Oat Street Unitarian Chapel is one of Evesham’s most attractive dissenting meeting houses.
Its history can be traced back to 1696 when a congregation, of no set denomination, met in a barn in the High Street. They became known as Presbyterians about 20 years later and Unitarians shortly after.
At this time to question church dogma was an offence and when the chapel was built, in 1737, it was set back from the street, behind a row of small cottages, to avoid drawing attention to its unorthodox worship.
Since then the external appearance has remained virtually unchanged. In 1875 the interior was reconstructed; the box pews were cut down, the organ resited and the apse and vestry were added.
The school rooms were built in 1759 and enlarged in 1862 as children of dissenters were not allowed to attend Anglican schools. Earlier this century as many as 200 children attended Sunday School.
One of the Chapel’s most well-known members was the historian George May. He printed and sold books in Evesham, on the corner of Bridge Street (now WH Smiths) and wrote his History of Evesham in two editions – 1834 and 1847 – along with a Guide to the Birth Town of Shakespeare and a manual of prayers for use at sea.
Many generations of the New family (a family of considerable influence) were great supporters of the Chapel.
In 1820 John New bequeathed £100 to start a bread charity. Every Christmas morning for more than 120 years bread was distributed to the poor from the downstairs schoolrooms. A gallery was installed in the Chapel in his memory by his son Alderman Anthony New (removed in 1875) who also paid for the organ and a beautiful silver chalice and flagon which is now housed at the Almonry Museum.
Herbert New, President of the British and Foreign Unitarian Association, solicitor, historian and sonnet writer gave the land for the apse, vestry and graveyard. His sons, the famous book illustrator Edmund H New and local solicitors Oliver and Geoffrey New; Alderman of the Borough, Honorary Freeman and several times Mayor of Evesham all worshipped here – as many of the gravestones and memorials can testify.
William Smith, justice of the Peace for the county and Mayor of Evesham (and co-founder of the Evesham Journal), was Unitarian as was his son William Gill Smith. Electric lighting was installed in his memory.
In 1930 the Chapel fabric was strengthened and more recently the schoolrooms have been refurbished.
Our volunteer gardener cleared out rubbish from a room at the rear of what was a small cottage (adjacent to the gatehouse) and discovered an early Victorian wash house complete with iron range, water pump and a Dickensian copper boiler.
The ‘repose and mellowness’ of the Chapel, described by George May, is as tangible today as when he wrote his History of Evesham over 150 years ago.
Now he lies, in the garden, beneath one of the ‘lettered stones’ but the Chapel’s deep sense of peace and tranquillity remains timeless.