‘The inhabitants of Stonehouse, a town daily increasing in population and importance, had long been greatly inconvenienced for want of church room. The parochial chapel does not furnish accommodation for more than one eighth of the parishioners, while there is lamentably undue proportion of free sittings for the poor. His Majesty’s Commissioners therefore determined to erect a chapel capable of containing nearly one thousand persons within the presincts of the parish’.
This new chapel was St. Paul’s which was built as a chapel of ease to St. George’s, which itself only dated back to 1789; it having been built on the site of an earlier church building to serve the increased population following the late eighteenth-century expansion of Stonehouse. St. George’s was completed just a few years after the Royal Marine Barracks had opened and not many years after the Stonehouse Bridge, the Royal Naval Hospital and Longroom Barracks had been developed.
St. Paul’s, on the other hand, was opened in 1831 just four years before the Royal William Victualling Yard was completed. Up until 1820 there had been very little development beyond the Royal Marine Barracks and although the ‘increase of buildings’ in the area was not as great in the early 1830s as was anticipated when the site for this building was chosen, development around ‘lower’ Durnford Street, as it was then known, soon stripped the chapel of its rural surroundings. The impressive square of neighbouring terraced houses, originally conceived by architect John Foulston, however, was never completed.
Foulston would doubtless have had much cause to be disappointed about this particular part of his work in the Three Towns, coming as it did towards the end of his most productive period. The design of St. Paul’s has been described by one contemporary critic (Frank Jenkins, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, May 1963) as being ‘ a rather meagre swan-song’ to his career. In his defence, however, Foulston was working within a very limited budget – his brief was not to exceed £3,000. In the event St. Paul’s was completed at a cost of only £2,630. As one commentator noted at the time ‘…We might be disposed to criticise some of the features of the building, did we not know that the means were strictly limited…We are rather disappointed to wonder, considering the expense of wrought stone, that he could have raised a fabric which forms so pleasing an object…’ to which there was but one footnote ‘…though we should have been pleased had Mr Foulston’s means allowed him to raise St. Paul’s tower about twenty feet higher’.
Whatever the objections, the Gothic style St. Paul’s was opened for divine service on 5th July 1831 (some accounts say 1832) and consecration by the Bishop of Exeter on the 27th September 1833. Capable of seating one thousand, although pew rents had still not been abolished, it was not unknown for pews in some churches to be boxed in and provided with desks, cushions and even fireplaces! Gradually though, the nineteenth century witnessed the elimination of such status symbol church seating.
Such is not to say, however, that the new pews in St. Paul’s were held in high regard for very long. In 1885 a report in the Western Daily Mercury noted that ‘Pitchpine seating had now taken the place of the high and uncomfortable pews’ in St. Paul’s and further that the lighting had been improved by the removal of two side galleries. This work was all part of a major internal restoration undertaken by the Rev AA Toms and his committee, presided over by the Earl of Mount Edgcumbe, whose ancestor had provided the land upon which the church had been built. The then present Earl also promised to supply a pulpit to replace the two (a separate pulpit and a reading desk), which despite criticism had for so long preceded it. James Taylor, a builder from Battery Street, and Samuel Yeomans, a house decorator from Clarence Place, carried out most of the physical work, while Mr Goodfellow, the architect responsible for the changes, was true to his name and made no charge for his services.
While the impetus for the restoration undoubtedly followed the creation of a separate parish of St Paul’s, the bombing of St George’s during the last war led to St Paul’s merging with its mother church. Latterly, however, even as a combined parish, numbers tended to be declining although in recent years Foulston’s last public work has enjoyed something of a renaissance.