St Saviour's Church Coalpit Heath

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Coalpit Heath " a place proverbial for vice and irreligion"

The Industrial Revolution in England during the 18th and early 19th centuries made great changes. A rural, agricultural society became an urban one; people moved from villages into towns and they lost touch with their traditions. Large concentrations of people grew around specific places of employment, losing the traditions of their forefathers and the influence of the manorial system and the Church. The new society was uneducated and unruly, prone to riot and violence.

A passage from E. Waring recalled his experience of the early 1800's

"Frequent scenes of continual dread of outrages on property and public peace then prevailed. You could not ride through some of the villages and hamlets without being insulted by the boys who would throw stones at both horse and rider without provocation."

Coalpit Heath was one such place, with the collieries providing the work and the alehouses the recreation. The long working hours in the coal mines made it difficult to attend St Peter's Church situated on other side of the hill.

In an effort to bring the Christian message to the working class and to provide places of worship free of pew rents, (common practice in many churches at that time) the "Incorporated Society for Promoting the Enlargement, Building, and Repairing of Churches And Chapels (The Church Building Society) was formed. William Hewitt, on behalf of the inhabitants of Westerleigh, sought aid for the building of a Church in Coalpit Heath from the Society.

The estimated cost was £1,900, the total number of free sittings being 411. The capacity was increased to "Five hundred sittings, free and unappropriated for ever..."One Christian commonage"... " there not being an endorsed pew for the Lord of the Manor".  The application form said that £1,350 had already been raised from the Diocesan Church Building Society and private individuals. "Appeals to the parishioners and to the public. The utmost that can be expected from them is a very small amount indeed the parishioners being very poor".

From "The Churchgoer" published some time in early 1846, we are told that 4 years previously, three men, members of the Church Building Society, alighted from their carriage on the common at Coalpit Heath and, accompanied by an old man and a respectable resident, proceeded on foot across its little wooded heath to find out

"a place for the Lord, a habitation of the mighty God of Jacob." They had not walked far when their attention was attracted to a smooth spot of glade, adjoining the road and the lark, starting up at their feet soared heavenward, singing his song of gladness, as though he would invite with his sweet omen the selection of that very spot for the sacred structure...

and they decided that here the future Church of St. Saviour's should stand.

The Ecclesiastical Parish of Coalpit Heath was constituted by Order in Council on April 26th 1845, from the hamlets of Coalpit Heath, Mays Hill and Nibley in the Civil Parish of Westerleigh together with a portion (Brockeridge and Adam's Land) of the Parish of Frampton Cotterell.

The building was designed by William Butterfield; his first Anglican Church, but not his first church building; this honour going to the Congregational Church in Cotham, Bristol. John Gay of Downend was awarded the contract to build St. Saviour's and signed the drawings on 3rd July 1844. The estimated cost was £1,900 and the period for construction 10 months. The eventual cost was to be £2,674 and it was completed in October 1845 (possibly 5 months late). This was quite an achievement bearing in mind the labour content of the work, the specialist trades and the detailed work at the finishing stage such as stained glass, floor tiling and joinery.

The Church of St Saviour was consecrated on Thursday October 9th 1845 by the Lord Bishop of Gloucester and Bristol in the presence of about 40 clergy and a congregation of 500. William Hewitt took a leading part in the erection of the Church and became it's first Churchwarden (1846-48) under the first Vicar Rev. J.R.Woodford, later Bishop of Ely. William Hewitt is buried in the churchyard.

The countryside around St Saviour's Church was, at the time the church was built, dominated by the coalmines from which the area gained its name. The Church Records which have been passed to the Bristol City Archives for safe keeping, provide a fascinating picture of life in the parish a century ago.

William Hewitt was a devout Christian and one of the principal residents of Coalpit Heath (he lived in Heath Cottage). He held a position of eminence, being the agent for, and senior representative of, Sir John Smythe & Co, the principal employer in the district. He later became one of the first churchwardens. Sir John was senior joint Lord of the Manor of Westerleigh and his company, formerly Coalpit Heath Coal Co., owned the mineral rights and associated collieries of Coalpit Heath.

From the Marriage Registers from 1845 to 1900 more than half of the professions recorded were 'collier' or 'miner'. The number of 'farmers' is a reminder that we have always been an agricultural community and the 'hatter' records indicate the local hat making trade which flourished in the early years of the church. Local craftsmen and services provide the Registers with entries of smiths, butchers, inn-keepers, bakers, carpenters, cabinet-makers, stone-masons, builders, plasterers, tilers and even a pianoforte maker, a watchmaker and a cutler. Various professional occupations were also recorded as well as a small number of servants. During the whole 55 year period only four of the young women getting married had jobs - 2 servants, a dress maker and a school mistress.

The original Victorian graveyard was filled within 85 years, then an extension was dedicated in December 1922 where the burials have proceeded in orderly rows.

Coalpit Heath is now a pleasant commuter village bounded by Frampton Cotterell, Yate, Downend and Westerleigh, with a population of about 8,000 at present. This number is increasing with a large housing development on Park Farm, which is quite close to the Church, and other developments around the area. Most of the occupants work in Bristol, in the large aerospace factories in Filton or in business parks close by. The population is not dominated by any particular social group and has relatively low unemployment.

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