Celebrating Torbay Methodism in a burger bar

The Blue Plaque on the site of The Chapel in the Meadow

The Blue Plaque on the site of The Chapel in the Meadow - Credit: Archant

This week the story behind one of my earliest Blue Plaques unveiled at the site of the first Methodist Church in Torquay.

Mrs Ena Hocking, when chairman of the society, had originally been approached to put up a plaque to commemorate the Methodist Church at what was their first home in Fleet Street.

Built on the site of two cottages the ‘Chapel in the Meadow’ as it was named in the 1800s, was later demolished to make way for a drapers shop and then Rockheys of Torquay, which much later became our Dingles store of Torquay.

Eventually, as the Fleet Walk complex emerged, Gowrings Food Group then established a Burger King outlet, exactly on the site of what had been a Chapel.

With permission to proceed obtained from Torbay Council, planners and Gowrings, I then contacted the Methodist Minister Reverend Peter Williamson who was the main superintendent in Torbay.

Now fun arose, when he suggested he would ride into Torquay in full Methodist uniform on a horse, to mimick what John Wesley would have done had he been alive. That idea was soon scotched as council wanted an entertainments licence and a ‘wild animal’ license purchased, and required permission from the police to be on hand to keep ‘law and order’.

Meanwhile, having received permission from Burger King to go ahead, the unveiling event would be in the afternoon of Thursday, October 18, when all attending would be invited to Burger King’s first floor room, so that we could provide refreshments while the formal addresses from the minister, Torbay mayor and yours truly could be undertaken.

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Now a second point of fun. We soon learned it was very traditional whenever Methodists met to sing and you can perhaps imagine on a quiet weekday afternoon in the downstairs burger bar, amazement to customers when in the upstairs room of their shop, 80 hearty voices suddenly starting singing unaccompanied hymns.

The event was a huge success and memorable day not least because as a 90-year-old member of the original church, Mr Leslie Callard, assisted the mayor in pulling the chord to expose the Blue Plaque to the world.

Burger King were the main sponsors on this occasion and no advert was included being a religious event. With many members of oher churches with us at the event, they came to see what Torbay Civic Society actually did at such events. Many years later at least three different church followings approached the society when we arranged similar unveilings.

Finally, it is right I thank the late Owen Nankivell for his help in putting forward the original request and idea of honouring the start of Methodism in Torquay.

It was he that also suggested recently-retired Lorna Smith, the research librarian at Torquay Library, be asked to write the draft for our ‘collectors leaflet’, which of course she did.

Owen even suggested many of the words on the plaque - ‘In 1807 two cottages on this site became the Chapel in the Meadow, the first Torquay Methodist Church in the town. From this beginning has grown today’s Methodist witness in Torbay’.

The Chapel in the Meadow was vacated in 1853 when a larger Methodist premises required and established in Rock Road.

Then came the expansion of Fleet Street, when those premises were becoming too difficult to find and a new chapel was built at Babbacombe Road, which was to serve both members of the central and eastern parts of the town.

Its foundation stone was laid in 1873 and the Babbacome Raod Chapel opened in 1874.

A pamphlet ‘The First Torquay Methodist Church 1807’ - The Chapel in the Meadow - can be obtained by sending postage stamps to the value of 50p, plus a stamped addressed envelope to Torbay Civic Society, Suite 1, Palace Avenue Business Centre, 4 Palace Avenue, Paignton TQ1 1DE.