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St Matthews, Newtown

Researched and written by Julia Sharp

Page added 14th May 2017

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MapAt the beginning of the 19th century the parish of St. Sidwell covered a large part of the area to the east of the city walls. The residents were mainly of the so called working class. The Church found it very difficult to fund their needs in what became Newtown especially as the numbers began to grow. By 1838 there came the need for a new church so, St. James was built and became a parish in its own right. Numbers continued to grow enabling St. James to be rebuilt in the gothic style of the period between 1879 to 1886. This church survived until 4 May 1942 when it was one of the casualties of the blitz.

The need for a third church in the Newtown area was still apparent as house building continued apace in the area. When the plans for Lower Summerland were submitted, they included space for a Church and Parsonage House at the end of the block, which was seen as a helpful sign.

In 1878 the Vicars of St. Sidwell, Heavitree and St. James thought that now was the time to approach the Dean and Chapter of Exeter Cathedral for permission to build a new church. In February 1878 Miss C. King had left the sum of £500 to the incumbent of St. Sidwell on the condition that a new Church was built in Newtown within 7 years.

On 23 September 1878 the three vicars penned a letter to the Bishop detailing the need for a new Church and Parsonage House. An eligible site had been found valued at £500 and Miss King’s legacy was available. It was hoped the Ecclesiastical Commissioners would make a grant of similar value to fund the building of the Parsonage House. The Vicars hoped the cost of building the Church to accommodate 400 people would be about £2000, which they felt could easily be raised by public subscription. The fact that a Brick Kiln lay nearby was noted, hopefully reducing the cost.

Bishop Temple agreed and the Exeter Church Extension Committee was formed under his Chairmanship on 10 May 1879. It took about a year to get support but on 28 April 1880, in the Guildhall, a public meeting was held. A Committee of prominent Exonians, including the Earl of Devon was formed and at the end of the meeting it was reported that subscriptions of £1700 had been received. It was decided to appoint an Architect and on 9 June 1881 the foundation stone was laid.

The architect who was chosen was Robert Medley Fulford. As seems usual at the time the plans included a large tower with spire. The only Church built with the tower was St. Michael and All Angels Mount Dinham which was paid for by William Gibbs.


In Lower Summerland, the building that was initially built did not include the Tower but had room for 700 worshipers with a gallery intended to seat 50 children possibly from the Workhouse. The Church was consecrated on 28 September 1882. The cost, as usual, was over budget, and but by 1887 all had been paid. A private meeting had been held in 1886 as the congregation felt the most urgent matter that should be dealt with was the cold draughts which blew into the nave when the west doors were open. Those at this meeting resolved to remedy this, and the lobby screen was erected at a cost of £66. 8s 3d. The Church was still not complete to the original design, but now any extra work had to be funded by the Parish as the Exeter Church Extension Committee’s remit was complete as it only covered the building of the main body of the Church. However, in 1890 it was decided to press ahead with the Chancel and two side vestries. This meant another laying of a foundation stone, this time for the Chancel followed by consecration in 1891.

The parish had provided itself with Parish Rooms firstly in rented accommodation but by 1887 a site in Lower Summerland was leased for 21 years and a temporary iron building which lasted for many years was built. Part of the cost for this was raised by a ‘Dickens Bazaar’ where Charles Dickens junior, assisted by his daughter Ethel read portions of his Father’s works.

Clearing up after the blitz

As well as a number of well known Clergymen, including the Architect Rev. Robert Medley Fulford, who returned to St. Matthew after taking holy orders, the Church was well served by dedicated staff. One such was Dorothy Back who served as a verger and sexton. She was well known for her devotion to duty which manifest itself immediately after the Blitz. One delayed action bomb became burrowed deep down near the altar. Against all advice declared she had a job to do, and cleared up the mess of broken glass and rubble so that services could resume as soon as the bomb had been made safe. The services started immediately even though it was by candlelight. She died in 1982, after more than 50 years service. The statue of Jesus with open arms over the west door was erected in her memory.

Having been built in a time when Newtown was expanding and congregations large, after the Second World War the reverse was the norm. Therefore it was decided to unite with St. Sidwell as a united benefice in 1979 to be joined later by St. Marks; and as part of East Exeter Group ministry, with Whipton – St. Boniface and Holy Trinity.

St. Sidwell has been looked on as the Mother Church and about 2016, someone went into the tower of St Matthew and found some stained glass featuring a picture of St. Sidwell. No one recalls how this came to be there but it is assumed that it was rescued from the ruined St. Sidwell’s Church after the blitz and put there for safekeeping. Efforts are being made to restore the glass and return it to St. Sidwell.

Sources: Brief History of St. Matthew; items taken from the web and local newspapers of the period.

Architectural drawing by Fulford

Architectural drawing by Fulford, showing the planned, but unbuilt tower.

The church in 2017

The church in 2017.

A postcard of the interior

A postcard of the interior.

The figure of Christ in memory of Dorothy Back

The figure of Christ in memory of Dorothy Back, the verger who braved the unexploded bomb.

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