The parish church of St Mary’s in Bideford looks historic but for the most part only dates from some 140 years ago.
In the 1850s stiff competition from the town’s nonconformists forced churchgoers to consider updating their church, which dated from around the 14th century.
After some intensive fund raising, work began in 1862 with the demolition of all of the old building bar the tower.
The contract was given to EM White, a local builder and one-time Mayor of Bideford who put in a tender of £3,758 for the work with the architect being E Ashworth of Exeter.
Rebuilding took three years and the re-opening occurred on January 12, 1865.
Built in the ‘perpendicular Gothic style’ the communion rail and altar were carved from ‘old oak belonging to the furniture of the former church’.
The whole was lit by 17 brass gas burners. Rather oddly the new church held 1,200 people – where the old one had held 2,000 – though this had only been possible due to the presence of ‘awkward galleries’ around the walls which were not replaced.
The opening ceremony began with a civic procession headed by the band of the Bideford Rifle Volunteers and 120 men in full uniform. They were followed by the Mayor, councillors, 58 clergymen and a vast number of townspeople.
Arriving at the church the proceedings began with the Bishop of Jamaica (standing in for the Bishop of Exeter) consecrating the building and taking the first service.
At its completion the congregation sat down to a lavish dinner and after eating spent some time toasting everyone connected to the undertaking.
Unfortunately the rebuilding had seen many graves dug up, with the gravestones having later disappeared – although there is a rumour they went to build a patio nearby.
The series of carved heads on the outside of the church had been produced by the Seymour Brothers of Taunton and were modelled on generous local donors to the rebuilding - but one rather unflattering one was of a person who had annoyed Seymour senior!
I only know of two contemporary photographs and they are reproduced here.
Both show the eastern wall with the new, large stained-glass windows yet to be filled just appearing above Chester’s Hotel (later Tanton’s).