The New Church
In July 1836 a group of nonconformist worshippers who called themselves Congregationalists opened a new chapel set amongst green meadows near the banks of the river Leam. The architect of this elegant building was Mr John Russell himself a member of the congregation. The chapel was the third nonconformist place of worship to be built in Leamington and it provided accommodation for over twelve hundred worshippers. Beneath the church was a large schoolroom and catacombs for burials. Over fifteen hundred people were present at the opening service and many hundreds were turned away.
The Day School
For much of the nineteenth century schooling for Leamington’s poor children was provided only by the local churches. A school for boys was opened in the basement of the Spencer Street chapel in 1840 within a few years of its opening. It was one of only a handful of Congregational schools in England. A new two-storey classroom block was built in 1866 to the north of the burial ground and girls and infants were then admitted for the first time. Having opened with 70 boys on the roll, forty years later the school had 240 boys, 100 girls and 50 infants on the roll and was the fourth largest school in the town by 1881. The day school closed in July 1884 when a School Board was set up in Leamington.
The Sunday School
Sunday Schools were popular from the mid-eighteenth century mainly because no other education of any sort was available for most poor children.Local nonconformists recruiting pupils for their Sunday Schools were met with many requests by parents for ‘cheap’ day schools for their frequently large families. The Spencer Street Sunday Schools were reportedly the best patronised in Leamington. In 1886 they were said to be ‘crowded out’ with children and by 1890 there were 707 children on the books and 60 teachers.
Dudley, an early nineteenth century local historian present at the opening of the chapel in 1836 described the interior as having ‘an exceedingly chaste and elegant appearance’ and being ‘lofty and well proportioned’. The early congregations also seem to have been of ‘elegant appearance’. The Revd. Alfred Pope the church’s first minister is said to have attracted unusually aristocratic congregations including Earls, Peers and Baronets and the Irish-born playwright and actor James Sheridan Knowles.
A New Beginning
The serious decline in church attendance nationally in recent years led to many of Leamington’s churches and chapels being closed for worship and adapted for other uses. In the 1980’s the Spencer Street chapel was forced to close due to a dwindling congregation. They joined with their former Methodist colleagues of the United Reformed Church in Radford Road. The ‘chaste and elegant’ building then saw use as a retail carpet warehouse and as the home for a contemporary dance group. After being empty and rather neglected, the chapel is now owned by Warwick District Council. It forms the centre piece of a newly developed cultural quarter and it is planned to convert the chapel into a theatre.