Late last year Wiltshire Buildings Record was asked to look at Westbury Leigh Baptist Chapel. Now lying empty, this was the first of two Baptist chapels to be established in Westbury Leigh, an ancient village now within the town boundaries of Westbury. As there was no Anglican church until 1880, the Baptist church was the established church in the village, having a strong nonconformist tradition encouraged by the Baptist stronghold in Southwick.
Stephen Self, a clothier, allowed the use of a barn, called ‘Self’s Barn’ near his dwelling house in Leigh as a meeting place for Baptists after 1693. According to William Doel in his book, ‘Twenty Golden Candlesticks!’ they continued to worship until 1714, when Mr Self converted the barn into a chapel, fitting it up with seats, galleries & c. This barn stood on part of the site of the present chapel, the freehold of which belonged to Granville Wheeler Esq.
By 1796 the congregation had so increased as to make it necessary to build a new Chapel. A meeting was held and a resolution passed to undertake the work, which was carried out at a total cost of £1,361. The new chapel was able to accommodate five hundred people, which gives an idea of the many devout souls in Westbury Leigh alone, not counting those in the main town of Westbury!
The interior was equally impressive, with ranks of dark wood pews on the ground and first floor gallery, with a grand organ and pipes over the entrance. In front of the raised minister’s desk was in effect, a small swimming pool designed for total immersion baptisms – I only hope the water was warm! Each pew had a small metal bracket which puzzled me until one of our recording team informed me that the congregation would all swig back a small glass of wine at the same time at a certain point in the proceedings.
In all this faded grandeur was a very human touch – a pew-back covered in the graffiti of small boys whose duty was to pump the organ handle until the introduction of electricity for this purpose in 1956.
Principal Buildings Historian, Wiltshire Buildings Record