In 1855 it was thought that Highbridge would become a commercial centre for Mid-Somerset, and for the staple trade of the district that it must develop in importance and population. Highbridge had no church and was too far from Burnham to admit of the mother church being available, or, (looking to the future), supplying adequate accommodation for residents of Highbridge. Reasons such as these induced Mary Ann Ruscombe Poole to offer to build a church and parsonage here, for a new Ecclesiastical District, soon to become a separate parish.
The Foundress laid the foundation stone on October 29th 1856; the Bishop of the Diocese (Lord Auckland) performed the religious ceremony; a large body of clergy and laity were present; and subsequently a public luncheon was held at the “Railway Hotel”.
The work must have gone forward somewhat slowly, for it was not completed till late in the year of 1858. The Church of St John the Evangelist together with the parsonage was completed at a cost of £4,840.
It was of stone in the early English style consisting of a tower with tiles octagonal spire, containing five bells; the pulpit (now removed) and the font were of Bath stone. The choir stalls, now removed were of carved oak and the church held approximately 450 people. Miss Poole had by now married Mr Henry Acland Fownes Luttrell, who became a willing co-operator in her good works. Mrs Luttrell’s gift to Highbridge was completed only with the building of the parsonage, which went on simultaneously with the completion of the church and was ready for occupation in November 1859.
The first incumbent, the Reverend J.H. Macaulay was appointed and remained in office until 1871. The Day of Consecration – June 20th 1859 – had long been awaited, and in a hearty simple way was much welcomed in Highbridge. Very shortly after the Consecration of the Church an “Order in Council” was published, legally defining the Boundaries of the new Ecclesiastical District. Unfortunately the southern boundary was still kept to the old bed of the River Brue and is so to this day although this is now dry land. The “island” containing Clyce Road and the building beyond “Canal House” are in the neighbouring parish of Huntspill. This now causes some confusion, as the parish extends to Alstone Road.
Church workers did not exist in those days and although it was ready for worship on the 21st June this beautiful little church did not have any churchwardens, bellringers, verger, organist or choir. Friends of the Foundress supplied him with an organist and singers for “The First Sunday”. After two years (i.e. 1861) Reverend Macauley’s wife arrived to share the Parsonage with him and became organist and choirmaster. A creditable band of singers, men and boys had been assembled and became the choir; they were soon put into surplices and were promoted to the Choral song on High Festivals and sometimes to an Anthem.
Mission Services for part of the parish more remote from the Parish Church – at Watchfield – he established a kind of Mission Service at one of the farmhouses. Nearer the church, the same kind of thing was done in New Town, then growing rapidly in population. School Work, there was no Day School and therefore no room in which to hold a Sunday School that is until 1863. Education then made rapid strides but there were not many parishioners in Highbridge who would have learned to read and write, had there not been fifty years earlier, a “village school” where, painstaking and useful work had not been done by the first Mistress, Miss Charlotte Coombes. Social Work comprised Social Gatherings in the schoolroom almost weekly during the winter, they called them penny readings, and there were musical pieces, songs, recitals and readings. They drew an audience that filled the room and afforded an opportunity for cheerful re-union of parishioners.
The parish was beginning to grow and new houses cropped up around us, so that the church was found to be inconveniently small. Visitors too, from Burnham, used to come over early and our own parishioners frequently could not find room, consequently, on Sunday evenings we closed the church doors up to a quarter of an hour before the service.” It was therefore proposed that the church should be enlarged, by the addition of another aisle, which meant the completing of the original plan. The proposal was readily taken up at a public meeting in 1882, and before the meeting broke up, over £350 was promised. The aisle was built, paid for and opened before the following Easter, at a cost of rather over £1000, which was raised in quite small sums, £20 being the largest donation and there were very few people in Highbridge who did not give something. No sooner had this been finished than the parish had to face the problem of enlarging the school.
The death of the foundress Mrs Mary Ann Ruscombe Fownes-Lutterell was recorded on 8th March 1908.
The Renovation of the Church
(Extracts from the Parish Magazine of February 1904)
The front pew on either side of the nave needs to be bodily removed. This would have the advantage of opening up and giving greater dignity to the chancel, and of removing the choked up appearance, which it now presents. Our present font is unworthy of its high purpose and in such a position that the priest cannot administer Holy Baptism in the proper place. A fund was therefore started to make for these various improvements but they were about to have a great disappointment and a far more serious problem to face than the inconvenience of a small and unworthy sanctuary.
Ominous cracks began to appear in the fabric and it was soon apparent that the steeple was leaning outwards and the whole structure sinking and being dragged with it. The steeple had to be removed in 1911, but work was done to the fabric in that year and on later occasions, which made it a perfectly safe structure.
The Rev’d C.J. Heughan became incumbent in 1919 and remained until 1952.
The Rev’d Harold Saxby who had moved to Highbridge in 1953, left to go to Jarrow in 1960. During this period in years 1955 –59 renovations were made to the church.
The Rev’d Harold Saxby was succeeded by the Rev’d Herbert John Sutters who moved into the Vicarage on 24th July 1961. In 1973 the Rev’d John Sutters exchanged livings with the Rev’d Norman Wells who was licensed and inducted on the 7th June 1973. During his tenure of approximately eleven years, a period of which he was the Rural Dean, the Vicarage was considered to be too large and costly to heat, and it became a Diocesan policy to replace such buildings. In 1984 some months before the Rev’d Wells retired, the new Vicarage was completed (built in the grounds of the old Vicarage) and he moved into this residence.
The Rev’d Christopher Gerald Chiplin followed Norman Wells and moved into the new Vicarage in 1984, with his wife Diane. In his first year the Quinquennial Inspection of the Church was held and revealed some considerable wear and tear. This led to the Church being re-ordered and it was closed for services following evensong on the Feast of Epiphany, January 1987 until Palm Sunday of that year. Services were held in the Church Hall, whilst the work was carried out. Fortunately the Church was the beneficiary of the will of Mrs. Agnes Knapp and this bequest funded the Re-ordering. To commemorate this, a Statue was commissioned and Mr. Tom Preator of Taunton carved a figure of the Virgin Mary holding Jesus as a toddler, in lime wood, it stands in position in the South Aisle. Also new Stations of the Cross were installed.
During his time as Vicar of Highbridge the Rev’d Chiplin served a period as Chairman of Churches Together and helped to form a committee from which “Riverbed House”, a house for the homeless was built in Highbridge. Rev’d Chiplin left Highbridge in June 1994 to be Vicar of Midsomer Norton near Bath, and on the 3rd February 1995 the Rev’d Mark Francis Wilson Bond was licensed and inducted. Mark Bond was known for his work in the Community, he was a very popular man in this respect. He represented the town as a councillor on Burnham-on-Sea and Highbridge Town Council. Also he served a period as Chairman of Churches Together, when the Credit Union was first muted, this is now working satisfactorily at the Hope Baptist Church. During Rev’d Mark Bond’s ministry in Highbridge a “Frank Foley Day” was instigated and the Inaugural service was held in St John’s Church, attended by Michael Smith the author of ‘Foley-The Spy who Saved 10,000 Jews” and members of the Jewish community who were involved.In 1998 Rev’d Mark Bond was asked to train a curate and Steven John Harptree joined the ministerial team and was subsequently ordained Deacon and the Priest. This period was a very rewarding time for the Church. In July, 2002 Mark was appointed Rector of St. Brelades, Channel Isles and the Church was again in an interregnum. During this time Steven Harptree worked hard in keeping the Church together and as a non-stipendiary priest for a twelve-month period until July 2003 he remained until 27th August 2003 when he was licensed to be Priest –in-Charge of Tintinhull with Chilthorne Domer, Yeovil Marsh and Thorne Coffin. On July 11th 2003 the Rev’d Robin Lodge was licensed and inducted.
This history of the church contains excerpts from the Centenary booklet 1859—1959 and excerpts provided by. Joyce Dunbavan covering the time from 1959 until 2003. .