The Street Scene
The architect’s concept of the building was magnificent and, like St Paul’s in London, it escaped serious damage in the blitz, standing out while around lay devastation. Now it stands out once again as a rare if not unique survival of a large Edwardian chapel, well deserving its very prestigious listing of Grade 2*. It is of national significance and locally it makes an invaluable contribution to the street-scene and skyline of Exeter. Its interior offers a unique space, which the City should greatly value.
Dome, Lantern, Cone and Cupola
This is the most public feature of our building and can be seen from all around the city centre. But the dome was not part of the original design, instead of the depressed dome there was to be a complicated pyramidal pitched roof with eight sides. It is not clear if the present lantern was proposed at that time. During the recent renovation there was found to be a problem with the brick cone that supports the cupola. It has only a single skin of brickwork, which was letting in the rain. To solve the problem the whole cone was covered in a waterproof material.
The church was specifically intended to welcome the artisan or working class local residents, who would be casual attenders rather than committed members. It was expected that they would feel more comfortable in something like a theatre or music-hall gallery. So their’s was the rather forbidding entrance door straight off the street. This led into the lobby with a concrete floor, then up a flight of concrete steps to a concrete landing. In effect the street was brought upstairs to the door-mat and double doors leading into the gallery with its wooden floor. For access to the ground floor there are two small lobbies but the point of these was rather lost when the memorial screen was erected in 1921 forming an additional full-width vestibule.
The floor of the church is steeply raked to improve visibility. The overall shape is quite complicated because it changes as you go up! It relies upon the fact that an octagon (with eight sides) can be drawn inside a square (with four sides) by putting two of its corners on each side of the square. At ground floor level our walls form a square but the front right corner is walled off to provide a vestry, thus forming the first angled side of the octagon. At gallery level, an angled wall is built across the front left corner to form another side of the octagon. Then at the back of the gallery, at a higher level, beams are build at an angle across the two rear corners giving us enough sides to complete an octagon!
At ground level you will see that two concrete ribs, forming the eight corners of the octagon, rise vertically from each side of the square then curve inwards to form the octagonal dome. Then they meet to support the base of the octagonal lantern. In turn this supports a cylindrical cone, topped by a cupola. Thus the architect of our church squared the circle!
This is a magnificent Edwardian survival - an oak rostrum pulpit with stairs (up one side and down the other). It was tall so that the preacher would be visible from the seats in the crowded gallery as well as the pews below. Today the pulpit is usually abandoned in favour of the brass lectern within the communion rail In liturgical churches the altar is the focus of attention and devotion but this was a preaching and singing church. The eye starts at floor level at the communion table and rail, then it is drawn up to the pulpit from which the Word is proclaimed and upwards again to the choir. Stoically facing the congregation, and higher again to the organist, (hidden from view by the traditional red curtain - but why?), and finally up to the magnificent array of organ pipes, just a few of the 1500 the organist can call upon.
These are not wonderfully comfortable. Downstairs they all had a number, a card holder and an umbrella stand and some had a socket for a former hearing aid system. (Today there is a loop system.) Many of these accessories survived and can be seen today. Card holders were for the names of the people who rented seats in that pew.
The elegant gallery is a tour de force as it has no visible means of support - not a pillar or a column is to be seen! The seats are steeply raked and arranged with some ingenuity to pack the people in. The gallery floor is a concrete slab reinforced by criss-crossed flexible steel strips. As part of the renovations it was load-tested on the evening of the 24th April 2005. Some 75 members of the congregation (and some passing members of the public!) obediently moved around and sat down as instructed. The gallery duly deflected 1.6 millimetres and then moved back.
The organ was installed in 1906 by H. Dyer and Sons of London and funded by Mr Reed and the Carnegie Trust (a sister organ was installed in the “Providence” Methodist Church in Northernhay Street.) In 1956 a modern radiating concave pedal board was added and in 1968 it was rebuilt by Percy Daniel & Co. Ltd., to a design by Michael Andrews, the organist at the time. For several years while worship was being held in the hall it was not used and by 2007 it was in need of complete overhaul and cleaning - several of the primary motors for the draw stop mechanisms had failed and several pipes were not speaking and the Hohl flute on the choir was not playing.
In the autumn of 2007 fund raising was started and by the spring of 2008 the money had been raised due to the marvellous generosity of the members and friends of the Church. At the same time we were able to purchase a second-hand rank of pedal trombone pipes, which the organ builder Warren Marsh, of Clevedon Pipe Organ Service, voiced superbly. The organ’s rank of clarinet pipes, which had lain dormant for 40 years, were replaced for the Tierce on the Choir, there being no room for both. The leathers on both bellows were replaced and the organ runs on 3” pressure on the manuals and 4” on the pedals. The original tracker action was restored as it gives much more control over the attack and speech of the instrument than other electric actions.
The result is truly wonderful. Everything blends beautifully, the choruses are complete but all different. Its clarity is stunning and all schools of music can be played to great effect. In fact it is electrifying!! It’s at home with all repertoire; accompanying choirs, soloists and congregations. It is a real tribute to the support of the Congregation here and to Warren Marsh and his team’s expertise, attention to detail hard work and enthusiasm.
On either side of the organ large memorial windows were installed by the families of two young men, who died in 1917 in France within a week of each other. The families were leading members of the congregation. To the right of the organ is the window to W. Ronald Rowland, who died on 1st June 1917. The centre is a romanticised view of David as a man, carrying his sling, while a boy plays a harp in the foreground. In the top left corner Goliath and his men are marching towards them but no one notices! Rowland was a Lieutenant in the 17th London Regiment and probably received his army training in the prestigious Artists Rifles, whose crest appears in the window. The inscription is, “To the glory of God in loving remembrance of Lieut. W Ronald Rowland, 17th London Regt., who gave his life at Ypres 1st June 1917 aged 23 years ‘for England’ He loved not his own life even unto death.”
To the left of the organ is the window in memory of Rev. Clifford H. Reed, MA,MC, a Wesleyan Minister, who was serving as a chaplain in the army. It is in three main sections. In the centre is St. John preaching, holding in his hand his gospel with its opening words “In principe erat verbum ..” To the left is a picture of St George standing on a balustrade. To the right is a picture of St. Cecilia, patron saint of music, also standing on a balustrade. As usual she holds a pipe organ, which has six pipes and which John Knox would instantly recognise as a “Kist of Whistles”. The inscriptions is, “To the glory of God and in loving memory of the Rev. Clifford H. Reed M.A.,M.C. who fell on Messines Ridge 7th June 1917 aged 28 years. He loved his fellow men”.
At the back of the church, there is a later window to William Henry Reed father of Clifford. The centre depicts Christ teaching a crowd, with one listener carrying a spade on his shoulder. To the right is Wisdom personified as a woman and to the left is Nehemiah, who rebuilt Jerusalem. The inscription is “In loving memory of William Henry Reed, who passed to higher service 27 May 1923. This window was given by his wife and children.”
Screen : After the Great War innumerable memorials were erected, many inside or outside parish churches. Sidwell Street Methodists erected their own memorial in the form of the ornate and splendid screen, which creates a vestibule across the back of the church. It was dedicated on 30th March 1921 and bears the names of 18 men, including three from one family and two from another. Originally it extended between the entrance lobbies but later it was moved further into the church to make the vestibule wider. You can see how this was done.
Mount Pleasant Church: This church was build by the Bible Christian Methodists. When it closed the board listing the ministers of the church was brought here and is now mounted on the left was of the church under the gallery. It shows Walter Joyce was the last minister at Mount Pleasant. This was just one of the congregations that have joined here as their buildings were closed : Southernhay Chapel about 1947, Providence Chapel in Northernhay Street in 1956. Mount Pleasant Chapel in Pinhoe Road in 1969.
Further room was needed at the chapel so land at the side was acquired for a new hall. The sudden death of Mr Reed left the trustees in some financial difficulty but the foundation stone reads “To the Glory of God and in hallowed memory of William Henry Reed" this stone was laid by Mrs W. H Reed, 10 July 1924. The Hall was opened on 15th April 1925. The magnificent carved wooden screen against the back wall once bore a picture of Mr Reed but eventually it was tactfully removed. Only the carved “In Memoriam” now remains. Look out for the carved angels over the door. Also notice the heavy wooden reading desk. It is inscribed in memory of Daniel Hunt, the lay missionary who ran the Spinning Path Mission.
At the entrance to the hall there are four foundation stones. Now they are nearly illegible but on the best one you can make out “Mrs Featherstonehaugh .. October 31st 1896. She was the wife of the minister. There is also a series of twenty one stones along the front of the church, each inscribed with the initials of the layer but several have spalled and are now illegible. It was usual for a layer to place a donation on top of the foundation stone they had just tapped with a mallet.
Maintenance of our building has always been a problem although several times it was confidently announced that the problem had been solved for good! A crisis came on Friday March 23rd 2001, when a large piece of plaster crashed to the ground inside the church. Mercifully there was no injury but worship was immediately transferred to the hall, where it continued while a repair scheme was devised and money raised. Work started in summer 2004 and was completed in time to reopen the church and celebrate its centenary on 5th May 2005. The total cost was well over £600,000, much of which came from trusts and public funds but the generosity of the congregation itself was humbling. Since then a large additional sum has been raised to renovate the organ.