St James the Less, Plymouth

This is the first in a series of articles I’ll be writing on the history of Plymouth’s superb Anglo-Catholic churches – the vestiges of which have nearly all gone…

During its lifetime the Church of St James the Less, Plymouth held the accolade (amongst some) as Plymouth’s most beautiful church. It held itself up as a successful, and occasionally persecuted, bastion of Anglo-Catholicism in Plymouth. The Church was located behind the Duke of Cornwall Hotel on Clarendon Place, (Citadel Road). The site is now occupied by St Andrew’s CofE Primary School.

I truly love this long-gone Church. Indeed, this was the first “lost church” in Plymouth to get under my skin and I felt I needed to research it to bring it back to the memory of Plymothians and all interested in the Oxford Movement.

Photographs of St James the Less certainly depict a beautiful, sumptuous and ornate church – where in some respects no expense was spared in the provision of ornamentation for the Greater Glory of God.

The Church had a life span of less than 100 years; the Parish was constituted an ecclesiastical district apart from the Parish of St Andrew, Plymouth in 1847 under an Act of Parliament commonly known as “Sir Robert Peel’s Act.” It was destroyed during enemy action on the night of 20 March 1941 – the first night of the Plymouth Blitz.

The history of the Church from 1847 to 1911 was ably documented and recorded by Mrs Dorothy Frances Gurney (1858-1932) – a poet and hymn writer – perhaps known best for penning the wonderful words:

“The kiss of the sun for pardon,
The song of the birds for mirth,
One is nearer God’s Heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on Earth”

Dorothy’s husband, the Rev. Gerald Gurney (1862-1939) was Curate at St James the Less and this enabled her to write a particularly interesting and informative history. Copies of her “short history” were sold in 1911 on behalf of the church funds and surviving editions are rare. A copy is held at the Plymouth and West Devon Record Office; I was lucky enough to purchase a copy from a second-hand bookshop in Looe!

Dorothy Frances Gurney
Dorothy Frances Gurney, 1858-1932

Gurney’s account of the early history of the Church is very interesting as it records the employment of Russian prisoners, taken during the Crimean War, as labourers used to set out the foundations:

The first incumbent or perpetual curate was the Rev. W. Hookey. During the eleven years of his incumbency all that was accomplished was the purchase of a site – very inconvenient, but the only one available – and the laying of the foundations of the church. This was done by the Russian prisoners taken in the Crimean War, who were confined in the Millbay Barracks just opposite the church. We might give them a thought when we pray that God will have mercy on all prisoners and captives. The Barracks were pulled down in 1909 and the present park was made on the ground they formerly occupied. These foundations remained for years in a very neglected and desolate state, an eyesore and reproach to the neighbourhood. Meanwhile, services were held in a room in a building called “the Union Baths,” which at other times was used – as its name denotes – for baths and also for many other incongruous purposes.

The early services were as Gurney says held in the old Union Baths on Union Street. The Union Baths had seen rather a change in fortune. At their creation in 1828 (by Foulston, architect) Union Street was a very desirable residence; the introduction of the railway in the late 1840s brought a change in social dynamics and the gentry soon left to inhabit areas in Stoke Damerel or Mannamead.

Royal Union Baths.JPG
Royal Union Baths, Plymouth, c1830

So it was here in the Union Baths and later a room in a property in Bath Street that services were held until 1861.

On 3 May 1860, the building of the permanent church was begun from designs by Mr [James Piers] St. Aubyn, and the first stone laid by James Yonge, Esq., an old inhabitant of the parish.

Gurney takes the history forward:

In the following year, 1861, the chancel, the organ chamber, the south aisle, and a small portion of the nave, reaching only to the first column, were completed, and this part of the church was consecrated on October 24 by Dr Aubrey Spencer, Bishop of Jamaica, as the Bishop of Exeter, Dr Philpotts, was incapacitated by old age.

The House of God thus dedicated to His worship is still, after fifty years of existence, incomplete, and cries aloud to those who love God and the Faith to make every effort before the close of the Church’s Jubilee Year to present it to Him as a finished thank offering for the many spiritual privileges they have known in its worship and ministrations.

It’s interesting to note that in 1911 works still had not been completed, as per the architect, St Aubyn’s, plans. Indeed the intended works were never to be completed before her destruction in 1941.

St James the Less subscribed to the Anglo-Catholic movement – and this was much loved at the Church. Gurney says:

We also find in 1873 the first mention of a chasuble in the list of expenses, and subscriptions to the English Church Union and to the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament, showing the Catholic trend of the church. The statements all end with pathetic appeals for more money to carry on the work of the church.

The wearing of vestments for the “Mass” was somewhat controversial in those days and it took a further eleven years before the Church introduced a yet more controversial addition to the liturgy – incense…

On October 26, 1884, being the Sunday within the Octave of the Dedication Festival, incense was first used at the Consecration of the Eucharist, a use which has continued unbrokenly to this day.

The 1880s marked a period one could label as progressive at St James the Less. The church was highly embellished during this and the subsequent decades – transforming the incomplete and plain church interior to something beautiful and radiant.

Gurney takes up the story:

On October 29, 1885, in the Octave of the Dedication Festival, the present font was placed in the Baptistry, as a memorial of the nine years work of the Rev. F. Gurney as vicar. It is an octagonal bowl on a pedestal and pillars of polished local marble, and was made and erected by Messrs. Goad, of the Phoenix Works, Millbay. It was solemnly dedicated by the vicar in the presence of Mr Gurney and a large congregation. A brass plate was inserted in the north wall of the Baptistry with the following inscription: “To the Greater Glory of God and for the Increase of His Kingdom and in grateful appreciation of the nine years’ work as Vicar of this Parish, of the Rev. Frederick Gurney, M.A., this Font has been erected. October 24, 1885.”

At the same time Lieut.-Col. McLaughlin, R.A., then parish churchwarden, gave an image of Our Lady and the Holy Child, which was blessed and set over the altar in the Lady Chapel. This image is now raised and placed in the Gothic canopy at the side of the altar. In the years following 1885 the familiar names of Messrs. Swain, Pridham and Woollcombe appear on the lists of the church officers, and in 1891, just twenty years ago, there is a significant entry in the records which we quote in the hope that the year 1911 may see a similar entry. “Mr Mellor reported that the whole debt had been wiped out, and that a small balance in hand remained.”

Lady Chapel Altar, 1911

By the turn of the C20 the church had seen a great deal of “improvement” and restoration and a change in leadership arrived in 1903 by the appointment to the Church of the Rev. Reginald Hanbury Miers.

The Rev. Miers continued, much in the 1880s tradition of embellishing the beauty of the Church and he bestowed a number of beautiful gifts to the Church. Gurney’s history records:

Mr Miers gave a very fine old Spanish crucifix to the chapel, but subsequently removed it to make room for the present beautiful little Renaissance crucifix, which was more in keeping with the candlesticks.

The Guild-Chapel, or Chapel of the Precious Blood, was enriched by the present splendid red altar hangings, old silver crucifix, candlesticks and lamp. These, and the beautiful banner of the Blessed Sacrament, were the gift of Mr Miers.

In 1907, perhaps the most striking addition was made to the Church by the installation of a stunning hanging Rood. This Pugin-esque addition was very much in the tradition of our medieval forebears who would have been well used to such striking images in our parish churches.

The Rood

The vicar and his sister, Mrs Arthur Vizard, gave a superb hanging rood, designed by Mr Kitsell and carved by Mr Hunt, in memory of their parents, Richard Hanbury Miers, and Elizabeth Ann, his wife. The figures on the rood are remarkably strong and dignified, and remind one of the best old German work. Seen from the west end of the church this rood is extraordinarily impressive; its severity is thrown into relief by the colour and jewel-like setting of the high altar, and when the west doors are open during service in the summer there is generally a small crowd in the street, drawn primarily, no doubt, by the beauty of the scene. Let us hope that many passers-by carry on with them some though of the crucified Saviour as they go on their way.

Towards the end of 1908 the organ was discovered to be in a dangerous state of disrepair, and the floor or the church was infested with dry rot. This brought about the need and ability for some serious restoration and beautification!

Gurney again takes up the history:

In 1910 the exceedingly mean and ugly little wooden screen and equally ugly stone pulpit were taken down, and two very beautiful alabaster ambone, the gift of the vicar, were erected on either side of the chance arch. These are joined by side screens of alabaster and gates of wrought iron, beneath which are circular black marble steps. The gates, which are remarkably beautiful, were carried out by Messrs. J. W. Singer & Sons, from designs by Mr Kitsell, and were given by the Guild of King Charles the Martyr, founded the year before by the vicar, for the object of restoring and beautifying the House of God. To this Guild we also owe the exquisitely carved and painted canopy over the high altar, and the later alterations, decorating and painting of the roof, arches and pillars of the chancel.

The Church was now very much in its “completed” state and there were no further large scale additions to the church fabric until the destruction of 1941.

St James the Less (post 1911) (2)
The interior of St James the Less, c1940

The eloquent prose of Dorothy Gurney sums up her history in a beautiful fashion. It seems most fitting to finish therefore with some of her own summary:

This short account of St James’ Church would be quite worthless if it left the reader with an idea that the church is only a beautifully decorated building for the maintenance of a dignified and splendid ritual.

It is more, far more, than that. It is a spiritual force, and its priest and people have to thank God for wonders of conversion and healing scarcely short of miraculous.

Over and over again have passing strangers said of the church: “There is something here, an influence, we don’t know what, but we feel it.”

One of these, a sailor, remarked to the vicar: “It there were more churches like this, sir, we should not forget God.” And another said that, though he was an unbeliever, he came every day while he was in Plymouth and sat in the church because he found peace, and a “Something” there which puzzled him.

The abiding presence of Our Lord in His Sacrament is the explanation of the wonderful hold St James’ Church has over the unbelieving passer-by, but is also due in part to the real devotion to our Blessed Lord in the Sacrament felt by the vast majority of the congregation.

Newcomers say that they feel at home in our church, and that “people seem nice to each other in St James.”

This is a fact for the deepest thanksgiving, and it is not set down here in any spirit of boasting or rivalry, but merely to incite the worshippers in St James’ Church to still higher devotion, and loving kindness, to a very great humility in the presence of the Sinless One, and to a more fervent desire to bring others to our own joy in the Faith once delivered to the Saints.

It might be of interest to ecclesiastical historians (especially those, like me, who love researching early Anglo-Catholic churches!) to know the names of the clergy of St James the Less:

Rev. George Stephen HOOKEY, priest, 1847-1858
Rev. James BLISS, priest, 1858-1872
Rev. Harvey MARRIOTT, ­curate, 1861-1864
Rev. S. W. E. BIRD, curate, 1867
Rev. Thomas Curling LEWIS, curate, 1871-1873
Rev. Horace Stone WILLCOCKS, priest, 1872-1875
Rev. Ibbott Alfred MASON, curate, 1873
Rev. Frederick GURNEY, priest, 1875-1884
Rev. SCOTT, curate, 1875
Rev. Newton William John MANT, curate, 1875
Rev. Geoffrey Barrington SIMEON, curate, 1879
Rev. Charlton OLIVE, curate, 1879
Rev. Charles BENSON, curate, 1879-1885
Rev. T. C. A. BARRETT, curate, 1883
Rev. William Humphrey CHILD, priest, 1884-1898
Rev. Charles Edward GANDY*, curate, 1885-1886
Rev. Henry Charles LANG, curate, 1887-1889
Rev. Charles Roydon Worsley HUGHES, curate, 1888
Rev. Arthur Gordon STALLARD, curate, 1890
Rev. Francis Wilfrid OSBORN, priest, 1898-1903
Rev. John Henry ROBINSON, curate, 1901
Rev. Reginald Hanbury MIERS, priest, 1903-1918
Rev. Frank Powell WILLIAMSON, curate, 1903-1907
Rev. Maurice CHILD, curate, 1912-1917
Rev. Thomas Clement WOOLLCOMBE, priest, 1918-1931
Rev. Edward Courtis BARNICOAT, curate, 1918-1928
Rev. John Leonard NOSWORTHY, priest, 1932-1940
Rev. Charles L. WRIGHT, priest, 6 March 1941 [two weeks before destruction of Church]

*Converted to Rome, 1888; Ordained Priest at Plymouth Cathedral in 1891 and was Bishop’s Secretary; later became Monsignor Canon Gandy of Sacred Heart, Exeter and at St Mary, Axminster (1916)

I, for one, cannot help but feel and lament the loss of this beautiful church – for although it is long gone from memory in those who actually worshipped there – it lives on in part, with the “new” St James the Less, built at Ham, Plymouth in the post-war years.

© Graham Naylor