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The Beginnings of Abbey Hill Church

When did Abbey Hill URC Start?

Looking back to the seventeenth century, the liturgy of the corrupt Anglican (Anglo-Catholic) church was suspended by Parliament during the English Civil War and Archbishop William Laud was beheaded on Tower Hill, London on 10 January 1645. Roundheads were billeted at St Nicholas Church in Kenilworth to safeguard Independent (Congregational) worship.

King Charles II returned to the throne after the death of Oliver Cromwell and Independency (Congregationalism) became outlawed. Revd William Maddock, vicar of St Nicholas (Kenilworth’s Church) was ejected for his non-conformist (independent) beliefs. However, Independent worship was now a political and constitutional fact and the vigour of enforcing laws to prevent it was matched by the determined activity of our predecessors - the Independents. It has been estimated that Independents in Kenilworth numbered more than one quarter of the population. The independents (Congregationalists) in Kenilworth met in various houses and after the Five Mile Act or Nonconformists Act of 1665 for a period met at the ‘Gospel Oak’ at Banner Hill Farm (Snelson’s) on Rouncil Lane.

There is no record of any persecutions after 1686 and The Declaration of Indulgence of 4th April 1687 and the landing of William of Orange in November 1688, paved the way for complete religious freedom which was confirmed on the 24th May 1689, when the Act of Toleration was passed.

In 1705 a meeting place was constructed on Rosemary Hill (now Priory Theatre) for the Independents, as we (non-conformists) were known at that time. This church then contained a mixture of people with slightly different beliefs, in modern terms Congregationalist, Presbyterians and Baptists. The first minister appointed, however, was a Congregationalist - Edward Warren.

1878 – 1907

Abbey Hill Church

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Two minute books of Church meetings for the dates 1878 to 1907 give some indication of the life of the fellowship. The minutes are very brief, mainly recording the new and leaving members with just an occasional hint of other aspects of church life.

The present church building was opened on 9th June 1873. The first minute, on the 16th January 1778, has the word ‘reconstruction’ in the margin and indicates that the purpose of the meeting was  ‘to re-form the church.’ (No indication is given as to why the church needs reforming.) There were 34 members on roll and 8 new members who had been regular worshippers were approved at the meeting.

The Pastor, the Rev. J. Hardwick Smith who had been appointed in November 1877, chaired the meeting. There was quite an influx of new members over the next few months which kept the pastor and deacons busy. (Deacons were the equivalent of the present Elders). Every new member was visited by two deacons who recommended to the church meeting whether they should be accepted or not. If they were already members of another church then a letter was written to that church requesting transfer of their membership. The applicant was not made into a member until the reply came. Membership was not to be held lightly. If the Lord’s Supper was not attended for one year the member’s name was removed from the roll.

There were other reasons for removing members. On Dec 29th 1880 the pastor reported that Mrs B had fallen into sin (theft) and action would have to be taken. He reported the following February that she had professed deep penitence for her sin but as she had not attended any services she was suspended. On 21st August it was reported that she had attended services and manifested a penitent spirit and she was restored to the privileges of church membership.

A less successful case was that of Mr S. On 2nd May 1883, it was reported that Mr S had fallen into the sin of intoxication on more than one occasion in the past few months and it was proposed that he be suspended from membership to allow further consideration of his case. On 30th May the spirit in which Mr S had received the resolution encouraged hope of restoration. Alas, By 12th January  he had fallen into the sin of intoxication again and was removed from the church roll.

This was a period when temperance movements were active and on 1st November 1882 it was reported to the meeting that many members were absent from the Lord’s Table due to their conscientious objection to the use of fermented wine. A Proposal was passed to investigate the use of unfermented wine. (We still use unfermented wine.)

On 28th February 1879 a resolution was passed thanking the Pastor for ‘ the exertions he has put forth in extinguishing a Debt of upwards of £520 which remained on the chapel when he accepted the pastorate in Nov. 1877’. (Equivalent to £26000 today)

Rev Hardwick Smith left, early in 1880, for Victoria Road, Cambridge. Rev John Naylor started in December 1880.

The chart shows how active the church was in its first few years before settling to a steady growth. There were 34 members in 1878 when the church re-formed. In 1885 there were 65 members living in Kenilworth this being the number of voting papers sent out for an election of deacons that year.

  1. Church without minister for most of year  b. Many people who had not attended for a year were removed from the roll.

It may be expected that with members worshipping in a super new building all would be sweetness and light. Yet on 28th July 1880, the following was minuted. ‘The meeting unanimously adopts a resolution passed by the chapel committee  the object of which was to bring certain old and valued friends to worship again with us.’ There is no indication of what was wrong. Obviously there was further trouble as in October 1883 three deacons resigned ‘so that others may be elected who we trust will be the means of building up the church and the cause of our Lord and Master at Abbey Hill, by these means we trust the work my be carried out more successfully in other hands is the desire of your servants in Christ Jesus our common Lord and Master.’  Two of the deacons moved to a Coventry church.

An election of deacons was put off for 6 months presumably to let things settle down. In July 1885 a note says that the resolution of July 1880 was not working so would be rescinded.   On 30th September 1885 the Pastor grumbled that the church meeting was not well attended so the election of deacons could not be held. It was proposed to have a tea meeting for the congregation to encourage them to come and a committee was set up to run it.  At the tea meeting it was decided to have a postal election and 65 forms were sent out to members living in Kenilworth. 57 were returned with 16 men being voted for. The top five received 48,42,30,24,22 votes respectively, the bottom four 1 each. Evidently only men were eligible to be elders and members could vote for any man without asking their permission. We know this because the two men with the highest vote immediately resigned from the office – no reason given and the one with the third highest vote resigned because he thought that he was too young. Their places were taken by the next in the list.

A Sunday School was in existence because on a church meeting approved the appointment of the Sunday School Superintendent chosen by the Sunday school staff. On 2nd November 1881 a special meeting of Seatholders was held. There is no indication who these were. They met to because the number of trustees of the Arlidges Charity had fallen to three and there should be ten under the terms of the will. The names of six men were put forward.

Some things do not change. On 28th December the pastor mentioned the small attendance at the church meeting and his worry that scarcely 2/3 of the membership attended the Lords Supper at any one time. He asked that they try to improve next year!

How did the pastor know how many attended communion?

On 29th December 1879 the church meeting agreed that communion cards would be used. Each member was given a supply and was supposed to put one in the plate when they took communion. They were still in use in 1887 because Mrs S had ‘declined to receive communion tickets this year stating that she now worshipped with the Plymouth Brethren’. Her name was removed from the roll.

Some other things have perhaps changed since then. How would we deal with this case?

 ‘Nov. 4th 1885 The Pastor brought before the meeting the case of Elizabeth A. He was reliably informed that she was married on Aug 3/85 and that she gave birth to a child on Oct 19/85. It was his painful duty to propose that her name be removed from the church roll. This on being put to the vote was carried.’

A few Statistics to the left from the minute book.

Between 1878 and 1887, 124 names appeared on the church roll, 39 men and 85 women. What jobs did they have?    Many women had no occupation shown.

Other occupations mentioned in the wedding and baptismal records, mainly of men from the surrounding towns, engineer, watch escapement maker, carpenter, coach maker, artist, postman, master baker, machinist, watch finisher, iron moulder, comb maker, letter carrier, Hay trusser, Traveller, forester.

Twenty funerals took place during the ten years, 6 males, 14 females.

Their ages were as follows: 16 were interred in St Nicholas Churchyard, 4 in Albion Chapel Churchyard. There were 71 baptisms during this time, 35 boys and 36 girls.

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1720 to 1920

Abbey Hill Church


The Story of the Buildings

The Buildings

There are two buildings on the Abbey Hill Church site. The front building is the Church and used for worship. The rear building was the original chapel. This is now known as the schoolrooms or halls and used for church activities and let for art, dance, exercise and other activities.


The opening of the Old Barn in June, 1787, was one of the great events in the Church's history. It was a beautiful site on the hill, with fields all round, but these early worshipers had no easy time. The whole village is said to have been greatly excited and filled with hatred against them.

Though the Old Barn was registered according to law, tumults frequently took place, and among many methods taken to disturb the worship and annoy the people, a wasps’ nest was procured and laid in the passage leading to the meeting. "

Often were the ministers insulted while they were preaching. Some of the disturbers were taken before the magistrates. Frequently was the door fastened outside to prevent the congregation from separating, tradesmen lost-their customers, servants their employment, and other petty acts of annoyance and persecution were adopted to hinder the progress of the Reformed Church.

A site of ground near to the Old Barn was procured, on which to erect a chapel. After meeting in an Old Barn to meeting in a properly constructed chapel was a great step. The foundation stone of this chapel (now used as the church halls) was laid by the Rev. John Sibree, of Coventry, on Tuesday 25th of November, 1828. On the 14th July, 1829, the chapel was publicly opened. This chapel had a gallery at the back, and provided sitting accommodation for about 300 persons.

The foundation stone of the present chapel was laid by, Mr. Alfred Keep, of Edgbaston, on 6th August 1872, and on Monday June 9th 1873, the opening services were held, when the sermon was preached by the Rev. A. Raleigh, D.D., of London. The seating accommodation in the new chapel was for nearly 500.


The First Chapel 1828  
“From meeting in an old barn to meeting in a properly constructed chapel was a great step”!

The foundation stone of this Chapel (now the halls
) was laid by the Revd John Sibree of Coventry in November 1828 and the Chapel publicly opened the following July.

Brick Found during renovations.

Arlidge Charity

A School in the Chapel 

Revd. John Button

Abraham Arlidge (died September 1717), a Kenilworth born carpenter who became prosperous as a property developer in London, made a will leaving the rentals of a farm in Lincolnshire to provide for the education of the children of Congregationalists in the Kenilworth. The Arlidge School was established by the Arlidge Charity on Rosemary Hill.

In 1833 Abbey Hill Chapel was altered by adding schoolrooms above and behind the chapel and the school moved to these new premises. The boys and girls had separate stairs and at times the minister was also the schoolmaster.


In 1838 a new minister, the Revd John Button, was appointed, and he was to stay for nearly 40 years during which time the Sunday School was started (142 children present at a school treat in 1847)  He also took great interest in the Arlidge School and for a time it was known to locals as the Button School. John Button died at Kenilworth in 1885 and was buried in the same grave as his wife in the Parish Churchyard. There is a tablet on the south wall inside Abbey Hill Church in memory of the Rev John Button paid for by members of the congregation and other friends and admirers.




'New Church' Alterations

With the opening of the new Church in 1873, there was room for the Arlidge Infant School (which had been held in a Warwick Road house since 1866) to move to the old Chapel. The school records make fascinating reading and the school flourished (120 children at one stage) but in 1887 it was closed, partly because of new Education Laws and partly because the Lincolnshire farmer went bankrupt. Some funds were saved and the Arlidge Charity still continues by providing educational grants to children of URC parents.


In 1894 the Choir Gallery was built at the southern end at a cost of £200 and the organ was moved to its present site.

After the Second World War, the old rails round the rostrum were removed and the rostrum extended and a new Communion Table and chairs were donated by members of the church and congregation.


The church was heated by a coal-fired boiler situated in a cellar under the vestry. This fed hot water to pipes running along the aisles. This was replaced in the 1960s' by overhead electric heaters, which warmed heads but not feet! In the 1970s' gas heaters were fitted.


Large iron stoves heated the schoolrooms. These were replaced in the 1960s' by gas fires and later by gas central heating.


In 1972 Abbey Hill became a United Reformed Church when Presbyterians and Congregationalists in England and Wales joined together. About this time the church roof was tiled and the pulpit reduced in height by about four feet and moved from a central position to the side. The small entrance porch was expanded to its present size.


While the Revd. Donald Horsfield was minister (1988 to 2006), there were extensive outbreaks of dry rot in the church and schoolrooms. After much discussion and prayer, a ‘Dare to Dream’ project was started to save the buildings at a cost of £200,000. In addition the forecourt was redesigned and new toilets and heating fitted in the schoolrooms.

In 2020 (during the Covid 19 lockdowns) the pews were removed from the church and relaced with chairs. In addition an accessible toilet and a kitchenette were added inside the church building.

1550 - 1970

The Story of Abbey Hill Church

Artist’s sketch about 1970 showing central pulpit and side rails

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