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Torquay - Paignton - Brixham

 

The First Torquay Methodist Church (1807) – "The Chapel in the Meadow"

(The text of an explanatory leaflet (priced £1.00 from Circuit Stewards) produced by the Torbay Civic Society on the occasion of the unveiling of a ‘Blue Plaque’ marking the beginnings of Methodism in Torbay – Thursday 18 October 2001)

At the end of the 18th century communications throughout Devon were improving rapidly. Trewman's Exeter Flying Post was the newspaper for the whole of the county and turnpike trusts were improving roads and making travel between towns easier. In 1785 the Keyberry Turnpike Trust opened the road from Barton to Newton Bushell (Abbot). It was at this time that John and Charles Wesley went on their preaching tours in the West Country.

So it was that two brothers, Edward and John Henley, travelled to Exeter to hear John Wesley preach. Subsequently, Wesley stayed with them and preached at both West Hill and Pavor Meadow. It appears that Edward lived in Swan Street (behind Fleet Walk) and John lived at Barton. In 1788 they began to preach in accordance with Methodist principles from a room in George Street and, after objections from neighbours, used Edward's home in Swan Street. Edward and his wife still attended Matins at St. Saviour's, Torre, and trotted out to Barton, on one horse, for an afternoon service at brother John's and returned for an evening service at home.

Their preaching proved effective and in 1802 a thatched chapel was built, or possibly a cottage was converted at Barton; subsequently an adjacent cottage was purchased to allow for expansion. The Torquay congregation was outgrowing the Henley's home and in 1807 two cottages of a row of eight in the Fleet valley were acquired and converted into a chapel. This became known as the Chapel in the Meadow. Services continued to be held there until 1852. By then the congregation had outgrown the Chapel in the Meadow and a prominent site in Rock Road was purchased and the Rock Road Chapel built on it. By the middle of the century there was much discussion on the development of the lower Fleet valley. Finally, in 1864 existing buildings were removed and the row of shops from Rock Road to George Street was built. By 1870 the shop on the corner of George Street, on the site of the Chapel in the Meadow, had become the premises of Peter Thomas, draper. In the 1880's this was taken over by J. E Rockhey, twice Mayor of Torquay. Rockheys became a household name and continued until 1973 when it was bought by Dingles of Plymouth, and so it remained until 1988 when the premises stood empty for two years, Burger King taking over the building in 1990.

In the 1850's a group of Primitive Methodists began meeting in Torquay. When the Baptists moved into the new Baptist Church in Upton Vale the Primitive Methodists bought their old chapel in Temperance Street in 1863. This congregation ministered very much to the spiritual needs of the ever growing population of Ellacombe and finally they purchased a site in Market Street, and the Market Street Primitive Methodist Chapel was opened in July 1877. In the meantime, another Wesleyan Chapel had been built in Torwood, Street.

The high buildings of Fleet Street hid the Rock Road Chapel and its congregation was outgrowing it. The space problem was compounded by the fact that the Sunday School, started originally by the Anglican Miss Anna Gray and using various buildings in the town, had been taken over by one of her pupils, Mary Henley, daughter of Edward and was now using the Rock Road premises. The number of scholars being in the region of three hundred. Therefore, a site in Union Street was purchased and the budding of a Sunday School was commenced in 1876. The building opened in 1878 and the adjoining Chapel in 1879. This building was burnt down in October 1926 and although there were thoughts of abandoning the site and concentrating on the rapidly growing Torquay suburbs, it was rebuilt.

By the 1950's dwindling congregations and the upkeep of Victorian buildings not always suitable for 20th century forms of worship forced the Trustees of Union Street Methodist Church to consider plans for redevelopment of the site. At the same time the congregation of Belgrave Congregational Church, Tor Hill Road, were thinking along the same lines. The suggested development plans for each church did not meet with the approval of either congregation, but the publicity surrounding the ideas led the congregations to consider the ecumenical step of joining together. This became reality with the sale of Union Street and Market Street Methodist Churches and the building of Central Church on the Belgrave site. The new church was opened and dedicated on 4th September, 1976.

In the 1860's a Bible Christian Chapel had been established in East Street. With the union of the smaller branches of Methodism in 1908 to become the United Methodist Churches this became Zion Methodist Church and remained in use until 1954 when it was put up for sale together with the successor of the original Barton Chapel and a small chapel in Western Road. Chelston was served by two Methodist churches, meeting first over the stable in Walnut Road and then in a vacant house the Wesleyan congregation were able to build a church at the bottom of Huxtable Hill, which is still in use. In Innerbrook Road there was a chapel of the New Connexion which, under the 1908 union, came under Zion Church but closed during the Second World War.

Methodist services were held in the Plainmoor area from the 1830's. After the cholera outbreak of 1849 a slum clearance was undertaken in Torquay and displaced families were housed in temporary buildings on Barton Fields. This area became known as Victoria Park and permanent houses were built. The increased population made it possible for the Wesleyan Methodists to build a chapel and schoolroom in 1864, which is still in use today.

In 1930 an Enabling Act of Parliament empowered the Wesleyan Primitive and United Methodist Churches to become the Methodist Church in 1932. Since then Torquay has seen two Methodist churches built; St. Andrews, Shiphay in 1952 and St. George's, Watcombe in 1954. The former still serves Shiphay but the latter is now closed.

Thus it was that Methodism reached Torquay and the surrounding area. Paignton and Brixham arrived at the same goal by different routes. Of the two principal places of worship, that in Fore Street, Brixham, was built around 1816, and that in Palace Avenue, Paignton, in 1895/6 although a congregation had been meeting since around 1840.

In the early days of Methodism there was one Circuit covering the whole of South Devon. As churches multiplied this was broken up and re-arranged a number of times. By the 1970's there was a Torquay and Paignton Circuit and a Brixham and Dartmouth Circuit within the Plymouth and Exeter District. All three towns now come under the Torbay Circuit, as does Kingskerswell.

Written by Lorna Smith

Further reading: PIKE, John - Torquay, the place and the people: a centenary history. Torquay Centenary Committee, 1992. ISBN: 0 9519930 03
SCRIBE - Methodism in Torquay. Bendles, 1929.
SMITH, Lorna Ruse - Forward on the pilgrim way: a brief history of
Central Church, Torquay. [Priv.pub.], 1986. ISBN: 0 9504468 15


Click here to obtain a copy of the Torquay Civic Society explanatory leaflet illustrated above

Click here to read a history of the Methodist Church in Paignton