additions continued with 24 being baptised in 1827 and a total of 100 people joining the church between 1826 and 1830.
Extracted from the unpublished history of Zion Chapel Trowbridge by Andrew Jones