Paignton (Palace Avenue) Methodist Church

Palace Avenue, Paignton, Devon, United Kingdom

Marching as to War

1940 - a time for war

Splinterproof muslin was pasted over the windows. Fire buckets and stirrup pumps stood on each landing. Emergency Rest Centre equipment filled every corner. Mrs. Wilkins was requested by the Women's Voluntary Service to provide helpers for an emergency Rest Centre. The outside transformation was even more apparent when the great iron railings were 'surrendered' for scrap. Evening services were brought forward to the afternoon during the winter months, until adequate blackout could be provided. The Royal Air Force held their own services in the church for the duration.

Church business went on, though not quite as usual. Left without a minister, two Supernumeries stepped in. The Revd E J W Harvey and the Revd T F Lewis. Mrs Bernard Harvey was a great support. Although the Revd Faulkener was appointed by the 1940 Conference, ill health, his own and his family's forced him to withdraw within the year. The Preston Project was put on ice, and eventually the site was 'sold. Meanwhile, Christian values were being challenged. The opening of the theatres on Sunday caused consternation. A protest was sent to the Member of Parliament.

Firewatching was obligatory. Since most members were involved in overnight duty at their place of work, it was usually necessary to pay the caretaker to undertake this task. Local experience proved that it was a worthwhile service.

Barbed wire and concrete tank-traps barred the way to the shore. The greens and parks echoed to the drill of the RAF Cadets who were occupying every hotel. Food queues became longer, the shops emptier. Cockney voices intermingled with European accents.

Paignton saw the reality of war first hand one dull day in June 1940. The great doors leading to the railway platform rolled opened as long trains disgorged their precious cargo. Out shuffled the long, silent columns; grey faces, torn and bloodied uniforms, they bore no weapons. These were the fortunate ones. Many local boys were never plucked from the beaches of Dunkirk. One, a St John Ambulance Member turned RAMC orderly volunteered to stay behind and care for the wounded. Andrew Morrish was to spend the rest of the war practicing his skills in POW camps. At home his father, John Morrish, counted the ration coupons in his shop, and Auntie continued her lifelong battle, promoting temperance through the National British Womens Total Abstinence Union.

The country stood alone. Life was changing for everyone. One day, a carefree teenager, the next a serviceman in uniform away from home. Many found a second home and a warm welcome at Palace Avenue. Despite bare larders, supper would be offered to any personnel attending service. These people brought new life to week-night activities too. Table tennis bats were never idle. The piano lid was never shut.

When bachelor the Revd H Trevor Greeves arrived in 1940, he found many needs and he set to work with great zeal. Houses were overcrowded with evacuees. All the churches were used by Devon County Council as temporary classrooms. Evacuees and local children alike took turns; half a day in school and half a day in a hall. The Minister started a youth club with nine members of the Sunday School.

The 12-16 club grew rapidly. A lively and imaginative programme was drawn up. One of the helpers was Miss Kim Miller, an effervescent evacuee schoolteacher. Together, she and Trevor saw to it that minds and bodies were satisfied. The art of debate, great personalities, music and literature all found ready ears. On Saturdays there was the countryside to explore. Parents were known to complain that their offspring were never at home. Apart from clubnight, there were elocution, drama, shorthand, choral singing, handicrafts, gymnastics for the boys and eurythmics for the girls, and country dancing. It also came to be an unofficial marriage bureau in time.

A decision was made to form an open Youth Centre. Soon there was a waiting list. A plan to turn the manse into a club house did not come to fruition, but Devon County Council approved the appointment of a full-time Youth Leader. The obvious choice was one of the volunteers, Miss Gladys Smith. She filled the role for the next 25 years. In her book, 'They Came to Club', are pen portraits of some of the more colourful characters.

Despite the blackout and the presence of thousands of servicemen, the boys and girls walked through the pitch black streets without fear. Torches were soon discarded, as battery stocks ran out.

The open youth club created its own problems, especially of behaviour. Attendance at club prayers was obligatory, attendance at church encouraged. The church was providing a real and much needed outreach. It was in contrast to the pre-service units which were compulsory to all who were 16 or over.

Trevor Greeves used his talents to the full. His deep knowledge of music matched his artistic ability. His wit and eloquence enlivened any social event, when he was sure to produce some teasing song or poem. In contrast, his sermons and Bible studies proved to be a source of inspiration .

The standards he set for the congregation were just as high for the young people. His annual youth conference, over three days, included groups from other denominations. The questions posed and studies recommended would have done credit to any age group. Yet he skillfully described it as a "Conference organised by Young People for Young People but open to all interested in the spiritual life."

Sixty eight young men and women of the congregation went to the war. They were remembered at the weekly prayer service of intercession. The Sunday School Superintendent, Mr W G White and his gentle, smiling wife showed their deep abiding Christian faith when their only son, Douglas was killed in a flying accident in 1943.

In that same year, the uniforms and accents changed. South Devon was invaded - by the United States Army. For the first time, private billeting and canvas camps were added. Jeeps roared and tanks rumbled around the town. Churston Common and the surrounding fields were stacked sky high with ammunition. The boatyards hammered away, even louder than before. The gum-chewing, polite, smart boys outnumbered the townspeople. They were made welcome by the members of the church, and how the GI's enjoyed the singing.



They brought a picture of America that Hollywood failed to portray. Some were homesick and scared. They filled many vacant chairs in local homes, these surrogate sons. The only difference was that they addressed the lady of the household as "Ma'am instead of "Mum".

One morning the town woke up to an eerie silence. The streets were empty. Many roads were closed. Buses stopped. Out in the bay was open space where hundreds of craft had been riding out the storm. 'D Day' was about to begin.

A little more belt-tightening, a little more thrust. By December 1944, the 'battlescarred' schoolroorn was being re-decorated. There was talk of planning victory and peace services. Perhaps they were a little premature but hope was of paramount importance.

The minister was making plans of his own. When he left Palace Avenue in the summer of 1945, he would take with him a choir member. He was about to marry Miss Mary Williams.

With the blackout material removed (and sold) and 'VJ Day' imminent, the congregation looked forward to a new beginning. But after the elation of Victory came a period of anomalies. While planning for a brave new future, the present was full of difficulties. Housing shortages were acute. Shared homes were the norm. Rationing was, in some cases, even more severe than during the war. Relationships were subject to strain. Men returning from service seemed reluctant to assume responsibility. Those who had remained at home were exhausted. Everyone had worked long hours, many after normal retirement age.

It was in these circumstances that the Revd Alfred T Johns, his Italian wife and two young sons moved across the bay from Wesley Church, Torquay. He exuded a sense of a quiet mind, of unswerving faith, and enduring stability. Sermons were of paramount importance in his work schedule. Monday mornings would see him in his sunless study preparing for the following Sunday. His academic intellect and teaching ability awakened minds. The Minister's Class gave way to a Bible Study School. It is interesting to note that during the Revd Johns three year stay, a high proportion of young people were received into membership. He encouraged the annual Youth Service, conducted by nervous teenagers. The Youth Club Dinner became an annual event.

Like so many clergymen, he wisely chose a hobby far removed from his professional life. He had a passion for trains. Most afternoons he could be seen with little Steven in the pushchair, standing on the footpath between Roundham bridge and Youngs Park watching the activities of the goods yard and turntables The great hissing monsters with gleaming brasswork wore the proud livery of the Great Western Railway, otherwise known as God's Wonderful Railway, and were symbols of power and efficiency in an age of change and decay.

1946 did not have a good beginning. On the 28th January, the boiler burst. Morning services were held in the Public Hall. Evening worshippers spluttered their way through services in the hall, with sooty oil fire accompaniment. People were accustomed to hardships, after six years of deprivation, so weekday meetings went ahead without heating of any kind. It was three months before repairs could be completed.

In that same year, the church celebrated its half century. From the 7th to the 14th of July there was a full programme of events.

Sunday began with 08.00 Communion. Praise and thanksgiving continued throughout the day. During morning service, the Te Deum was sung. William Jackson's setting was always a great favourite with both choir and congregation. It was a ritual on Easter Sunday, when the combined voices lifted the roof in praise. For many years, canticles were sung at every service. The week of celebration included a service of dedication and renewal, a gift day and further worship. The Revd Harvey returned to unveil the war memorial. At the same time, the oak panelled Ministers Roll was officially received. This board and other gifts, were presented by Mr Leslie Hicks in memory of his parents. Mr Albert Hicks was baptised at Polsham in 1871 and served the church throughout his life. There was some light relief, in the first presentation of Gladys Smith's 'Scrapbook of Palace Avenue.' She had compiled and dramatised a history of the Society, drawing on written records and recollections of the more senior members. With characteristic perseverance, she cajoled anyone and everyone into taking part in this pageant.



The stimulation of the Jubilee took a hard knock in the winter that followed. Those who lived through the ice age of 1946-47 will never forget the hardships. Meagre coal rations, lack of warm clothing, the shortage of bread and potatoes which were now rationed for the first time, were all exacerbated by the worst winter on record. Deep snow was followed by heavy frosts. Few properties escaped frozen or burst pipes.

The Guild had declined, and was replaced with the Wesley Club. Less formal than Guild, it was enjoyed by many during its few years of existence.

The local Council of Social Service, a voluntary organisation, was forming OAP clubs around the town. Most of these were hosted by the churches and Palace Avenue was no exception.

A drama group was formed. The producer was the Revd Victor L Tudor, a Congregational Minister from Torquay. The Palace Players reached a high standard under his tuition and frequently won the youth cup for drama in the Paignton and South West of England Festival. Started as a war time event to boost the spirits of homesick evacuees, the Festival grew to become one of England's major festivals. Many individuals from the Sunday School and Church also took part in a variety of classes.

One of Methodism's great strengths is the 'travelling' of its ministers. Each Society should find itself stimulated by the change. At an early age one learns that ministers do not come out of a set mould. At Palace Avenue, it must be true to say that each minister has been a complete contrast to his predecessor. This was never more so than the stationing of 1948 when the Revd Frank Mitchell, with his wife May came to Paignton. Their lively teenage daughters, Jackie and Pat took an active part in the Youth Centre, while Mrs Mitchell served the church in numerous ways. Their story really belongs to the fifties. Ultimately it went much further than that.

Finances were once more the dominant feature. Frank Mitchell's business acumen and organising ability were demonstrated by his imaginative "Feast of Lanterns" and "Snowball" efforts. The former event brought in a magnificent £1005.7.8. There would be no problem about spending the money. Steps were being taken to find a new manse. Few ministers enjoyed "living over the shop". In addition, the organ needed extensive repairs, despite the fact that a considerable sum had been spent on it four years earlier.

Copyright © Sylvia Tancock 1990 (Reproduced here with the permission of the Author)
If you wish to use any of the material please contact us first to obtain permission.

Something To Sing About

The Story of Methodism in Paignton in the Wesleyan Tradition

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