The volunteer team within the Heritage Department here at Downside work tirelessly on the Abbey’s archive and library collections and one volunteer has recently come across an item of interest relating to Bath’s Catholic history. 

In 1808, the Catholics of Bath worshipped at what is now the Mission Theatre on Corn Street in Bath. However, the congregation had swelled to such numbers the chapel was no longer suitable and a search for a larger building began. The perfect site was found at the Old Theatre Royal on Old Orchard Street. 

The theatre had closed in 1805 and was purchased by the Benedictine mission in March 1809, as set out in the contract for sale which we have rediscovered in our archives. The document is signed by William Dimond who owned the building, and a Luke Evill, a solicitor who was acting for the Benedictines. 

The contract states that ‘the sum of one thousand and two hundred pounds of lawful money’ would be paid to William Dimond and he would release the building on the 25th March 1809. However, later in the document it states that the amount would be paid in two instalments of six hundred pounds, the second to be paid no later than the 29th of September 1809. It goes on to say until full payment is made, the building ‘will remain in the custody of the banker of the said William Dimond.’ 

It would seem that the mission would need time to raise the funds and it is supposed this was done by donations from the Catholics of Bath, though further research will be needed to support this. 

There are a few interesting points within the contract, including the witness John Knapp. He was a resident of Bathwick Street and obviously a local Catholic. (On a side note, on further research on him an article revealed he owned a ‘great’ dog!) His son, William, went on to become a monk of St Gregory’s, then resident at Acton Burnell, Shropshire with the religious name Basil. Dom Basil died aged just twenty one shortly after the community arrived here at Downside. 

A memorandum was also added to the contract, interestingly, stating that Mr Luke Evill ‘will not suffer the said herein contracted premises to be used as a place of public amusement of any kind.’ As the New Theatre Royal was now operating, it seems logical that Mr Dimond would not want a rival theatre set up in the town. It is curious that a Catholic chapel was not considered a place of amusement! 

The final point to note on the contract is the addition in February 1809 by Luke Evill stating ‘I acknowledge that this contract was entered into in trust for Charles Connolly Esq., John Knapp Esq. and others by me, Luke Evill.’ This would suggest that Evill purchased the building for the Catholics in case a sale would not be made to them directly, and he made the amendment to ensure the building was passed to the mission. 

The chapel remained at the Old Theatre Royal until 1863 when St John the Evangelist was opened across the road and which is still a key place of Catholic worship in Bath today. 

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