On 17th October 1836 a committee first met, chaired by Joseph Smith, with the aim of providing a “poor man’s church” for Stoke. Concern was expressed that there were insufficient churches to meet the growing population of Devonport and that the poor of the area had no access to the Anglican church. Until then new churches had been financed by the proprietary model where each person paid for their own pew. It was determined at the outset that half the pews would be free and the rest met by grants and public subscriptions.
However the first appeal for subscriptions generated very little response and the committee were considering abandoning their project. A new committee was formed in November 1842 and appointed the architect, Mr Ferrey of London, for a church to be build on a field donated by the lord of the manor, Lord St Levan.
On the 29 September 1843 on a site in Navy Row (now Albert Road) work began on a building which was to become St Michael’s Chapel of Ease. It was built in response to the demand from a growing population for a more conveniently situated church than the Parish Church of Stoke Damerel.
The church, designed to accommodate 1200 parishioners, was built with stone granted by the government from quarries in Richmond Walk. The money to fund the project was largely by public subscription. The church was of cut limestone and in the early English Lancet tradition. There were three galleries, one over the West end, and over each of the North and South transepts. It was completed in just under 2 years and the service of consecration took place on 1 August 1845.
On June 27th 1873 St Michael’s became an independent parish. The Plymouth Directory of 1880 reports:
St Michael’s Church, at Albert Road where Stoke and Morice Town join, is a handsome Gothic edifice, erected in 1845, at a cost of £4000. There are 1200 sittings and the perpetual curacy, of the annual value of £300, is in the gift of the rector of Stoke.
Later editions, however, change the word “handsome” to “meagre”! Certainly by 1874 the church needed £400 to be spent on urgent repairs, and in 1885 the interior underwent a further change when a new vestry was erected and the choir stalls removed giving place to oak seats.
One prominent member of St Michael’s at the end of the 19th century was Dr Joseph May who lived from 1808 to 1904 and his memorial still survives. He served three times as mayor of Devonport, and with successive vicars of St Michael’s played a prominent role on the Devonport School board which helped to found many local schools in the area.
As with other churches, the First World War left a heavy mark on the church. The roll of honour records 100 members of the congregation who were killed during the 1914-18 war, erected in 1921. Included among the names is that of the then vicar’s son, Charles Lewarne Teape. His father, the Revd C.R.Teape who died on 30th November 1918 is remembered on a brass plaque that is still in St Michael’s today.
Also in memory of those who had fallen in the war, on 29th January 1926, Lord St Levan laid the foundation stone of the church hall which was built behind the church.
Sadly, on 22 April 1941 the church received four direct hits from High Energy bombs dropped during an air raid on Plymouth. One bomb landed in the Vestry, one in the Lady Chapel, one in the nave, and the fourth in the South West corner. The church was completely wrecked and the ruins sealed off. The debris also blocked the main London-Penzance railway line which runs in a cutting behind the church. Services were, however, continued in the Parish Hall which was converted into a temporary church. Special permission was granted for an Evening Service to be held in the ruins on 1 August 1945 to mark the 100th centenary.
Although other sites were suggested it was finally decided that the Church of St Michael should be rebuilt on the original site. The parish expanded to include that of St James the Great which was not rebuilt after the war.
On 8 October 1951 a service of praise and thanksgiving marked the beginning of the restoration and the the dedication of the commemorative stone. Martin and Fox were the architects, the limestone for the walls was brought in from the bombed churches of St James the Less at Millbay and St George’s at Stonehouse. An organ was imported from the Church of St John the Baptist, Devonport.
St Michael’s Church was re-opened and consecrated by the Bishops of Exeter and Plymouth on 13 June 1953, the first church in Plymouth to rise from the ashes. However over the years it became clear that the quality of the rebuilding work was poor, and in particular that the mortar allowed rapid ingress of water. In 1987 the church council made an unanimous decision to make the building available for community use. The original plan was to clear the site and rebuild, but this was thwarted due to the economic conditions and so finally in 1994 the back of the church was converted into a community centre – the SMILE project.
However the condition of the building continued to deteriorate, and in 2005 the church council approved the demolition of the church, the church hall and the adjacent vicarage built in the 1960s, the plan being to build flats for social housing on the church and church hall site, and to build a small church on the vicarage site. The final service in the old building took place on 22 April 2007 and on 27 June 2007 demolition of the church got underway – the end of one chapter in the history of St Michael’s and the start of another.
The new church opened on 31st May 2009 to a design by Jeremy Bell, architect. The wood from the old high altar was used to make the font and the lectern, and wood from the old roof beams was reused to create a cross that hangs above the Communion Table. Also incorporated into the church were the stained glass windows of St Mary and St Catherine given in memory of congregation members over the years.
On 1st January 2017 the parish merged with that of St Barnabas, having been a joint benefice for a number of years. The war memorials from the church of St Barnabas were transferred to the church of St Michael’s. The new church continues to be an active place of worship despite the many changes over the years, and remains committed to the original vision of being the “poor man’s church”.
We are celebrating the 175th anniversary of our founding on 29th September 2018. We believe the church has a remarkable history that needs to be told, and we are very much looking forward to what the Lord is going to do in the next 175 years!
Article from BBC WW2 People’s War (Anthony Banbury)
Plymouth Times, 2nd August 1845 pdf – sorry it’s upside down! – but a fascinating read