Workers restoring a Grade I-listed, 18th-century church have unearthed a 90-year-old time capsule in the process. The box was discovered at Whitfield Tabernacle, and is thought to have been hidden there during the 1930s.
The historical treasure trove contained pages from the Western Daily Press, dated 1913, detailing the unveiling of a plaque in remembrance of George Whitfield. The time capsule was hidden within the church walls by its then caretaker.
Whitfield Tabernacle was built in 1741 for the congregation of Whitfield, an evangelist preacher who split from the new fledgling Methodist movement of John Wesley during the mid-18th century.
It has lain disused and derelict since the 1980s, exposed to the elements since an arson attack following its abandonment. But the building now has a roof, doors and windows thanks to a joint project by South Gloucestershire Council with the Tabernacle Trust and Ferguson Mann Architects.
The local authority celebrated this “significant milestone” on the road to restoring Whitfield Tabernacle to community use. Works are expected to be complete by the end 2023, with plans for a community and performing arts space for residents of Kingswood and the surrounding area.
Cllr Toby Savage, leader of South Gloucestershire Council, recently visited the site to see how the project was progressing. “It is fantastic to see how work to restore the Tabernacle is beginning to take shape,” he said.
“It is immensely satisfying after the years of hard work it has taken to get to this stage. I am thrilled to see it being revitalised and being put back into public use as a community building and performing arts space.”
As well as founding the Calvinistic Methodist Association, Whitfield was famous for preaching local sermons in the open air, often in a field with a barrel for a pulpit. Kingswood then had a reputation for lawlessness and godlessness, which Whitfield and his fellow non-conformists hoped to rectify.
But the pastor was banned from preaching in Anglican churches due to his controversial opinions and theatrical methods. He was also a plantation owner and advocate for slavery – his contemporary Wesley denounced slave ownership as “the sum of all villainies”, while Anglican vicars were also abolitionists.
Cllr Savage added: “The building has international significance in terms of its associated history with the non-conformist movement, so it is important we restore and protect it for the benefit of the local community, and for future generations.
“This is an exciting time for Kingswood, with plans for the High Street taking shape and our purchase of the Kings Chase shopping centre set to unlock opportunities for investment into leisure, retail, residential and other significant developments in the area.”
Whitfield Tabernacle Trust is an organisation made up of Kingswood residents and local councillors, who acquired the building during 2019 in hopes of saving it for future generations.
Kim Scudamore, the group’s secretary, said: “The last time some of our trustees had been inside the building, there was no roof. We had to carefully pick our way over rotten floorboards and try to avoid the trees and vegetation that had taken over the space in the years that the building lay abandoned.
“To see the restored pillars, new roof, windows, and security doors gave us a glimpse of what the restored space will look like when the full development is achieved next year.”
The stabilisation work has been funded by the West of England Combined Authority through its Love our High Streets project, plus Historic England. Restoring Whitfield Tabernacle is part of South Gloucestershire Councils’ plans to renovate Kingswood and raise ambitions locally – see the Kingswood Masterplan website for more information.