Not until 1840 that Bible Christians emerged as a group in Torbay

Torbay Weekly

The stories behind Torbay's blue plaques by Ian Handford, chairman of Torbay Civic Society. This week: Southfield Methodist Church

The request for a blue plaque at Southfield Methodist Church, Paignton, came from the local Christian group in September 2017.

Having never visited the church previously, their request, as we say, came 'out of the blue'.

Yet, having visited the church to meet group members, I was astonished to find the church/chapel with its adjoining accommodation was far larger than seemed possible on what seemed a small site.

The church alone is worthwhile visiting, as internally it is, in fact, a magnificent property.

With no minister in residence, the church sits across the junction of Cecil Road and Southfield Road, and is attended by circuit ministers yet has Methodist community members in residence.

I was aware the church was listed and so my first action was to get my committee on board and then pursue permission for a plaque with Torbay Council planners.

With that achieved, arrangements for an event could proceed. Sponsorship of plaque and literature came courtesy of the Methodist Church although our normal advertisement seemed inappropriate so the space was donated to the church to both welcome and promote its services.

The foundation stones of the chapel had been laid in 1818 and it now seemed opportune to arrange the unveiling date to coincide with the 200th anniversary date of when the trustees took ownership of the property.

With the listing problem overcome, and the wording of the plaque agreed, we finally received the plaque from the foundry in January 2018.

With a further visit arranged, this time to fix the unveiling date as March 17 and arrange publication of the literature, this would be written by Catherine Stead, circuit administrative secretary at Goodrington, who also provided photographs.

The Christian Bible Church site was originally a place of burial and today it retains just two of its early 1875 gravestones, both leaning against the chapel porch and boundary wall.

With a much earlier 150th anniversary celebrated during the summer months of 1973, it took eight years for additional money to be raised to mount the next stage to progress the chapel, when it was improved by six new window arches, a new pulpit - donated by Goodrington Methodists - new carpets and curtains and an organ donated by another small Bible Christian Chapel at Twelveheads in Truro.

Today's church retains much of its Georgian architecture while its interior has much 'lettering' reflecting its Congregational and Methodist heritage.

One plaque - and there are many - relates to a William Williams Varwell (1845-1929) being a direct descendant of Brixham fisherman Peter Varwell, who is believed to be the man that carried the Prince of Orange ashore at Brixham in 1688.

The Bible Christian group Paignton were one of many small Methodist congregations, which would eventually merged in 1907 or 1932 to form the modern day Methodist Church.

The origins and heartland of these early Bible Christians had started in North Devon and Cornwall with their initial meetings held at Shebbear from 1815.

It would not be until 1840 that the Bible Christians in Paignton finally emerged as a group in Torbay.

The unveiling of the Torbay Civic Society plaque at Southfield Methodist Church eventually took place as arranged on Saturday, March 17 2018.

The formalities were carried out by chairman of Torbay Council, ceremonial mayor Anne Brooks and her escort William Taylor and the Reverend Dr John M Haley, superintendent.

With the unveiling at the front wall of the chapel completed everyone then moved inside to see the church while refreshments were being served in a side room.

Finally, we all returned to the pews for some final presentations from speakers to be made.

The wording of the plaque confirms: "This plaque commemorates 200 years of Christian worship in this church by Congregationalists, Bible Christians and Methodists sustained and strengthened by the Lord".