Recently I was fortunate to purchase a unique piece of Plymouth’s religious history; a ceremonial trowel – the one used to lay the foundation stone of the Wycliffe Chapel at Morice Town on 7 May 1855.
The trowel is engraved:
Alfred Rooker Esquire
on the occasion of his
laying the foundation stone
of the Congregational Chapel
May 7th 1855
Eager to read about the ceremony attached to the laying of the foundation stone I took a look in the local press of the time and found a superb article within the Devonport Independent and Plymouth and Stonehouse Gazette* of 12 May 1855, as follows:
LAYING THE FOUNDATION STONE OF WYCLIFFE CHAPEL
On Monday last, the ceremony of laying the foundation stone of Wycliffe chapel, to be erected at Morice Town, for the use of the congregation worshipping under the ministration of the Rev. John Pyer, Independent minister, was performed by Alfred Rooker, Esq., of Plymouth.
The site selected is on the south side of Navy Row, [now Albert Road] adjoining the road leading from Tamar Terrace, (where the natural fall of the ground will render the edifice an open and conspicuous object), and is peculiarly suitable as there is to be a school-room and apartments under the chapel. The design is by Mr James Hine, architect, of Plymouth, and the contract of Mr Torring, builder, has been taken for the erection of the building, exclusive of the boundary wall and railings for £1810.
The chapel will seat about 600 persons. It will be in the style of architecture which prevailed in England in the fourteenth century, and will consist of a nave and aisles, with an entrance porch at the north end; the length of the building within the walls will be 65 feet, and the width 44 feet. There will be a vestry at the south end, from which the pulpit will be approached. In front of the pulpit will be the communion enclosure, raised two feet above the floor of passages, and surrounded with a rail and ornamental iron work. A gallery will be provided at the north end for children. The roofs wil be open, of red pine, and stained; the walls of dark limestone, with free-stone door ways, windows, pillars and arches. The two south windows will, probably, be filled with stained glass. Below the chapel will be a large school room, two class-rooms, chapel keeper’s rooms, &c., and adjoining the chapel on the east, a parsonage house, containing ten rooms.
Though the weather was very unpropitious, rain having come on just previous to the appointed hour, eleven o’clock, there was a large number of persons present to witness the interesting ceremony. The assembly having joined in singing two hymns, the Rev. John Pyer, engaged in prayer, after which the architect presented Mr Rooker with a silver trowel bearing the following inscription: – “Presented to Alfred Rooker, Esq., on the occasion of his laying the foundation stone of the congregational chapel, Morice Town, Devonport, May 7, 1855, by James Hine, architect.”
The trowel was then used by Mr Rooker to spread the mortar, on which the stone was laid; the plumb and square were applied, and the ceremony of laying was complete.
Mr Rooker gave a long, eloquent and most appropriate address, in the course of which he said, – We desire that it should be regarded as a solemn service when we seek to lay the foundation stone of a building that is to be devoted to the service of God. Succeeding generations did not stand alone, for they were each one united with the past, and had definite relation to the future. We labour for the future, when we endeavour to advance the moral and religious condition of the present, or when we so labour, that its material results shall be enduring. We seek to effect both these objects today in laying the foundation stone of a building, which is to be permanently set apart for the worship of God in this place, and for the religious instruction of a people. But there are special claims which render such services as the present deeply important. Not only is the population of this country rapidly increasing, but the tendency of modern society is to aggregate an undue proportion in our larger towns. In this immediate neighbourhood especially, the population has grown most rapidly, and it is evident that if in every place of religious worship in this suburb, the gospel were simply and purely taught, there would still be a necessity for more. But we are engaged today, not only in the discharge of a duty, but in this solemn act we bear our testimony to important principals. Against prevailing and avowed scepticism we thus express our assured belief that the gospel of Christ shall continue to be taught, and that firmer than this foundation stone it will still resist the assaults of infidelity; and on the other hand, in the erection of this simple structure, for plain and scriptural worship, we bear our testimony against superstition and formality. We erect this building as Protestant Dissenters, and in doing so we affirm our belief that our nonconformity is in accordance with the Bible, and is worth all the sacrifices we make for its maintenance; in erecting this chapel we express our conviction for the value of evangelical truth – taught in the Sabbath school, (and there is to be the school as well as the chapel) and taught from the pulpit, as it will be taught by the reverend friend, earnestly, lovingly, and faithfully. We trust that our friend who is most intimately concerned in this event may be spared to witness the completion of the building – speedily, with satisfaction to himself and without accident to those who are engaged in its erection: that he may find the hearts of the people open to liberal contribution; that he may be permitted to labour successfully, with the divine blessing within its walls; and that here in time to come, when we have all passed away, the truth may be fully and faithfully preached by those who may follow him.
Mr Rooker then referred to the design of the building, complementing the architect on its chasteness and suitability.
It was intended that the Rev. E. Jones, of Plymouth, should deliver an address on the occasion, but in consequence of the state of the weather, it was deemed advisable that it should be deferred until the meeting in the evening.
The Rev. A. Hampson, of Princess-street Chapel, in an eloquent and fervent prayer, asked for divine aid to crown with success the work they had that day commenced. The proceedings then terminated.
The building work was completed by the following summer and the Chapel opened for worship on 26 June 1856.
It was to continue in regular use from 1856 until the dark days of WW2
Modern day residents of Plymouth can be forgiven for knowing little, or nothing of the Wycliffe Chapel. Like much else of interest, both historical or socially, the Chapel was lost during the April Blitz of April 1941 when so much of Devonport, Morice Town, Stoke, Keyham and surrounding areas were destroyed by the Luftwaffe.
The ruins stood on Albert Road until their eventual demolition in May 1957 – just 102 years since the great foundation stone laying ceremony.
After the Blitz, the Wycliffe congregation continued to worship together with other Congregationalists and later in 1959 they built the Pilgrim Congregational Church on St Leven Road, Keyham – not far from their former home on Albert Road.
Interestingly, the foundation stone laying for the Pilgrim Chapel in January 1959 incited a great interest from those connected to this new church, or to the former Wycliffe Chapel.
The Western Independent of 18 January 1959 reported the ceremonies, similarly to those in 1855, but rather more briefly…
Watching the foundation stone laying ceremony of Pilgrim Congregational Church yesterday afternoon, was Mr Ted Slade, – the man who struggled in vain to save its predecessor, Wycliffe Church, Albert Road, during a devastating air raid 18 years ago.
On the evening of April 21st 1941, incendiary bombs rained down on Devonport during one of the German raids: six of them crashed through the high gabled roof of Wycliffe Church. Mr Slade who lived only a few yards away at 1 Drummond Place, hurried to the church with which he had been associated since his Sunday School days.
“It happened between eight and nine o’clock in the evening” Mr Ted Slade told a Western Independent reporter (he still lives at Drummond Place). “I managed to put out five of the bombs, using sandbags, but one caught in the rafters where I could not reach it.”
Realising that the church was going to be destroyed, Mr Slade made his way through the burning building to the vestry. “I opened a drawer and took out some of the church records. The others were locked away in a safe and I could not open it and they were destroyed.”
The records saved by Mt Slade who works in Devonport Dockyard, turned out to be the marriage register.
“We had to wait for six hours before the fire brigade came – from Launceston” he declared. There were fires everywhere, of course.
“The remarkable thing was that, although the stone church was gutted, the wooden Young Men’s Club adjoining the Church was not badly damaged”. This hut was used by the congregation after the loss of their 100 years old pseudo-Gothic church.
Mr Slade although just recovering from an attack of bronchitis, took part in the ceremony yesterday. He offered a prayer of thanksgiving.
The foundation stone of the new church was laid in drenching rain by the Minister, the Rev. Ralph L. Ackroyd.
Before the ceremony, a service, attended by about 100 people, was held in the hall, which has served as a church since 1953. Among those present was the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress, Alderman and Mrs G. J. Wingett, and Miss Joan Vickers, MP, for Devonport.
A threshold stone from the old Wycliffe Church was laid by Mr Harold Dollimore, a senior deacon.
After the destruction of the Wycliffe Church by enemy action in 1941 only 15 to 20 members of the church remained, said Mr K. A. Hancock, the church secretary. They met until January 1950 in a small wooden club hut which stood next to the church but had survived when the limestone built church was destroyed.
Then, nine years ago, a temporary nissen hut church was opened in St Levan’s Road, on the site on which the new church will stand.
Among those taking part in the Service were Mr David Parkin, secretary of the Plymouth Congregational Council, the Rev. E. Quick, chairman of the Devon Congregational Union, and Mr H. J. Wheeler, chairman of the South Devon Congregational Union.
A guide published in 1959 to record the opening of the Pilgrim Congregational Church made reference to Wycliffe Church:
In April 1941, the buildings in Albert Road were gutted by fire from incendiary bombs, but a remnant of the members met at once and decided that the life of the Church must continue. For nine years they worshipped in the Men’s Club Hut at the rear of the ruined Chapel.
In 1949 during the ministry of F. J. Holley, the decision was made after long deliberation and much prayer to unite the remnants of the two Churches, Wycliffe and Whitefield. It was no easy decision as the future of Albert Road was not then decided, nor the extent of the new Dockyard. Through the help of the Reconstruction Fund, raised by all the Churches of the Congregational Union of England and Wales during the war, a nissen hut was bought and erected on the site in St Leven Road. It was beautifully furnished, partly by the generosity of the members and partly by gifts from many Churches all over the country. In January 1950 the new Church was formed and took the name of ‘Pilgrim’.
Plans were drawn at once so that a permanent building could be erected as soon as possible. A start was eventually made in December 1952, just as the ministry of R. L. Ackroyd began. This Hall-Church – now the Whitefield Hall – was completed and opened in December 1953, and was used for worship and for many of the Church’s activities until 1959. It was paid for by War Damage compensation from the old Whitefield Chapel, and was furnished by the giving of members and friends.
The War Damage Commission agreed to port the compensation for the Wycliffe Chapel and schoolrooms; the old site was sold to the Plymouth Corporation and the money invested.
In the summer of 1957, the way opened for plans to be approved, and in August 1958 work began on the site, the nissen hut having been demolished in part by the Church’s own voluntary labour.
The link with the old Wycliffe Church has been further preserved by the laying of one of the outer threshold stones from Albert Road in the entrance of the new building. This was laid by Harold Dollimore, Senior Deacon, on behalf of all who laboured to keep the Church alive during the long years of war and gave themselves to its rebuilding. The main threshold stone, over which for a hundred years men and women, boys and girls, passed for worship at Wycliffe, lies buried directly beneath the Communion Table in the new Chapel.
The new Chapel opened for worship on 28 November 1959.
The creation of the new Pilgrim Church stirred up memories from some former Devonport residents:
It is most pleasing to see that the Pilgrim Church thrives in Plymouth today; therefore something of the spirit of Wycliffe Chapel lives on in Plymouth and that is a wonderful thing indeed.
Pilgrim Church, Plymouth has a website: http://pilgrimchurchplymouth.org.uk/
NB: I would be delighted to hear from anyone who knows anything more on the history of the old Wycliffe Chapel or has photographs of the building they would like to share. This is one of those blitz casualties whereby little photographic evidence seems to exist…
* Microfilm for this title and various other newspapers for Plymouth from the 19th century to present day are available for consultation at the new Plymouth Central Library, Armada Way, Plymouth [email: firstname.lastname@example.org for more information]
© Graham Naylor