After the dissolution of the priory of Nuneaton, Henry VIII, on 24 May 1540, made a grant of Nuneaton and its associated manors, to Sir Marmaduke Constable of London. The grant included ‘the house and site, the church, steeple and churchyard’. Sir Marmaduke created a home on the site using the priory buildings. The land passed through various families, the living accommodation eventually disappearing and the land becoming pasture with some ruins of the church remaining. The land was bought by the Tomkinson family in 1765 from Henry Paget, Earl of Uxbridge, for £19,000.
The town of Nuneaton grew rapidly in the 1800s especially with the coming of the railways to the town and the greater exploitation of the areas mineral resources. The population of the parish of Nuneaton soon became too large to be accommodated in the parish church of St Nicolas and daughter churches were needed. New parishes were created in Attleborough (1842) and Stockingford (1843). It should be noted that Chilvers Coton has always been a separate parish. The 1851 census records a population of 5,000 plus. The western end of town was growing, a new National school had been built on Abbey Green in 1847 and there were many cottages around the area. The growing importance of the railways to the town is shown when the Trent Valley station was opened in 1847 and this was followed by the cross country link, with a station on Midland Road, called Abbey Street station in 1864. The railway lines were an important part of the area that was to become the Abbey parish.
The idea of rebuilding a church on the former priory site was given a boost when local businessman Thomas Bottrill died in June 1869. In his will he left £400 towards the building of a new church and £2,500 for its endowment. He also provided an annual sum of £25 to pay for the stipend of a curate to take services in the National school while the work was being done. He further stipulated that the church must be rebuilt within ten years of his death or the monies would be lost.
The new Vicar of Nuneaton, the Reverend Henry Walford Bellairs, who arrived in the town in 1872, chaired a committee to begin the building work. The first hurdle to be overcome was the acquisition of the site. Mr James Tomkinson MP was approached and he and his family gave 1½ acres of land which included the ruins of the original priory church and gave enough land to provide a carriage way from Abbey Street (now Manor Court Road) and a footpath from the meadow (now the recreation ground). An extract from Nuneation Parish Magazine for June 1874 from Fr Bellairs to parishioners is reprinted here.
As per Mr Bottrill’s will, the school on Abbey Green was licensed for public worship by the Bishop of Worcester and services were held which were well attended. The Sunday School register begun on 25 October 1874 also reflects a thriving school, with an average of ten pupils in each class, meeting each Sunday morning and afternoon. The superintendent was a Mr A Raynor and the teachers listed for 1874/5 were T. Williamson, L. Grove, M. Grove, Ph. Grove, Miss Nason, E. Vernon, and S.A. Healing. By 1876 there were thirteen teachers listed: T. Williamson, who left in April 1876, S.A. Healing, E. Vernon, Ph. Grove, Miss Nason, Miss E. Nason, Mary Taylor, Emma Stone, Ann Vernon, Miss Willcox, Miss Lambert, Mr Noble, Mr Sands, and H. Reader. The last year recorded by Mr Raynor is 1877 and the teachers were then Miss Nason – class1 girls, M Ensor – class 2 girls, S.A. Healing – class 3 girls, Phoebe Grove, who left in December 1877, L.E. Sands – class 4 girls, Miss Cooper, E. Vernon – class 1 boys, E. Stone – class 2 boys, W. Noble – class 4 boys, S. Torbett, Ned Smith, and Mr Neal, who all left October 1877, C. Leese, and
E. Bostock. It is clear that a viable congregation was growing up in what would become the Abbey parish.
Fundraising in the town enabled Mr Clapton Rolfe of Reading and Birmingham to be engaged as architect for the project and plans were drawn up for the first stage of the project. The plan was to rebuild the nave area large enough to hold around 300 people, but this was to be done in such a way that extensions could be made in the future as funds and demand permitted. The four pillars which remained from the original building were to be incorporated into the new building so that they would be preserved. The initial costs were estimated to be £2,500 of which £1,800 had been raised when the foundation stone was laid on Wednesday 26 April 1876. As the site was being cleared and excavated the local paper The Times reported on Saturday 22 April 1876 that interesting discoveries had been made including a stone coffin containing human bodies. Along it were two stone coffin lids of one bearing a Maltese Cross and the other a Latin Cross (both of which can be seen in the church). Some tessellated pavement has been laid bare as well as some encaustic tiles sculpture stone etc.
Both local papers of the time The Times and The Nuneaton Chronicle record the laying of the foundation stone as it coincided with a meeting of the Provincial Grand Lodge of Warwickshire Freemasons in the town. The Freemasons processed through the town from the Town Hall to the church site in their regalia. The stone was laid by Lord Leigh, Lord Lieutenant and Provincial Grand Master of the Abbey Lodge. The mallet used was that used by King Charles II when laying the foundation stone of St Paul’s Cathedral in 1675. The mallet had been given to Sir Christopher Wren, who in turn had given it to The Lodge of Antiquity No 2 London on his death. The trowel used was an ‘Earl of Zetland’ trowel and was supplied by Mr Lambert of Coventry Street, London. It was solid silver with a chased ivory handle and was inscribed ‘Presented to the Right Hon Lord Leigh Right worshipful Grandmaster for Warwickshire on the occasion of laying the foundation stone of St Mary’s Abbey Church Nuneaton 26 April 1876.’ The Chronicle reports ‘ A tin containing a number of coins of the present reign ( a sovereign, ½ sovereign, half a crown, a florin, a shilling, a sixpenny piece, a three penny piece, a penny, a half penny and a farthing) prayer book, copies of the Church Times, The Standard and the Nuneaton Chronicle was buried.’
The Building Committee was made up of the Revd H W Bellairs, Vicar of Nuneaton – Chairman; Mr F H J Kay; Mr John Knowles; Mr R B Nason, Mr W S Hall; Captain Townshend; James Tomkinson, J F Johnson; J S Bourne; H C Shawe; R W Swinnerton; T Bland – Hon Secretary and Solicitor; Clapton Rolfe – architect.
There is also mentioned in the Chronicle that there was a Ladies Committee who were raising funds for a Vicarage. No names are given for this group.
Over the next eighteen months, following the laying of the foundation stone, fund raising continued. Mr Thomas Smith, a builder of Chilvers Coton, was employed to carry out the building of the first phase as planned by Mr Rolfe. By the consecration a sum of £3,250 had been raised leaving a shortfall of £350 on the costs. Some £500 had been raised towards the vicarage.
On Monday 8th October 1877 the Bishop of Worcester consecrated the new building. There was a public luncheon held at The Newdegate Arms Hotel, which the local papers reported, following the service, with the Bishop as guest of honour. There was another service in the evening.
First Vicar – the Revd James Dunne Parker. 1877 – 1883
The Nuneaton Chronicle reported on Rev Parker’s appointment on 13 October 1877. ‘We are glad to be able to announce that the new vicarage – for such we believe it will be – has been offered to and accepted by the Revd. James Dunne Parker, Vicar of Hawes, Yorkshire, a clergyman well known in that diocese for great earnestness in his profession and general interest in the Church and Schoolwork. He was for four years curate of All Saints, Newcastle, with a population of 20,000 and afterwards for three years Vicar of Bowes, Yorkshire, from which place he was promoted to the Vicarage he now holds, where he has been for seven years. He is a surrogate in his diocese and Chairman of the School Board, and in his neighbourhood he is looked upon as a sound churchman, but with no extreme views. He will probably take up his residence amongst us within a few weeks’.
The vicarage was not completed until 1886 and Fr Parker and his family lived at Midland House on Midland Road.
The Preaching Book completed by Rev Parker gives the following information about his years as Vicar.
Church consecrated by Bishop of Worcester Monday 8 October 1877
Parish founded by order of the Queen in Council on Wednesday 14 August 1878
First vicar was licensed by the Bishop of Worcester on Friday 6 September 1878, he was Rev James Dunne Parker and he remained vicar until 23 September 1883.
In the Preaching Record Book for his incumbency the following events / people are noted along with details of collections, services, communicants and preachers at each service.
Fr Parker took his first service on 22 September 1878 and the collection was 17s 11d.
18 December 1878 the Revd G T Hayward was licensed as Curate, he left on 13 April 1879.
9 February 1879 Mr F J Liddle is recorded as playing the new harmonium.
The first confirmation recorded is on 16 May 1879 when there were 30 candidates.
August 31 1879 a new organ is installed and first played on 21 September 1879.
21 September 1879 the Revd. P W Lund is licensed as Curate, he was ordained Priest on 19 December 1880 and left on 4 December 1881.
There were 45 communicants at the Easter service in 1880.
18 December 1881 the Revd. Justice Norris becomes curate. He left on 19 November 1882.
24 December 1882 the Revd. John Cambridge Arthy becomes curate and he left on 29 July 1883.
Second Vicar – the Revd. Charles de Havilland. 1883 – 1897
He came to Nuneaton in October 1883 and remained vicar until 1897.
He and his family lived initially at Midland House, Midland Road and then in 1886 they moved into the newly completed vicarage next to the church.
The Abbey Archive has one record in Fr de Havilland’s own hand, which is a list of the Sunday School teachers and scholars in October 1883.
The Teachers listed in 1883 are:-
The Revd. Charles de Havilland, Miss Bostock, Miss Petty, Miss Neale, Miss Mills, Miss Allcock, Miss Daffern, Miss Sands, Miss Ensor, Miss Payne, Miss Pullin, Miss Thompson, and Mr Moreton.
Interior prior to 1903 The Old Vicarage
The Abbey School
(and Headmaster's House on right)