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Jervis Stent and the URC

Malmesbury’s architectural heritage is so dominated by its Abbey that we tend to overlook other buildings of merit.

One such is the United Reformed (formerly Congregational) Church in Westport, which sits comfortably and politely on a rather cramped site between St Mary’s Street and West Street, its jolly steeple providing a counterpoint to St Paul’s on Malmesbury’s notable skyline.

Non-conformist worship in Westport began in 1662 and by the mid 1860s, the congregation had outgrown its chapel and a new church and schoolroom was commissioned. The main financier was Charles Jupe, a Silk Throwster from Mere who, two decades later was to purchase the Silk Mills. The Architect was William Jervis Stent of Warminster (1815-1887).

Stent was very much the Architect-of-choice for non-conformists in Wiltshire and adjacent counties. It must be said, however, that few of his buildings are particularly beautiful; the architectural guru, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, is particularly scathing! But on the plus side, they were clearly fit-for-purpose so that many are well loved and used by their communities to this day, not least Malmesbury’s United Reformed Church.

In addition to churches, Stent’s public buildings are well represented in his home town of Warminster where perhaps the most important is the Athenaeum of 1858, nowadays a community arts centre and theatre.

He also designed at least two groups of social housing: Warren’s Almshouses in Warminster and Prospect Square in neighbouring Westbury. The latter was commissioned by businessman, philanthropist and Parliamentary candidate Abraham Laverton to house workers made homeless by his business and political rivals, the Phipps brothers. This scandalous incident contributed to the introduction of secret ballots for Parliamentary elections!

No such dramatic events surrounded Westbury Congregational Church which was duly certified and registered for religious worship and solemnisation of marriages on 13th November, 1867. In 1972 it merged with the Presbyterians to become the United Reformed Church.

Stent died on 14th Feb 1887 and is buried in the Boreham Road cemetery of Warminster. His (brief) obituary records him not as an architect but as having been for over 49 years, Superintendent of the Common Close Sunday School. He was a man of conscience, reflected in his choice of building commissions and Malmesbury is happy to have one of his best works.