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Gallery: Churches of Devon

by Peter Kessler, 22 December 2019

Exeter Part 8: Churches of Central Exeter

St Nicholas Priory, Exeter, Devon

St Nicholas Priory lies opposite St Nicholas Catholic Church (see links), on the east side of the passage between Bartholomew Street East and The Mint Church (below). Much of this formed part of the priory's grounds when it was founded in 1087, following a successful siege of Exeter in 1068 by William of Normandy. He gave St Olave's Church (below) to Battle Abbey in Sussex, and they founded the priory on land behind it. The Dissolution saw about half the buildings destroyed.

St Nicholas Priory, Exeter, Devon

Forming perhaps a quarter of the former priory site's entire size, the surviving guest wing and refectory range was converted into a substantial town house in the Elizabethan period and later into tenements. Features still include a medieval arch-braced roof, traces of the Norman priory, and fifteenth century panelling. More recently the entire refectory has been restored to provide dwellings and a meeting room, with a courtyard garden planted to represent the Tudor period.

The Mint Methodist Church Centre, Exeter, Devon

The Mint Methodist Church Centre is accessed via a short driveway that has the former St Olave's Church at its eastern corner (see below), on the northern side of Fore Street (this photo dates to 1983). The first occupants here formed the Arian (Unitarian) Meeting House. Registers for it start in 1719, although the meeting house itself was only finished in 1720. Reorganisation saw the meeting merged with that of George's Meeting in 1810, leaving the site to its successors.

The Mint Methodist Church Centre, Exeter, Devon

The newly-formed Mint Meeting (Presbyterian/Unitarian) took over, opening a new, apparently rather grand Wesleyan chapel on the site in March 1813. It was enlarged in 1867 and then remained unchanged for a century. In 1965 its roof was declared unsafe due to subsidence and the entire chapel was demolished so that the present building could replace it by 1970. The entranceway was rebuilt in 2010 without the tower (compare the two photographs).

St Olave's Church, Exeter, Devon

St Olave's Church stands on the northern side of Fore Street, no more that fifteen metres from the junction with the southbound Market Street, and at the entrance to the courtyard for The Mint Methodist Church Centre (see above). The eleventh century church may originally have been a house-chapel built for Gytha, mother of Harold II and defender of Exeter in 1068. Perhaps only then was it dedicated to St Olaf, saint and slain first Christian king of Norway in 1016-1030.

St Olave's Church, Exeter, Devon

Only the tower may survive from the early chapel. The rest was largely rebuilt at the end of the 1300s, with an aisle added on the north side (out of sight of the street). A smaller outer north aisle was added in the 1400s. Closed during the Commonwealth, the church was given to a Huguenot congregation in 1620-1720. A conformist congregation was formed 1686 which also had use of the church. This congregation ceased in 1758, when its members joined the Anglican church.

'Ten Cells' Almshouses Meeting Room, Exeter, Devon

'Ten Cells' Almshouses Meeting Room existed in one of Grendon's Almshouses, a double row of five-a-side cottages (forming ten 'cells') which were located 'near the top of Preston Street'. The almshouses were demolished in 1878 or 1879 and the present buildings erected in their place, presumably on the same footprint. Wesleyan Methodists came here in 1769 following the loss of their North Gate chapel. From here they moved swiftly to Musgrave's Alley Chapel in 1779.

Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Exeter, Devon

Sacred Heart Catholic Church stands at the south-east corner of South Street and Bear Street, with Exeter Cathedral School and the cathedral grounds behind it. Built in 1883-84 on the rather cramped site of the Bear Inn which formerly housed the abbots of Tavistock, it absorbed the congregation of St Nicholas Catholic Church when that proved too small. The tower at 42.6 metres in height was not completed until 1926, but without the pointed spire of the original plans.

South Street Baptist Church, Exeter, Devon

South Street Baptist Church is set back a little from the eastern side of South Street, two doors south of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church (above). The original chapel was rebuilt in 1823, possibly around the time that the members of the Gandy Street Meeting joined its congregation. Then it was enlarged in 1876, providing for a meeting of 700 which would certainly have allowed for the Gandy Street members. A side exit is through the Palace Gates Centre at Palace Gate.

St James Old Church, Exeter, Devon

St James Old Church stood at the north-east corner of South Street and Palace Gate. It existed by about 1190, but its life was relatively brief. It seemingly possessed a small and impoverished parish and was demolished by 1386-87. In 1878 Kennaway's wine merchants, located behind the site, extended their cellars and found eighteen skeletons and a bundle of artefacts. Today the site is occupied by Jonathan Hawkes, while St James Sidwell inherited the dedication.

Eight photos on this page by P L Kessler, one from the History Files collection, and one kindly contributed by Ray Harrington. Additional information from Discovering Exeter 7: Lost Churches, Exeter Civic Society, 1995, and from Nonconformity in Exeter, 1650-1875, Allan Brockett.

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