Reverend Robert Sloper
The first Pastor of the Congregational Church (St. Mary’s) Northgate Street Devizes. The photo below is of a ca 1800 oil painting in the Witlshire Heritage Museum.(Courtesy Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society)
Robert Sloper was born in Devizes in 1756. He was the son of Benjamin and Mary (nee Paps) Sloper. His father Benjamin was a rope maker in Devizes and the brother of George Sloper, master baker, miller, diarist and three times Mayor of Devizes. George Sloper was unmarried and continued his father’s baking business in Sheep Street. He was especially close to “Bro Ben” and his son Robert.
From 1763 a group of churchmen in the town were receiving teaching from Richard Baddeley, rector of Hilperton, andother clergymen in the area. In 1771 they were taught by Rowland Hill, who came to Devizestwice. Rowland Hill was the 6th son of a Shropshire baronet, Eton and Cambridge educated and an itinerant Calvinist / Methodist preacher who achieved massive national fame. In 1771/2 these Devizes men and probably women came together as a congregation and certified a meeting house. Robert Sloper was certainly part of these meetings as he was a Trustee when the official document establishing the Church was drawn up in 1777. In 1776 the nucleus of a chapel was built in Northgate Street and called St. Mary's Chapel as it was in St. Mary's parish. It was assigned to Calvinist Methodist worship but could have a minister of any denomination. In the late 18th century they became Congregationalists.
Robert Sloper qualified as a Methodist Minister in 1777, aged only 21, and in 1780 he was ordained and the Reverend Sloper. In the 18th and early 19th century Congregationalism was generally seen as more socially acceptable than the Wesley Evangelism that ‘noisily’ attracted the working class to Methodism. The Northgate Chapel certainly attracted the middle class and wealthy dissenters in Devizes. However Robert’s, Uncle George Sloper whilst he did not disapprove of his nephew’s dissenting views, still attended St Marys Church (conventional C of E) where he was a church warden for 4 years.
The Reverend Robert Sloper married Martha Savage of Marlborough (1748-1784) in about 1780; she was some 8 years his senior. They had a son Samuel Sloper who died young and Mary was born in 1783. Mary married Valentine Leach in 1804 – he was the builder of the modern DevizesCastlein 1806. Valentine was buried in the Churchyard in 1842. Martha died in 1784 possibly in childbirth.
On April 28th, 1789, Robert married Sarah Ridgeway in Basingstoke; Sarah was born in 1757. It is interesting to speculate on how they met. Presumably it was at a Church meeting in the Basingstoke area when Robert was travelling on Congregational business. They had two sons and twin daughters;
The Reverend Robert Sloper was to become a distinguished Congregationalist and he was associated with members of the Countess of Huntingdon’s connection. The Countess funded or supported the foundation of some 75 dissenting chapels throughout the country. Twelve names were on the 1777 Indentures and quadripartite agreement that established the Congregational Church in Devizes. It formalised the purchase of the land from the recently deceased Wadham Locke, by his eldest son Thomas Locke for £76 (see photo-gallery for plan). The names Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, the Reverend Rowland Hill (1745-1833) the prominent Eton and Cambridge educated itinerant preacher, appear along with Minister Robert Sloper and 9 other trustees. It is clear though that the Church had been already built in 1776. This document tied up the land lease and sub tenancies that were on the land and the plots were legally purchased for £76. The document is especially important in that it stipulated in great detail how the church could be used by any non-conformist set of people under the guidance of the twelve trustees. Below left is a photo of the 1777 plan of the land purchased; this forms part of the quadrapartite agreement.
The photo-gallery illustrates a preliminary set of plans for the various stages of the Church as it developed. There are photos too of the church and its gradual conversion to a dwelling house and 6 separate flats by the 1990s
The original chapel was a small oblong building entered along a path from the east -Market side. The original land purchased is show on plan 1 in the photo gallery. Additional land was purchased from William Waylen in 1777 for £150, with a view to possible extension; see plan 2 in the photo-gallery. This plot was and still is on a lower slope in the grave yard. In 1790 the chapel was enlarged and made square by an eastward extension. A beam running through the chapel indicates the line of the old east wall. Later, probably in 1810–11, schoolrooms and an assembly room were added on the south. Plan 3 suggests these stages of the building. The walled graveyard at the rear of the chapel is about 1/8th of an acre. Over 1000 names have been recorded in the burial record between 1790 and 1912. A plan of the graveyard exists as supplement to the Broster-Temple book and is on record at the Wiltshire History centre in Chippenham.
Re-certifications of 1835 and 1855 may represent other changes, and certain improvements were made in 1859. In 1868–9 a lecture hall and schoolroom, designed by Benoni Mullen and a new ‘front’ were built on the north side (Northgate Street) in 'Early English'. Henceforth the chapel was entered from that side and thechurch gained the outward appearance it has today. But what may not be now self-evident is that the main church was at right angles to the modern entrance with the altar at the west end and the galleries and body of the church roughly paralleling Northgate Street. Substantial internal improvements, designed by J. A. Randell, were carried out in 1876 and in 1892 the windows were remodelled. Further changes were completed in 1925. It is now a Grade 2 listed building.
The Reverend Robert Sloper became known widely as a very energetic preacher of untiring zeal. He became a distinguished Congregationalist andwasassociated with member of the Countess of Huntingdon’s connection. In 1775 a group of Independents registered a house in nearby Urchfont for their worship. The meeting was later affiliated to St. Mary's Chapel, Devizes. In 1783 the Vicar of Urchfont described them as “Lady Huntingdon's Methodists – they were served by the Chapel's minister, Robert Sloper”. Another building was registered by the group in 1797. A Chapel at Hillcot between Chirton and Upavon was provided by Robert Sloper andafew friends in 1798. We know that he was inspired by the formation of the Surrey Mission Society, built in part for Rowland Hill and providing him a London home, and the London Missionary Society as early as 1797. He began touring the county helping to form an Association of Ministers in Wiltshire. There are records of him making annual donations from 1797 of £20 from his own funds. Robert Sloper fostered Congregationalism in Market Lavington. In 1808 nine people formed themselves into a church under his guidance. They opened a Sunday school and a girls' school the next year.
Devizes Congregational church records and accounts are rather sparse; but one 1812 account mentions regular amounts of money for hay, corn and a hostler. This shows that Revd. Robert Sloper needed a horse to go to and from his Etchilhampton Estate and to other parishes like Hillcot, Coate, Urchfont and Market Lavington where he paid an active part in fostering Congregationalism. It is clear from the records that both he and Richard Elliott were much in demand as preachers in the villages around Devizes and in Wiltshire generally.
George Sloper recorded in his diary for 1802 that Robert bought a considerable estate in Etchilhampton for £5590 - a fortune in 1802. Robert was clearly a wealthy man of independent means; he gained this in part from his rope maker father, but mostly by his two marriages. This enabled him to purchase Etchilhampton House and its 201 acre estate from the widow of James Gibbs. Etchilhampton House was rebuilt after 1773; though more than one phase of construction is evident in the main block. The old interior fittings are of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. On Robert’s death in 1819 it passed to George Elgar Sloper who still held it in 1839. The estate was sold in 1884 and broken up.
Robert Sloper’s wealth explains why he did not require a salary from the Congregational Chapel. It seems that “voluntary” pastorship may have been interpreted by some as a lack of permanent connection to St. Mary’s Church. It is clear from the foundation document; the vast numbers attending his funeral, the sermon delivered by Rev. Richard Elliot and the church plaques commemorating his service that the St. Mary’s Church was founded for him.
In his booklet Broster-Temple’s tells us that after some years of unflagging energy Robert Sloper’s voice began to fail and he invited a young student, Richard Elliott, aged 22 of Newport Pagnell, Buckinghamshireto share the Ministry withhim. This is of course contemporary with his purchase of Etchilhampton House and perhaps his desire to widen his view to Wiltshire Congregationalism and his own Estate business.
Richard Elliott was ordained as a Pastor at Devizes in 1803. He proved to be an outstanding success from the start and he was well renowned for his fiery eloquence and hostility to the slave trade. Richard Elliott was married to Frances and between 1806 and 1823 he baptised 11 of his own children! Frances eventually was the Principal of a high class girls’ boarding school on Long Street in the home where she and Richard lived. In 1841 she had 6 teachers assisting her, 4 of whom were her daughters and 33 girls aged 4 to 19 in the school.
There is one stain on Robert Sloper’s record that should be mentioned. It at best reflects badly on his administrative skills andat worst suggests an indifference to charitable causes – given his wealth– which seems so alien to his other record of public service. Elizabeth Filkes by will proved 1789 left £950, £5 of the interest upon which was to be distributed to poor worshippers, and the rest to the minister Robert Sloper for charitable purpose. He loaned some or probably all of the money to a business acquaintance in Devizes who subsequently went bankrupt. Sloper apparently let the matter rest for some years anditwas not until the Charities Commission came to hear of it that the matter was dealt with. The Reverend Sloper and his deacons were instructed to find the money and to invest it for the benefit of the church. It appears that Richard Elliott, George E Sloper, Robert Waylen and Valentine Leach footed the bill between them and invested £1057 in 3% Consols (stock) for the benefit of the Church and congregation.
In 1816 Robert remarried for the third time. All that we know is that he married a widow - a Mrs. Hudson who survived him to her death in 1843.
The Reverend Robert Sloper died in September 1818 at the young age of 62. His father had lived to be 73 and his Uncle George outlived him and reached the age of 91. We have a local newspaper account of the funeral. “On Wednesday, September 30th 1818 the remains of Rev. Robert Sloper, of Devizes, a character well known and highly esteemed in the religious world, were conveyed from his house to the family vault in the chapel where he had so long and successfully laboured. The corpse was followed by the Rev Messrs. Mr Jay and Elliott, the officiating ministers; the male relatives of the deceased, the ministers who supported the pall, and the medical attendants, and particular friends of Mr Sloper, in 6 mourning coaches. The procession was closed by a numerous attendance of the members of the congregation on foot. The Rev. Mr. Jay of Bath delivered the funeral oration to a very crowded and deeply affected auditory; the congregation out of respect to the memory of the defunct, hung the pulpit and galleriesof the chapel with black cloth. On the Sunday evening October 4th Rev Mr. Elliott preached a funeral sermon on the mournful occasion; all the other places of worship being closed. The numbers who attended were so great as to fill the chapel, so that many departed without being able to gain admittance. We hear the sermon is to be printed at the particular request of the congregation.” The sermon was in fact printed and is available at the Wiltshire Heritage Museum library in Devizes.
The memorial on the Chapel wall above the altar read; “Sacred to the memory of the Rev. Robert Sloper who, after being the instrument of the raising of the Church and congregation assembled in this place continued their faithful, laborious anddisinterested PASTOR for nearly 40 years. With feelings of regret, esteem and venerationthis memorial of departed worth is raised by a much indebted and grateful people. He departed this life the 22nd September 1818 in the sixty-second year of his age”.
This memorial has now disappeared.
Devizes, August 2009