- This article, by Peter Flower, originally appeared in Richmond History 23, published in 2002. Peter’s article , “The Victorian burial ground of the Vineyard Chapel: from graveyard to garden”, is in Richmond History 37, published in 2016.
Thomas Wilson 1764-1843
19th-century businessman and philanthropist, whose generosity led to the building of the Congregational Church in Richmond
Once in a while it’s possible to stumble across someone whose life was really extraordinary. Richmond was briefly touched by someone like this whose vision is evident today. His name was Thomas Wilson, a Christian businessman whose act of generosity, amongst many others elsewhere, was to build the Congregational Church that stands in the Vineyard, off Hill Rise.
Born in Cheapside, in the city of London in 1764, the seventh child of a silk businessman, Wilson became a “silksman” himself, and went into business with his father and a cousin after serving his apprenticeship. He was evidently extremely successful in his trade and was blessed by inheriting some property while relatively quite young.
During his childhood and throughout his adult life, what was later to become known as the Evangelical Revival [i] swept across Britain and the North American colonies. Thousands of men, women and children were converted to Christianity under the powerful preaching of George Whitefield, Charles and John Wesley and many others. Its origins can be traced back to around 1760 and its dramatic impact was felt in the Anglican church and as well as amongst “Dissenters” [ii] like Baptists, Quakers and Independents [iii] right through into the 19th century.
Brought up within a Congregational household, Wilson became a Christian himself as a young man. On one of his many business trips to Coventry he met his future wife, Elizabeth Clegg, who was the daughter of a timber merchant and a deacon of the Congregational Church there. When he was 27 they were married and he was able to retire from business seven years later aged 34. While he had not amassed a large fortune by this age, according to his son Joshua (a barrister, who wrote his father’s biography), he and his family were able to live on the income from the property he had inherited, or he had bought out of proceeds from his business ventures. Stepping down from business was not from any desire to rest on his laurels; far from it, he was prompted by wanting to “promote more actively and efficiently the cause of God by supporting the advancement of his Redeemer’s kingdom”. Continuing to live in Hoxton, north London, near Finsbury Square, he became “vigorously” employed, as his son noted, by “prayer, giving and labouring” in a wide variety of activities, of which the building of the Vineyard Church in Richmond was one.
Given the backdrop of the Evangelical Revival [iv], Thomas Wilson’s influence and impact on Christian nonconformist activity in the early 19th century was considerable. Besides being an occasional preacher himself, and a modest hymn writer (whose hymn book was published in 1807), he was directly involved in the development of the Hoxton Academy which was a training college for Congregational ministers; later this became Highbury College.
He was the Treasurer of the London Missionary Society for many years; he was a member of the Religious Tract Society and he also helped found the British and Foreign Bible Society. He was also one of the originators of London University (now University College) and was elected to its first Council in 1825. But he became best known for his extensive work across the country in building new chapels for dissenters as well as restoring dilapidated ones that he came across in his travels. And it was the former reason that drew Wilson eventually to Richmond in 1828 – the year in which discrimination against dissenters holding office was removed [ii].
But before Richmond, there were a multitude of other chapels with which he was involved. Soon after he left the world of business, in 1799, he gave £60 to restore the meeting house at Brentwood, which was shut up and dilapidated. In the same year, he gave £200 to buy land and build a new chapel in Harwich. Two years later, in 1801, a meeting house in Reigate, closed for 20 years, was re-opened after he paid off an outstanding debt of 20 guineas and gave £150 to repair the building. A similar story happened at Guildford in the same year, when he helped the dissenters pull down the existing chapel, which was in “ruinous” repair and built a new one.
The list of other locations which received his help in a number of ways, including the provision of new ministers, is extensive: Peterborough, Dudley, Rochford, Hastings, Epsom, Liskeard, Pentonville, Marylebone, Oxford Street, Kennington, Walworth, Chertsey, Market Deeping, Tewkesbury, Dereham, Salford, and many others. It is interesting to note that, while many of the congregations he helped were to the north or south of London, his generosity extended much further afield to Cornwall, East Anglia and the Midlands.
The congregations of these churches were largely independent of each other, although, as has previously been mentioned, local networking increased considerably during this period and “county associations” of local churches was formed. The Surrey association, called the “Surrey Missionary Society” was formed in 1797.
In 1828, Wilson’s attention turned to Richmond, in Surrey, which was expanding as a town and whose population was growing fast. Wilson had extensive contacts among Christian dissenters and had heard of the situation for nonconformist believers there. This is described in the first volume of the Vineyard Chapel Meeting Book of 1831, just after Wilson had built the church and in the year that the first congregation of nine was formed:
“About 20 years before, a strenuous effort was made (and in some measure a successful one) to introduce the preaching of the Gospel into Richmond – two large rooms of a private House in a distant part of the Town (now known as the ‘Chapel House’) were taken and thrown open for Divine Worship. Here many faithful and excellent ministers from London and the neighbouring places preached the Glad Tidings of Salvation. The Rev J Thomas (then of Clapham) was for some time the stated Minister and a Divine blessing appeared to accompany the united efforts of ministers and people so that many had cause to rejoice and to date their first serious impressions from these zealous and self denying labours.
After struggling however with many difficulties not the least of which arose from the want of pecuniary resources this interesting field of labor (sic) was reluctantly abandoned and the Gospel, about the same time being introduced into the Established Church, the different friends and families were divided and scattered.
Since that period, until the present, no direct attempt has been made to revive the Dissenting Interest. The present undertaking may therefore be strictly termed a Missionary effort by carrying the preaching of the Gospel into the midst of a forgetful and slumbering people to endeavour by means adapted to the ends, to remove their prejudices and awaken them to a sense of their obligations and danger and lead them to ‘the Lamb of God who taketh away the Sins of the World’. Some few of the friends who formerly worshiped together in ‘Chapel House’ have survived to unite hand and heart in the present undertaking”.
Wilson’s own desire to see the good news of the gospel being shared would have ensured him being in sympathy with this small band of believers. He therefore bought the freehold of a small plot of land on the side of Richmond Hill in 1828 for £500 for the purpose of building a church for the local nonconformists.
The land belonged to a Rev. Reynold Hogg of Kimbolton in Huntingdon. Thomas Wilson may have been anxious to ensure that the legal title of the land actually belonged to Hogg, as he had been misled some years earlier when building a chapel at Kentish Town, in north London [v].
Extensive search appears to have been made by a Mr Davies, the lawyer acting for Hogg into the ownership of the property. From legal papers in the possession of the church, it appears that Reynold Hogg inherited the property from his brother’s wife, Mary Hogg. His brother Peregrine lived in Hackney and in his will, dated 1807, he left his wife his freehold property “in Richmond Hill, Surrey for and during the term of her natural life”.
The will stipulated that on her death the property would pass to his brother, Reynold. It is not clear when Peregrine died, or his wife, but by 1828, the property had passed to Reynold who wanted to sell it. Records in the church show that a lengthy search was made by Mr Davies, Hogg’s lawyer, to trace past Hogg relatives – their births, deaths and other details back nearly a century to 1734 and possibly before.
Hogg’s bill from his lawyer amounted to £60 11s 2d and his services comprised a number of meetings in Richmond with Thomas Wilson’s own lawyer, Mr Fuller. The legal agreement for the sale was signed on 9 June 1828, and referred to the plot as being thirty-four and a half rods. It contained a shed as well as a coach house which bordered on the south side “Vine Row”. This is the only known reference describing the lane as Vine Row [vi], rather than “The Vineyard” which it is called now.
The sketch in the sale agreement shows clearly the location of the plot of land. While the sketch does not show the Catholic chapel abutting the plot, mention is made of it in the agreement itself. For some reason, this sketch refers to the land on which the Catholic church was built as belonging to a Mr Collins. The land on the other side of the property is referred to as “Divers houses leading up the hill”. A Mr Tallymach owned the land to the north.
The chapel, with a gallery, was built facing north in Norman style, 50 feet by 35 feet, with vestry and schoolroom on one side, 12 feet wide. Rounded arches and mock slit windows reflected the Norman style of architecture. There were sliding shutters from the schoolroom into the chapel.
Copies of watercolour pictures now housed in the British Museum and painted by Heassell in 1830-31 show that the original door into the church was located on the left hand side of the church. The church had box pews, and the pulpit was placed at the north end in front of where the organ is now.
Visiting preachers from the surrounding area gave their help to the small congregation in its early years; in 1834, one of these, Robert Ashton recommended to the church members that they appoint Rev. Henry Beresford Martin, from Warminster as minister who was well known to him. Martin became the first minister of the church and served until his death in office, after a long illness lasting four years, in 1844. He is buried in the church graveyard that is now a garden. He was succeeded by Rev. Evan Davies. Links with local independent churches continued. It is not certain when the church joined the “Surrey Missionary Society” (e.g. the county association) but by 1846, the first Congregational Year Book mentions that the church was a member.
In 1840, three years before Wilson died aged 79, the church members recorded their gratitude that he had vested the chapel and land into the hands of church Trustees. Presumably, by this stage, Wilson felt confident that the church was well established and could stand on its own two feet; for instance, three years later the church records show that there were 96 members.
But, disaster struck the church a few years after Wilson’s death. The building was almost completely destroyed in the “Great Richmond Fire” of 1851, which was reported extensively in the London Illustrated News at the time (see sketch of the burnt out building). Thankfully, the church was insured for half its original cost. A public appeal was launched, with one donor, William Hankey giving £50, a large sum by contemporary standards. The insurance money and gifts given enabled the church to be rebuilt and the present building was opened in 1853.
The fact that the church building was insured is, in itself, interesting, as this practice was by no means common at the time. The Illustrated London News report of the fire, for instance, made special note of those businesses and homes which were or were not insured. What is of particular interest about the insurance provision made by the church leaders is that a fire had disastrously affected one of Thomas Wilson’s earlier rebuilding projects forty years previously. In the early 1800s Holloway in north London was being developed for housing and had a growing population – but no place of worship. Wilson helped build a small chapel in 1804 and the land lease was granted to him and four others. The owner later sold the chapel and land to Wilson for £1000. Unfortunately, the chapel itself was burnt down in 1807. This was possibly due to an arson attack, as Wilson offered a reward of £200 to catch the culprit. However, whatever the cause of the fire, the building was not insured and so Wilson sold off some of the land for £200, and gave the rest, plus building materials, to the congregation so that a smaller chapel could be built a few years later.
Although Thomas died eight years before the Vineyard Church was burnt down, his son Joshua was by then a Trustee of the church, as Wilson himself had been before he died. It is very likely that father and son would have insisted on an insurance policy for the church building being taken out as a prudent measure in the wake of the Holloway experience.
The church’s association with the Wilson family continued well into the 19th century, as the Rev. James French, the minister from 1857 to 1864, who succeeded Evan Davies, married Thomas Wilson’s granddaughter.
The present building is a virtual replica of the original building built by Thomas Wilson, although in 1871, the church was extended by some twenty feet to its present size with an apse at the north end. While the pews have been removed and replaced by modern chairs, the interior has changed little since the church was rebuilt.
The building that Thomas Wilson so generously erected in 1830 has housed the congregation that, for 170 years, has sought to be faithful to the calling of the first, nine members, of carrying the preaching of the Gospel into the midst of a forgetful and slumbering people.
Thomas Wilson would have approved!
[i] The Evangelical Revival: John Wesley, an Anglican clergyman, described what happened to him one evening in May 1738 when he was listening to someone reading from Luther’s Preface to the Letter to the Ephesians. “My heart became strangely warmed”, he later said, “and I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death”. Wesley became what he called an “altogether Christian”. This was similar to the experience of others whether from church backgrounds or none. Wesley’s followers (“Wesleyans”) eventually broke away from the Church of England to form what later became known as the Methodist church.
[ii] Dissenter was the name given to Christians who were not part of the established Church of England. Under the Toleration Act of 1688 they had freedom of worship, but were discriminated against under other legislation, chiefly the Test Act 1673 and Corporation Act 1661 which effectively barred them from serving in any civil or military office. These acts were eventually repealed in 1828 after considerable pressure had been brought on the Government of the day. The Catholic Emancipation Act followed a year later. The remaining areas of discrimination (for instance, the bar to nonconformists going to Oxford and Cambridge) were gradually removed during the next thirty years.
[iii] Independents or Congregationalists traced their origins back to the Puritans of mid C17th and met in independent congregations. Each congregation appointed its own pastor and members were jointly involved in all aspects of church life and worship. During the period 1760-1810 the number of Congregationalists increased by c.78% and it is estimated they had approx. 800 churches by 1810. This increased to c3,200 by 1850. Greater co-operation developed between local churches during the Revival and this led to “county associations” or “unions” being formed between churches in the same locality. Twenty-one of these associations were formed between 1780 and 1810. In 1830 these associations linked up to form the Congregational Union.
[iv] Impact of Evangelical Revival: Besides the spiritual change in converts’ lives and the growth in the number of churches that sprang up, the impact of the Revival was evident in a variety of other, powerful ways. As many converts came from the working classes, education became very important to those without any schooling and this led to the development of Sunday Schools inspired by Robert Raikes. By 1810, it is estimated that 4% of the population attended Sunday schools. The founding of the first missionary societies began as a response to the need for the gospel to be taken to foreign lands. Philanthropic activity to reduce poverty, improve public heath, tackle the needs of orphans, the mentally ill, those in prison and so on, all stemmed from a deep desire by those touched by the Revival and its aftermath to reach out to those in need.
[v] Kentish Town Chapel: The land on which the new chapel in Kentish Town was built in 1805 was leased by St Barts Hospital to a Mr Clare. He gave permission to Thomas Wilson to build a chapel on it; when St Barts Hospital discovered what had happened, they ordered the demolition of the church, which was then dismantled, brick by brick. Two years later in 1807, it was re-built on an adjacent plot of land belonging to Lord Dartmouth, using the original building materials at a cost of over £2000. This was a hard lesson for Wilson to learn and it is likely that he would have been extremely cautious in any future purchases to ensure that full legal title was established.
[vi] Vine Row: on the outside of a cottage (number 2) in what is now Lancaster Park, leading off the Vineyard, is an old plaque placed high up on the building. This says “circa Vine Row 1700”. Perhaps, the original Vine Row led from Hill Rise for a short distance and meandered off to the right opposite St Elizabeth’s Catholic Church, in what is now Lancaster Park, while the Vineyard road itself, then started at this point. Lancaster Cottages, a row of early Victorian cottages, off Lancaster Park, were built in 1850, when presumably the road had by then been given the name by which it is known today.
Peter Flower B.A. Hons (History) and Associate of King’s College, London University
Dr Alan Argent B.Sc., M.Th., Ph.D. for his guidance into background reading of the history of congregationalism and his proof reading of this research
- Various legal documents in the possession of the Vineyard Church, Richmond, Surrey.
- Vineyard Church Meeting Minute Book 1831-1857
- Memoir of the Life and Character of Thomas Wilson, by his son, Joshua Wilson, 1846.
- Congregationalism in England 1662-1962 R. Tudur Jones 1962
- History of English Congregationalism R.W. Dale 1906
- Nineteenth Century Nonconformity Ian Sellers 1977
- Dictionary of National Biography
- Story of Congregationalism in Surrey Edward Cleal 1908
- A brief History of Congregationalism Albert Peel 1931
- Congregational Year Book 1846
- “From riots in a rural retreat to salvation in a Surrey suburb”, Open University dissertation. J. King 1999