The Abingdon Baptist community dates from 1650, but it was not until 1700 that a dedicated chapel or meeting house could legally be built. A group of trustees had acquired the land in Ock Street in 1678 from John Combes for £20. Combes was a Baptist preacher who had moved to Longworth in 1656. It has been suggested that an earlier meeting house existed on the site, perhaps built by Combes himself, but there is no evidence for this. The site seems initially to have been purchased as a burial ground.
The 1700 chapel was a little further to the east than the present building, and its entrance was probably on the west side, along a narrow path from the street. That chapel was pulled down in 1841, when the present building replaced it at a cost of £2000. It was financed by the community − according to a local paper “Some of the influential members of the congregation have come forward in the most handsome manner on the occasion.” John Tomkins, of the prominent Tomkins family, is very likely to have been among the main contributors. The new church had a capacity of eight hundred with provision for two hundred more in the vestry. The architect, John Davies, who specialised in Nonconformist churches, used a classical style, in contrast to the Victorian Gothic that was becoming customary at the time for Anglican churches. The builder was a local Baptist, John Chesterman.
The roof was renewed in 1893 and the inside remodelled in 1971 and repaired and renewed in 2018.
During much of the nineteenth century Baptist communities supported non-sectarian education for poorer children. The British School in Abingdon was founded in 1825 by the Baptists with the active support of other dissenting denominations. The Trustees made use of land to the east of the Baptist Chapel to build a house for the schoolmaster that incorporated a school room. A classroom block was built on the street frontage in 1837. The school later expanded further on the same site where it remained until 1902 when the new Board Schools opened in Bostock Road. The school building itself was not demolished until 1960.
This extract from an aerial photograph of Ock Street taken in 1957 has the Baptist Church in the centre with the British School building in front and almost on the street frontage.
(Taken from a photocopy that was given to us. We have not been able to trace a copyright holder.)
The community’s support for education also extended to adults. In 1854, the newly‑founded Mechanics’ Institute was given a space in the school for its reading room. It remained there for three years until it obtained the use of premises in the Clock House on the opposite side of Ock Street.
See Glossary for explanations of technical terms.
© AAAHS and contributors 2013, revised 2020