How our church with giant bright cross began

Torbay Weekly

The request for this Blue Plaque at the Church of St John the Evangelist came from a Father Beck in 1989, when he was the person responsible for the approach to the diocese "for a faculty" as expressed in a letter of January 1990, which, fortunately, I recovered from the archives.

Sadly, what I was unable to discover was how many attended the unveiling or indeed where the refreshments were served, although I presume everyone was able to enter into the Church of St. John at Higher Terrace Torquay.

From paperwork, I glean that our Society committee-man Denis Walton (then residing at "Castle Tor" Oxlea Road) was the person who organised this and many of the earliest plaques in this first series.  

The Church of St John is a Church of England premises and some of its past incumbents had fascinating histories, which I will highlight in a second article later. The Reverend Parks-Smith, who, as many locals will recall, was "Flower Pot" Smith (The Reverend Smith), was a vicar sacked by Bishop Phillpotts for operating what he saw as High Church practises being held.

The Church of St John the Evangelist was initially a small so-called Chapel-of-Ease in Torquay and its foundation stone was laid as early as 1822, although it then took until 1885 before a larger Church was built, incorporating the chapel.

It was then given a most magnificent tower, which today proudly displays the huge illuminated cross that is seen from across the harbour and most other points of Torquay. At night, the lighted large cross is one of Torquay's more significant landmarks.

With sponsorship achieved the "St John the Evangelist" Blue Plaque was formally unveiled in the week of Thanksgiving following the sale of a Burne-Jones painting - a copy of which was even put on display for all to see. The Mayor of Torquay and Father Beck fronted the event, while the text for the literature was written by Denis Walton and was printed by Torbay Council printing department.

William Kitson (another well-known local figure) was Churchwarden at that time and perhaps it was not too surprising that he and the local clergyman the Reverend Smith had secured the services of a well-respected local architect George Edmund Street to both design and build their larger church alongside the Chapel of Ease.

It all took 18 months from design to build, and yet when the Bishop Phillpotts (based in of Exeter) came to view, he having absolute control of the diocese of Devon and Cornwall Churches, now discovered the dreams of Rev Parks-Smith had turned into reality, as he had chosen to use another High Church sympathiser Edmund Street to create the church.

With the church expected to open to the public on Palm Sunday 1871, the architects decorous items as built into its fabric and a sculptured reredos depicting the crucifixion were two-steps too far for this strict Anglican Bishop.

He immediately banned the opening of the Church and it took two long years before the public gained entry and then four more years before the Tower was finally added. This was completed by George Street (Edmunds son), as both now both Edmund and the Bishop (at age 90) had died.

It would not be until 1951 that the illuminated Memorial Cross was finally added to the tower of St John, courtesy of a local regular worshipper at the church. This was the wife of Cyril Maude a highly regarded actor/manager of the Haymarket Theatre in London before the First World War, who had even served as President of RADA twice until his death in 1951.

His wife thought it would be a fitting memorial to her husband if a large illuminated cross, could be added to the tower - being as she said - an inspiration to others.

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