The History of St Stephen's Church
St Stephen’s Church, described by Nicholas Pevsner as “very pinnacled”, is one of the most prominent landmarks in the city of Bath. With financial disaster overshadowing the original building work it is something of a divine miracle that the beautiful church that exists today actually came into being.
The foundation stone
The foundation stone was laid on the chosen site on Beacon Hill, Lansdown on 7th September 1840 by the Reverend Dr Moyser. From 1817-1839 Dr Moyser had been Rector of the then extensive parish of Walcot, which swept around the city and its small outlying parish of St Michael to the north and west. During his incumbency four new parishes were planned within the Walcot Parish: Trinity; St Saviour’s; St Paul’s and St Stephen’s with the intention of meeting the needs of the growing population of the parish.On his retirement from Walcot, Dr Moyser asked that instead of receiving a personal tribute, any money collected should be devoted to the erection of St Stephen’s Chapel.
The original plan
The church was to consist of a plain rectangular building but this met with the disapproval of the then Bishop of Bath and Wells, the Rt Revd George Henry Law, who announced — after construction had started — that he would not consecrate the building because the altar would face north instead of east. The solution to this problem was found in the construction of the eastern transept, now called the Timothy Aisle, which would accommodate the altar. As a balance to this there was to be a western transept, which is now the Baptistry. These changes brought financial disaster as the building costs soared from the planned £2,000 to around £7,500. Building work continued but money failed to come in.
The church could not be consecrated while there were still outstanding debts to be paid but, under pressure, the current Rector of Walcot, the Reverend Sydney Widdrington, applied for a license. Apparently against his better judgement the Archdeacon, who was standing in for the ailing and semi-retired Bishop, decided to grant the license and St Stephen’s was opened for worship on 2nd April 1845.
The church was a plain rectangle with two transepts but with none of the decoration we see today — no oak pews and little stained glass.
Debts paid off
Ten years after the consecration the debts had still not been cleared and Rev Widdrington wrote to his parishioners, “I have discovered the great difficulty of paying off a debt when the church is in full operation.” By 1863 the debts had finally been paid off and Rev Widdrington retired. From then until 1880 St Stephen’s was in the charge of a number of Curates of the parish.
A new aisle for girls
In 1866 a separate aisle was built to accommodate the girls from the Royal School for daughters of the Officers of the Army, which had opened in 1885 just up the hill. Up to 150 girls sat crammed into this small space, facing into the main aisle of the church.
A new parish is formed
In 1880 permission was sought to create a new parish of St Stephen and to separate it from Walcot. On 15th September 1880 St Stephen’s Church was at last consecrated by Bishop Lord Hervey of Bath and Wells and from 29th November the Reverend Hilton Bothamley became the first Vicar of the new parish and later (additionally) Archdeacon of Bath.
A new chancel
Soon after the consecration, plans were drawn up for a new chancel with a vestry on one side and an organ on the other. The foundation stone was laid in July 1882 and the chancel was consecrated in March 1883. In 1886 and 1887 the walls and roof beams received their painted decorations and the interior of the church took on much of the appearance we see today.
World Wars I & II
After the Great War the Royal School aisle was converted into a side-chapel in memory of those who had died. During the Second World War, bombs nearby caused minor damage but the church remained relatively untouched.
In 1966 the gallery at the back of the church was enlarged and the narthex, now known as “The Foyer”, was constructed to provide an on-site meeting room and a space for children to use during the service. In 1978, during the course of redecoration, pews were removed at the front and back of the church to allow greater space for movement and to make the building more suitable for a greater variety of worship. The Foyer was extensively refurbished in 1996.
St Stephen’s Church Centre
The Parish Hall was originally adjacent to the church’s school and some distance from the church. It was transferred to St Stephen’s School in the 1960s.
In 1991 the decision was taken to reach out and provide a space close to the church that could be used for both church and outside events. Various schemes were considered and it was decided to convert the crypt, built to accommodate funerals but never used for this purpose.In June 1994 St Stephen’s Church Centre was opened and was dedicated by Bishop Jim Thompson of Bath and Wells on 6th November 1994. The space now houses a kitchen, toilets, the church office, storage areas and a large room which is used for many church and community functions