Thomas Wilson 1764-1843
c19th businessman &
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 C19th.
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 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
[iv] of the Evangelical Revival, Thomas Wilson's influence and impact on Christian
nonconformist activity in the early C19th 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 public office was removed (see footnote 2.)
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 were 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
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
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
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 9th 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
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
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.
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. 21 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 convert's 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.
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
Peter Flower. B.A. Hons (History) and Associate of Kings College,
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
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
Dictionary of National
Story of Congregationalism in Surrey
Edward Cleal 1908
A brief History of Congregationalism
Albert Peel 1931
Congregational Year Book
'From riots in a rural retreat to
salvation in a Surrey suburb'. Open University dissertation J. King 1999