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Victorian Ilfracombe

The Baptist Church

High Street

Although Baptists can trace their history in England back to the beginning of the 17th century, it was not until 1851 that a Baptist minister from Barnstaple and one from Bideford, came to Ilfracombe to start a church in the town. They preached in the assembly rooms, then part of Coronation Terrace in Portland Street, and it was there that the first Baptist Church began in 1852 with seven members. In 1854 they moved to "eligible premises which were turned into a neat and commodious chapel at the cost of 60, capable of accommodating 200 persons". This was on the present site in the High Street and the doorway of this chapel can still be seen as the entrance to the schoolroom in the passage leading to Springfield Road. It is in a simple Norman style.

K line-drawing

The present church was built in 1891 to the plans of the local architect, W.H. Gould (1849-1937) who gave the Clock Tower and Oxford Grove to the town as well as many other buildings. He chose the Perpendicular style here, the latest of the Gothic styles and unique to Britain. As its name suggests the vertical is emphasised, especially in window tracery, and here an example can be seen in the large window that dominates the upper part of the street facade. Below is the main entrance, a richly moulded two centred arch within a square frame with carving in the spandrels (the spaces between the frame and the arch), a typically late Gothic feature. The buttresses on either side are more decorative than structural, but the one on the left is continued upwards to form a delicate spirelet, surrounded by a circle of slender columns with an arcade of pointed arches. Gould has used reddish Combe Martin stone with irregular coursing (snekking) and freestone for the dressings.

Until 1935, a terrace sloped down across the front of the building and the entrance only needed two steps. The removal of the terrace to widen the High Street, gave extra height to the church, but made it necessary to have a flight of six steps, making access more difficult, but providing an enjoyable climb for passing children.

Since the church is shut in on both sides by other buildings, there could be no side windows and Gould overcame this by giving the church low side aisles (like a medieval church) with a continuous clearstorey of windows above. These were supported on slender iron columns and the main nave was covered with a fine hammer beam roof. This has been hidden in recent years by a false ceiling, which also cut across the arch to the organ recess at the "east" end and concealed a fine rose window above. In the last year glazing below the clearstorey has given a glimpse of the roof and let in daylight. There is a fin marble baptistery, but the central pulpit has been removed. As in many other chapels, the area under the gallery has been screened off to make a very useful foyer and meeting room which was used to entertain the crowds at the Christmas "turning on of the lights", and provides an excellent base of the annual street collection for Christian Aid. The gallery has also been screened off, but with clear glazing so that parents with young children can still share in the worship.

I am grateful to Mr and Mrs V. Pugsley, for details of the history of the Baptists in Ilfracombe and for pictures of both the exterior and interior of the church before the changes referred to in this article were made. Copies of the Centenary History (1951), and the photographs, are now lodged in the Ilfracombe Museum.

Jim Bates - August 1998

Created 20/4/99