The little port of Dartmouth on the Devonshire river Dart has a long maritime history, with ships assembling here for the Crusades in the 12th century. The estuary provides a deep water anchorage, but the location of the town has always precluded extensive development of marine-related industry.

Over the years the coastal strip from Teignmouth to Dartmouth has been the location of a tortuous network of overlapping but not coincident Methodist Circuits, originally belonging to all five major Methodist denominations. Dartmouth had three Methodist chapels of different denominations – Wesleyan, Bible Christian and Primitive Methodist. All three are long closed and Methodist members are part of the Flavel Memorial United Church (URC and Methodist) but membership is modest.

The last Methodist Chapel to survive was the Wesleyan chapel in the Market Square. Opened in 1816, rebuilt larger to designs by John Wills in 1874 and altered in 1938, in 1901 it was in the Brixham and Dartmouth Circuit and seated 600. It was an architectural focus for the area. Following its closure in 1983 this very large building was sold more than once, but development was constrained by its listed status, especially because of its impressive classical façade. Eventually, in 1991 an unlawful attempt to expedite things was made by a nocturnal explosion of dynamite! This rendered the whole building unsafe and it was demolished. Today the site is occupied by a residential development.

After an early foray in North Devon in the 1830's and 1840's, the Primitive Methodist circuits were confined to a chain of seaside towns along the south coast – Dartmouth, Exmouth,Plymouth, Teignmouth and Torquay. Possibly these circuits and their chapels were intended, at least in part, to accommodate retired Primitive Methodists seeking a milder climate. Dartmouth Circuit was sometimes included in the Torquay Circuit but in 1933, following Methodist Union, it was as the Dartmouth Circuit that it finished its separate life.

After some missioning, from 1878 an iron chapel seating 200 on Crowthers Hill was used. Then in 1901 the town council sold the Primitive Methodists a former Bible Christian Chapel of 1867 in Victoria Road. The Council had bought this in 1878 and used it as a Guildhall. It served as a 200-seater Methodist chapel and after its closure in 1939 the congregation joined the former Wesleyan congregation in the Market Square.

The Bible Christians were strongest in North and West Devon but established three rather isolated South Devon circuits at Newton Abbot, Kingsbridge and Torquay. In Dartmouth they used rented rooms from the 1860s on. They built a chapel in 1867 which lasted until 1877, when it was sold and eventually owned by the Primitives. Their next attempt was in 1886 when they built a new chapel in Newcomen Road, which remained in use until 1938, when the congregation united with the former Wesleyan congregation. The Newcomen Road building chapel has survived with varying uses, including as a public library.

The little town has always had a modest population, rising to a maximum of 6,708 in 1931, but dropping by 2011 to 5,064. Despite this it supported a surprising number of places of worship, including the Wesleyan chapel with 650 seats, the Primitive with 350 seats and the Bible Christian (later United Methodist) with 200 seats. In addition there were chapels for other nonconformist congregations and for the Roman Catholics, as well as five Anglican buildings.

Entry written by: RFST
Category: Place
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