A brief history of Emmanuel church, Ilfracombe
The history of Emmanuel Church as it is today has two separate strands. That of Methodism and that of the United Reformed Church.
Methodism in Ilfracombe
In August 1796 the ship carrying two Irish Methodist Preachers, returning home from the British Conference, put into Ilfracombe harbour to shelter from a bad storm. The storm kept them in the town for a week and in that time they decided to preach to the inhabitants. In spite of one being an ordained Church of England clergyman, they were refused permission to preach in the parish church. So, following a service, one stood on a tombstone in the churchyard and announced that he would be preaching in the Rope Walk later that day. It is reported that in spite of the bad weather he preached to around 300 people, and the following day his colleague did likewise. Afterwards the two men were offered a room in which to preach, although were somewhat disconcerted when they later found it was in a local brothel. They decided on reflection that this was a good place to make their witness to the ‘Friend of Sinners’. The meetings were well attended for the next three nights, before they returned to their ship to resume their journey home.
This is the earliest record we have of Methodist preaching in Ilfracombe. The next record is that in 1808 a small society was meeting regularly.
Then some twenty years after this a generous benefactor offered the society £500 to build a chapel of their own, and an endowment of £20 per annum towards the stipend of a preacher.
The following year, 1833, the first Methodist Chapel opened on a plot at Ropery Green – near the spot where those Irish Methodists first preached.
The congregation grew rapidly, and in 1863 a new and much larger building was opened on the same site.
By now Ilfracombe had become a Methodist Circuit in its own right, with its own Superintendent Minister. The church continued to grow, and it was soon clear that they had underestimated the space required for the Sunday School and to accommodate holiday visitors wanting to worship in the church.
In 1894 the church was approached by the Urban District Council. They were keen to use the site of the chapel as a public amenity and offered a plot of land in exchange. Negotiations with the Council were protracted and at one stage the church had plans produced for a third church to be built on the Ropery site.
Work on the new Wesleyan Chapel in Wilder Road began in 1897 and it was dedicated in July the following year. (The old chapel was demolished and the site is now a putting green.)
Work on the new Wesleyan Chapel in Wilder Road began in 1897 to a design based on the one originally proposed for the third rebuild on Ropery Green. The new building was dedicated in July the following year. (The old chapel was demolished and the site is now a putting green.)
Methodism, of course, has its own complex history with a number of historic strands – with Wesleyan, Primitive, United Methodists Free Church, the Bible Christian Church and Methodist New Connexion. At various times and in stages these groups merged until in 1933 the Methodist Church as we know it today was formed.
In Ilfracombe there had been a United Methodist church in Oxford Grove, this being in addition to Wilder Road, the Wesleyan one. This closed following the union and Wilder Road became the Methodist church for the whole town.
United Reformed Church (URC)
The URC has an even longer history in Ilfracombe than Methodism. The Dissenters were a wide ranging group of Christian sects who objected to the control of the established church by Parliament and so set up their own separate forms of worship. The first Ilfracombe Dissenters’ Chapel was built in 1728-9 in the High Street and over the years this evolved into the Congregational Church. In 1972 the Congregational Church joined with the Presbyterians to form the United Reformed Church. Soon after the URC minister in Ilfracombe, Revd. Margaret Howard and Revd. William Kent of the Methodist Church experimented with Joint services and finally it was decided that the URC church would close and all services move to Wilder Road. The URC church eventually being acquired by Ilfracombe Town Council and renamed The Lantern Centre. In 1987 the Wilder Road Church was given the name Emmanuel and the final service in the URC church was held in 1989.
The Local Ecumenical Partnership (LEP)
Emmanuel now has the status of a Local Ecumenical Partnership with both Methodist and URC members. The church is administered by the Methodist Barnstaple Circuit but has its own constitution in order to recognise both traditions of worship. Ministerial responsibility can be taken by a Methodist or URC prsbyter according to the agreement between the two churches.
The historic details and references are largely from ‘Crossing the Meadow’, published in 1998 as part of the Wilder Road church centenary.