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Christianity in Tonbridge - The 18th & 19th Centuries

The first recorded non-conformist church to open in Tonbridge was in 1751.  A handful of dissenters, members of an Independent Church in Tunbridge Wells who lived in and around Tonbridge, began to hold their own meetings.  This group began the Congregational Church in Tonbridge, later to become the United Reformed Church.  Their meeting-place has been described both as "an old wooden shed" and "a small upper room of a coachhouse".  It stood in the rear of the White Hart Inn, almost opposite the Parish Church.  In 1791, a new site was found in what was then known as Back Lane or Workhouse Lane, now called Bank Street.  There, the church remained until moving to the present site in the High Street in 1875.  The church is now called "Christ Church".

Methodist church in East Street The Methodists were the second of the dissenting bodies in the town.  Their first building was erected in Swan Lane (now East Street) in 1829.  The church was re-constructed in East Street in 1872 (see right).

In 1857, the United Methodist Free Church broke away from the original Wesleyan Methodists, chiefly on the question of church government and discipline.  For the next 25 years, the new group grew in numbers and importance.  The first building of the United Methodist Free Church was on the east side of Priory Street, which was convenient for the railwaymen and their families who were settling in Tonbridge in large numbers.  The chapel in East Street was deemed to be too far away.  The Chapel in Priory Street soon proved to be too small for the growing congregation, and a new building was erected on the opposite side of the road.  The memorial stone for the new church was laid by Mrs. Baker on 3rd February 1868.

In the meantime, the Wesleyan Methodist Conference introduced reforms to its own constitution, and the differences between them and the United Methodist Free Church disappeared or were considered to be of no importance.  They joined forces to become the United Methodist Church.  Both of the United Methodist Free Church buildings were, in time, used for other purposes.  One was eventually demolished to make way for a car park and the other a furniture store.

St. John's Church exterior By the 1840s, the Parish of Tonbridge was about ten miles long and about two and a half miles wide.  A letter, dated September 26th, 1842, was circulated, explaining that as the Parish was so large, a great many people were unable to attend the Parish Church.  It was proposed that a new church should be built for the people living in the district of Hildenborough.  A church fund was set up and a new church dedicated to St. John the Evangelist (see left) was consecrated on July 9th, 1844.

The Anglican Church built five new churches between 1844 and the 1950's, including St. John's in Hildenborough.  St. Stephen's was built in the southern end of the town in 1852.  Fish Hall Mission in Hadlow Road was built in the 1870's and became part of the Parish of St. Peter and St. Paul in 1940.  It was later renamed St. Andrew's.  St. Saviour's was built in Dry Hill Park Road in 1875 as a chapel of ease to St. Peter and St. Paul.  In the 1950's, Cage Green Church was built in northern Tonbridge as part of the Parish of St. Peter and St. Paul.  This church was later renamed St. Philip's.

In 1838 a number of people left the Independent Church and began services of their own in a hired room and in 1839 moved to a small school room.  The Tonbridge Strict Baptists stem from the roots of the old Independent cause.  At the time there were very few Independent ministers and so many preachers came from Strict Baptist sources.  As a result, many who heard them were convinced that Baptist principles were what they were seeking.  The congregation grew and the room became too small, so a much larger building was hired in 1842 and a Strict Baptist Church formed on March 4th 1845.

The Church census of 1851 for Tonbridge and Hildenborough showed the population to be 6289.  Church attendance in Tonbridge and Hildenborough for the same period was 71% of the population and in all England and Wales it was 61%.

Attendance figures for the six main churches were:

Church attendance in the 1850's

Tonbridge Parish Church   2820

St. John's, Hildenborough   379

Congregational Church   384

Methodist Chapel, Tonbridge   470

Methodist Chapel, Hildenborough   80

Strict Baptist Chapel   330

Total:   4463

Tonbridge School Chapel in Shipbourne Road was built in 1859 but was never consecrated.  It became the school museum in 1892 and since then has been used as a school library and for general purposes.

The cemetery off Shipbourne Road (below left) opened and was consecrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury on August 17th 1857.

The Public Hall was built in 1874 and used for dances, exhibitions, concerts etc., and also for religious meetings.  It became the Capitol Cinema after the 1st World War, was damaged by fire in 1926 and was rebuilt.  It remained as a cinema until the 1960's when it became a Bingo Hall.  Most of the building was destroyed in a fire in 1997 (below right), and the building was finally demolished in January 2005.

Tonbridge Cemetery off Shipbourne Road    Remains of the Public Hall
Photographs © Keith Halstead

Ebenezer Chapel was opened on July 18th 1857 on land owned by Mr. Piper in Bradford Street.  The Congregation were Independent and Baptist.  After a split with the Baptist members of the congregation in 1866, the Ebenezer congregation became Independent. The Baptist members formed the congregation at the Zion Baptist Chapel.

The story continues...

This is the second of four articles giving an overview of the development of Christianity and churches in Tonbridge.
The next section covers a major period of church-building in Tonbridge during 1865-1900.
The previous section covered The Early Years, the time before the 18th Century.

Main content and research © 2000 L. M. Simms and TOUCH 2000 / Tonbridge United Churches
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