The origin of the Congregational or Independent denomination at Lapford is in some degree obscure, but a number of loose letters inserted in the chapel register and minute book are most helpful in making a record. The Presbyterians are credited with bringing religious non-conformity and dissent to Lapford between 1672 to 1690 when a chapel was built. This building no longer exists and its site is not known. There is also no record of their ministry or when or why such ministry ceased.

The Wesleyans also had adherents at Lapford, and they too built a chapel. Little is known of the Wesleyan ministry, when it commenced and when or why it ceased. The Plymouth-Exeter District Methodist archivist, Roger Thorne Esp. J.P. of Topsham, confirms the Wesleyan presence at Lapford, but says that records of such presence are sparse. Tiverton Methodist records refer to a payment of contributions from Lapford 1791 – 1792, but there are no details. In June 1810 a house at Lapford was licenced by the Wesleyan authorities for services. Two applicants, named Wentmore of Chulmleigh, applied to be appointed as Ministers. Lapford and Chulmleigh chapels were probably linked.

The Bible Christians built a, chapel for their own denomination, date not known, before the Independents built their chapel in Eastington Road – 1848. The Independents purchased the Bible Christian chapel for use as a Sunday School in 1871, after an offer to exchange a chapel at Goodleigh for the chapel at Lapford was rejected by the Bible Christians.

It is evident from the letters in the chapel register that an attempt was being made to ascertain the origin of the Independent congregation at Lapford before and up to the building of the present chapel and the following copies of the letters go some way toward providing information.

The following is from an unsigned and undated letter to be found in the Lapford Independent chapel register and minute book. “The origin of the cause of religion in connection with our denomination is involved in some degree of obscurity. As far as can be ascertained the first person who preached the gospel in the village was a Mr. Poole of Bow, who was in the habit of coming over once a week. This he did for several years.

The spiritual condition of the people at this time was most deplorable. There was, indeed, a parish church, but no sound of the gospel ever echoed its walls, for the clergyman was a man of unenviable notoriety in the county.

The edifice now called the “Old Chapel” was built by the Wesleyans, but had been for some time closed. In the year 1837, a gentleman from London named Murray, authorized the Rev. T. Sharpe of Chulmleigh to purchase it for him, and coming down to reside in the village himself, he, in conjunction with Mr. Sharpe supplied the pulpit for the space of four years, and on his removal made over the chapel to the Independent denomination.

Subsequently the Rev. W. O’Neill, then of Witheridge, now of London, “a good man and full of the Holy Ghost”, was induced to visit Lapford at stated periods, and the Lord greatly blessed his labours. He very soon formed a church of eight members, whose hearts the Lord had opened and who were ready for every good word and work. Numbers of true converts were added to them, and by the help of the Mighty God of Jacob, the little band wrought wonders in His name.

At length the place became too sparse for them and a piece of land large enough for chapel and burial ground having been generously given by W. Croote, Sen. Esq. a neat and commodious sanctuary was soon erected at the cost of about 1600, and through the noble liberality of Messrs. Croote jun., Densham, Partridge and a few others the whole amount was raised prior to the day of opening. Mr. O’Neill, at the request of the church preached the sermons, and as there was no debt, no collection was made, the chapel and burial ground are in trust for the Paedo-Baptist denomination for ever, and the title deed duly enrolled in Chancery.

At length it became necessary to have a resident minister, and a suitable house being provided through the generosity of W. Croote Jun. esq., an invitation was given to the Rev. E. Corke of Folkstone, who was publicly ordained on the 6th.- day of Dec. 1848.

The union thus recognised proved one of mutual benefit for the space of nearly 8 years. It is a matter for devout gratitude to God that the two causes at Bow and Zeal have arisen out of itinerant evangelistic efforts of this church.

Mr. Corke resigned his charge in June 1856 and was succeeded by the Rev. W. H. Bassett of Hackney College, London. His ordination took place May 14th. 1857 and he laboured usefully among the faithful for nearly 4 years.

The present pastor is the Rev. J. Parsons, late of Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, who entered upon his pastoral duties on the 15th. Sept. 1861.

It is worthy of record that this little church has had the honour of sending forth one “Good Minister of Jesus Christ” in the person of the Rev. W. Densham of Chard, Somerset.

Notes on the origin recorded by the Rev. Edward Corke, Pastor Oct.22nd 1848 to June 1856 – writing from Amelia Terrace, North Fleet. January 13th. 1861.

“I wrote Mr. O’Niele re history (Lapford) Church and I will give you the facts connected with my own pastorate.

I believe the church originated with. Mr. D. Murray, a retired tradesman of London who after giving up business, determined to devote his energies and influence in making known the gospel in some of the destitute villages in the land. For 4 years I believe he lived in Lapford, and amid difficulties with the late Rev. Thomas Sharpe, then of Chulmleigh, he preached the truth as it is in Jesus, in the building now called “The Old Chapel”. Subsequently Mr. O’Niele entered upon his labours, and God having greatly helped his truth in the conversion of souls in the spring of 1848.

When I was preparing for the work of the ministry in the town of Folkstone, I received a communication from Mr. Murray which introduced me to the Deacons of the church at Lapford. Receiving a unanimous invitation, signed by every member of the church, I commenced my stated ministry on Sunday Oct 22nd 1848. On Dec 6th 1848 I was publically ordained, Rev. J. Baker – Sandford, gave introductory address.

The Rev. O’Niele of Witheridge asked the usual questions. I laboured at Lapford for nearly eight years.

SIGNED: Edward Corke – Pastor.

Extracts from a letter from the Rev. W. O’Niele Witheridge. Writing from 8 Cleveland road, Islington, London. Undated, probably refers to about 1837 or later.

He writes – I found eight believers willing to be formed into a Paedo-Baptist (Infant Baptism) Church, among who were Mrs. Densham and Richard and Mary Delve, and at a service of the usual character they were regularly and solemly organised into a chapel. We formed a committee. All worked nobly and harmoniously together. The building of the chapel was let to the lowest tenderers – North Tawton – the cost I believe about £550, not to mention subsequently additions, etc. The evening before it was opened a prayer meeting was held in the “Old Chapel” when 6 brethren prayed. The church met and raised the entire cost of the chapel. I opened the place and preached next day making no collection at the opening”.

Referring to land for the Chapel and burial ground Mr. O’Niele reports:-

“We had immense difficulty in obtaining ground to build the chapel on. We got it, subsequently, from Mr. Croote Sen. as a gift.

I drew up plans and specifications … for a Paedo-Baptist Congregational Chapel for ever.

I sent all the deeds to Tiverton Independent Chapel to be kept, I believe, in the iron chest. Deed enrolled in Chancery.

Trust Deed – Oct. 2nd 1894 sent to Rev. F. E. Anthony, M.A. Western College – Plymouth. Deed were in respect of Lapford and Morchard Bishop.

A statement written by the Rev. George Piligren. Pastor – July 1868 to August 1872 – Reference: – Sunday School at Lapford chapel.

“Mrs. Delve, a member of the Church, states, that Mr. Tucker, uncle to Mr. Tucker of Hole Farm told her the Wesleyans preached the gospel before the “Old Chapel” was built in the house now occupied by North, opposite the one now inhabited by William Challice – Blacksmith.

Mrs. Delve also states, that on the Sunday School being commenced by Mr. Sharpe of Chulmleigh in the Old Chapel, she was admitted as a scholar on the first day, that she was then, as far as she can tell, and she thinks she is right, about 9 or 10 years of age, and she was born Sept. 1810 – according to which statements the school was commenced in 1819.

A small school indeed, but the day of small things is not to be despised in the day of greater things.

Mr. Delve, who was not born till a few years later after Mrs. Delve, says he never knew the time when there was not a school at the “Old Chapel”.

Mr. Delve, in Mr. Poole’s of Bow time became a teacher in the Sabbath School – These statements I thought worthy of being recorded.

SIGNED: George Pillgren – Pastor.

Notes extracted from the report of the Autumnal meeting held at Lapford 19th. Nov. 1856 of the Home Missionary Society – Report by Rev. Thomas Sharpe – of Chulmleigh. Society founded 1819.

1817 A.D. Lack of Religious Instruction in rural North Devon.

“Referring to the destitution of our villages in North Devon, we pledge ourselves to appeal to the churches to enable us to provide a fund for the support of a missionary”.

This may be found on record in the old books at Bideford in the year 1817. They engaged (Rev.) Mr. George Moase, now at Cawsand, on the borders of Cornwall at a salary of £40 per annum.

His residence was fixed at North Tawton, where the Lord greatly blessed his labours; but finding his income inadequate to support himself and wife, he ultimately removed to Okehampton.

Notes on the founding of Lapford Independent Chapel.

An extract from a report by the Rev. Thomas Sharpe of Chulmleigh, given at the Autumnal meeting of the North Devon Congregational Association at Lapford 19th November 1856.

– Success achieved at Lapford –

Referring to the efforts of the home missionary society to bringing the gospel to villages in Devon and such success as had been achieved, Mr. Sharpe said:-

“Now let us look at this place, Lapford, it is true there was at time alluded to a small chapel, built originally by our Wesleyan Brethren, but it was shut up and had been for years.

I rented it for a short time, and afterwards bought it for a dear London friend who came down and supplied it for a few years, but no church was formed (This was about the year 1837) What is it now? Why not to be tedious, I will venture to say, when looking round at this neat and substantial chapel with its fourscore members that God has greatly owned and blessed the labours of his servants at this place more than at any other village of the same size and population in the whole county of Devon, and when I think of the flourishing Sunday School, the nice house built m for the Minister* together with 6 or 7 lay helpers and the other influential and untiring exertions of some, not only to attend the lambs of the flock, but are in the habit of going from cottage to cottage, visiting the sick, administering to the wants of the poor and talking to them about the way of salvation. Turning to our dear brother Bassett, the minister of the place, I would say to him “The lines are fallen to you in pleasant places – you have a goodly heritage”.

*Mr. Sharpe was not correct on this point – The house was the property of Mr. W. Croote Sen. who allowed the minister to occupy the house rent free. This was Mr. Croote’s donation to the work of the chapel.

Rev. W. H. Bassett – Pastor – July 1856 to July 1861.

Building of the Chapel Gallery.

It was proposed by the Pastor, the Rev. E. Corke on June 27th 1849 that a gallery should be built in the chapel to accommodate the Sunday School children and to relieve the pressure on the chapel seating. This was agreed and the gallery was built in July 1849 at the cost of £30 plus extra work necessary costing £10. £31.9.0. was collected from the members for the work. Mr. Murray offered to send El if necessary. The seating capacity of the gallery was about 100 and it is recorded that the gallery was soon filled with hearers.

It will be noted that after the gallery was built and in use by the children, that the chapel minutes record a call to the Deasons to make an effort to maintain order in the gallery during services.

Singing of Hymns.

To improve the quality of singing of hymns, it was, on the 26th February 1861, decided to purchase a harmonium- There is no record in the minutes of such purchase, but there was a harmonium in use in the Sunday School for many years.

Organ

A special meeting on the 9th September 1896, was told of the offer by Mr. G. C. T. Parsons of Birmingham, the son of a former Pastor, the Rev. J. Parsons, Aug. 1861 – April 1864, to contribute £50 toward the cost of an American organ.

After consideration the congregation opted for a two manual pipe organ. Mr. Parsons, when he was consulted, agreed with this option.

At the jubilee celebrations on Oct. 18th and 19th 1898 – Sunday and Monday, the organ was opened by Mr. G. C. T. Parsons.

May 1925

After repairs to the organ and the installation of an electrically operated blower and bellows of larger capacity, Mr. G. C. T. Parsons gave a recital.

Memorial Vestry

The vestry was built as a memorial to Mrs. Ellen Jane Densham, wife of Roger Densham, Esq. of Bury Barton – Lapford and the mother of Hugh and Minnie.

Mrs. Densham was killed in a run-away horse accident at Labour-In-Vain, Lapford. The Vestry was opened and dedicated on October 10th. 1910 by Dr. Hayman Wreford of Exeter.

John Rice and Thomas Tucker – of Lapford – were jointly responsible for the building work entailed.

The stone for the building came from a quarry at Bury Barton and was given by Roger Densham, Esq.

The cost of the building – £43 15. 0 – was met by the contributions of the congregation.

Lamp on Chapel Gate

Charles Partridge raised the money for the lamp -January 19th 1896.

Coal Shed

Erected – October 9th. 1895 – Messrs. Grudge and Saunders responsible.

Wrought Iron Chapel Gate and Railings

Made and presented by William Challice and his son -Samuel Cornwall Challice.

LAPFORD BRITISH SCHOOL

According to-the minutes of the Lapford Independent Chapel, it was decided by the members, to set up a day school to be called “The British School” – resolution, July 27th. 1864.

Miss Margaret McNeal, of Forches, was appointed teacher.

Not much is known of this school, whether fee paying or free, and there is no indication as to where the school was situated.

However, we find recorded in the chapel minutes, a few details, with dates, but not much real information.

April 26th 1865 – Dinner for Minister and friends at British School.

April 9th 1866 – Tea in School room.

December 12th 1866 – Children examined in scripture, history, reading, writing, arithmetic, mental arithmetic, English grammer, etc.

“Miss McNeal, as a token of confidence in her mode of teaching, was presented with a copy of the ‘Holy Scriptures’, beautifully bound in calf”.

December 31st 1866 – Watchnight service in schoolroom.

Margaret McNeal left Lapford, about 1869, for Kirkwall, the Orkneys, to marry the Rev. William Northcott Challice. Mr. Challice was the son of Richard and Anne Challice, of Lower Place Farm – Lapford, and trained for the ministry at the Bristol Congregational Institute. On ordination he took pastoral charge of the Congregational Church at Kirkwall and later at Aberfeldy – Paisley – and Dennistoon Wardlaw, Glasgow. On retirement in Scotland, William and Margaret came to England where William undertook the pastoral care of, first, Broadway, near Ilminster, Congregational Church and later at Topsham, near Exeter.

Margaret died at Broadway in 1922 – William at Topsham in 1931 – Both are interred at Hatch – Beauchamp – Somerset. They had issue, son – Herbert McNeal Daughters – Sarah Annie – Margaret Northcott.

The surname McNeal has also been recorded as McNiel – McNeil – McNiell.