History

Inside the Meeting House The Old Meeting House is the oldest Nonconformist building in Tenterden and is thought to date from about 1700. There was extensive rebuilding in 1746, when it seems that 10ft were added to the front, the end near the road. In 1746 the property was conveyed to 17 trustees for five shillings by William Blackmore, a member of one of the leading clothmaking turned land-owning families of the previous century, himself a leading member of the church.

The inspiration for its foundation came in 1662, when after the Restoration of Charles II, George Hawe, the Puritan vicar of Tenterden, was ejected from his living, along with 80 other Kentish ministers who refused to assent to the Act of Uniformity or to renounce the Solemn League and Covenant. Hawe had many local sympathisers who were no longer content to worship at the Parish Church after the episcopacy had been restored. They probably began to meet clandestinely soon after the Restoration and included many leading and affluent citizens of the town.

The new church was called Presbyterian, because it was governed according to the Presbyterian model, that is, by Elders elected by the members. During the next century, under the influence of the minister, Laurence Holden, who served for over 70 years (1774-1844), the congregation, like many English Presbyterian churches at that time, responded vigorously to the intellectual stirrings of the Enlightenment, when the liberating possibilities of rational and scientific knowledge began to affect some religious thinking.

Some time after the Unitarian Relief Act of 1813, when there were no longer legal penalties for denying the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the term "Unitarian" was added to the label "Presbyterian". Later the term "Presbyterian" fell into disuse, but the church is still governed by trustees and a committee, and is now affiliated to the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, an association of congregations holding or tolerant of unorthodox religious views.

A painting by David Embry Although the building looks plain, even severe, from the outside, the timber-framed interior is of considerable architectural interest. The painting on the wall by David Embry depicts the visit of Benjamin Franklin, one of the stalwarts of the American Declaration of Independence, who in 1774 is believed to have visited the Meeting House with his friend Joseph Priestley, the celebrated Unitarian minister and scientist who discovered the existence of oxygen as a constituent of the air. (Priestley was later obliged to flee to America because of his radical views.) If you get near enough to the painting you can read what is written on the hymn-book in the picture. The famous visit is commemorated by a plaque on the front of the church donated by the Tenterden Trust.

The clock (possibly 1740c) fixed to the gallery, was made by a Cranbrook Presbyterian. The rails surrounding the pulpit were erected in 1845 to provide "greater convenience in performing the marriage ceremony". This necessitated the removal of the "table pew" under the pulpit. The present pews were installed in the latter half of the last century. Three Chippendale chairs, which had long been in the possession of the meeting-house, were stolen, along with part of the communion set, in January 1991. At one time the church owned two seventeenth century silver communion cups, but these were sold in 1974 because of the problem of security.

The congregation has provided eleven mayors of Tenterden: Robert Stace, Isaac Clokee, William Curteis, William Lott, John Johnson, Thomas Shoobridge, William Grisbrook, John Ellis Mace, Joseph Munn, Edgar Winser, Walter Walsh (minister 1930-48). The unusual organ was installed as a second-hand instrument in 1847. Behind the Meeting House there is the burial ground, including vaults for the more prestigious, although interments have not taken place there for about thirty years.

A Sunday School, initially held in the meeting house, was founded in October 1820. The Unitarians, together with other Nonconformists, established a School in Ashford Road under the auspices of the British & Foreign Schools Society.

In 1847 members founded the local Mutual Improvement Society, which met on the premises. It continued to benefit the community throughout the century, providing lectures on science and the arts, musical recitals, encouraging the study of social and political problems, and the development of debating skills. A small library was opened on the premises and a selection of periodicals was offered for the use of members. In 1851, benefiting from the completion of the railway from Ashford to London, members made a day trip to London to visit the Great Exhibition. About this time the younger members formed the first cricket team in Tenterden, from which sprang the Tenterden Cricket Club.

The church has several links with Dame Ellen Terry, the famous actress. Harold Rylett (minister, 1904-1929), was a close friend and was appointed a pall bearer at her funeral and his successor, Walter Walsh, delivered the address. A member of the congregation and a talented artist, Miss Margaret Winser, made the death mask and the plaster bust of Ellen Terry which are at the Ellen Terry Museum, Smallhythe.

Harold Rylett, by training a journalist, was a friend of W. Stanley Jevons, the economist, and of Joseph Arch, founder of the National Union of Agricultural Workers. John Rowland (Minister, 1965-73) was editor of the Unitarian and previously an officer of the World Congress of Faiths (1961-65). He was succeeded in 1973 by Stanley Butler, a greatly loved figure in the town and denomination. Upon his retirement in 1982, his successor, Brian Packer, became also the minister of the (larger) congregation of the Unitarian Church in Hastings, to which area he eventually moved. We are indebted to him for some of the historical material in the account.