The earliest record of a chapelry on the Green is in the will of William Selfe dated 1461. A chapel serving the Hospital of St James and St Denis may have been on the same site; the Hospital disappeared after 1338.
The Chapelry of St James was administered by Bishops Cannings though it had a resident Curate by 1683. The registers date from 1572. Baptisms and burials to 1837 have been transcribed by the Wiltshire Family History Society. The Curate lived in a house on the Green where Heathcoate House now stands.
The tower is the only part of the original building standing. In 1831, following legislation to ‘promote the building of Churches in populous parishes’ a Vestry meeting resolved to enlarge the accommodation of the chapel. The rest of the building was pulled down and Mr Pennistone of Salisbury, who was an architect responsible for much church refurbishment in the county, was commissioned to design the new church. Plans were drawn by Mr Benoni White and the contract was awarded to Messrs. Charles and James Plank, builders of Devizes.
Subscriptions were called for and the total of £919.14s.11/2d was raised. The final cost of rebuilding was £1053. A list of subscribers is among the parish records in the Wiltshire Record Office, as is the builder’s contract. This specified ‘the walls to be built with the coal ash mortar in proportion of one barrow of well burnt Westbrook stone lime and three barrows of coal ashes free from dirt’. Some stone from the original building was to be used in the interior walls. The face of the north wall was to correspond with that of the south, except that a window was to be substituted for the porch. A chancel was to be added.
The church is dedicated to St James the Great. He is to be found in the second panel from the left in the big east window, with his traveller’s staff and purse. The oldest records show the church to have been a chapelry in the parish of Bishops Cannings, but it had its own civil officers and registers dating from 1573, which indicate it was something more than a ‘chapel of ease.’ A certain amount of guesswork suggests it might earlier have been a chapel attached to a leper hospital that is thought to have existed in nearby Spitalcroft.
The jurisdiction of Cannings remained in force until 1831, when the Rev. Alfred Smith, who had been in charge of St James’ under the Vicar of Bishops Cannings since 1826, became Southbroom’s first vicar. Old ways died hard. Southbroom was still known as a chapelry, its wardens were still called chapel wardens and the first three vicars of Southbroom were officially ‘perpetual curates.’ In the same year, 1831, that Southbroom became a separate parish it was considered necessary to enlarge the body of the 15th century church. It had no sanctuary, with the east wall lining up the nave and two aisles. On the south side there were only two windows instead of today’s three, but there were two south doors. The porch stood at the westernmost end of the south wall, where the third window now is, and there was a small Tudor doorway without a porch, near the east end, part of the easternmost window being cut away to make room for it.
In case it proved impossible to raise sufficient funds for complete rebuilding, the prudent Alfred Smith drew up an alternative scheme to alter and enlarge it. This proved unnecessary and the church was not simply enlarged but knocked down and rebuilt, with the exception of the tower. It was all done with what today may seem enviable dispatch. A select committee was appointed in July 1831; a plan drawn up by Mr Benoni White was adopted in August and one year later the church was reopened for Divine Service on the 10th August 1832. The Vicar of Bishops Cannings, Archdeacon Macdonald, preached and a deputation from the choir of Salisbury Cathedral attended. The architect was a Mr Pennistone and the expeditious builder was a Mr Plank.
Happily the old church memorials survived the restoration, being embodied in the new. The most distinguished is the Nicholas tablet in the north wall, of veined white marble flanked by Ionic pillars. The Nicholas family, of Roundway, had branches in many parts of Wiltshire and claimed descent by marriage from the youngest daughter of Oliver Cromwell. The Nicholas memorial window at the east end, north side, was restored in 1990. Indeed the parish of Roundway has played a significant role in the history of St James’. Members of the Colston family, of Roundway House, are commemorated in the first of two memorials, carved in relief, on the north wall of the sanctuary (an affecting deathbed scene), in the fine window at the east end of the north wall and in the two prayer seats at the west end of the church. Colston was the family name of the 1st and 2nd Barons Roundway. Other memorials on the north wall commemorate the Roundway families of Hayward in the 18th and 19th centuries and Coward in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The Rev. Alfred Smith resigned the living in 1838 and retired to Old Park, Devizes, dying in 1877. His son, A C Smith, was a distinguished ornithologist and wrote a standard work, ‘The Birds of Wiltshire’. Alfred Smith’s successor, the Rev. Benjamin Dowding, was 26 when he came to Southbroom. He held the living for 32 years until his death in 1870; he was the longest serving incumbent of St James’ and the only one to die in office. He has a memorial plaque, with Latin inscription, in the sanctuary. He is known elsewhere in Devizes for the part that he played in the creation of St Peter’s parish in 1866 and he laid the foundation stone of St. Peter’s Church. In 1844 the churchyard was extended at the expense of the Crammer pond, part of which was taken into the churchyard and the wall on the east side of the Crammer was built. Presumably it would have been too much to suggest any further incursion into the pond for the sake of Southbroom’s dead and the churchyard was closed in 1876. It is used today for the burial of ashes.
Benjamin Dowding was the first vicar to live in the vicarage, Southbroom House, which was built in 1845 on the other side of the road. His successor, the Rev. Stafford Tordiffe, was vicar for thirteen argumentative years (1870 - 1882). He made considerable alterations and additions to the vicarage and extended its grounds, largely at his own expense. Gas lighting arrived in 1876, allowing the time of Evensong to be changed from 3.00 pm to 6.30 pm, a change that was not popular with all.
Chris Tebbutt was the last incumbant to occupy Southbroom House, moving to Fruitfields, a new development on the other side of the town. The property then became the residence of the Archdeacon of Wilts and until 2010 the office for the Bishop of Ramesbury.
Two years later, 1878, Le Marchant Barracks, up the London Road, was completed and St James’ was to become the garrison church of The Wiltshire Regiment, with all that that implied in the way of parade services. The recruits were accommodated in the side-galleries that ran north and south and the Duty Bugler came down to polish the brass on Saturdays. An association with the regiment was to continue actively until the amalgamation of The Wiltshires with The Royal Berkshire Regiment in 1959 and the closing down of the Depot. It survives today in the Old Comrades’ Association's annual parade service each June. Those heady army days are recalled in the army corner at the south east of the church, with the Wiltshire Regiment’s laid-up Colours, its shrine and its memorial windows to the Zululand campaign of 1879 and the 1914-18 war. Beneath the latter window may be found a detailed description of the laid-up Colours. Beneath this window, a grille-fronted shrine contains the Book of Remembrance of the Regiment’s Fallen of 1914-18. A glass-topped case nearby holds the Book of Remembrance to the Regiment’s Fallen of 1939-45. A second case, fixed to the east wall between the pulpit and the choir vestry door, on the north side, holds the Book of Remembrance to the fallen of the Parish of Southbroom in 1914-18. The church’s altar rails are in memory of a Colonel of the Regiment, Major General Sir Edward Evans.
The Rev. Stafford Tordiffe resigned in 1882 in a strong disagreement with the parish on the question of yet again enlarging the church, which, perhaps because of the soldiery, he had considered to be essential. In 1897 the church was reseated in memory of the Meek family that lived at The Ark in Long Street. But it would be half a century after Tordiffe before any major extension to the church was carried out. This was the addition of the choir vestry at the northeast corner during the incumbency of the Rev. Cecil Plaxton (1932-37), later Wilts Archdeacon Emeritus. It was his successor, the Rev. Andrew Douglas (1937-46), however, who made St James’ a place of beauty. He removed the ugly and unsafe side-galleries, dignified the east end and enlarged the altar. Such improvements did not meet with total approval, but Douglas went ahead, likely meeting much of the cost out of his own pocket. Douglas also moved the choir to the west gallery.
St James’ has enjoyed a long tradition of choral singing. By common consent this reached its peak in the 1960’s during the incumbency of the Rev. Michael Currah (1960-69). He had the organ rebuilt and the organ case gilded. This colourful accretion on high was completed during the term of his successor, Canon Ken Brown (1969-83), with the colouring of the embossed ribbing above the north and south aisles and the colouring of the roof of the sanctuary, which was further improved by the removal of four painted panels depicting plump Victorian angels, affixed to its east wall.
The church was closed a few years later for various works to be carried out. One of the early improvements was the installation of inner baize cover doors to prevent draughts.
The tower is mentioned in ‘The Great Towers of England’ by F J Allen quoted by the late Archdeacon Plaxton in the short history of the church written when he was Vicar of Southbroom. It is one of five Wiltshire towers known as the Westwood Group. The others are Westwood, Yatton Keynell, West Kington and Nettleton. These towers are considered distinctive as a group in the country. F J Allen wrote, ‘the characteristic feature of all this group is the covering of the upper stage with window tracery of which only a small portion is perforated, while the tracery is sunk or recessed in rectangular frames’. All the towers have panelled parapets and are of oolite from north Wiltshire. St James’ tower bears the scars of the bombardments from Jump Hill by General Waller’s forces in 1643. The cannon balls were found in the tower in 1780. Their present whereabouts is not known.
The peal of six bells was increased from four in 1909 when the third bell was recast and numbers one and two added. Number three bell was originally cast by Purdue of Bristol in 1663.
Number four bears the inscription ‘Peace and Good Neighbourhood’ and was cast in 1742, probably by Rudhall of Gloucester. Numbers five and six were cast by Wallis of Salisbury in 1612. The bells are rung most Sunday mornings and for special occasions.
The tower clock was installed in 1888, planned originally to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee but other plans were preferred by the town.
Over the years there have been changes inside the church; galleries have been built and removed, the seating has been altered. The pews were removed in 1897 and the church reseated, a gift given as a memorial to members of the Grant-Meek family.
The barrel organ with a repertoire of twenty four tunes, was replaced by an organ in 1841. The subscription list for this is among the church records. This was replaced by a two manual organ built by Henry Jones of Kensington, a distinguished organ builder, in 1889. In 1951 a three manual organ took its place, but this was not of the desired tonal quality and was rebuilt with parts from an organ acquired from a Methodist Church in Liverpool in 1968.
St James’ became the garrison Church when Hopton Barracks opened in 1878. The colours of the Wiltshire Regiment were first deposited in 1901 when the Regiment left for St Helena in the South African wars. Two windows are in memory of soldiers who gave their lives in the 1914-18 war and in earlier campaigns. A wall plaque details the history of the regimental colours. The churchyard was enlarged in 1844 when it is thought the present wall bordering the Crammer pond was built. The churchyard was closed in 1876 when Devizes cemetery became available for burials.
This brief history was prepared by Miss Jean Philpott for the initial launch of ‘The friends of St James’ Church’. 3rd April 1997.
In the early years of the 21st century it was felt that the church building was hampering the needs of the congregation and the development of the church. Several sets of plans were drawn up and discussed and prayed over for a period of time. This eventually resulted in the re-ordering of the church in 2008. In effect the church was gutted and the interior restyled to meet the requirement of a modern church. With the older Victorian style pews, choir gallery and pipe organ removed the building was carpeted throughout with the construction of a mezzanine floor, toilets, kitchen, meeting room, and new comfortable seating. It is only fair to say that some folks were unhappy with the developments but overall the vast majority have now come to terms with the change. The original character of the building remains untouched. We now have a building that is warm and welcoming and can be used 7 days a week (which it often is) rather than just on Sundays. And we now have the historic Tower Room with its vibrant stained glass window revealed after the best part of a hundred years of obscurity.
The Crammer wall was also completely rebuilt after its partial collapse following a storm in March 2008 in conjunction with restoration work on the pond itself by Devizes Town Council. This was a good example of co-operative project work between the Town Council and the church. The re-design of the wall by Noel Woolrych (Churchwarden) was intended to reduce the height of the original somewhat unattractive Victorian construction (built in 1844 and paid for by a levy on the Parish Rate) and to add a degree of fluidity to the "stark lines" of the old wall; the work was carried out by Messrs Gaiger Bros. By sloping the bank, it not only reduced the stress on the wall but created an area that was more sympathetic to the pond's waterbird population. The addition of "loafing pads" for the ducks gave them better protection from the marauding sea birds. The bank was planted with spring bulbs by the congregation and with the addition of wild flowers is deliberatley left "wild" as part of the Living Churchyards project.