Saturday, 10 November 2012

Parliamentarians, poets and rebels: Unitarian Chapel, Bridgwater

Likenesses of Admiral Blake, a prominent Parliamentarian during the Civil War, can be found on Deptford Town Hall and on the facade of the old naval hospital in Greenwich. However, reminders of his life are most prolific in his home town, Bridgwater. As well as his statue, the Blake Museum, and various buildings named for him, there is a plaque on the wall of the Unitarian Chapel where his protege preached. Its early fate was closely tied to England's political conflicts.

In 1662, the Rev John Norman was ejected from the parish church: a consequence of the restoration of the monarchy two years earlier. Like Blake, he had been a Parliamentarian, and so the admiral's friends rallied round to create a new congregation. Their chapel was destroyed by the authorities in 1683, shortly before the Monmouth Rebellion, but was rebuilt again and the building still bears the date 1688. A large preaching academy was also associated with the chapel. The current building, however, dates from 1788 as another, rather more florid panel attests; around this time, the mayor and other local corporation members worshipped here. (The shell-shaped hood over the door is from the 1688 building.) The chapel became Unitarian in 1815. A schoolroom was added to the back in the nineteenth century. 

The building has other famous connections: inside, a plaque commemorates George Lewis Browne, who fought under Nelson at Trafalgar and brought his body back to England. Another plaque outside records that poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who lived for a while in the town and nearby Nether Stowey, preached here twice in 1797 and 1798. 

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