Most people approaching the centre of Plymouth by road today will be struck by the derelict church in the middle of a busy roundabout. Seemingly out of keeping with modern buildings around it, it stands as a silent witness to the devastation of the city during the war and the lives lost during those long years.
The church was an important centre of spiritual life for the city for 300 years; boasted a list of important ministers; and was the mother of many existing churches. During the nights of March 21 and 22 1941, the church was entirely burned out by incendiary bombs. Although now a monument, the tradition of ministry at ‘Charles’ is not lost and is carried on by the Parish of Charles with St Matthias, one if its daughter churches, a quarter of a mile north. It is an important landmark for the city of Plymouth.
There had been several histories made of the church and a couple written in the early twentieth century. Most focus on the fabric of the building rather than the spiritual life of the church and ministers of whom, Dr Robert Hawker, was an exceptional figure. There are several short accounts of his life and some much longer works.
"On the twenty-fifth day of the month of April, in the tenth year of Charles, King of England, &c. and in the year of Our Lord 1634, in the Mayoralty of Robert Trelawny, Merchant, Mayor of the Borough of Plymouth and the county of Devon."
That day the Mayor and thirty others of the council assembled and passed a resolution to petition the King, Charles I, for permission to divide the old Parish of Plymouth into two and build a second church.
The reason for a second church was not that the existing Church of St Andrew was too small (it could comfortably seat 1,200 and the population was around 8,000 at the time), but rather one of religious controversy. Plymouth had grown into a Puritan town. This is hinted a by the Pilgrim fathers who felt at home here, “kindly entertained and courteously used by divers friends there dwelling”. Being a Puritan town it meant the Catholic King did not see eye to eye with the townsfolk on religious matters.
Increasing tensions grew between the King and town over St Andrew’s. In addition to the minister the town regularly appointed a “Lecturer” to supplement the minister in his ministry. This lecturer might refute the morning sermon or the minister in an evening sermon. Battles were fought over the choice of ministers for the church and at times the King ordered the town’s choice to be refused admission or tried to appoint his own Lecturer. With increasing friction; disappointment with the Royalist tendencies of the St Andrew’s incumbents; and a desire for Puritan preaching, the solution of creating a second church was mooted.
That Charles understood all this may well account for his seven year delay in responding. In the end Robert Trelawny who had become Member of Parliament for Plymouth (and despite his royalist sympathy) most likely persuaded a King who was running out of friends in the West Country to act. On 21 April 1641 the letters Patent were signed and sealed. The document kept at the local records office is impressive with its 10 cm diameter seal and bears the title in Latin "CAROLVS DEI GRATIA MAGNE BRITANI Æ FRANCE ET HIBERNI Æ REX". An Act of Parliament was passed on 6 July 1641 and given royal assent on 7 August. It cost the city £150 and was one of the few pieces of legislation in that short Parliament.
The Act followed closely to the terms of the letter but it was more generous than expected and the new parish was larger than requested. The old parish was split in two on a north-south line and the new parish of Charles was to the east. It stretched much further than the town boundaries first envisioned for the new parish, north to Eggbuckland and further east. The Act also stipulated that no clergyman could hold both livings.
The King insisted the church was named after himself. Given the climate before the English Civil War it is perhaps not surprising that Plymouth sided with Oliver Cromwell and the Parliamentarians. St Andrew’s came to be known as “the Old church” and Charles Church “the New church”, titles that stuck for a long time.
The plot of land first sited close to Sutton Pool was unsuitable as the extended parish boundaries would make it less accessible, so a second plot of was found and given to the church by a William Warren who received both a burial plot inside the church and a seat inside. It was well located for the houses of the parish and fairly close to the ruins of a twelfth-century Carmelite monastery. Building commenced immediately in 1641 but was halted by the Civil War in 1642 just as the builders were ready to complete the roof. The church and the men were needed for the defence of the city. The church remained in that state until 1645 when the city was relieved. Staunchly Protestant, the city held out against the King’s men throughout the Civil War. The city was almost alone in a Royalist West Country.
There is evidence that the incomplete church was used for stabling horses during the siege. However, it seems that some parts were used for worship. A wedding is recorded on 10 May 1644, baptisms from January 1645 and burials from 4 August 1646 (some pages have been lost so there may have been earlier ones). The oldest communion plate is hallmarked 1646 suggesting its early use. Although the church was not consecrated until 2 September 1665, Francis Porter the first minister was in place as the preaching minister at Charles from 1643 as allowed for by the Act. Iron spikes were said to have been driven into the chancel wall and a canvas pulled across part of the church making it useful for worship during the siege. Traces of the spikes have been found in renovation work since. A glance at the map of the besieged city in 1643 reveals that the church is marked but without a roof on the plan.
After the war, work began again, albeit slowly. Money was raised: £100 per annum in 1646 to pay the minister and £500 in 1656 to complete the church. Money problems seem to have continued because the tower was only half finished in 1652. Eventually the church was finished in 1657 although a spire was not added until 1708 and the tower covered in a cap of wood instead. Once complete the church stood out from the city. No house overshadowed it and the building was said to be of very fine quality. It was one of the leading examples of a post-reformation Gothic style church in the country. The architect was thought to be a degenerate disciple of William of Wykeham. The church at this time possessed no galleries or organ.
The conveyancing happened very shortly before the consecration twenty-four years after the church was started. Francis Porter, who was Presbyterian, conformed and kept his living and the church was consecrated by Bishop Seth Ward of Exeter on 2 September 1665 (after the restoration of the monarchy). In 1670 the churchyard was consecrated. The consecration caused a little controversy as the bishop wanted to dedicate the church (and also a church in Falmouth) to “Charles, King and Martyr”. However, Puritan Plymouth was not to be messed with and insisted the church be named according to the letters Patent of 1641 signed in Charles’s own hand.
In 1708 the West gallery was erected. Six bells were added to the church in 1709 and a chiming clock was given in 1719. In the latter half of the eighteenth-century many more alterations were made by Dr Robert Hawker. Hawker, an Evangelical, was extremely popular as a preacher and the church must have grown in numbers as in 1815 the North and South galleries were erected.
It is hard to estimate the sittings the church provided. It was clear that there were not enough. Thousands are said to have flocked to hear Hawker preach. Charles Chapel, the first daughter church, was built from the need to provide more space. Certainly, the galleries helped.
The 1851 church census may give us some idea of what a normal attendance would have been like although it is by no means accurate. On 30 March 1851 the attendances were:
|St Andrew’s Church - Note: 1,400 free and 1000 other seats|
|Charles Chapel (St Luke’s the daughter church)|
Plymouth combined returns3
Percentage sittings per person: 45.6%
Number of sittings: 23,805
Additional sitting required to seat 58% population: 6,483
From the figures it is clear that the Charles Chapel and St Andrew’s figures are estimated and little care was taken over them (if they were returned at all and not estimated by the census makers). The Charles figures have a ring of authenticity about them and this may indicate that they are accurate.
The question of how many sittings Charles had is difficult to arrive at. The church had three galleries in addition to its pews. The church is approximately half the size of St Andrew’s. A figure of 900 sittings is given by the one author in 1977 although this is not clear whether or not all the galleries were taking into account4. Charles Church was popular and may have been full that morning. Nationally there were a large number of absences on that day so we must presume that the church could seat over 1,000 perhaps 1,200.
On the day of the census there was a total of 2,480 attendances. This is probably made up of a large number of “twicers”. In 1827 it was estimated that the parishioners numbered 10,000 and it was clear that there was a need for more churches.
The Victorian period was a boom time for the church building. The 1851 census discovered a need for more sitting (the 58% population noted above). Nationally the population grew from 19 million in 1861 to 30.5 million in 1901. This population growth was in the towns and not in the country. The need became apparent for more churches to meet the spiritual needs of increasing numbers parishioners. People started moving out from the centre of the towns to the suburbs and Plymouth was no exception as the population increased steadily from the early 1700s to 1814. As Charles parish extended a great distance anyway there was a large increase in population.
|1829 July 1||St Luke’s (Charles Chapel)|
|1855 June 21||St John Sutton-on-Plym|
|1870 Sept. 19||Emmanuel|
|1876 Nov. 27||St Jude|
|1887 Oct. 25||St Matthias (Now Charles with St Matthias)|
|1904 Oct.15||St Augustine|
|1907 Sept. 26||St Simon|
|1910 July 26||St Gabriel|
The church under the influence of the evangelicals was extremely active, and lots of new church buildings and alternations were made in this time. Charles is no exception and a large number of developments and restorations were made to the building during that period.
Charles Church was a Gothic styled church. It consisted of a west tower, with spire; nave with north and south aisles; north and south porches and chancel with north vestry. The tower was completed in 1708 and was originally surmounted by a wooden lead covered spire. This was later to be blown off in strong winds and replaced by the stone spire in 1766. It was said at the time that witches had knocked the wooded spire off with their broomsticks! The porches were added to the church in 1864. The south porch, located in the centre of the south aisle had a 17th century pointed outer doorway - this is still visible today in the ruins of the church. The fire caused by the blitz revealed a doorway in the north wall of the church.
|1787||Sunday school begun by Dr Hawker|
|1796||Lower churchyard paved and walled|
|1798||Foundation of “Household of Faith” school laid|
|1815||North and South galleries erected|
|1824||Higher West Burial ground opened|
|1828||Alterations - new pulpit, new west gallery, new fronts to gallery, new pews|
|1832||Higher East Burial ground opened|
|1851||Tower and spire repaired|
|1864||Church entirely renovated - new porches, staircases, reredos, east windows, gas standards|
|1869||Four windows inserted in north and south walls|
|1872||Windows inserted in the south aisle in memory|
|1876||New gates and piers near vestry|
|1884||Churchyard alterations complete|
|1887||Restoration of church approved|
|1888||Removal of pews and chairs substituted, north and south galleries removed, window erected in north aisle|
|1889||Northwest porch finished|
|1889||Windows inserted in north aisle in memory|
|1891||Window inserted in northwest porch in memory|
|1893||New vestry erected|
|1898||Eight bells in steeple rehung and two treble bells given|
|1901||Restoration of the organ|
|1904||Erection of the memorial hall|
Missions interest was growing. In 1896 the “Charles Own Missionary” Fund was started and the first “Own Missionary”, Miss Emily Bazerley, went out to the Bihar and Orissa province of India. In January 1901 Miss Ada Pitts sailed for China as the second missionary. The earliest interest before this was a collection taken and given on 17 October 1661 to John de Kavino Kavainsley of the Dukedom of Lithuania, for the printing of the Bible in Lithuanian. In 1961 a third “Own Missionary”, Dr Alison Dow went out with CMS to the Bihls in India from St Matthias.
Education was important to Charles Church and its Evangelical ministers. The “Household of Faith” Sunday school started in May 1784 with twenty children. This was the first school of its type in Plymouth. In four years it had grown and a school of industry added. The first permanent place for the school was opened on 7 March 1798 possibly the first purpose built Sunday school building anywhere.
1837 saw the building of Charles National school in Tavistock Place. This was for many the only National school in the town and set an example by opening for government inspectors in 1849. This was to be a mixed school but became a Junior mixed and senior girls when Charles Shaftesbury school was opened in 1855 serving Senior boys.
When peace came it was decided not to rebuild Charles. Plymouth had expanded and the population was in the new suburbs not the centre any more. It was decided to turn Charles into a living memorial of the 1,200 civilian deaths in the air raids. On Saturday 1958 at a service conducted by the vicar of the parish, J Allen James, the church was dedicated as a memorial. The commemorative plaque on the north wall reads:
Charles Church Built 1641, Consecrated 1665, Completed 1708 Named in honour of King Charles I ruined by enemy action, 21 March 1941 Partially restored 1952, by the City, in co-operation with the Ministry of Work. The idea of restoration having been sponsored by the Old Plymouth society, as a memorial to those citizens of Plymouth who were killed in Air-Raids on the city in the 1939-45 War.
The church is occasionally used for services of remembrance or of special importance and the current Vicar of Charles with St Matthias is responsible for them. Modern use has been for the University carol concerts and a special service of reconciliation between Germany and Plymouth was recently held (2001) there with the German ambassador present.
The parish became known as the Charles with St Luke on 11 August 1954 and then when St Luke’s was considered for demolition the congregation united with St Matthias becoming “the Church of Charles with St Matthias” on 22 April 1962.
One of the parishioners, Miss Leigh, had mixed feelings about the church remaining a memorial. “It grieves my heart to see it as it is, given that I remember its former glories. I’m sorry, too, that the historic purpose-built Household of Faith Sunday School, the first in Plymouth, was torn down. I just don’t know what to think about the church remaining as it is a memorial to the Blitz victims”. Miss Leigh was clear about what she felt for the church itself having attended from birth in 1903 “To me the church was particularly wonderful because there I got to know God… When it was blitzed in 1941 it was one of the few things that made me cry. My life seemed to be completely broken on that day.
During the mid naughties the church has again become the subject of renewed debate, partly because it is felt that its setting has been at least overpowered and possibly desecrated by the erection of the controversial Drake Circus Shopping Centre to the North West and because there is a growing campaign to partially restore the church to incorporate some modern glazed roofing to enclose a blitz museum.
There have been over twenty-five ministers of Charles Church in its history. Here I will trace some highlights of a few of them where there is any useful biography. I will outline the life of the most famous minister, Dr Robert Hawker, in greater detail.
He was also the builder of the daughter churches of Charles. St John’s, Emmanuel, and St Jude’s started to grown their congregations. Charles Chapel built for Courtney now became St Luke’s church with its own parish.
"Within a few weeks of the great raid that destroyed the building, the writer, in company with Mr Cyril Palmer, had the opportunity of paying more than one visit to the ruins, for the purpose of making photographic and other records. As may be expected, every scrap of woodwork, old and new, had been consumed; even the tower had been burned out; and the only part to escape destruction was the modern vestry on the north side of the chancel. All the bells, with one exception, and that was cracked, were broken; and not one mural monument escaped damage. The font was smashed to small fragments, which were collected later to form a small cairn."
The west tower of Charles Church, like St Andrews is built of limestone and granite. It is of three stages, divided by moulded strings and at each angle are double buttresses. The spire is octagonal and is surmounted by a ball and vane. The tower bears two date stones; 1657 on the north side and 1708 on the south side.
The East Window of the church was very elaborate and was of a remarkable design for a church built in the 17th century. There was originally a doorway underneath the east window, this had been walled up in 1665. Its location having become apparent by the damage caused in the blitz.
The following transcriptions come from the work of Mr Copeland, shortly after the blitz on Plymouth:
|Tenor||C & G Mears of London Founders 1856. Revd Henry Addington Greaves, Vicar. John Edwards Blewett, William Davey, Churchwardens||23cwt, 3qrs,|
|7th||Similar inscription||15cwt, 2qrs,|
|6th||C Mears of London fecit||approx 12cwt, 2qrs,|
|5th||Wm Chapman of London fecit 1782||11cwt, 2qrs,|
|4th||In wedlocks bands to join with hands your hearts unite, so shall our tuneful tongues combine to laud the nuptial rite||9cwt|
|3rd||Such wondrous power to music given. It elevates the soul to heaven||8cwt|
|2nd||If you have a judicious ear you'll own my voice is sweet and clear||7cwt|
|Treble||Same as the Tenor||6cwt, 1qrs,|
When the bells lay broken or cracked after falling through the tower the following inscriptions were recorded:
Tenor RECAST BY GILLETT & JOHNSTONE, CROYDON, 1936. CHAPMAN OF LONDON FECIT LONDON 1856 (the remainder indecipherable) GREAVES VICAR CHURCHWARDENS C & G MEARS FOUNDERS LONDON 1856 REVD HY ADDINGTON GREAVES VICAR (with band or ornament) JNO EDWARDS BLEWETT, WM DAVEY - CHURCHWARDENS
5th WM CHAPMAN OF LONDON FECIT 1782
a broken fragment IF YOUTH ELEVATES THE SOUL __OWN MY VOICE SWEET AND CLEAR (with band of ornament)
The brass rectangular tablet recording the erection in the north aisle of a window in memory of Admiral Blake, though badly bent, stained and partly fused, bore the following decipherable inscription:
To the Glory of God and in Affectionate Remembrance of Admiral Robert Blake who first established the Naval Supremacy of Great Britain which has ever since been maintained. This window is placed by several English and American Family descendants for the purpose of recording his daring bravery, his splendid achievements and his pure noble blameless character, August 1889. The Memory of the Just is Blessed. Prov. 10. 7.
Many monuments in the ruins of Charles Church were destroyed beyond identification. The following are those that remained.
To the Memory of Mr William Rowe of this towne, Merchant, a great benefactor the the poor, who died ye 27 day of December 1690. Also Frances his wife, who died the 18 of December 1688.
To the Memory of John Nicolls Esq, who died the 16th of May 1790 aged 59 years and of Elizabeth Nicolls his widow who died the 12th day of June 1794 aged 60 years.The epitaph readsWhen sorrow weeps o'er virtue's sacred dust, Our tears become us and our grief is just. Such were the tears she shed who grateful pays, This last sad tribute of her love and praise, Who mourns the best of friends and parents kind, Where female softness met a manly mind. Mourns but not murmurs, sighs but not despairs, Feels as a mortal - as a Christian bears.
To the Memory of Francis Hawker, Daughter of John and Mary Frances Hawker, who died the 16th of May 1818: Aged 24 years
To the Memory of Mary Frances Winne, Daughter of Sir Edmund Keynton Williams and Catherine his Wife. Nov. 29 1820. A lower tablet records:Also her sisters, Caroline Winne, who died Feb 20th 1822 aged 5 months. Caroline Gwyneth Williams died May 10th 1828 aged 9 months. Maud Lewellyn Seys Williams died May 11th 1828 aged 2 years.
To the Memory of James Hawker Esq, A Post-Captain in His Majesty's Navy who died the 23rd March 1786 aged 58 years. And of Dorothea Hawker, his widow who died the 25th January 1816 agd 78 years.
To Moses George Vincent de Batens in Northill, died August 23, 1663 and Matthias, his Brother, died Feb 11, 1683.
Here lie the bodies od Samuel Brent Esqr and Henrietta his Wife. Samuel died December 26th 1788 aged 77, Henrietta died February 21st 1784 aged 63. Gratefull affection for the best of Parents has caused this Monument to be erected to their Memory.
To Vice-Admiral Richard Arthur, Companion of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath, Second Son of the Late John Arthur Esq of Plymouth. Died Oct. 26, 1854, aged 75. Also Elizabeth Fortescue, his Wife, and the Eldest Daughter of the Late Rev William Wells, Rector of East Allington, Devon. Died Aug. 16, 1853, aged 69. Also Catherine Elizabeth Caroline Henn Gennys, Daughter of the Above, and Wife of Commander J.N. Gennys, R.N. Died Apr. 30, 1861, aged 39. Also Richard William Arthur, Eldest Son, who died on board H.M.S. Iris off the Island of Mauritius, July 20 [no year], aged 19. The monument erected by Edward Fortescue and Oswald Cornish Arthur as a Tribute of Affection to their Beloved Parents, Sister and Brother.
William Spark of Fryery in Plymouth Esqr, died th e8th day of June in the year 1714. Being the last of his Name and Family in that place. Resurgam.
Mrs Anna Harris Rains, Wife of CApt Stephen Rains of the Royal Navy. Died October 26, 1793 aged 61. Also Captain Rains. Died January 26, 1795. His remains are in the same vault as those of his wife.
Andrew Tracey Esq. of Gascoyne Place, Master in the Royal Navy for nearly half a centurt. Died March 9th 1826, aged 81. Also Sarah Tracey, Relict of the above, Died June 9th 1838, aged 79.
Elizabeth, Wife of Sir I.H. Seymour, Bart, Rector of Northchurch, Herts., Eldest Daughter of Robert Culme of Tothill, Rector of North Lewe and Parochial Curate of Plympton St Mary. Died March 6th 1841. Blessed are the pure in Heart for they shall see God. This tablet is erected by her husband.