A Brief History of the Parish Church of St. George the Martyr
In 1350 it would not have been unusual for the inhabitants of the Cornish farm at Carvedras to pass the time of day with the friars of the Kenwyn valley. The Dominican friary, whose church had been consecrated a century before, was well established in the area, and is perhaps the earliest record we have of the Church in what is now the Parish of St. George the Martyr, Truro.
In what is now called Chapel Hill, another mediaeval building was constructed that is influential in our history. A small chapel, dedicated to St. George, was licensed in 1420. Seven years later, the Pope granted ‘an indulgence of 100 days’, to any of those pilgrims who contributed by their alms to the conservation or repair of this chapel if they visited during the feasts of St George or Whitsuntide. (Acton 1997) This chapel too, which has given it’s name to the present parish, was administered by the Dominican friars until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538. No trace of the priory now remains – nor of the church of the ‘Friars Preachers (Dominicans) ‘in Truro itself. Only the street names remain to remind the 21st century inhabitant of those earlier days – St. Dominic St. is thought to represent the western boundary of that first friary. And another small reminder – in the garden of Carvedras House, in what is the present Vicarage, is said to be the well from which the Friars and their tenants drew drinking water some 700 years ago.
Formation of the Parish
The centuries following the split with Rome and the establishment of the Church of England had seen fanaticism and turbulence, devotion and zeal. However, despite all those who saw the church standing for spiritual and social growth, by the beginning of the nineteenth century there was a sense of decline throughout the church in Cornwall. All through the previous fifty or sixty years, the number of communicants had fallen and many of the clergy in what was then part of the vast diocese of Exeter, were non resident. Miles Brown (1964) in his excellent book “The Church in Cornwall” states that as late as 1821, of 145 parishes in Cornwall only 82 had resident parish priests whilst there were 63 non-resident rectors or vicars who left the work in their parishes to ill-paid curates. “It was time for a new wind to blow and stir all things to revival” (Miles Brown 1964 p77)
This revival, commonly called the ‘Oxford Movement’, is generally dated from the Assize Sermon preached in Oxford by John Keble in 1833. The emphasis on the Catholic and traditional nature of the Church of England (what is perhaps now known as ‘high church’) was received eagerly by, among others, the newly appointed Bishop of Exeter, Bishop Henry Phillpotts. ‘Henry of Exeter’ as he was commonly known, was one of the most striking figures of his day and a traditional High Churchman. During his time in Exeter, from 1831 – 1869, more than 30 new churches were built. One of them was the church of St George the Martyr at Truro.
In 1845 the Church Extension Act came into force, under which 19 new ecclesiastical districts were authorised in Truro. Bishop Phillpots appointed Revd. William Haslam, curate at Perranzabuloe, to prepare maps for these districts – each allotted to areas of 2000 – 3000 people. Thus, St George’s was created, from the overlarge parish of Kenwyn, and in memory of its 15th century namesake.
The First Church
Under the Church Extension Act, the responsibility for raising funds and building a church fell to the newly appointed incumbent. In the case of St. George’s, Truro this was Revd. William Fontaine Addison – the first Vicar (although the official designation at the time was ‘Perpetual Curate’). Initially a large room was licensed for the celebration of services, but the congregation was growing, and the room was soon too small. It was clear that a site was needed for a permanent church building. In the meantime the Bishop granted permission for a temporary building to be erected, and a site was rented in Back Lane (now known as City Road) from a tenant of Viscount Falmouth. This first wooden church was built at a cost of £250 (to which Lord Falmouth granted £50). It was designed by a Mr White, a local architect who gave his services for free, and was described as being in the “Early English style, rigidly plain with a bold cross at the eastern and western ends of the roof and with a wooden bell-cot surmounted with a banner cross to mark the division between the nave and chancel. The east window is a triplet, the side windows are couplets and at the west end there are two lancet windows.” The church was 74 feet long by 20 feet wide, and had a sacristy on the south side. There were low moveable benches that provided for a congregation of 300. An open chancel screen was complemented by blue coloured room panels in the chancel, whilst the inside walls were adorned with scriptural texts. It was, appropriately enough, on St George’s Day (23d April) 1849 that the first service was held. No less than 40 clergymen were present, 8 taking part in the service, with the sermon being preached by Revd. Prebendary Cornish of Kenwyn.
Revd Addison was responsible for establishing both day and Sunday schools in his new parish, attended by some 200 children. However his tenure was brief, as was that of his successor Revd. W Woodard. On 1st October 1852 – just 3 years after the opening of the wooden church, the Lord Chancellor nominated “The Revd P.E. Wrench, late curate of Overton, to the district of St. George’s Kenwyn, vacant by the resignation of the Revd. W Woodward. ” This energetic priest was to hold the living for the next 34 years, resigning on 1st November 1886.
Building of the Present Church
Within just two months of his arrival Parson Wrench, as he became familiarly known, appealed for funds in a letter to the ‘West Briton’ newspaper Sir, The well-known wooden church in this parish, and the schools in connection therewith, situated in one of the dirtiest localities in England, the former liable to be burnt down by children playing with fireworks, and the latter to be broken up by caprice; are surely worth the favourable consideration of a Christian public and the description thereof of a place in your paper … No woman can have access to this Church in safety without being shod with a pair of shooting boots and no man in possession of an ordinary sense of humanity can behold with complacency the infants on their way to and from school laying the foundations of premature old age by continual wet feet. A fortnight ago, I respectfully called the attention of Mr. Robins, the Way warden, to the disgraceful condition of Back Lane; and I do not perceive that it has been to any purpose at present. I do then most humbly and sincerely hope that your readers will give me the benefit of their heads, hands and pockets.
However unusual the method – it was successful. Sufficient funds were raised to build not only a new Church but a new school as well.
The architect of the new church was the same Revd. William Haslam, who had by now become vicar of Baldu – another church that he designed – with a certain Mr Wellingon being noted as the contractor. (Kelly 1873). The church was built of Cornish granite and local stone in the Early English cruciform style. As is noted in ‘Harrods Royal County Directory of Cornwall’ in 1878 “it consists of a nave, with south porch and transepts, a chancel with fine stained glass windows, and tower of 3 stages, with crooked pinnacles … the roof is decorated with gold stars on a blue ground. Rising from the chancel by 3 steps, and separated from it by a magnificent arch is the apsidal sanctuary’.
The building of the new church proceeded with some speed and was consecrated by Bishop Phillpotts on the Feast of SS Simon and Jude, 1855.
The Day Schools
Soon after the Church was completed, Parson Wrench succeeded in getting new Day Schools erected, on a site adjoining the church, on land provided by Lord Falmouth. The schools and vicarage house (also adjoining the church) were designed by Rev. F C Hingerstone-Randolph, the rector of Ringmore, Devon. This was before the days of ‘free’ education, and the Annual Vestry minutes of 1874 record that “the late teacher left the Schools most abruptly owing to parents of children being so behind in their payments and the Vicar had to pay the pupil teachers out of his own pocket” . It seems that the organist was persuaded to take charge of the schools, a job that she performed well, such that when she left three years later, the children presented her with ‘an elegant silver thimble in a handsome case.’ The day schools possessed a ‘much admired bell turret’ which was destroyed in storms of October 1877. In 1945 the building ceased to be used as Day Schools, and have since been utilised as the Church Hall.
Having built the church and schools, Parson Wrench made yet another public appeal – this time for the reconstruction for the road outside the new buildings – St George’s Road. In October 1864 he advertised his thanks to the 26 farmers who lent their horses – some 60 or so for one day each. He may have had a forceful manner, but Parson Wrench was obviously on good terms with his neighbours!
In 1886, following 34 years of ‘zeal and energy’ Parson Wrench was succeeded by Revd. H P Thornton, who himself was followed in 1889 by Revd. F W Newman. Revd. Newman was noted as a parish priest of piety and vigour, who laid the foundations for the traditional Catholic worship and ceremonial that is still a feature of St. George’s. He was regarded with affection by his parishioners who erected the statue of St. George, to be found in the church, in his memory. During his 20 year tenure, Fr. Newman wrote the hymn “Praise we now St. George our Patron” – a hymn still to be found in some editions of Hymns Ancient and Modern. It was under Fr. Newman’s guidance, in 1904, that St George’s began it’s own ‘Youth Movement’, when Horace Dobell and T J Williams formed a company of the Church Lads Brigade.
In 1909, Fr. Newman was succeeded by Revd. Henry Edwardes who introduced a daily Mass and a Sung Mass, with full canonical vestments, as the principle Sunday morning service. As far back as 1889 it had been the custom at St. George’s for the Annual Vestry to elect a Church Council, ante-dating the Parochial Church Councils (Powers) Measure by 32 years. The minute book testifies to the level of sympathy and support which greeted the changes to the Sunday services. Fr. Edwardes left after just 3 years in 1912, to work in British Columbia, with his successor , Revd. Digby Hawker staying just 2 years before he too left – to undertake mission work in Africa. From 1914 to 1924, the living was held by Revd. Stephen Purcell, who was able to consolidate the work of his predecessors and was described as “the parish priest par excellence.” A war memorial shrine was erected following the war, at the junction of Kenwyn Street and City Road. The crucifix on the outside north wall of the church was part of this shrine.
Between the wars
As in other areas of the country, the period between the war saw rising unemployment, poverty and instability. Church attendances fell, although numbers of communicants rose – perhaps due to the fact that since 1919, celebration of the Eucharist was promoted as the ‘chief service of Sunday devotions’ (Miles Brown 1964 p 109). In many parishes of the diocese, clergy tended to move leftward in their political views, espousing the cause of Christian socialism as their expression of the Gospel. Work for the unemployed and social service, both at home and abroad, was encouraged. Into this environment there came to St. George’s, in 1924, an enthusiastic young priest from Holy Cross, St. Pancras. Revd. Alan Symon was to stay as vicar for 10 years. During this time he laid special emphasis on the work of the church overseas in such societies as the USPG – an emphasis that continued for many years. Alan Symon no doubt delighted his congregation when he married a local woman – there being nothing like a clergy wedding to unite a parish in celebration! By this stage, the Bishop of Truro was Bishop Walter Frere. At Alan Symon’s institution, it was Bishop Frere who commented upon the advantage that the congregation had of ‘solid teaching, solid instruction, experience and care in deepening the Christian life of the richest and best kind.’ Despite of, or indeed, perhaps, because of, the prevailing times, Revd Symon’s did much to beautify the Church and Sanctuary during his incumbency.
In 1934, Revd. Symon exchanged livings with Revd. Albert Palmer, of Blackheath. He stayed for only one year, although did succeed in that time, in building the present priests’ and choir vestry. The following year Revd Palmer was appointed as English chaplain at Mentone in France, being succeeded at St. George’s by Revd. H W Orton, of Southwark Diocese. In the nine years he was Vicar, Revd. Orton became known as an outstanding preacher and organiser. He was much in demand throughout the Diocese and was secretary to Bishop Hunkin’s Evangelistic Council. He also championed the work of the Church of England Men’s Society.
Post War and beyond
Revd Orton left Truro in 1944 to become Vicar of Christ Church Luton and Hon. Canon of St. Albans Cathedral. Shortly after the end of the Second World War, he was succeeded by Revd. George Hewson, who, for nineteen years, maintained the traditions of the church and parish. 1955 saw centenary celebrations – marked by special services during which sermons were preached by both the Bishop of Exeter and the Bishop of Truro. The congregation was large and enthusiastic and for many years the Church ran a most successful Football club (playing both rugby and soccer), that on one occasion won the Cornwall Junior Cup.
On the retirement of Revd. Hewson in 1964, Revd. Michael Williamson was appointed as Vicar of the parish. Born in Redruth, Revd Williamson had been curate in a large parish in Nottingham, before returning to Cornwall to take up his first living. He remained for 9 years before moving to St. Agnes in 1973. It was at this time that the Diocese began to consider the future of the three Truro parishes of St. George, St. Paul and St. John, with talk of a ‘team ministry’ being suggested. This move had been prompted by those first signs, across the Church of England, of congregations declining in number. The Sunday School was still strong, and uniformed organisations well supported, and the 3 churches resisted the proposed changes. The installation of Bishop Graham Leonard as the eleventh Bishop of Truro, saw the proposals dropped (although as we shall see, not forgotten), and Revd Ken Rogers was subsequently appointed priest-in-charge. Father Ken’s time at St. George’s saw a flourishing of social activities, with musical events and pantomimes involving all members of the community.
After 13 years, Father Ken moved on and was succeeded in 1988 by Revd. David Wills. In 1993, Fr David became the first vicar of a new ‘United Benefice’ when the 2 Truro parishes of St George the Martyr, and St John the Evangelist were brought together – although retaining their individual parish statuses. The two parishes had developed different traditions and different churchmanship, but under Fr Will’s and subsequently Fr Ian Froom’s leadership, were able to co-exist with amity and no little enthusiasm.
Into the twenty-first century
When Fr Ian Froom decided to retire in 2003, the Diocese, under the then Bishop, Bill Ind, took the opportunity to examine available resources. The Diocese needed to cut down on the number of stipendiary posts, and Bishop Bill published the “People of God” initiative to remind all members of the Church, both ordained and lay, of their responsibility for ministry. It was decided that the new appointment to the United Benefice of St George with St John, should also be parish priest to the United Benefice of St Paul, St Clement and St Andrew, Truro, although, as before, each parish retained it’s own structure and organisation. Thus Fr. Christopher Epps was licensed to the United Benefices in a ceremony in St. Paul’s Truro in September 2003.
Father Christopher was the 17th stipendiary vicar or priest in charge to lead the parish of St. George. Tribute must also be paid to those unpaid, and often unsung, retired clergy, who have supported the church down the years. In recent times, Fr. Brian Barry and Fr. Peter Denney stand out in this way. Fr. Peter had worshipped and indeed led worship at St. George’s for over 20 years. The celebration of his 60 years in the ministry in 2004 was an occasion that still stands out in the memory. Of course, his world famous model railway also drew enthusiasts to the parish as well!
Today, the Church of St. George the Martyr remains active in it’s work, faithful in worship and loyal to the traditions of Anglo-Catholicism. In an ever changing world, challenges will no doubt arise, but through faith and in remembrance of the continuous work faithfully carried on in this parish, of which our church stands as witness, they can be faced and overcome.
Acton V (1997) A History of Truro Cornwall Landfall Publications
Harrods Royal County Directory of Cornwall (1878)
Kelly ER (1873) Post Office Directory of Cornwall London Kelly & Co
Miles Brown H (1964) The Church in Cornwall Oscar Blackford Ltd
A brief guide to the Church Interior:
The High Altar: Note the Oberammergau Crucifix and six carved candlesticks. This was erected in 1926.
Mural on East Wall: The mural painting on the east wall of the Sanctuary is by Stephanie Cooper. The theme is of Heaven and Earth uniting in the worship of the Trinity, represented by the figure of Christ in a priest’s alb, surmounted by the hand of the father, and supporting the dove of the Spirit. In the upper half of the mural are shown Saints and angels including St. George our patron, St Pirran and other Saints connected with Celtic and Cornish life. In the lower segment, is pictured the world. On the left is the City of Truro with the Cathedral, the river, the railway viaduct and the Church of St. George. On the right, representations of the world – in particular Africa and the Cathedral of what was then Zanzibar.
Statue of St. George: A good example of twentieth century wood carving, this statue of St George in the act of tearing down the Edict of Diocletian, is by Faith Crafts.
Pulpit: The pulpit of Bath stone was placed in the church in 1904. The panels are pierced with gothic tracery work inset with Scottish marble. The base is formed of a single block of Cornish granite.
Lady Chapel: The statue of Mary with the Infant Christ, is modern, and the Lady Chapel Altar, tabernacle and baldachino are by a local craftsman – Alfred Jago, whose son was a former organist of the church and subsequently was ordained and ministered in the diocese.
The Hanging Cross (Rood): This was designed and carved from a single piece of chestnut at the Plymouth studies of Miss V Pinwell. It was erected in 1955 by the congregation to commemorate the centenary of the dedication.
All Souls Chapel: This was refitted and refurbished in 1955, also as part of the centenary commemorations. It contains a book of remembrance containing the names of the fallen from the First World War.
Stations of the Cross: Presented by Hilda Matthews, the Stations of the Cross are Italian.
The Baptistry: At the west end of the church is the baptistery which contains a granite font with oak cover.
List of Parish Priests
1845 – 1850 W.F.Addison
1850 – 1852 W. Woodward
1852 – 1886 P.E. Wrench
1886 – 1889 H.P. Thornton
1889 – 1909 F.W. Newman
1909 – 1912 H. Edwardes
1912 – 1913 D.J. Hawker
1914 – 1924 S.V. Purcell
1924 – 1934 A.J.S.Symon
1934 – 1935 A. Palmer
1935 – 1944 H.W. Orton
1945 – 1964 G.E. Hewson
1964 – 1973 A.M. Williamson
1974 – 1987 K. Rogers
1988 – 1996 D.S.R. Wills
1997 – 2003 I.L.J. Froom
2003 – 2018 C.D. Epps, SSC
A Short Guide to the Church of St George the Martyr , Truro
based on an original by Rex Barratt this edition updated by Anji Screech 2004