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 demand from a growing population for a more conveniently situated church than the Parish Church.
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.
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.
By this stage, St Michael’s had become an independent parish, as the Kelly’s Directory of 1926 reports:
St Michael’s is an ecclesiastical parish, formed June 27 1873: the church in Albert Road, at the junction of Morice Town and Stoke, was erected in 1845 at a cost of £4000, and is a building of stone, in the Gothic style, consisting of nave, aisles, north porch and a turret containing one bell: on the north side is a stained window in memory of Revd H.Rathbone, erected in 1925 by Miss Gertrude Müller, of Cheyne Court, London: there are 850 sittings. The register dates from 1873. The living is a perpetual curacy, net yearly value £412, derived from pew rents and an endowment from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, with residence in the gift of the rector of Stoke Damerel, and held since 1922 by the Revd Oswald William Charles de Blogue AKCL FRGS and surrogate. Attached to the church is a memorial hall, built at a cost of about £2000, seating 380 persons.
By this stage there was also a memorial in the church to honour the 100 members of the congregation who were killed during the 1914-18 war, erected in 1921.
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 thanskgiving 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.
Article from BBC WW2 People’s War (Anthony Banbury)
Plymouth Times, 2nd August 1845 pdf – sorry it’s upside down! – but a fascinating read