In the early 1830s, Bridgetown expanded as a bourgeois suburb of Totnes and in 1832 the eleventh Duke of Somerset, Edward Adolphus Seymour, built the chapel of ease to St Mary’s, Berry Pomeroy at a cost of £7,000. It had galleries and seated seven hundred worshippers.
The Duke appointed the Revd James Shore, a young radical preacher to be curate. He drew crowds of dissenters to hear his sermons.
However, when a new vicar of Berry Pomeroy was appointed in 1841 Shore’s licence was not renewed and a triangular paper chase developed between the Tractarian Bishop of Exeter, Henry Philpotts, the Duke and the Preacher which eventually resulted the chapel being closed in 1843 for five months.
Seven hundred parishioners signed a petition and in 1844 the church was re-opened as the first Independent Free Churchin England.
Things got more complicated however and Shore was arrested for preaching without a licence while in London and was imprisoned in Exeter gaol for three months. Subscriptions were raised by supporters in London and Totnes to pay his legal debts to the Bishop and Shore returned to Bridgetown to continue his popular ministry until 1862.
Shore moved to Buxton to develop the hydrotherapy business there but was sadly killed in a fall from his horse in 1874. He and his family are buried in Bridgetown cemetery.
In 1869 the church returned to Church of England and then was refurbished in a more ornate style with a screen and fancier pulpit. It was finally consecrated in 1888.
The church continued with a loyal band of hard working fund raising ladies and a popular Sunday school in the school rooms but was damp and huge to heat.
On the morning of July 9th 1976, fire broke out by arson gutting the whole inside. Over the next four years insurance claims and hard work fundraising resulted in the church being rebuilt with a more modern and flexible worship area with hall and rooms for community use and was re-consecrated by the Bishop of Exeter in 1980.
With the advent of the Revd Roy Harris the church had partnered St Mary’s in Totnes but developed its own St John’s style of friendly, informal and flexible style of worship also attracting worshippers from a non-conformist background.
Reverend James Shore
James Shore, the first curate of St John’s, was evangelical and a great speaker. Hundreds of people came to the services. When a new vicar, William Cosens, was appointed in 1843 he realised that Shore had been preaching without a licence for nine years, and because he disagreed with his views, he refused to nominate him to the Bishop for a licence.
The Duke decided to make his chapel a Free Chapel, an independent church, under the Toleration act. Shore was reluctant at first, but 800 members of the congregation signed a petition that they wanted him to continue as their minister.
The building was registered as a Dissenting Meeting House in February 1844, and after swearing oaths and signing a declaration Shore opened the church in Bridgetown as the first congregation of the Free Church of England on 14th April 1844.
The Bishop summoned James to an ecclesiastical court. He would not license James Shore to preach at Bridgetown, and forbade him to minister as a dissenter as he held Anglican orders.He ordered Shore to pay £300 costs.
St John’s Church became famous nationally as sympathetic Anglicans and non conformists supported Shore’s cause and spoke on his behalf around the country.
Shore had an ally,the Editor of The Western Times,Thomas Latimer, who wrote a scathing attack on the Bishop in the newspaper. Philpotts took Latimer to court in 1846 for libel, but, against the odds, he lost the case .
The Bishop continued to condemn Shore for preaching in non conformist churches as a previous Anglican and without a licence. He was arrested at Spa Fields chapel and told to pay the fine or go to prison in Exeter jail.
The minister of Spa Fields appealed to the public through The Times newspaper; 5000 people came to a public meeting in Exeter Hall in response to this. They tried to persuade the Bishop to agree to moderation, but he would not change his mind. James remained in prison for three months and eventually the committee raised money to pay his debts by public subscription and James was released .
In Pevsner’s Devon (Buildings of England series) James is described as “the evangelical fighter and martyr.” James Shore was reinstated at St John’s. He drew large crowds to the services.
Shore left Totnes in 1862. His health was failing and he had rheumatism. He joined another dissenter, Mr Smedley, in opening a hydrotherapy project in Matlock, Derbyshire.
In 1874, Shore died in a riding accident in Derbyshire. His body was brought by train to Totnes and his grave is in St John’s churchyard. His wife, daughter and grandson are also buried there.
He brought St John’s to national fame and played a big part in the breakaway of the Free Church movement.
- From Easter onwards there are daily guided tours of St Mary’s Church.
More information is available from:
- History of St John’s Church Bridgetown by Joy Hanson, 2006
- The Buxton Hydro by Peter Lomas, 2007 Axbridge Press Country books – detailed history of James Shore
- Totnes Museum study centre
- Totnes Image Bank