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Article written by Alec Barber, Ruishton

Creech St Michael must have been a busy place in the first half of the nineteenth century with a growing population and navvies at work on the canals and then later on the railways. However it was in April 1816, when Pig Barrel Lane was still the main street, that John Rich registered a room in a house in Creech St Michael for “public religious worship“; it seems that it was with this movement that James Blatch Cox was later associated, since it was John Rich who registered “Zion“ Chapel as a place of worship on 30th October 1824.

Mr Cox had bought a plot of land from Francis Gale and the chapel which he built on it was sold in 1828 to thirteen trustees for £60. This was a great period for Baptists in the West of England; it was in 1824 that the Western Baptist Association resolved to divide itself into three because it was growing so rapidly.

We now believe that the first meetings were held in the cottages which are shown on a little watercolour painting. These cottages were cleared away to make room for the schoolroom built in 1884.

The original plot must have extended to the west, since human remains were disturbed when the road was re-aligned at the time of the rebuilding in 1983.

Presumably part of the burying ground was lost about 1842 when the railway was built and the main road took its present form.

There was clearly a considerable spiritual movement in the area about 1824.  Factors in this may have been the work of Hannah More further north in the county in founding Sunday Schools in Cheddar and other villages further south. Probably the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 resulted in some improvement in social conditions and higher hopes in ordinary people. It has been suggested that the change-over from old-fashioned doctrinal Calvinism to the Free Offer preaching was a cause.

Then there was a decline in the Quaker movement and no doubt people left the Quakers looking for other places of worship. Perhaps this played a part in the beginning of the Brethren movement by 1822, before the well-known names of the Brethren movement emerged. The ‘Beacon’ was not published until 1835 and this Evangelical document led to controversy and by 1840 to some wealthy evangelicals leaving the Quakers. This was probably the final stage in the process, however.

Other changes in Taunton may have helped the Baptists. Joseph Toulmin was the minister of Mary Street Chapel for 38 years but he left in January 1804 to go to Birmingham. He was a Baptist in his practice but decidedly Unitarian in doctrine. (See Wykes in B.Q. Jan 2002) The removal of his influence, political and theological , may have cleared the way for the foundation of Silver Street 10 years later. Mary Street was run down and in 1815 received the stronger Tancred Street Unitarian congregation whose origin was Presbyterian. From then on no one could think that Mary Street was in any way Baptist.

The eccentric Henry Cresswell was the Vicar of Creech St Michael from 1815 – 1851. He is said to have indulged in cudgel playing and playwrighting (sic) and was suspended in 1844 for bankruptcy and violence. One may well ask whether the presence of such a minister at the Parish Church helped the Baptist Church in its early years. There is a substantial body of archive papers about Cresswell and a study of these might help us to understand what was going on in Creech in these years.

We do know that W H Havegal was the Curate at Creech for several years up to 1820. He was a gifted musician and later became father of Frances Ridley Havegal, the hymn writer. It is said that at one point the Baptist meetings were nearly given up. Was this because of competition from Havegal’s ministry?

Article copyright Alec Barber of Ruishton, May 2011