Baptist Church Bovey Tracey


Frances Billinge B.Sc., M.Sc., Ph.D


The development of the Baptist church in Bovey Tracey is traced from the mid- 1700s until the end of the Victorian era (Fig. 1). At the start of the nineteenth century there was a surge in baptisms and the church maintained a steady congregation throughout the period of study. The picture develops of a church being fully involved in the local community, and being an important provider of education for poorer families through its Sunday School. In the latter part of the nineteenth century a willingness to be ecumenical is evidenced.

Figure 1. Baptist Church Bovey Tracey. Frances Billinge 2018.

The National and Local Picture of Church Allegiance

After the Reformation and the Civil War there had been many developments in religious practice. The established church continued to be the Church of England  church, also known as the Anglican Church, but many other denominations had emerged.

Churches developed which could be considered as derived from the old forms of dissent. These were the Independent or Congregationalist churches; the Baptist church which divided into General Baptists (who subscribed to the Arminian standpoint) or Particular Baptists (followers of Calvanisitic beliefs); Unitarians who had derived from Presbyterians; and also Quakers. As well as these churches there were Methodists of whom Wesleyan Methodists (followers of Wesley’s teaching) were the largest group. This was also a time when other new churches were established such as Plymouth Brethren, Bible Christians, ‘Christians’, Church of the Latter Day Saints.[1] After the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 the Roman Catholic church was able to develop more openly.[2] As people may have been worshipping in houses and other settings before their places of worship were built we cannot be sure when a particular church first started.

The Development of Baptist Congregations Nationally

The beliefs of early Baptists help us to understand the later development of the congregation in Bovey Tracey. A Separatist Baptist church, true to Calvanist teachings, emerged in Southwark in 1616. It was committed to the practice of believers’ baptism and in 1644 described each congregation as ‘a compact and knit city in itself.’[3] This followed the view that a true church was believers coming together.[4] This acceptance of the autonomy of the local church, and its ability to function fully even without an ordained minister, enabled small and sometimes isolated and persecuted congregations to survive. It also reflected their total rejection of a separated priesthood, and a desire to avoid any form of ecclesiastical hierarchy, which were two elements of the established church they most considered as unscriptural.[5] We will see that this belief was to be a significant contribution to community development in Bovey Tracey.

The end of the 1700s was an important period of religious changes in the country and the development of the Baptist church. Up until then Baptists had not been numerically significant in comparison with other dissenting groups, but from a disparate group of isolated churches they gradually came together to form common identities and purpose and so became a developing church movement.[6] In 1813 the Baptist Union was established as a society of ministers and churches and this became a national body in 1820.[7] By the time of the 1851 religious census in some areas fifty percent of churchgoers were non-conformists, which included Baptists, showing how significant non-conformity had become.[8]

As we will see the Baptist church in Bovey Tracey grew from the early 1700s. Was this because it was a predominantly rural area?  A study of the geographical incidence of the development of Baptist churches from 1770 concluded, ‘The truth is that there was no simple equation between agricultural society and agrarianism, or industrial parishes and dissent’.[9]

Development of Baptist Churches in Devon

As Baptist congregations developed in both urban and rural areas throughout the land it is no surprise to hear of one developing in Bovey Tracey. The Baptist Home Missionary Society started preaching in Devon in 1798, undertaking a 146-mile circuit the following year and preaching seventeen times in seven days to considerable congregations. It expressed the hope of acquiring meeting-houses to allow for winter preaching.[10] This work continued over many years and the preachers changed from itinerant preachers to settled ministers as churches, and also itinerant societies, developed throughout Devon.[11]

In his 1885 study David Thompson described the development of all the Baptist churches of north Devon and showed how they had evolved in the late 1700s and early 1800s and increased during the Victorian era.[12] We will see that this is mirrored in Bovey Tracey. In 1907 Case described the history of the Baptist church in Tiverton and again it showed similarities to Bovey Tracey, not least that its congregation was of a similar size of 146 members by 1843.[13] in particular Case referred to the importance of the Sunday school, and we will see that this was mirrored in Bovey Tracey.[14] He also described how at centenary services addresses were delivered by representatives from other congregationalists such as  the Wesleyans and Bible Christians, again similarities will be seen in Bovey Tracey.[15]

These studies show that Baptist communities developed in Devon from the late 1700s and their congregations increased to a steady number by the middle of the 1800s. Preaching, Sunday Schools and the provision of teas were popular. For example Great Torrington had 280 members by 1846, and Barnstaple had 650 attending for tea at a centenary meeting in 1861.[16] Churches moved from very small to larger premises. They started Sunday schools which were well supported, for example Bideford taught 232 children on a Sunday.[17] Their ministers generally complained that although large numbers attended to hear the preacher they were less willing to actually be baptised.[18] All of these things were also evident in Bovey Tracey.

The Baptist church nationally developed ‘associations’ which fostered engagement at the local and area and national.[19] Such an association which met annually was evident in the South West from at least 1799. Bovey Tracey Baptist church became part of this association with the minister or deacons attending and reporting on progress in Bovey Tracey.

Shepeard has described that there was variety within these congregations and to consider them as coming under a certain label is misleading.[20] The working of their individual church can best describe each congregation so the Baptist Community in Bovey Tracey was a developing community of worshipers.

The Early Years of Bovey Tracey Baptist Church Within the Local Community

At the time of this rise in non-conformity, the Church of England held a prominent position both geographically and spiritually in Bovey Tracey. The parish church stood, as it still does, in a commanding position at the top of the town. The Lord of the Manor was William Courtenay, a prominent member of the Church of England, who later became Earl of Devon. He lived at Powderham Castle.

Bovey Tracey was administered by two sets of courts, one for the manor and one for the borough. The manor court holders of office were farmers. The borough court office holders were merchants, traders and farmers of smaller holdings. As well as the courts there was a parish vestry, this was overseen by the vicar, and its members were farmers, and those such as the local surgeon, and the local Anglican schoolmaster who were protestants.[21] This meant that in these early years representatives of the Baptist community were not likely to have been appointed as officers to any of the bodies of local government, as at that time they were not local major land holders or prominent business men.

It is within this context of the Church of England’s strong representation in all areas of local government together with changes happening across the country that the local Baptist church developed. But other things were about to happen in Bovey Tracey which assisted this movement for change.

Development of the Baptist Congregation

There are various records which help to describe the Baptist church congregation as it developed. The National Archives holds the Baptist church register from 1789.[22] At Devon Heritage Centre there is also a handwritten copy of baptisms bound in the ‘Dissenting Baptist Church Book’ starting from 1747  and continuing until June 1875; the frontispiece describes it as ‘Got for William Bastow of Brimley by William Bastow’. This is a retrospective document, and seems to be written in the same hand, so is likely to date from no earlier than 1875.[23] (Fig.1). The 1747 date is a retrospective conjecture taken as the birth date of those members recoded as dying in the late 1700/early 1800s, we cannot be sure that they were Baptists earlier in their lives. However a conveyance deed has been found which shows that there was a meeting house on Hind Street by at least 1710 and later in the Bovey Tracey Borough Rental of 1756 refers to feoffees paying rent for a meeting house, and we know this was the term used to describe the Baptist Meeting House in later documents. More information on this will be discussed below in the section on the Meeting House.[24]

On the 1851 religious Census the minister wrote that the church was formed ‘ before 1800’ so he did not know of an exact date.[25]

Bovey Tracey Heritage Trust holds a photocopied document of a handwritten transcript, inscribed inside as a transcription of a transcription, which is of the Dissenting Baptist Church Minute Book. This transcript runs from 1798 to 1879 with some gaps (Fig.2) As with the previous record it is all in the same hand so likely to date from no earlier than 1879.[26] Both of these records, although transcripts are helpful as they do not contradict each other.

Figure 2. Part of Transcription of the Baptist Church Bovey Tracey Minute Book 1795- 1879. Bovey Tracey Heritage Trust, by kind permission of Viv Styles, Chairman.

Other records used to build knowledge of the history of the Baptist Church are the Land Tax Assessment 1780, Bovey Tracey Tithe Map and Apportionment 1841, deeds held at Devon record Office, and newspaper reports from 1828.

From these records it would seem that the Baptist community was firmly in place in Bovey Tracey from at least the middle of the 1700s, and we know the meeting house was established by at least 1710. The congregation included people from Ilsington, Lustleigh, Liverton, Chudleigh, Moreton[hampstead] and even Stoke[in-teignhead] and [St] Mary Church.  Analysis of the baptisms from 1790- 1870 shows that the church had seventy five  baptised members by the 1790s, the numbers reduced for the next 30 years and then increased again to their highest number in the 1840s coinciding with the arrival of a new minister. After that they reduced until the 1860s when numbers showed a slight increase. Records are not available for later dates.  Births registered by the minister remained steady throughout that time amounting to approximately ten per year, but as these young children would not have been baptised, unlike the Anglican church, the numbers of baptised members of the congregation did not increase accordingly.

Table 1. Incidence of Baptisms at the Baptist Church Bovey Tracey by each 10 years from 1790-1870.

In the early years the congregation was formed mainly by farmers with smaller holdings, tradesmen, pottery workers and unskilled labourers, together with their wives but did include others such as Miss Puddicombe who was of independent means. At this time the landed gentry and farmers of the manor mainly supported the church of England, but we will see that this changed in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Baptist Church Meeting House

Where did the Baptist community meet? The first evidence, as mentioned above is in a conveyance of 1710 followed by the Borough rental of 1756. In the latter those owing rent on Number 47 in the rent roll were the ‘feoffees at the meeting house’, and the rent was 6d per annum. This was a comparatively low rent. The site of this Meeting house was between Francis Coniam’s barn and courtlage and Mr Richard Ford’ house ‘formerly the Lamb Inn’. By the time of the 1761 rent the latter was described as ‘formerly the Union Inn’.[27] The Lamb/Union Inn was where the Cromwell Arms is now, not far from the current Baptist Church.

There is also an indenture of 1800 referring to a transcription of an indenture of December 1772. These documents confirm that land had been obtained by 1772 and was leased to Rev Joseph Lee Sprague in 1800 so that he could celebrate divine service for a congregation of certain dissenters. This land was held by Henry Weymouth of the city of Exeter and John Jackson a gentleman of Bovey Tracey, they and others held it in trust as it had been conveyed to them for the purpose of erecting or keeping a meeting house. [28] This was for,

‘All that tenement messuage known by Hen Street now converted to a meeting house for a congregation of certain dissenters commonly known by the name of or  denominated Baptists and all grounds now inclosed and held in annex to said meeting house  all which premises hitherto in possession of Benjamin Wills  and his tenant. Rent of one Barley Corn on the last day of the term of one year.’

This means that by at least 1756 land was available on Hind Street for a dissenting meeting house. The land had previously been owned by Benjamin Wills. It came into the possession of Weymouth, Jackson and others for the purpose of erecting a meeting house for Baptists. By 1800 Rev Sprague was the minister and his lease was annual but the rent was one barleycorn- that is almost nothing.

The next evidence is the Land Tax Assessement of 1780 which referred to tax ‘for a house by the meeting house’, the proprietor being described as ‘belonging to the meeting house’ and with no occupier. The house had a tax of 3s. It is not clear where this meeting house was sited but on the list it comes after Henstreet (sic- in more recent times the street became Hind Street rather than the phonetic spelling) and before Pludda. Both of which were under the proprietorship of Samuel Mead, and occupied by Samuel Mead and Mr Coming [Cuming].[29] This is firm evidence of there being a meeting house by at least 1780. The 1772/1800 indenture mentioned above confirms the site as Hind Street.

Later in 1800 another indenture informs us that the need for land at the meeting house was increasing. This showed that Moses Savery and John Hamlyn were selling a piece of land 70 feet by 58 feet in length next to the ‘Hen Street Meeting House adjoining to the burial ground’ and next to Hen Street Great Gate, again for one barley corn rent. This gives us the names of all the prominent men of the congregation and that they were purchasing more land next to the meeting house and its burial ground. This means we also know that the burial ground was in place by at least 1800. The men involved were John Jackson gentleman, Rev. Jospeh Lee Sprague, George Furze yeoman; Stephen Bastow yeoman, Richard Hamlyn butcher, all of Bovey Tracey. Together with William Bastow yeoman of Highweek, William Milford a draper from Chudleigh, John Paddon junior a yeoman from Ilsington. With them were Isiah Birt and William Steadman reverend clerks, Richard Clarke a linen draper, William Tucker and Thomas Nicholson grocers, all of Plymouth. Together with Henry Weymouth esq, Rev. Daniel Sprague, George Culverwell a draper and Thomas Westlake a gentleman, all of the city of Exeter. This shows the support which the Baptist chapel development had from the wider area of Devon and the merchants and yeoman who were willing to invest in it.[30]

Just five years later the congregation was increasing so that the adjoining dwelling house was bought in order to enlarge the church. To pay the £130 purchase money a subscription was set up. This purchase was on a lease and this time the annual rent was a peppercorn.[31] By 1807 the enlargement of the church was complete and had cost £190. This was paid through £54 from local subscriptions and the rest through fundraising at Lyme, Dock, Exeter, Chard, Trowbridge etc. By 1823 the new meeting house was being built and was roofed.

Further land was acquired in June 1825 as shown by a conveyance. The land was a garden south west of the meeting house with Hen Street on the north east, and Hen Street Higher Orchard on the north west, a plot 16 and a half feet wide and the length of the orchard wall called Hen Street Higher orchard. It had previously been owned by John Burd gentleman of Teignmouth and William Nosworthy, a yeoman from Chagford. It was leased to John Savery, a surgeon from Hastings. The rent was one peppercorn a year. This again shows the status of those involved in the land acquisition for the chapel, and the low rents asked for the land. [32]

In 1839 the meeting house ‘of certain congregational dissenters commonly known as Particular Baptists’ was  leased for a year from and Rev. J.L. Sprague, and William Tucker to Mr William Bastow yeoman, George Paddon draper, Thomas Rowell yeoman, Christopher Hore yeoman, Jonas Steer a shoemaker- all of Bovey Tracey; Philip Michelmore a draper, Richard Bastow a grocer and Edward Bearne a gentleman, – all from Newton Abbot; John Mortimore and Stephen Kingwill both yeomen from Ilsington ; George Paddon a yeoman from Newton Bushell; Thomas Pinsent a gentleman from Kingsteignton;  Arthur Ashby a painter, James Commin a gentleman, William Davis a bookbinder and Andrew Granville an accountant and Nicholas Williams Tanner  a druggist , and John Wilson a cabinet maker  – all from Exeter; John Norman a basket maker from St Thomas; for a peppercorn. Such a conveyance shows the complication of land transactions at that time. The deed shows us who the significant members of the church were as they were the ones involved in the land transactions. This was repeated in 1840.[33]

On the 1841 Tithe Map the meeting house is shown as sited on part of its current footprint on Hind Street (Fig. 3). This is supported by the 1841 Census which listed William Brock, Baptist Minister living on Hind Street.

Figure 3. Bovey Tracey Tithe Map, Showing Meeting House on Hind Street between Nos 692, 694 and 695.

In 1857 some ground was given by Mr William Burd for the erection of a vestry in connexion with the chapel at the cost of about fifty-five pounds. This was opened in 1858 with a visiting preacher and a public tea attended by 150 people.[34]

In 1867 Thomas Rowell of Abbotskerswell conveyed to the trustees of the Baptist chapel a parcel of land which was part of the garden/orchard next to Hen Street Lane number 1477 on the Tithe Map, to be used as the site for the minster’s dwelling house. This gives us the names of the trustees at that time being- William Bastow yeoman of Bovey Tracey; Thomas Rowell, George Paddon yeoman, and Philip Michelmore of Newton Abbot; Edward Bearne gent. of Teigngrace; Thomas Pinsent gent. of Kingsteignton; Arthur Ashby a painter, James Commin, Rev C Evans, William Davis bookbinder, Andrew Glanville accountant, Nicholas William Tanner a druggist, and John Wilson a  cabinet maker -all of Exeter. The amount paid was £10.[35]

By 1882 the surviving trustees all became joint tenants of the Baptist chapel these were William Hawkridge tailor and draper, William Bovey butcher, Samuel Passmore  butcher, John Heywood [sic] brick and tile maker, Walter Haywood Brick and Tile maker, all of BT;  William Ferrell of Newton Bushell a brewer; Joseph Tarr evangelist, John Tarr builder, W. Thuell cabinet maker all of Torquay; Charles Watt jun. brushmaker, Charles Bernard Tuckett a manufacturer, Henry John  Lean an accountant, Henry Serpell an ironmonger,  Henry Hurrell a corn merchant, William Babb a biscuit manufacturer, Edward Watt a brush manufacturer – all of Plymouth,   Richard Harvey Daw of Marsh Mills a miller; William Henry Ball of East Stonehouse a flour dealer being all the surviving trustees.[36]

Local legend describes this area as being the site of an ancient priory. There is no evidence for this. The site was of a medieval merchant’s house built in the 14th/15th Century in a prime position in Bovey Tracey with a field and water meadow sweeping down to the river.[37] Part of the medieval house still exists and has the misleading name of being called Cromwell’s Arch. This was a nineteenth century aggrandisement from a newspaper sketch in 1894, with Abbey Road being named in 1925 and the road called Priory appearing in 1930. Monk’s Way, the by-pass, was named in 1988.[38] The first suggestion that there ever was a priory in Bovey Tracey came from a member of the Baptist church, William Ellis who had emigrated to America.[39] In 1885 he wrote articles about the ‘history’ of Bovey Tracey to sell to an American newspaper, reprinted later in a South Devon newspaper. These were gothic tales of monks and nuns and lords of the manor marrying penniless orphans and so on. Later Ellis stated that they were fictional. In 1930 Mrs Hole of Parke chose to re-print these tales and clearly stated that they were just legends. Unfortunately some local historians have been taken in by them.[40] Aggrandisement of medieval buildings is not uncommon and Bovey Tracey is one of many places to fall into this trap of the imagination.

The Baptist Burial Ground

This is referred to in the church records as ‘The Protestant Dissenters’ Burying Ground’, with the first record being the burial of Richard Furse in September 1788. Richard Savery had died 1784 and was noted in the church register as being buried in the parish church yard which suggests the burial ground was not available for him so it was started sometime between 1784 and 1788 (Fig. 4).

Figure 4. First Baptist Burial Ground. Frances Billinge 2017

A hundred years later a larger burial ground was needed and a conveyance if 1886 shows that part of Hen Street Higher Orchard was purchased for £5. The land had been owned by John Ball Pinsent a gentleman of Newton Abbot and Evan Edwards a Baptists minister of Torquay. This land was conveyed to the trustees of the Bovey Tracey Baptist Meeting House. By then the trustees were Edward Snelling Bearne a land agent of Teigngrace; William Hawkridge a tailor and draper, William Bovey and Samuel Passmore both butchers, John Hayward a brick and tile maker – all of Bovey Tracey; William Ferrell a brewer of Newton Bushell; Jospeh Tare an evangelist, John, John Tarr a builder, Henry Thuell a cabinet maker – all of Torquay;  Charles Watt jun. a brush maker, Charles Bernard Tuckett a manufacturer, Henry John Noon Lean an  accountant, Henry Serpell and William Babb both biscuit manufacturers, Henry Hurrell a corn merchant, Edward Watt a brushmaker -all of Plymouth; Richard Harvey Daw a miller of Marsh Mills Plympton St Mary; and  William  Henry Ball of East Stonehouse. This shows the range of occupations of the men willing to support the chapel, and also that they did not all live locally.[41] This refers to the burial ground above the chapel (Fig. 5).

Figure 5. Second Baptist Burial Ground. Frances Billinge 2017

The Baptists Ministers until 1870

The minute book lists the pastors allegedly from 1656 but as yet supporting evidence has not been found for ministers prior to 1799. The ministers who undertook baptisms were Rev. P. Gibbs from 1775; Rev. Mr Symons from 1776; Rev. Mr Daniel Sprague from 1780; Rev. H. Penn from 1785; Rev. Mr Giles from 1792; Rev Birt came after this and he was followed by Jospeh Lee Sprague who had a long incumbancy from circa 1796/9-1839.   Sprague’s presence is confirmed by later newspaper reports and the first peak in baptisms coincides with his arrival. After Sprague resigned he was listed on the 1841 Census as living at Bridge House next to the river, which was later lived in and enlarged by John Divett the co-owner of the local pottery (Fig. 6). Local legend suggested that Sprague had conducted baptisms in the River Bovey but there is no evidence for this; the river was fordable so it is a possibility. Rev William Brooks followed Sprague in 1839 and there was a second peak in baptisms. After him came W. Carter in 1856, then Mr J. Keller from 1857 who left in 1870.

Figure 6. Rear View of Bridge House Fore Street, later known as Riverside and now a Co-op stores. Frances Billinge 2017.

Development of the Baptist Church before the Victorian Era

The minute book records that the church attended the South West Association meeting in 1799 and reported that it had a good congregation. The deacons listed were Moses Savery and George Furze.

Other Baptist ministers were invited to preach at church meetings and this pattern of involvement of others, and the importance of preaching continued, for example in 1806 three such ministers visited and two of them were named as Mr Burt and Mr Roberts. By this time the congregation was 84, as already baptised people moved in to the area, although the minister noted that seldom more than 50 actually attended.

Two years later in 1808 the congregation wrote to the Bishop of Exeter seeking to register the Meeting House as a religious place of worship for a congregation dissenting from the Church of England. Such registration had been a requirement since the Toleration Act 1689.[42] In this letter they described their church as having been ‘…set apart and been used immemorially and is still continued for a religious place of worship…’. The letter was signed by fourteen members of the church being Rev. Mr. Joseph L. Sprague, Moses Savery, Stephen Daymond, Chris Hore, Philip Winsor, Robert Frost, Isaac Martin, John Lamble, William Samson, George Leaman, Stephen and Thomas Taverner, William Brown and John Jackson’. Similar letters were also sent in 1837, and in that year there is a record of the certificate being granted. [43]

A bequest was made in 1810 from John Jackson who left income from shares in a canal near Coventry in his will, ‘for support of a gospel ministry of the Calvanisitic instruments and Baptist persuasion in Bovey Tracey in the meeting house near Hen Street after the death of his sister. This he left in trust to the minister Joseph Lee Sprague, Moses Savery serge maker, Thomas Prowse and William Coniam potters all of Bovey Tracey, and John Paddon jun. of Ilsington a yeoman.’[44] This tells us who the key figures in the church were at that time. This will had been written in 1798 which re-confirms that the meeting house was in Hind Street by that date. Jackson’s sister, Elizabeth Morris died in 1808 April and was buried in the Baptist burial ground. The Savery family have a memorial in the chapel (Fig. 7).

Figure 7. The Savery family memorial Bovey Tracey Baptist Chapel. Frances Billinge 2017

By 1810 there were 119 members of the church which rose to 120 in 1812, but the minister explained that only 70/80 attended as some lived a great distance from Bovey and were too poor or infirm to travel. By 1817 the number had risen to 135- the highest figure to date.

By 1819 Moses Savery had died and the new deacon was Jonas Steer. After this the numbers reduced slightly to around the 120 number. Jonas’ wife Grace has a commemorative plaque in the church (Fig. 8).

Figure 8. Plaque to Grace Steer whose husband Jonas was a Deacon. Frances Billinge 2017.

In 1825 we learn that, following the death of George Furze, George Paddon had joined Joseph Steer as Deacon.

By 1828 the minister started to refer to the congregation reducing to 90.


1831 saw the start of an important development for both the church and the parish as a whole. Sunday schools started in common with other parts of the country. At the start the Baptist Sunday school  comprised 70 children who were taught by  seven of the congregation but by the time of the Parliamentary Enquiry of 1833 into education provision  it had increased to be the largest provider, ‘Three Sunday schools, at one (of the established church) are 40 males and 41 females- at another (of Weslyans) 42 males and 49 females- at the other (of Baptists) 127 children of both sexes- these schools are supported by subscriptions.’[45] Thompson described similar developments throughout North Devon, for example at Appledore by 1854 there were 190 children in the Sabbath school with 21 teachers.[46] It is considered that such developments of education for the poor can to a large extent be attributed to the work of dissenting groups.[47]

The hand-written Accounts Book for the Sunday School in 1832 listed the annual subscribers as Mr Sprague, Mr Jonas Steer, Mr George Paddon, Mr James Jackson, Mr Richard Savery, Miss Julia Puddicombe, Mr James Satterley, who all gave £5. This not only tells us who the important contributors to the church were but also shows that a woman was involved in supporting education and had staus within the church.[48]  By 1836 Mr Gilbert was also a subscriber, and in 1838 another women was added, Mrs Bawden. In 1846 Mary Savery became the treasurer. Accounts for many years are shown and covered costs of pens, paper, catechisms, spelling books, tract magazine and reward books. They also show that public collections were made to support the school and one year this raised £4 8s 2d.

The newspapers and minute book made frequent references to the Sunday school and in particular the anniversary public tea, normally held in a nearby farm or large house- the accounts show cakes, butter, tea and sugar, milk and cream having been purchased. The one in 1836 was in 1836 held in the ‘hospitable mansion of R. Savery’ which was Summerfield in East Street. [49] In 1865 the Sunday School jubilee was held at Bottor Rock Cottage with tea and surprisingly the children left as late as 8.30 p.m with thanks to Mr and Mrs Lee for their great kindness.[50] In 1883 they went to Hawkmore, and in 1885 to Stover. In 1889 they went to Pitt, this was the house of the local Liberal M.P.Col Seale Hayne of whom the minister was a supporter.[51] Expenses for the teas included cakes butter, tea, sugar, milk and cream. A photograph of the outing in 1910 shows how popular such events were (Fig. 9).

Figure 9. Baptist Sunday School Anniversary Outing 1910. By kind permission of Bovey Tracey HeritageTrust

In 1862 the school had a children’s clothing club which cost 18s 6d and shows how they were helping the poor.

By 1864 the school supported a young people’s band of both boys and girls. Such bands were popular local groups. Its motto was ‘For Christ’s Sake’. It fund-raised for the Sunday school and also for the Zennana Mission. The whole church also collected on behalf of this Baptist foreign mission of Zenanna to send women missionaries to India. [52]

We know who some of the teachers were as at their meeting in 1868 at a teachers’ meeting those listed were Pastor J W Blackmore, Superintendant Mr Haywood, Wm Westaway, Mrs Baker, Mrs Blackmore, Miss Chappell, Miss Clampit, Miss A Cross. Miss Aggett, Miss Haywood, and Miss S Sampson being eleven in total – eight of whom were women. At this meeting school rules were adopted, a decision made to obtain a library, and the school to run from 2.15 p.m. to 3. 45 p.m.

Education for all was much debated during the rest of the century. It might seem surprising that the Baptist Chapel petitioned the House of Commons against all education bills in 1856. It was a controversy about the use of taxes to support Anglican education with which the Baptists were in dispute.[53]

The 1915 Centenary celebration of the school listed all 95 children who received a bible together with their teachers.

Campaigning to Abolish Slavery

Although Britain had passed the Abolition of Slave Trade Act in 1807, the Baptist church nationally and locally continued to campaign against the forms of slavery which continued.[54] The Sunday School minute of 1832 stated, ‘We unite in the sympathy and prayers of our Denomination and the Christian community at large for our persecuted Brethren the Missionaries in the West Indies… and make these painful things contribute to the attainment of our heart’s desire- the Abolition of Slavery.’ This concern continued and in 1833 its letter to the Association referred to much injured negroes as well as Dissenters’ own rights-‘We wish success to Mr Wilks and his co-adjitors to obtain for Dissenters equal civil rights with their fellow subjects.’ Such campaigning was successful as the Slavery Abolition Act was passed in 1833, and in in 1838 parliament emancipated the colonial slave apprentices.[55]

Withdrawal from the South West Association

From 1834 we learn of an issue which the church faced in connection with who should be permitted to attend. The conclusion was that Baptist churches and associations should be comprised only of baptised persons. Perhaps this was in connection with the minister’s concern about the larger number who were willing to attend to hear a preacher but who did not wish to actually be baptised as members of the church. Thompson had illustrated similar issues in North Devon churches, for example Appledore in 1833 had thirty-eight members but at the Sunday evening congregation there were 200- 300 people. Thompson concluded that throughout North Devon the majority of attenders at Baptist services were non- members.[56]

Churches remained very independently minded at the same time as valuing the Union, but the debates about membership continued and saw Bovey Tracey church withdrawing from the Association in 1835 as it did not agree with the latter’s new constitution by which other denominations could attend worship, in other words an open mixed communion.[57]

 The Baptist Church in the Victorian Era

Before Queen Victoria came to the throne there was important legislation in 1828, The Enfranchisement Act, by which Roman Catholics were permitted to hold government office. This was not without its opponents and in 1829 Mr Steer a deacon at the Baptist church had a petition asking people to sign against the Catholics. However Steer was criticised for being illiberal.[58]

Emigration to America– Emigration to America was recorded in 1836 when William Skardon and his wife left the congregation after 30 years of membership. Apparently members had been emigrating earlier than this as in 1837 the death in America of Richard Hamlin noting that he had emigrated at the end of the 1790s. It would be interesting to trace more about local people who emigrated.

Support by Wealthier Members-Miss Puddicombe was a lady of independent means who lived at Church Style. Through her generosity a Christmas gift was established and the minute book of 1876 listed how it was disbursed.

Local Mission– In 1883 reference was made to a village station being established in the parish of Ilsington.[59]

Visits from other Ministers-There are frequent reference to the visits of and to other Baptist churches, and also to outside meetings such as that held at Scottar[Scobitor?] Rocks in 1836.[60]

Petitions to the Governemnt-  In 1858 there was a petition to the House of Commons from the Baptist Associations of Bovey Tracey and other Devon towns – Appledore, Ilfracombe, Budleigh Salterton, Bideford, Hemyock and Combe Martin – against the encouragement by the  government of idolatry and caste and deprecating any national endowment of religion in India.[61]

The Temperance movement- This was a movement against the consumption of alcohol which was developing nationally and its presence in Bovey Tracey was first recorded in 1841. Its festival was held in the Baptist chapel to a large congregation and then the band marched it to tea at the Bovey Potteries. This also shows how the largest local business was willing to support the Baptists, many of whom were its employees.[62]

Tractarianism- this was to become a significant issue in Bovey Tracey. We have already shown that not all were happy with Catholic emancipation and the number of baptisms rose from 1830 to a peak by 1840. There was a contentious event in Hennock in 1847 which the newspaper headlined ‘Anglican Popery Again’. This was because apparently the Church of England would not bury an unbaptised dead baby. Rev. Brook the Baptist minister was asked to bury the child which he did.[63]

In 1849 the Queen’s chaplain Rev. Hon. Charles Leslie Courtenay, Canon of St George’s Windsor, was appointed to the living of St Peter Paul and Thomas, Bovey Tracey. This was no ordinary appointment for a small market town on the edge of Dartmoor. Charles was married to one of the Queen’s ladies in waiting, and his brother was the Earl of Devon and Lord of the Manor of Bovey Tracey.4 Courtenay, was a supporter of the Oxford Movement, and pressed for changes to a more ‘high church’ approach in the parish church. This did not go down well with many of his parishioners. Courtenay had the funds to effect his vision and built the new ‘high’ church of St John the Evangelist which was consecrated in 1853.

It is perhaps no surprise that the high church leanings of the local vicar would lead to an increased interest in other forms of worship and non-denominational education in the town. Also in spite of the entrenched privileges of the Church of England in many areas, the dissenters had gained a secure and influential place in national and local life. The Baptist church was well reported in the local newspaper with emphasis given to the good size of the congregation.

Only a few months after Courtneay’s arrival we see the first reports of dissension between Rev Courtenay and the Baptist church. At this time there was considerable strife in the town over Courtenay’s Tractarianism. The newspaper reported that Courtenay was taking attendees from the Baptist Sunday school, and that Courtenay said the Baptist minister had no right to preach locally, ‘Mr Courtenay has made a great inroad in the Baptist ministers Sunday School, the church catechism being now very much in vogue. Courtenay says the Baptist minister Mr Brook has no right to minister in Bovey. He says he would respect him as a man but probably thrust him in to goal as a minister- a sort of semi respect which these liberal papists are ever ready to pay’. This is one of many anti-papist articles from the time.[64]

In March 1851 The decennial census in 1851 for the first time also included a religious census. The church attendance on enumeration day was recorded together with an average for the year, and showed that the Baptists had a congregation average attendance as large as the established Anglican church (Table 2).[65] This is different from Devon as a whole where Wesleyans were the nearest rival in number of attendees compared to the Church of England.[66] How this was viewed by the established church is not recorded. As explained above the number attending the Baptist church did not equate with the number baptised. Later records on attendance at the Baptist Church have not yet been found.

Church Seating/Standing available Morning Afternoon Evening Total attendances
Anglican Parish Church 540 220 374 100 694
Baptist Hen Street Chapel 600 250 250 200 700
Wesleyan Chapel 302 100 80 200 380
Anglican Sunday School 140 148 288
Baptist Sunday School 75 75 150
Wesleyan Sunday School 30 30 60

Table 2 Average church attendance in Bovey Tracey by Denomination in 1851.

A court case in 1854 serves to illustrate the concerns of the day. A Baptist minister preached at the town cross outside the Bell Inn on a Sunday evening. A crowd gathered, the licensee Endacott listened and so was accused of keeping his premises open. The newspaper report stated that Endacott was ‘pounced upon by Rev Robert Francis Scott the Puseyite curate of C L Courtenay’ and it was through his over zealousness that the case was ever brought. It was a difficult case and the fact that Endacott was fined a mere 5s instead of the usual £5 suggests that the bench was in sympathy with him.[67]

Now we turn to Dr Croker the local surgeon, who was very much against the Tractarian Puseyites and in response he invited the Baptist minister to come back to Bovey Tracey and preach on his field – now Croker’s Meadow, ‘In this way the poor of Bovey Tracey could hear the preaching without being disturbed.’[68]

Anonymous letters and articles appeared in the local paper criticising Courtenay and the Puseyites for pressing people to be confirmed and said that, ‘two thirds of the parish are either Weslyans or Baptists! Signed AN INHABITANT’.[69] This was followed by information that a Free Church of England was to be set up in the town to counteract Tractarianism signed ‘VIGILANS ’.[70]

In 1859 a further anonymous article appeared hoping the non-conformists of the parish which included the Baptists would exercise their right of conscience against the Tractarian practices at St John’s. ‘Signed ONE WHO KNOWS’.[71]

In 1860 the paper referred to the very large Baptist chapel which Rev Courtenay was very sore about and that he ‘tries to restore the wandering sheep to the mother church.’ [72]  This shows how much anger there was in the parish, but it can also be argued that this was an impetus for positive change as new developments took place in civic life such as the building of a non-denominational school and later the establishment of a cottage hospital, with these driven or supported by local women who began to have more of a voice in society.[73] A further event in 1860 helped the Baptist community by a visit to the newly built Free Church from Rev. Thomas and Hon Charlotte Thompson. She was from an aristocratic family of Baptists, her brother was Rev. Baptist Noel. Charlotte was the sister of the Earl of Gainsborough. The message preached was that they wanted Christians to be harmonious and not, ‘go to Rome’. [74]

Courtenay was continuing with his high church reforms and invited the Clewer sisters to open a House of Mercy in 1863.[75] At a Baptist meeting in Exeter it was complained that there was a ‘mother superior’ and that there would soon be a nunnery there!’[76] All of this trouble had some good outcomes. In July 1866 Miss Annie Croker opened the non-denominational British School, initially in the Temperance Hall. She did this with the support of the Baptists and the other non-conformist churches.[77]

 Involvement in Civic Life– It is from this time that we see more partnership meetings between the various congregations and interests. By 1880 we learn of the Baptist minister J. Pearce playing a part in the local elections as he organised a Liberal meeting in the Temperance Hall where John Divett the owner of the pottery accompanied the Liberal candidate. This leaning towards Liberalism was to become synonymous with nonconformity.[78] Later that year there was a celebration of the erection of the Wesleyan chapel at which J. Pearce spoke.[79] In 1881 Rev Pearce attended a meeting of the vestry in his position as a ratepayer. He was proposed as assistant overseer which shows his standing in the community, however someone else was elected.[80] It was not long before he was elected to a public position on the Vestry’s Cleaning and Lighting Committee.[81]

In 1884 Rev J Pearce was elected on the committee of the Liberal Association. All present wanted the franchise extended to working men, but it is noticeable that no women attended the meeting.[82] He also attended the meeting when the Conservative M.P. visited and asked for calm when the hall became over-animated when discussing education, the bread tax, and free trade with America.[83]

Further ecumenism was noted in 1888 when both a Wesleyan minister and Rev Pearce shared the same platform at a Harvest Thanksgiving.[84]

In 1890 Rev J Pearce attended the Mayor’s annual dinner, this was previously the dinner of the borough officials, now a ceremonial event without duties as the borough was disbanded in 1883, but it again shows Pearce’s involvement in Local civic life.[85]

Marriages- various marriage ceremonies were reported such as that between William Hore and Mary Ann Doust in 1853. [86]

The Twentieth Century

The Baptist church in the twentieth century was described in The Bovey Book so is not repeated here except to add that in 1915 a memorial service was held at the Baptist Church for Pte Horace Setters of Mary St who had been killed at the front in WWI. He had been a Sunday school scholar. In the second burial ground there is tombstone for the Gilley family and on this is commemorated another WWI casualty, that of their son John Reginald Gilley who died in 1918 (Fig. 10).

Figure 10. Tombstone and WWI memorial to the Gilley family in second Baptist Burial Ground. Frances Billinge 2017.

In 1940 during WWII the church successfully claimed for war damage to its premises by enemy action on 18 November 1940. This was in connection with dangerous plaster and a dislodged ventilator [87]

The photo below illustrates pride in the Union Hotel Bible class (Fig. 11). Its members are pictured in front of the Baptist Church so may have been form that church’s congregation.



Figure 11.  Union Hotel Bible Class Outside the Baptist Church, undated. With kind permission of Bovey Tracey Heritage Trust.



The Baptist church has an important history within the nonconformist churches of Bovey Tracey. It provided education for poor children in the Victorian era through a well-attended Sunday School at a time when very little was available to them. Towards the latter part of the nineteenth century it linked with other non-conformist churches in the area and was an important contributor to local civic life. It also developed an outpost at Ilsington.

The Baptist congregation worked hard to establish what is an impressive church on Hind Street and has had a developing congregation from at least the middle of the 1700s. At the time of the 1851 Census its attendance was higher than that of the established church. The church continues to be an important part life in Bovey Tracey and as well as its religious meetings it provides groups such Little Rainbows for parents and toddlers, youth clubs, a luncheon club for those on their own and a community choir, so reaching out to all ages and needs.


I would like to thank Mark and Janna Styants for their permission to take photographs of the chapel, and for their help and interest in this research. I would like to thank Viv Styles Chairman Bovey Tracey Heritage Trust for permission to use documents and take photographs.



DHC -Devon Heritage Centre

[1] Wickes, Michael J.L., 1990. Devon in the Religious Census of 1851 (Devon, Michael Wickes) pp.6-12.

[2] Pariero, Joseph, 2017. The Oxford Movement and Anglo Catholicism  in Rowan Strong, ed., The Oxford History of Anglicanism, III,  (Oxford, Oxford University Press) 188-211, p. 190.

[3] Lumpkin, William L., 1959. Baptist Confessions of Faith (Phildaelphia, The Judson Press) p. 168, refers to The Particular Baptist London Confession, 1644, section 47.

[4] Shepherd, Peter, 1999. John Howard Shakespeare and the English Baptists, 1898-1924,  Ph.D. thesis, Durham University. Available at Durham E-Theses Online: pp. 17-18.

[5] Ibid., p.20.

[6] Jarvis, Clive Robert 2001. Growth in English Baptist Churches; With Special Reference to the Northamptonshire Particular Baptist Association (1770-1830). Unpublished PhD.thesis University of Glasgow, p. 2.

[7] Sheppard, 1999, p.17,18,20,24, see note 4.;

[8] Wickes, 1990, see note 1; Coleman, Bruce, 1991. The Nineteenth Century: Non Conformity in Orme, Nicholas, ed., Unity and Variety (Exeter, University of Exeter Press) pp. 129-155.

[9] Jarvis, 2001, p.108,  see note 6.

[10] Ibid., p 172.

[11] Ibid., p .173.

[12] David Thompson, 1885. A Book of Remembrance or A Short History of the Baptist Churches in North Devon (London, Alexander and Shepeard).

[13] Case, H.B., 1907. History of the Baptist Church in Tiverton1607-1907 (Tiverton, Palmerston Press) accessed 1 October 2017, p. 58.

[14] Ibid.pp. 58, 64,

[15] Ibid. p.76.

[16] Thompson, 1885, see note 12, Barnstaple pp. 27-8; Great Torrington p.35.

[17] Ibid. p. 60.

[18] Ibid. p.149.

[19] Jarvis, 2001, see note 6, p.51

[20] Shepherd, Peter,1999John Howard Shakespeare and the English Baptists, 1821-1924, Unpublished Ph.D.thesis University of Durham, p. 29, refers to John Hinton’s words of 1863 ‘The Baptist denomination, while, in name one, is infact many.’

[21] Billinge, Frances, 2017. The Customs of the Manor and Borough of Bovey Tracey in Trans Devon Assoc. Admt Sci., awaiting publication; The Western Times 2 October 1847, p2.; Exeter Flying Post 12 July 1849, p. 5, both illustrate members of the Vestry.

[22] All England and Wales parochial and Nonconformist Registers accessed 29 September 2017.

[23] DHC, 6136D/Z1-2, The Dissenting Baptist Church Handbook Bovey Tracey, photocopy of a manuscript c.1875; a copy is also lodged at Bovey Tracey Heritage Trust viewed by kind permission of Viv Styles, Chairman.

[24] DHC, 312M/0/TH/930 Hole of Parke, 1707-1891 Hen/Hind Street Deeds, abstract of title refers to deed of 1710 conveyance from John Harris to Samuel Staddon); DHC, 3424Z/E 1 and 2, Bovey Tracey Borough Rental 1756.

[25] Wickes, 1990, see note 1, p.39.

[26] Dissenting Baptist Church Minute Book. Bovey Tracey Heritage Trust, viewed by kind permission of Viv Styles, Chairman.

[27] DHC Bovey Tracey Borough Rental 1756 and 1761, see note 24.

[28] DHC box 3575 Baptist Church Bovey Tracey.  Indenture of conveyance transcription 9 October 1800 lease Weymouth, Jackson, Sprague et al.

[29] DHC Bovey Tracey Land Tax Assessment 1780.

[30] DHC box 3575 Baptist Church Bovey Tracey Indenture of lease 3 December 1800 Savery and Hamlyn to John Jackson et al.

[31] Ibid., 23 July 1805 lease Richard Hamlyn to Mr Jackson et al.

[32] Ibid, conveyance and lease 23 June 1825 Messrs Burd and Nosworthy to John Savery.

[33] Ibid. lease 6 and 7 December 1839 inrolled 6 March 1840 Rev J .L.Sprague and William Tucker to William Bastow et al.

[34] Dissenting Baptist Church Minute Book see note 24, 1857.

[35] DHC box 3575 Baptist Church Bovey Tracey Conveyance 15 May 1867 Thomas Rowell to trustees; the same conveyance 1867 Thomas Rowell et al. also held in deeds of private collection Bovey Tracey.

[36] Ibid., 26 July 1882 appointment of new trustees for the Baptist Chapel. William Bastoe et al to Wiliam Hawkridge et al. no document attached.

[37] Heritage Gateway reference MDV 86390,

[38]  Frances Billinge, 2016. The Meaning and History of Indio in The Devon Historian, vol. 85, p.29-30.

[39] Devon Heritage Centre  6136D/Z2 William and Ann Ellis baptised 1840 – later entry gone to America;East and South Devon Gazette, 1894 February 3, p.5, Cromwell’s Arch).

[40] East and South Devon Advertiser 3 February 1894, p.5; Armitage Hargreaves, 1968. Bovey Tracey History and Legend (Newton Abbot, Mid Devon Newspapers) p.61; Lance Tregonning, 1983. Bovey Tracey an ancient Town  (Exeter, A.Wheaton and Co.) pp.18-19, 30; Hole, M.A. 1930. Sketches of Bovey Tracey and District (Bovey Tracey, M.A.Hole) note.

[41] DHC box 3575 Baptist Church Bovey Tracey 6 November 1886 conveyance John Ball Pinsent and Evan Edwards to Trustees.

[42] Anno Regni Gulielmi et Maria, 1689 (London, Charles Bill and Thomas Newcomb) p. 318.

[43] DHC DEX /12/0/2/32 Meeting House certificates Bovey Tracey  1806-40 [6], letter to Bishop of Exeter from Sprague et al., 29 Nov 1808; letter from Bishop of Exeter’s Deputy  to meeting house in Hen Street  confirming certificate of registration 13 Jan 1837.

[44] Dissenting Baptist Church Minute Book see note 24.

[45]  Abstract of Answers and Returns, Education Enquiry 1833, Vol 1, Bedford – Lancaster, London, House of Commons, 1835, p. 72.

[46] Thompson, 1885, See note 12.

[47] Ibid., p.157.

[48] DHC box 3574 Baptist Church Bovey Tracey Account Book Baptist Sunday School.

[49] The Western Times 16 July 1836, p.3; Ibid, 5 July 1851, p.5.

[50] Dissenting Baptist Church Minute Book 10 April, 1865, see note 26.

[51] East and South Devon Advertiser 8 September 1883, p.8, Hawkmore; Ibid., 25 July 1885, p.8, Stover; Totnes Weekly Times 23 August 1889, p. 6, Pitt.

[52] Karen E. Smith, 2007. British Women and the Zenanna Mission, Baptist Quarterly, vol, 42, issue 2, pp. 103-113; Devon Heritage Centre Box 3574, Sunday School Minute Book.

[53] The Morning Advertiser 19 April 1856, p.2.

[54] Coleman, 1991, p.153, see note 8.

[55] Jarvis, 2001, p.238. See note 6.

[56] David Thompson, 1885, p.68, Appledore and p. 149, conclusion, see note 12.

[57] Sheppard, 1999, p.30, see note 4.

[58] The Western Times 4 April 1829, p. 2.

[59] Dissenting Baptist Church Minute Book, 6 May 1832 and 5 May 1833, see note 26.

[60] The Western Times 9 April 1836, p3, Christow; ibid., 6 August 1836, p.4. Scottar Rocks.

[61] Exeter Flying Post 22 April 1858, p.5.

[62] The Western Times 15 May 1841, p.3.

[63] The Western Times 24 July 1847, p.7.

[64] Ibid., 13 April 1850, p. 5.

[65] Wickes, 1990, pp. 39-40, see note 1.

[66] Coleman, 1991, p.141 see note 8.

[67] Exeter Flying Post 31 August 1854, p. 4.

[68] The Western Times 2 September 1854, p.5.

[69] Ibid., 24 May 1856, p. 7.

[70] Ibid., 16 May 1857, p.7.

[71] Ibid., 25 June 1859, p.3.

[72] Ibid., 2 June 1860, p.6.

[73] Wickes, 1990, p. 6, see note 1.

[74] The Western Times 22 October 1860, p.10.

[75] Bonham, Valerie,1989. A Joyous Service (Windsor, Valerie Bonham) p.10.

[76] The Western Times 23 June 1865, p.8.

[77] Ibid., 24 July 1866, p.5.

[78] Ibid., 13 April 1880, p.7.election meetings; Coleman, 1991, p.153, see note 8, p.153, nonconformist Liberalism.

[79] The Western Times 10 December 1880, p. 7.

[80] Ibid., 26 May 1881, p. 4.

[81] Ibid., 20 November 1882, p. 8.

[82] Ibid., 18 July 1884, p. 6.

[83] Western Morning News 17 October 1885, p. 3.

[84] Totnes Times 29 September 1888, p. 8.

[85] The Western Times 26 July 1890, p. 3.

[86] Ibid., 3 March 1853, p.5.; 20 May 1854, p. 5; 23 June 1855, p. 5.

[87] Collins, Doris, 2004. ‘The Baptist Church’ in The Bovey Book, Veronica Kennedy, ed. (Bovey Tracey, Cottage Publishing) pp. 84-87; The Western Times 7 September 1915, p. 2, memorial; Devon Heritage Centre  Bovey Tracey Baptist Church BOX 3576,  Letter from War Damage Committee  4 December 1941 to G Tucker 45 East St .

Frances Billinge March 2019