By the 1860s the need for a place of worship east of the river had already been felt for many years, and many attempts to provide one had come to nothing. Then, on 10th February 1867, an unsectarian mission, calling itself The Bethel, held its inaugural service. This venture was spearheaded by one Mr. C. Palmer and it met in a loft over some stores, generously made available by George Heard. In February 1868, the fledgling congregation celebrated their anniversary by providing a tea for about 120 of the local poor. In that first year of operation they had given out some 4, 000 tracts and established a poor box that had supplied for the needs of many of those locally who were sick or dying, thus building up a strong following amongst their poorer neighbours. Most significantly, at least to the congregation, they had experienced ‘the droppings of the shower’ (by which they meant a significant experience of Divine blessing, manifest through transformed lives), which was swelling their numbers as people turned to Christ.
By 1876 the congregation had outgrown their ‘upper room’ meeting space, so, at the instigation of the ship-builder and rope-maker Henry M. Restarick a small group of the members purchased some suitable buildings, and had them altered to provide a hall, their total outlay being £600 (about £63,000 in 2017 terms). The facility opened in September 1877. The claim, that the timber ceiling of the hall is made from ship’s timbers, has somewhat more credence than some such claims, given the man in charge, and the fact that in February 1878 he was involved in the liquidation of Cox’s ship-yard.
Until January of 1880, the Bethel, which was still used for non-denominational services, remained the only purpose built religious facility in East-the-Water. Much of its support coming from those with businesses in Barnstaple Street, and especially from Restarick, who is listed in the Baptism Register for 1885-1898 as the officiating minister.
In the early 20th C., the ‘Free Church Council’ began the process that would eventually see it purchase the property from its founder.
By 1949 new development was springing up around Sentry Corner, amidst concern that the distance of the area from the town, together with Torrington Lane’s gradient, would render access to community facilities difficult. Plans were therefore in place to make the area more self-contained, with the provision of a new church, as an offshoot of the Bethel. Negotiations were under way for a site (believed to be part of that used for East-the-Water Primary School), but these proved fruitless.
The Bethel remains a free independent evangelical church (now affiliated to the The Federation of independent Evangelical Churches).
St Peter’s Mission Church (aka The Iron Church)
In January of 1880 the local press reported movement afoot to erect an Anglican church in East-the-Water, the only place of worship in the suburb being the Bethel. That was indeed the case, for, responding to a perceived lack of suitable church facilities in East-the-Water, the Rector of St Mary’s, Bideford (the Rev. R. Granville), together with a few friends, erected an iron church on Clarence Wharf. The iron church, a mission church dedicated to St. Peter (patron saint of fishermen) seated about 350 people and was lined internally with deal.
A Faculty for performing Divine Service, at the “Iron Church” in Barnstaple Street, East-the-Water, was granted in 1880, to enable it to be used for Anglican services.
Unfortunately, the ground-rent, of £25 a year, was rather heavy, so Grenville was on the look-out for a better plot, preferably in a more central position, where he could re-locate the Iron Church or build afresh in stone.
In 1889 a new plot was obtained, near the grange, and the decision taken to build a new church, with the same dedication as its predecessor and a similar seating capacity.
The foundations for the new St Peter’s were laid in 1889 and the church opened in c. 1890, its construction having been funded largely by the Rev. Grenville. The Iron Church appears to have continued in use throughout the construction, but was then, it is thought, sold to a congregation in Ilfracombe, to help them cope with the influx of summer visitors, the funds from the sale being ploughed back into the new St. Peters, and the Iron Church disappearing from the wharves in 1890.