Anglo Saxon origins
St Sidwell’s church is thought to have been in existence by the Anglo Saxon period. Nothing is known of its appearance or structure, but it may have been a large and important building, since it was an established pilgrimage site before the Norman Conquest of 1066. Perhaps the earliest part of the church to survive was its font, described in 1806 as ‘very ancient, and, by its ornaments, appears to be of Saxon construction.’ The font was lost in the 19th Century.
The church is known to have been either completely or substantially rebuilt in the 1430s, when the reconstructed building was consecrated by Bishop Edmund Lacy in 1437.
The grand new church interior had eight pillars, topped with ornate carved capitals, each depicting four angels holding shields on their breasts. Between the angels were small statues of St Sidwella, showing her both before she was beheaded and afterwards, holding her head. A beautiful painted Gothic screen separated the body of the church from the chancel. Similar angel capitals may be seen today at Alphington church and at St Petrock’s church in the city centre.
The church tower was damaged during the Prayerbook Rebellion of 1549 when it was used by rebels to hold hostages, including Sir Walter Raleigh’s father-in-law. At around this time the medieval church silver was melted down and a magnificent new chalice was made for the church by Richard Hilliard, father of the famous Elizabethan miniaturist, Nicholas Hillard. This can be seen today in the RAM Museum. Drawings of the 1590s by John Hooker show the tower with a curious pitched roof which might represent the remains of an earlier spire. The church was repaired in 1605 when the citizens of Exeter raised money towards the cost of rebuilding the upper part of the tower in brick.
The church managed to survive when Royalists levelled Sidwell Street, while preparing for siege during the Civil War (1642-46): this was a miraculous escape, as nearly every other building between the East Gate and St Anne’s Chapel was destroyed. A drawing of 1662 made by a visiting (Dutch) artist, Willem Schellinks, shows the church tower as impressively tall but without pinnacles or spire; this may have been a result of war damage.
Bells, crypts and weathercock
Eight bells were hung in the tower in 1773, but only one survived the Blitz. It can still be seen housed in a post-war tower at the side of the community centre.
Two galleries were added to the church in the 1790s. Plans from 1793 show the church had underground ‘caves’ containing crypts. It also had a stair turret with a small spire supporting a weathercock, which had formerly stood on the spire of the Cathedral.
In 1812 the church was rebuilt in the Gothic style, by the local surveyor and architect William Burgess, at a cost of more than £2200. Burgess retained the columns of the 15th Century church but raised them and added a clerestory making the nave roof much higher than before. The 15th Century tower was retained, repaired and coated in plaster and in 1823 an octagonal spire was added. Sadly the early font and the painted screen were lost at this time. The fine 17th– or 18th-century pulpit was sold and can be seen today at St Michael’s Church in Princetown, on Dartmoor.
The church now had three large galleries and seated more than a thousand people. In the 19th century the church became known for its dignified services and was sometimes the scene of disturbances, known as ‘the surplice riots’. The chancel was enlarged and stained-glass windows and rich furnishings were provided, many by the internationally famous local artist, Harry Hems.
In 1891 two bells were added to the eight already there and in 1893 the north side of the church was stripped of its coat of plaster and encased in limestone. Statues of St Sidwella and St Boniface, made by Harry Hems, were added to the chancel arch. The tower was restored in the 1890s, the plaster stripped off and the octagonal spire removed.
Destroyed in the Exeter Blitz
In 1942, during WWII, the church minutes note that the church community had joined the local fire-watching scheme. They also note an appeal against taking the main gate of the churchyard for Government requirements. Whether the gate was melted down for the war effort or sold is unclear since less than two months later, on 4 May, 1942, St Sidwell’s took a direct hit during the Exeter Blitz.
The tower was so badly damaged it had to be demolished soon after and the church stood in ruins for many years. Much of the stained glass and some of the furnishings, including the Elizabethan chalice, were rescued from the ruins. The chancel gates can be seen today in Ferry Road in Topsham and much of the glass is now in storage at St Matthew’s Church in Exeter. A Nissan hut was erected in the grounds for use as a temporary church and it was eventually decided that the remains of the church would be demolished rather than rebuilt. The fate of most of the stonework of the building, including the medieval pillars and arches, remains unknown. A new church, completed in 1958, was erected in its place to the designs of the local architects Lucas, Roberts and Brown.
The commercial development which replaced the rows of tightly packed cottages and terraced houses which had surrounded the church also swept away a large proportion of the congregation. Numbers attending the church gradually dwindled and towards the end of the 20th Century the decision was taken to convert the church into a community centre.
The building was sold in 1998 (for £1) and opened in 2001 as a Healthy Living Centre, one of 250 around the UK, with sheltered accommodation above. An upstairs room was retained as a chapel. Since 2007 St Sidwell’s Community Centre has been run as an independent charity.