History - The First Chapel

The First Chapel

 

Bowden Hill was built in 1815 at a cost of £1,023.16.0. In 1829 trustees had to report that the present debt was £1,068 including outstanding loans of £982.

The Bowden Hill church was for many years burdened with a very heavy debt. It was said that several men who had promised help were alarmed at the responsibility and withdrew before they had executed any deeds. A few others were left to struggle on as best they could. At one time no less than £1,300 debt rested on it. In 1831 it was proposed to sell it, but apparently no one would give anything approaching the sum needed by the trustees, and so they held on in hope of better times. In 1846 the building was licenced for marriages, the first groom being Samuel Finch and his bride Miss Elizabeth Thom.

In 1844 the Reverend George Curnock was appointed to the Exeter circuit to reside at Crediton. The membership then was 34. His work in the town was greatly blessed and even more so his labour among the “Navvies” then engaged in the railway (the Exeter and Crediton railway was leased to the Bristol and Exeter, and opened on 12th May 1851).

By 1846 it was thought desirable to form a new circuit with Crediton as its head, and including Cheriton Bishop, Morchard Bishop and Newton St. Cyres. Initially all these names remained on the Exeter plan but were worked virtually independently. The first balance sheet showed the financial problems the new circuit would have to face.

INCOME

 

Class tickets

7.5.1

Quarterly Collection

1.9.6

Cheriton Bishop

1.8.6

Mrs Adam & Mrs Huddy (5/- each)

10.0

Contingent Fund

2.10.0

Morchard Bishop

1.5.0

Given by Chairman

      5.11

 

£14.14.0

 

 

EXPENDITURE

 

Mr Curnock. board and quarterage

14.12.6

Stewards book

        1.6

 

£14.14.0

At a meeting on October 1st 1846 Mr J. Sanders was unanimously elected circuit steward. It was resolved that as it appeared desirable to keep a horse to do the work of the circuit an effort be forthwith made to raise means for the purchase. But the financial plight of the circuit led to the sale of the horse for £6 in mid-summer 1852. Morchard and Newton St. Cyres were lost, as there was no trust property in either place; Crediton with Cheriton had to return to the Exeter circuit. Recovery was fairly prompt but the work at Bowden Hill was always cramped by the inconvenient premises.

An indication of the strength of church life in Crediton is given by the ecclesiastical census of 1851. On March 30th attendances were counted, with the following results (giving the best attendance figures of the day)

    Anglican
       morning 1,000
       sunday school 250

    Unitarian (Bowden Hill)
       afternoon 75
       sunday school 24

    Brethren
       afternoon 120

    Independents
       evening 230
       sunday school 160

    Baptist
       evening 80
       sunday school 50

    Wesleyan (Bowden Hill)
       evening 130
       sunday school 90

Also listed is “Wesleyan preaching room, Uton in Crediton, with an evening attendance of 40.” The report was signed by John Hugill, minister, of Crediton, who also signed the Wesleyan report. Venn (II 167) says these were cottage services.

This report gives the seating capacity of our church as 275, 200 of these sittings were free.

The Anglican report commented that in the large rural district the congregation fluctuated according to the weather. March 30th was an unfavourable day, and the attendance consequently less. The average evening attendance at the Wesleyan Chapel over the year was 160.

Including children, this means at least 2209 persons attended church on that day. The population census for 1851 was 6000, so the proportion of church attenders was high. The 1981 census figure for Crediton was 6169. This does not mean a static population level between those dates. In fact it declined to a low point of 3490 in 1931, then built up again to its present figure. This reflects the decline in the agricultural population and the later build-up in the commuter population of the town.

It would be a mistake to see the above events as happening in a town much as we know it today. It is interesting to consider the climate in which Methodism took root in Crediton. In early 1800’s the manufacture of serge for which the town had been famous was in decline, even so, serge manufacturers were named in 1823 (Pigot’s Directory). People turned to the production of boots and shoes, there were flour mills and tanneries and Mr. Budge’s lozenge factory was established. It is not surprising to learn that large quantities of cider were made and sent to London and other markets.

Some of the other trades mentioned are bakers, brickmakers, coopers and carpenters, druggists and hat makers, rope and twine manufacturers, maltsters and masons, watch and clock makers, and four surgeons (in 1823). In 1850 there were at least 25 inns in Crediton, Stage coaches left 3 times a week from the White Hart for Exeter and Barnstaple. This all seems to indicate a busy and prosperous community, but there was a great deal of poverty too. In 1795, only 3 years before the first known Methodist preaching, Mr. J. Buller, the magistrate had read the Riot Act to a crowd in West Town. This was the first of the Crediton Bread Riots which took place ‘on account of the dearness of provisions.’ The 25th Dragoons galloped out from Exeter to restore order. When the men departed the women remained as “words won’t feed our families.” In 1801 handbills appeared urging people to kill Mr. Drake, the unpopular miller of Fourmills. Bakeries were attacked, and food shops looted and there were further riots in 1847 and 1850. On January 6th 1850 a riot was sparked off by navvies, laid off by frost, from the North Devon Railway, marching through Crediton crying “We’re hungry, we’re hungry.”

From this background were drawn the early Methodists of our town, our Fathers in God, who took their preaching room in Dean Street, who had the determination to build their first chapel on Bowden Hill and struggled with its debt. Then there was the thatcher, William P. Harper, who had the vision of a beautiful new chapel for Crediton and saved the money to give the land on which this church is built.