Researched and written by Julia Sharp.
Page updated 31st October 2015
Christ Church in Grosvenor Place is the present Church of the Free Church of England in Exeter.
The Free Church of England grew out of the discontent within the Established Church in the first half of the 19th Century. Many felt that the enforced return to the more ritualistic order favoured by the Tractarians was an edict too far, and was seen to be popish. In Exeter, as elsewhere, this resulted in ‘Surplice Riots’ in the 1840s where clergy who followed the new requirement to wear a black gown for preaching were pelted with rotten eggs and vegetables. Exeter was also one of the first places where a congregation was formed and Christ Church Exeter has the oldest surviving congregation in the Free Church of England.
In September 1844, the Commercial Hall in Fore Street was opened as a ‘Free Church’ with Rev. James Shore as its preacher. As numbers attending were more than this cramped site could accommodate, as early as 1845, plans were made to build a ‘handsome Church capable of accommodating 1400 or 1500 people and of a style worthy of the object they have in view.’ Land in Southernhay was purchased by ‘a gentleman’, and he built the new Church which was opened in 1846 having cost about £5000. The Church was not ‘within the pale of the Established Church though its services were conducted in a similar manner’. It was built in the Roman style with a turret and bell, the interior had three aisles and three galleries and would seat 1000.
Support for dissenters did not increase as hoped, so the Church was always too large for the congregation. As the building was the property of the first incumbent and had later been sold to a member of the congregation, there was a problem when he died in 1860. Other members of the congregation could not afford to purchase the Church, so the decision was made at the end of 1860 to join their fellow dissenters of the Countess of Huntington‘s Connection in their Chapel in Grosvenor Place. The Church in Southernhay was used by a group of Presbyterians until it was sold to the Wesleyan Methodists in 1864 and reopened on 16 April 1865 as the New Wesleyan Chapel Southernhay.
This Methodist congregation moved to the Sidwell Street Methodist Church about 1946 due to falling numbers. However this was not the end for the Chapel. In 1942 Southernhay Congregational Church had joined the Methodists when their Church had been a victim of the Exeter Blitz in May 1942. They now bought the Chapel and continued to hold services there until their Church in Dixs Field was completed.
The Chapel was demolished in 1962 and a block of offices called Trinity Court was built on the site. In 2015 this was being turned into ‘Exeter’s finest new apartment complex’. A sign of the times, perhaps
The Chapel in Grosvenor Place was then known as St. James Free Church but soon reverted to the name Christ Church. It was a small building of stone with sittings for 300 people but it was completely destroyed in the blitz of 4 May 1942. The Sunday School Hall had been erected on the other side of the road early in the 1900s, and this was hardly affected by the blitz, even though it had a glass roof. The congregation continued to worship in this Hall for 15 years until the present Church was erected.
When erected, the opportunity was taken to change the aspect of the building and have the main door facing Blackboy Road. Funding was received from various sources, including America, to enable the work to take place, the foundation stone being laid on 26 September 1956 with the Church being formally consecrated and opened for Divine Worship on 24 July 1957. The interior is of modest design with plain brick walls and a preaching stand.
Sources: Western Times and Plymouth and Exeter Gazette. 19th Century Directories.
│ Top of Page │