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Torquay - Paignton - Brixham


Southfield Methodist Church


Copyright © Revd John Searle 1990

Southfield Chapel is the oldest non-conformist place of worship in Paignton. It's origin lies with a small group of Congregationalists who began   meeting in 1816 under the leadership of the Revd T W Windeatt who was minister of a flourishing Congregational Church in Totnes. These first worshippers faced considerable opposition and, for a while, met secretly in the kitchen of 'Lashbrook', a property that included 'Myrtle Cottage'. A member of this small house-church writes that "The Lord raised up one or two persons of respectability and influence to cherish this infant cause and in public and decided manner to declare their determination to assist in providing a place for the preaching of the gospel." Mr Richard Hunt, yeoman, gave a plot of land in the Barn's Hill area, surrounded by three roads - Kirkham Street, Chapel Street and Long Cross Lane. A memorial plaque inside the chapel commemorates the fact that 'Richard Hunt of Torbay Mount, the builder of this place of worship, Born 20 June 1777, Died 26 April 1849' is interred in a vault beneath the Chapel.

The foundation stones were laid on 24 February 1818. The building measured 11.5m by 8.7m (40 feet by 30 feet). On Thursday 5 November in the same year, the completed Chapel was dedicated for 'the worship of Almighty God and the preaching of the gospel'. There were three services in the morning and a service in both the afternoon and evening! The following Saturday, 7 November, nineteen men and women gathered for a solemn dedicatory service conducted by Revd Windeatt, and were constituted an Independent or Congregational Chapel.

A month after the inauguration of the new church, the Revd John Sewell of Wymondly College, was invited to become the first minister. He was ordained in 1821, by which time there were thirty-seven members and one hundred scholars in the Sunday School. John Sewell was succeeded in 1826 by the Revd Richard Gill, who also had pastoral responsibility for the first Independent Chapel at Torquay.

By a Trust Deed dated 14 March 1823 the 'Meeting House in Paignton was transferred by Richard Hunt to the Independent (Congregational Trustees).'

Membership continued to increase and on 31 December 1831, land adjacent to the chapel was purchased from Richard Hunt by the Trustees for a School House and Burial Ground. There is a Burial Plan dated 1837 which records provision for twenty-four graves in the forecourt of the Chapel, and a strip of land at the rear of the Chapel and Schoolroom reserved for burial, as well as a small number of interments under the actual chapel and schoolroom. Two of the headstones from the forecourt now rest against the front wall of the chapel, between the present porch and the boundary wall.

Eventually it was decided to build a much larger chapel on a site in Dartmouth Road, and the former Paignton United Reformed Church was opened there in 1875. The original Chapel, School House and Burial Ground were conveyed to Miss G C Hunt on 31 December 1883. On 18 January 1884, the property was conveyed by Miss Hunt to The Bible Christians trustees for the sum of £350. Roger Thorne describes the origin of the Bible Christian denomination: "The Bible Christians were the smallest of the major Victorian Methodist denominations and their chapels were heavily concentrated in the South Western counties of Cornwall, Devon and Somerset." This reflects their origins in rural north Cornwall and North Devon when a charismatic but unpredictable lay evangelist, William O'Bryan (1778-1868) left the Wesleyans in 1815 and began to gather little Methodist societies from amongst villages and hamlets. In the early days he came into contact with the Thorne family of Shebbear village in North Devon and James Thorne (1795-1872) became the denomination's second leader. The denomination spread south across Devon but did not encircle Dartmoor, and their circuits in South Devon were separated and not as successful as in the north.

A separate Torquay circuit, formed in 1847 had chapels in Torre, Marldon and St Marychurch. Marldon did not survive very long and as the years passed by the Bible Christians started short lived preaching places in and around modern Torbay, but Paignton became a serious centre only about 1870, although it is not known where they first met. For the Bible Christians to buy the old Congregational chapel was something of an act of faith as they had only 23 members, although congregations would be many more than this.

An interesting reflection of the times is seen in a resolution in the Circuit Records of March 1887, when the Salvation Army asked to borrow the chapel for a holiness meeting. The poor Methodists were bewildered by this new martial religion and recorded "The Quarterly Meeting was strongly against it as a whole". (1)

In 1907, the Bible Christian Connexion joined with the Methodist New Connexion and the United Methodist Free Churches to form the United Methodist Church. 1932 saw a larger union of the United Methodists with the Primitive and Wesleyan Methodists to form the Methodist Church as we know it today.

Roger Thorne writes: "As we see them today the chapel and house are a welcome survivor of Georgian architecture within the conservation area and near the busy centre of Paignton. They make a valuable contribution in an area where some of the built environment is not of great quality. To use an unfashionable word, the chapel has charm with its rendered and colour-washed front complete with elaborate Victorian lettering. The side and rear walls that are prominently visible from the main road are local red sandstone and the low pitched roof with its wide projecting eaves is typical of its date. The interior is an interesting mixture of Congregational and Methodist taste with an array of memorial plaques, some up to 140 years old.' (2)

One of these plaques is in memory of the Congregational minister, the Revd Thomas Slatyer, and bears the inscription, 'for 7 years Missionary to the heathen in the South Seas and for 2 years Minister of this Church and Congregation. Born Olney 27 January 1817, Died Paignton 15 August 1854'. Another plaque commemorates Zoë Browning Varwell, born in Brixham 26 April 1851, died in Paignton 12 December 1893. On the other side of the chapel, a tablet records that her husband William Williams Varwell, born 25 February 1845, died 2 July 1929, was 'for many years a devoted member of this Church and remembered as a devoted follower of the Master and a faithful officer of the Church and a friend to us all'. William W Varwell was a direct descendant of Peter Varwell, a Brixham fisherman who, in 1688, is said to have carried ashore William of Orange (later King William III). The granddaughter of William and Zoë Varwell is a member of the church today. A more recent plaque is in memory of Thomas Watts who died in 1965 and who was a 'devoted member of this Church and who will be remembered by many for his preaching and sick visiting'.

Considerable restoration work appears to have been undertaken at the beginning of the twentieth century. The front wall of the chapel was extended upwards to form a mock gable, hiding the hipped roof behind. The present porch and lobby were added, extending the building over part of the original forecourt and burial ground. There is an inscription above the porch door which says:

B 1823
R 1903

This has caused some confusion regarding the age of the chapel. Anniversaries have been held assuming that 'B 1823' referred to the completion and dedication of the building, whereas it most likely refers to the date when the chapel was formally transferred to the Independent Trustees. `R 1903' probably refers to the restoration work mentioned above. Prior to re-plastering the gable wall in 1983, it bore a circular design enclosing the date 1903. The front wall still carries the original inscription, 'Bible Christian Chapel'

The 150th Anniversary celebrations were held from 8 July to 2 September 1973, although this was actually the 155th Anniversary of the dedication of the building. Among the guest preachers was Revd J Russell Pope, Chairman of the Plymouth & Exeter District and, at the time, President Designate of the Methodist Conference. The history and character of the property was recognised when, in November 1975, the Chapel and adjoining Chapel House were 'Listed' as buildings of special architectural interest.

Eight years later, a considerable sum of money was raised to renovate the structure of the chapel. This included the reconstruction of six window arches, widening of internal doorways, provision of new swing doors, the installation on a new platform of a pulpit donated by Goodrington Methodist Church, new acoustic loudspeakers, new carpets and curtains, and the redecoration of the interior and exterior of the chapel. At the same time the old organ was replaced. The Official Re-opening of the Renovated Premises and Dedication of the New Organ took place on 5 February 1983. The service was conducted by a former minister, Revd Raymond J Pearce, and the dedication performed by the Chairman of the District and President-designate of the Methodist Conference, Revd Amos Cresswell, MA. The organ was purchased from a former Bible Christian Chapel, now Twelveheads Methodist Church near Truro, where it had been installed in 1923 by Hele & Co, of Plymouth. The instrument was rebuilt in the Southfield Church by Mr Lance Foy, Mr Len Baldwin and helpers. The instrument was thoroughly overhauled and repaired with various mechanical and tonal improvements to bring it up to date. In making tonal alterations, some of the original Southfield pipe-work was utilised. A new spotted metal mixture stop was provided to give the instrument brightness in sound, new side casing made, the front pipes repainted and the remaining casework cleaned, stained and re-varnished.

During recent years the apex of the chapel's front parapet wall has been repaired and re-plastered, all the flat roofs re-surfaced and lantern lights renewed. Several of the arched windows have been repaired and rising damp in the southwest wall has required extensive remedial work. The interior of the chapel has been redecorated together with the Schoolroom. The Quinquennial Inspection of 1989 revealed that further costly work was needed to re-point the solid, but ageing sandstone walls. The adjoining 'Chapel House' where the Caretaker and his family live, has required the replacement of its Georgian style sash windows and outer doors.

At the turn of the century, membership was approximately one hundred, more recently it dwindled to a few loyal supporters and it seemed as though the Church would be closed. However, the membership has grown again and now stands at 40+.

After a lapse of some twenty years, a Sunday School recommenced in January 1984 but, unfortunately, has had to go into abeyance due to the lack of children living locally.

'Southfield Methodist Church' as it is now known is noted for its hearty, tuneful singing which has in the past been led by a small but excellent choir. Sunday worship is held at 10.30 and it is a pleasure to welcome many holidaymakers and visitors.


Philip Cudmore - 1922
Douglas D. Dibble
Wilfred T Shallard
James L Powell
William Tubb
George F Walters
Sidney Quick
Kenneth Woodruff
Fred Sparrow
William Rickard
William Partridge MA - 1950
Ernest C Gimlett - 1951
C F Burden Hunter - 1960
Alex Bush - 1961
Raymond Horn - 1962
Raymond Pearce - 1967
Frank Rothwell BA - 1974
John D Searle BA, BD - 1983
Gordon C Chambers - 1991
Nigel C A Deller - 1995
Paul Saunders - 2004
Dermot Thornberry - 2009
John Haley - 2013

Information regarding former ministers, photos and any other historical information would be much appreciated and will be included in further editions of the Southfield History booklet.


Thanks are expressed to Ernest E Britton for sharing some of the fruits of his research into the history of old Paignton and for providing the Burial Plan and to Roger F S Thorne, Hon. Archivist of the Plymouth & Exeter District of the Methodist Church for the notes (1) and (2).

Click here to read a history of Paignton (Palace Avenue) Methodist Church

Click here to read a history of the Methodist Church in Torquay