St Peter’s Church, Plymouth

In some ways I have been putting off recording something of the history of St Peter’s. Not because it’s not fascinating and wonderful, but because there is so much! So where to begin?

Many have written about St Peter’s over the last 160 years or so. Articles, books and other records commemorate the great works delivered to cholera victims by the Sisters of Mercy and the remarkable Rev. George Rundle Prynne. There is a wonderfully detailed biography on the Rev. Prynne by A. Clifton Kelway (1905) and many other books recording something of the development of the Church at Wyndham Square.

St Peter's circa1922.jpg
St Peter’s Church, Plymouth, c1922

So I’m not looking to replicate that work; instead today’s post takes its historical account from notes written on Plymouth Churches for the Anglo-Catholic Congress at Plymouth in 1929:

S. PETER’S CHURCH (Wyndham Square) will be forever memorable in the history of the Catholic Revival for the long years and devoted labours of Fr. Prynne, whose name is a household word among all Anglo-Catholics who remember his defence of the Sacrament of Penance and his restoration of the daily Eucharist in the Church of England. His long incumbency of 55 years covers the whole period of the fight for the Catholic cause of which he was indeed the leader for the West of England. If only for his sake, S. Peter’s has been, and is, a place of pilgrimage and interest to the Anglo-Catholic, who has entered into the inheritance for which he fought.

The parish dates from 1848, when it was carved out of the mother parish of S. Andrew, under the Church Extension Scheme of Bishop Phillpotts. At the time its population numbered 5,137. In 1874, when the daughter parish of All Saints was separated, it had reached 15,414. Today is is about 11,000.

Fr George Rundle PRYNNE- Vicar of St Peter's Church, Plymouth 1848-1903
Fr. George Rundle Prynne, Vicar of St Peters, 1848-1903

The church in its present form dates only from 1882, but the chancel and vestries were built in 1850 as an addition to an old rectangular chapel, known as Eldad*, which was secured by Fr. Prynne on his appointment in 1848, as the nucleus and foundation of his future work. It is for this reason that October 5th, 1850, the date of the consecration of the chancel, has always been looked upon as the date of the Dedication, rather than February 1st, 1882, when the actually existing church was consecrated. The tower was completed in 1906.

The Schools were built in 1858 from the design of Mr G. H. Street, and the Mission Chapel in Octagon Street in 1862.

Fr. Prynne, who died on the Feast of the Annunciation, 1903, was succeeded by the Rev. H. M. Downton, who held the living for sixteen years, and faithfully maintained the traditions of the parish. It was largely through his efforts that the present useful Parish Hall and the Vicarage House were secured, though the purchase of neither was actually completed at the time of his regretted death. It is to Fr. Downton also that we owe the securing of S. Dunstan’s Abbey as a Girls’ School by the Community of S. Mary the Virgin, Wantage.

Fr Hugh Malden DOWNTON- Vicar of St Peter's Church, Plymouth 1903-1919
Fr. Hugh Malden Downton, Vicar of St Peters, 1903-1919

Two beautiful memorials commemorate the first and second Vicars of S. Peter’s; the painting of the Church Triumphant over the chancel arch being the memorial to Fr. Prynne, and the Rood that of Fr. Downton.

As April marks the anniversary of the Plymouth Blitz, 1941 it would be remiss of me not to mention the destruction of the beautiful interior of St Peter’s by enemy action.

St Peter’s Church was hit during the night of Monday 21 April and the early morning of Tuesday 22 April 1941. Although not demolished (the church wasn’t hit by high-explosive bombs) the church was entirely destroyed internally by incendiary bombs. Therefore the exquisite detail and beauty of this church was entirely lost.

Rev. G B Hardy, Rural Dean in St Peters, April 1941
Poignant: The Rural Dean, Rev. G. B. Hardy inside St Peter’s after the 21/22 April 1941 raid

This particular air-raid formed the first night of the “April Blitz”. In all there were to be three successive nights, 21, 22, 23 April and 28, 29 April. Much damage has already been dealt to Plymouth during the “March Blitz” although St Peter’s had escaped that tragedy.

The Church was reconstructed in the post-war years and continues to be a bastion for the Anglo-Catholic branch of the Church of England. A reordering and restoration in 2007 enhanced the beauty of the interior of the building, although its modern crucifix and other fixtures divided opinion amongst some.

St Peter's 2008
St Peter’s Church after the reordering of 2007

Regardless, it is very good to know that something of Fr. Prynne’s legacy lives on in Plymouth today.

[*A separate post about Eldad Chapel will follow – as will further information on St Peter’s and the wonderful Fr. Prynne…]

© Graham Naylor

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