In 1818 the Reverend George Charles Smith, “boatswain Smith”, who was a missionary sailor from Penzance, preached in the market place in Torrington. He may have been a noted Baptist but his reception in Torrington was not friendly. A contemporary account of his visit reports that he narrowly escaped being burnt to death, having been attacked by the locals. Following his time in Torrington, some folk who accepted his teachings met together to continue his work.
The Particular Baptized Church of Great Torrington was formed June 25th 1820, when six persons were baptised in the Torridge by Thomas Pulsford, (who had been preaching in Torrington about nine months). These, with sixteen others who had been baptised before by Mr Birt and Mr Harris, voluntarily united together in gospel bonds, taking the Word of God, as the basis of their principles and the rule of their lives, were publicly recognised and solemnly declared to be, a Christian church of the above denomination by Mr Rt Humphery, Pastor of the Baptist Church of Collumpton. in the autumn of 1820 Thomas Pulsford and Ann Pulsford, his wife, were dismissed from the Particular Baptist Church of Bath, under the Pastoral care of John Paul Porter and were united to this church.
So reads the first page of the Church book of minutes, starting both the book and a record of almost 190 years of Christian presence by Baptists in Great Torrington.
The church originally met in Mill Street, Great Torrington in an old building which had been converted to a meeting house. (It is believed to be where numbers 7 and 9 now stand.) It soon became clear that he congregation had outgrown the Mill Street property. The congregation had grown from those original 22 men (and presumably their families) to such a point that Rev Pulsford had arranged the appointment of two Deacons to assist him even before the end of 1820. They were George Ellis and Isaiah Folley (who died in November 1825). Following the death of Mr Folley, Charles Veysey was chosen as Deacon and after a couple of years was chosen as co-pastor.
There is a deed dated 4th October 1818 in which a ‘dwelling house, garden and land in New Street’ was conveyed upon trust for a “congregation of Protestant Dissenters of the Particular Calvanistic Baptist Denomination” The Church minutes record a resolution to build a new chapel and the foundation stone was laid on 18th March 1829, and the chapel opened on November 14th of that same year, leaving the Church with a debt of £705 17s 10d.
A further debt of £300 was due in 1831 as two cottages were built in front of the Church and the rent from these was paid to Charles Veysey (and his estate) for a period of twenty-one years. These cottages were finally taken down in the late 1980’s.
Reading the sparse minutes of the early Church makes intriguing reading; In February 1831 the Church meeting resolved that “the burial ground at the rear of the building be for the use of the members of the Church, their families and the congregation statedly worshipping with them.” Burial of strangers would be considered by a committee consisting of the Minister, Deacons and seven members of the Church in the event there was not time to call a Church meeting!
In October of the same year it was resolved that Miss Jane Acband be appointed to clean the meeting and that she receive one shilling per month for the same (yes, clean the meeting!)
And that Mr Luxton shall open the doors and light the candles and fill the Baptistry and receive 10/- per year for the same.
May 14th 1832 showed how strongly proper behaviour was enforced in the Church. It was resolved unanimously (with the exception of Brother Howard) that this Church lamenting the reproach thrown on religion by Brother William Gilbert and Sister Folly, Resolve to record their decided disapprobation of the indecent and unchristian conduct of marrying six weeks after committing a wife to the grave, and sincerely hope that this Church may never have the pain of witnessing another such marriage between any of its members, either as it occurred this time or the manner in which it took place.
It was noticeable from the records that Brother Howard frequently appears as an exception to an otherwise unanimous vote.
Rev Pulsford & Charles Veysey continued working together until 1839, preaching not only at Torrington but at neighbouring parishes. They established ‘Baptist’ churches in Frithlestock, Buckland Brewer, Newton St Petrock, Monkleigh, Dolton, Beaford, St Giles, Sheepwash, Yarnscombe and Shebbear (once called Caute). It is not surprising that Charles Veysey died from overwork on 15th March 1857.
A Reverend W. Jeffrey was appointed in 1858 and it is during his pastorate that many members and several village churches withdrew from Torrington’s Baptist Church. During the ministries of the following leaders Reverends J. W. Spear & T. Dowding the numbers were restored although not the connections with the village churches.