History of St Thomas

There has been a church on this side of the river since early time and the area takes its name from the church of St Thomas. Our Mission is to be welcoming, outward reaching and rooted in prayer, in order to provide a sacred space for people. This period finds us in the midst of great changes as we seek to rationalise our buildings and strategy and create a sustainable model of Ministry for the future. Read how the Church's history informs our present.

Early History

The Parish of St Thomas grew up late in the Middle Ages and had no close connection with the City of Exeter across the river, which had nineteen parishes within its walls in the thirteenth century. In the year 1160 during the reign of Henry II the important Benedictine Norman Abbey of Bec-Harle founded an English cell at 'Cowic'. The chief feature of the Priory was the conventual Church St. Andrew Cowick. It was situated on land confiscated by the Sheriff Baldwin and given as an endowment by his son William. Its exact location is not known, but is somewhere between Okehampton Street, and the River Exe.

Until 1261 the scattered inhabitants of the district used the nave of the Priory Church for their services. Meanwhile, Walter Gervase (Mayor of Exeter, 1231 and 1239) built the first stone bridge over the Exe. Near its west end a chapel dedicated to St Thomas Becket was built. Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury was murdered in his Cathedral in December 1170. He was soon canonised and was widely venerated until the time of the Reformation.

Bishop Bronescombe consecrated this chapel on 15th October 1261 and one Henry, was appointed first vicar of the new parish (rights of burial being reserved to St Michael's Chapel at Cowick Barton). This first church of St Thomas was damaged by flooding some 150 years later in 1384 when part of the stone bridge and the Church were swept away, and it was resolved to build inland. Bishop Stafford's register states, "The Chapel was upturned from its foundations, and collapsed beyond hope of recovery".

In 1412 by the agreement of the Prior John Bourgeonyll and leading local families, two acres of land in Duryard known as "pyryhay" [bonfire field] was made available for a yearly acknowledgement of £2.00. The replacement church was built on the present site away from the river in Cowick Street. It was consecrated on 4th October 1412, by Bishop Edmund Stafford. He dedicated the Church to St Thomas Becket ordering, 'that the Feast of Dedication should always be observed in the same manner as Christmas Day'. A register kept by Bishop Edmond states, "The new Basilica was in the midst of the people, and was in every way more convenient and suitable for the Parish Church than its predecessor which was quite at one end of the Parish."

This second Church of St Thomas had full parish status, whilst the Priory held the Advowson (right to appoint the Vicar) and received most of the tithe. The first Vicar was John Alkenborne.

The Prayer Book Rebellion

The life of the parish continued quietly until the Reformation. Robert Welshe, who was appointed Vicar in 1537, conformed to the changes made by Henry VIII. John Hooker, the Elizabethan historian of Exeter, says of him, "... he was of no great stature but well sett and mightilie compacte he was a verie good wrasteler, shott well, bothe in the longe bowe as also in the crosse bowe ... and suche a one as wolde not geve his hed for the pollinge nor his bearde for the washeinge, he was a company on in any exercises of activitie and of a courtuose and gentle behavior ...'

In 1549, the New Prayer Book with its many changes was adopted. When Devon and Cornwall rose up in 1549 to restore the old Latin services, Robert Welshe joined the rebels and according to John Hooker was, 'the arch captain and principal doer, an active director of the rebellion.' He was also instrumental in the condemnation of one of Lord Russell's messengers, Kingwell, who was hanged by the rebels on Exe Island. Exeter City was besieged for a month, but the rebels were beaten, Welshe having stepped in to prevent the burning of the city.

Robert Welshe was arrested as a leader and was hanged suspended by a rope around his waist from a gibbet on the top of the church tower, "... in his popishe apparell and havinge a holye water bucket, a sprinkle, a sacringe bell, a payre of beddes ... hangued about him' (John Hooker). This ignominious fate was administered by Bernard Duffield one of Lord Russell's servants. "His corpse was left dangling at the top of the tower for three years."

The people of St Thomas had little choice but to accept the new order decreed by Henry VIII in the course of this the Church was called St Thomas the Apostle, instead of the popish Martyr, although no deed to this effect exists. Given the rebellious nature of the south western counties it is unlikely that this was received with any enthusiasm and the church was known ambiguously as St Thomas.

The English Civil War

When the Civil War broke out in 1642 Exeter declared for Parliament. Soon the city was under siege, surrounded by troops loyal to the King. The Royalists fortified buildings in Cowick Street, including the church. In September 1643, the city surrendered to the Royalists, but the tide of the war turned again and in January 1646, General Fairfax encircled Exeter. St Thomas Church was burnt down on the 30th January 1645 although whether by the Royalists to prevent its use by Fairfax or by accident is not clear.

It is notable that it was rebuilt whilst Cromwell was Lord Protector, £597 being raised for this purpose due to widespread sympathy across the country and locally where the £137.00 was given and £40.00 was donated by Lady Elizabeth Carew. The Church was restored to use in 1657, services being held for the time being by a Presbyterian minister. The present Nave, Tower, South Aisle and Chapel of St Thomas of Canterbury date from this time, although much of the stonework here is from the earlier church.

During the Commonwealth, there was an irregular ministry when the absentee Bishop Dr. R. Brownrigg appointed Mr Alexander Hodge as the minister. He was deemed to have been unlawfully presented and was deprived of the living by Charles II in 1662 after the Restoration of the Monarchy. John Reynolds, grand-father of the artist Sir Joshua Reynolds was appointed Vicar and Anglican worship was resumed.
In 1683 a large Western Gallery was erected to seat the increasing population of the parish.

In 1806 Alexander Jenkins described the Church as, "large and well built; consisting of a nave, chancel, a large aisle on the south side and a smaller one on the north...neatly pewed, it has a large convenient gallery. The tower...is embattled and lofty, with a small spire; it contains a good peal of six bells, a clock and dial".

Recent History

There were few changes before 1821, when the Vicar, John Coplestone, assisted by the lay Rector, James Buller, set about enlarging the Church. First the present North Aisle and Porch were built, then in 1828 there were major ambitious additions to the East end by Andrew Patey. The small Chancel was replaced by the present Chancel and North and South Transepts, both of which had large galleries. The scale of this work is quite unusual in English churches and thus this gives the building special importance.

There were internal re-fittings in 1842 and in 1871 when there was extensive restoration work by John Hayward. It was later described by the Vicar, Maurice Swabey, "Not only have the unsightly wall-sided pews, [known as sheep-pens] given way to elegant open sittings, but gaseliers of a chaste pattern have been introduced throughout the Church... The low-browed Western gallery has vanished and the heraldic devices with which its panels bristled so long have been consigned to the Western porch beneath the tower."

One record of the period describes St Thomas somewhat extravagantly as, "the Queen of transpontane Exeter."

A hurricane in December 1872 caused a £100 worth of damage during the afternoon service. A loud crash was heard and on investigation, it was found that some of the pinnacles on the tower and the roof had blown off, falling into the roof and smashing it. The evening service to be taken by the Dean of Exeter was cancelled as the building was thought to be unsafe!

Things did not improve, and by the turn of the century the building was again in serious difficulty and the then Vicar, J. H. Prince, considered it beyond repair and there was a thought to close it. He launched an unsuccessful "Million Penny Fund." Poor construction and the use of a substantially pre-fabricated structure have meant that the East end has always been vulnerable to water penetration and decay.

The galleries in the transepts were also removed in 1908 and the organ was moved from the West end to the present Lady Chapel in 1909. The organ was moved once again, to its current position in 1932.

On July 1942 a bomb landed next to the church damaging the stained glass windows at the East end and the Lady Chapel wall.

A Precursor of the Gothic Revival

What makes St Thomas unique, history and heritage apart, is the late Georgian and early Victorian building campaigns. The work begun in 1827 at the East end means that the light spaciousness of the chancel contrasts with the low, long nave and aisles as might be expected from the external appearance of a building in the gothic style.

The work initiated by the Rev. John Medley in 1842 is also very significant. He was secretary of the newly-formed Exeter Diocesan Architectural Society (EDAS) which greatly encouraged the type of church architecture that was being promoted by A. W. N. Pugin and the Cambridge Camden Society.

St Thomas is therefore an important precursor of the type work of what would become mainstream, underpinning the furnishing of churches during the Victorian Gothic Revival. 

Features of the Church

The inner archway of the North Porch is reputed to have come from the Chapel of St Thomas (1261) at the end of Exe Bridge.

The wooden pulpit on its marble base was given in memory of the Reverend Maurice Swabey in 1904. Some early photographs show it sited on the south side of the chancel, with the lectern on the north side.

The ornate octagonal Font was installed by John Medley (Vicar, 1838-45). It is a replica of the font at Beverley Minster.

The oak Choir Stalls were installed as a memorial to Thomas Maitland of Cleeve House in 1908.

The fine Royal Arms dated 1682 is mounted above the doorway leading to the Tower. Formerly they were mounted on the front of the Western Gallery.

The fine hand wound Victorian Turret Clock made by N.R. Lisle of Exeter was installed in the tower in 1883.

The Tower contains a good peal of bells, enlarged and rehung in 1923. In 1789 a peal of six bells was installed cast by Pennington in 1789 from the metal of a former peal of five. These were recast in 1923, and two others were added making a total weight of 55 cwt. One of the bells has the inscription, "Ring out the old ring in the new, ring out the false, ring in the true", quoting the well-known words of Tennyson. Another has, "Peace and good neighbourhood" and another, "When I begin, ye all strike in".

The Chapel of St Thomas Becket was built as the Carew or 'Barley' Aisle in 1657 with £40 given by Lady Elizabeth Carew, later buried in St Thomas. It was fitted out in 1838 as the 'Barley Pew' by the Graves-Sawle family of Barley House. It has since been consecrated as a war memorial dedicated to St Thomas of Canterbury.

The Lady Chapel is at the East end of the South Chancel aisle. Here the Blessed Sacrament is reserved for the sick. Memorials commemorate John Medley, D.D., Bishop of Frederickton and first Metropolitan of Canada, formerly Vicar of St Thomas, 1838-45 (he died in 1892; and John Horden, Bishop of Moosonee (died in 1893), who as a young man taught in St Thomas' Sunday School. The Mural was a gift of in 1946

The High Altar and reredos were installed by John Medley whilst he was Vicar. The stone altar is unusual for its period. In the North wall is the recumbent effigy of Doctor Medley's first wife, Christiana, sculptured by her father, John Bacon, whose masterpiece this is held to be. There is a memorial to John Medley in the Lady Chapel.

The East Window, above the High Altar depicts Our Lord reigning from the Cross with St Thomas and St Peter on either side and was dedicated on 26th November 1951 following the destruction of the original by a bomb blast in 1942 during the Second World War.

The niches on which galleries rested can be seen high up in the Transepts. The main, open bench seating dates from about 1842 and is a very early example of this type of Victorian seating. Some of the seats still bear the names of the original occupants, the Franklyn and Cleeve families, something that survives very rarely.

There are fine mainly Victorian stained Glass Windows in St Thomas including the South Transept made by Dixon in 1878 and given in memory of W.H. Howard, who did much to restore the church and there is a representation of the Agony in the Garden given in memory of Thomas Snow in the North Transept.

The fourteenth century Lectern, is very rare and one of the oldest in the country. It stood originally in Exeter Cathedral, but was not in use when Doctor Medley acquired it for St Thomas. Although its wings have been clipped and feathering has been carved on the eagle, it remains a valuable piece of carving. This lectern is thought to have a close relationship to the early 14th century furnishings of the Cathedral choir, most notably the Bishop's throne designed by Thomas de Witney and made by Robert de Galmeton between 1316 and 1317. It is currently on loan to Exeter Cathedral during the refurbishment of St Thomas, enabling investigations into its age and origins as well as some conservation of the timbers and pending decisions about its long term future.

The Organ was made by P. England in 1878 and restored by Osmand & Co. in 1932, when it was placed in its present position.

Parish Registers dating back to 1541 are held in the Devon Heritage Centre, Sowton Business Park, Exeter. EX2 7NL.
E-mail: devrec@devon.gov.uk, or telephone: 01392 384253 to check opening times.
The impressive Northmore Memorial in the south aisle commemorates Thomas Northmore, who was M.P. for Okehampton and died in 1713, having lived at Cleeve which was then in the Parish of St Thomas. His arms and those of his three marriages are represented.

Two memorials to the Gordon family are placed high up in the south wall of the nave. They commemorate General Gordon who died at Khartoum; and his grandfather who lived in this parish. General Gordon received his recall to London whilst standing in the North Porch and left for his fatal expedition without entering the building.

Within the Church, although hidden by the current carpeting of the chancel, is a stone marking the grave of Prebendary John Reynolds, the Restoration Vicar and grandfather of Sir Joshua, the artist. and the slab marking the Buller Vault. Here lie several members of the family, who for generations provided Lay-Rectors for the Parish; including the grandfather of General Sir Redvers Buller, V.C. who was a Church Warden here.

Information on other memorials in the church and churchyard is available from the Parish Office. E-mail: parishoffice@stthomaschurchexeter.co.uk
The Grace Darling memorial in the churchyard often provokes comment. There is no record of Grace having had any connection with Exeter, and it is believed that the people of St Thomas, like many others around the country, were moved to pay their own tribute to her through this memorial. It was unveiled in 1845.

The churchyard also contains the memorial to Thomas Gray (1788-1848) who is credited with the invention of the idea of a national railway network and whose inscription reads, "The initial projector of grand trunk railways throughout Great Britain in direct and level lines". As with so many great innovators his contribution to national and global rail travel has gone largely unrecognised.

In the Parish Office, in the new hall, is a large print of the scene outside the church at the announcement that Prince Albert Edward had acceded to the throne to become Edward VII on the death of Queen Victoria. The pronouncement was made by the Mayor of Exeter and signed by the Mayor and Town Clerk.

Inside to the left of the door to the tower is a list of every incumbent who has served at St Thomas.

1261 Henry 1622 John Reynolds
1283 John Osbert 1692 Benjamin Spurway
1317 William de Cheddere 1727 William Sweeting
1320 Peter Monyk 1728 John Bradford
1405 John Alkbarwe 1729 Edward Reeks
- John Parkowyn 1749 Christopher Churchill
- William Battyn 1800 John Bradford Coplestone
1462 James Richard 1831 William James Coplestone 1487 Richard Rysdon 1834 Charles Harward
1489 John Teake 1838 John Medley
1492 Walter Atwyll 1845 William Henry Howard
1506 Peter Druett 1874 Maurice Swabey
1511 William Downe 1902 John Henry Prince
1528 John Rudge 1916 Hubert Gastor Chalk
1536 Robert Welshe 1928 Gordon Basil Nicholls
1549 Robert Herne 1940 Philip Lewis Connop Price
- Walter Battyn 1948 John Philip Henton
1568 Edward Helmore 1963 Arthur Parry Russell Mayne
1580 John Peake 1980 David James Sharp
1605 William Dickes 1984 Roy John Parry
1628 John Bartlett 1985 Alan White
1657 Alexander Hodge 2010 Nicholas John Edwards

Church, Anglo-Catholic Church, Anglican Church

Phase 1

This picture gives you some idea of the extensive work that was needed in Phase 1 works. This is now successfully completed. Planning is underway to start Phase 2

The Present

The congregations of churches have an important role as the curators of heritage and this is often a difficult and challenging role set against the mission and ministry of the parish.

Ruefully, it has been the lot of vicars and congregations over the last 500 years to bemoan the state of the building and to face at very regular intervals the prospect of expensive repairs and possible closure, with failing woodwork, falling masonry, prodigious floods most notably in 1261, 1810 and 1960 and fire, all set against a turbulent historical backdrop.

The legacy of poor construction and inadequate repairs during the twentieth century inevitably meant that the architectural chickens would come home to roost at some point. In 2012 things became critical with the collapse of a significant section of plaster work in the North Transept and the collapse of hood mouldings to the door and window on the exterior wall of the north east elevation of the church.

Investigations revealed the urgent need for very extensive repairs and the architect's report mirrored almost exactly the conclusions reported in the local press in April 1903.

Were it not for the Heritage Lottery Fund Grant of 2013, we would have been forced to walk away from the building. Thankfully this is not the case and we have hopefully secured its future. With generous local donations and further grants from The National Churches Trust, Devon Historic Churches Trust, the Coopers Charity and All Churches Charity, we were able to begin work in April 2014 on the first phase of Restoration, now completed.

Church, Anglo-Catholic Church, Anglican Church

The Future

The story has a long way to run, with a further five phases of work envisaged to restore this important church with its significant history to its former glory.Many generations have contributed to the history of the present Church of St Thomas, which has been used for worship for seven centuries and we hope will continue to serve future generations in the community which takes its name from the church.

St Thomas is of course not just a church, it gives its name to a whole area of the city. It is part of a very diverse and vibrant community with a strong sense of identity. The parish has a population of around 16,000 people of mixed ages who work in a variety of occupations, mainly service and retail. It boasts shopping-centres, industrial estates, retail parks, numerous schools and care-homes, a Children's Centre, Health Centre, parks and gardens.

The Church and Parish provide much needed amenities for local community groups and all sorts of activities alongside its worship, pastoral care and Christian witness.
Our vision is of a church, "Where all can find a home, where the many talents and abilities of God's children in West Exe can be fostered and encouraged so that Christian discipleship through worship and the ordinary events of everyday life".
Our mission is to be, "A church community that is welcoming, outward- looking, outward-reaching and rooted in prayer".
With your help and support we can continue to serve the community in the future as we have done in the past.

We are passionate about making this historic building sound and watertight; not only for ourselves but also for future generations. ln the longer term we propose applying for further grant aid to open out and modernise the interior to provide a comfortable and flexible multi-purpose space suitable for both worship and community use. We also envisage further landscaping and improved access.

Exciting times are ahead as the community of St Thomas work together to decide what they want from this special building.