As mentioned elsewhere, Sidmouth had a large and thriving Nonconformist, or Dissenter, community. As well as the Unitarian Church at the top of High Street, and the Wesleyan Methodist Church halfway down High Street ( of 1885, replacing the building on Mill Lane from 1837); there was the Congregational ‘Marsh Chapel’ (1810) down where the swimming pool is now. Marsh Chapel moved to a much bigger building on Chapel Street in September 1846 (fund-raising began in 1835), this building is now the Toy Museum.

Cherishing Sidmouth Cemeteries has an interest in all Sidmouth Burial grounds so we are very pleased to have to have permission to reproduce the following information about the Unitarian Chapel.

Dissenters’ Burial Grounds:

The Civil Wars (1642-1651) and English Revolution (1649) briefly established the Commonwealth. In 1660 the Crown re-asserted control over religious observance in England. The Act of Uniformity (1662), enforced the “Great Ejection” of some 2,500 parish clergy who refused to conform. For a generation “non-Conformist” congregations met for worship, more or less in secret, until the 1682 Act of Toleration permitted public meeting houses to be established at a specified distance from the parish church – with a licensed minister, who must swear an oath of allegiance. They were forbidden to use bells but could signal their presence for worship by lighting a lamp.

A deceased dissenter might be buried in a Church of England burial ground, with the consent of the vicar, who would often not permit a memorial stone at the grave. Hence the appearance of “Dissenters’ Burial Grounds” in or near their places of worship. There has recently been growing interest in these historic sites, e.g. at Gulliford on the Lympstone & Woodbury parish boundary, which was reopened at a ceremony on 26th October 2021.

The Unitarian movement in Devon:

Initially a 16th century mid-European free Christian movement which worshipped God in the spirit of Jesus, the Unitarian movement was imported to England during the upheavals of the 17th century. Tolerant of others’ sincerely held beliefs, Unitarians reject dogmatic teachings and the claims of Greek mystic religions that had been grafted onto the story of the Jewish teacher Jesus during the early Byzantine empire.The first use of the term “Unitarian” in England was in1673, following the recovery of earlier teachings and traditions found in scholarly European Renaissance translations of Biblical texts.

Shunned by the established church, Unitarians were not allowed to attend universities, nor were they allowed to participate in local civic affairs until the Toleration Act of 1813. Many sought refuge in the “New World” where Unitarian Universalists contributed to the American Revolution and continue to be a forceful presence. Denied access to the professions, British Unitarians directed their energies towards commerce and banking.

By the mid 18th Century, the Unitarians were well established in Exeter, recruiting local dissenters, and immigrant refugees such as Johan Baring, a Lutheran wool merchant from Bremen, whose family founded Barings Bank on Cathedral Green. Exeter’s Dissenting Burial Ground contains the tomb of the Kingdons and memorials to other families including the Kennaways, Treadwins,
Merivales, and Bowrings. It has been refurbished by the Exeter Dissenters Graveyard Trust (see

As prosperous leaders of a rising middle class Presbyterians derived much of their initial wealth from the slave trade and enclosures of common land but the non-conformists were later increasingly committed to social progress.

The Old Meeting House:

Early in the 18th century, the non-conformist congregations of the Sid Valley built a meeting house at the boundary of Salcombe Regis and Sidmouth parishes, by the White Horse Inn where they had previously worshipped. This Grade 2 listed building, now at the corner of the High Street and All Saints Road, is believed to be the oldest non-conformist place of worship in East Devon. The burial ground was on the south side of the church where the original “Puritan” windows remain in place. However, the building was “improved” in the 1880s: an entrance porch was added to the north, the south door was sealed off, the west gallery converted to an organ loft, and new Victorian Gothic windows were installed, including a stained glass depiction of the Sermon on the Mount, featuring a very British-looking gentleman, in scarlet and gold Roman imperial garb, as Jesus. The graveyard then fell into disuse: it was deconsecrated and parts were sold off while an outside lavatory was installed for the Schoolroom and a boiler in an underground bunker by the south wall.

By the end of the twentieth century the burial ground was overgrown with elder bushes, thistles and dandelions, the railings and gate were rusting, the retaining wall and path had become hazardous, and the site was an eyesore at the top of the High Street. In 2011 the Trustees decided to take it in hand. Using the skills of local builders, decorators, botanists and gardeners, with donations from the buildings’ current users, and endowments from previous generations of Unitarians, the site was restored, old gravestones uncovered and a garden was planted with advice and assistance from the Sidmouth Arboretum who gifted
a crab-apple tree. The graveyard site was formally dedicated as a “Peace Garden”, with the planting of a fig tree and a rose, at sunset on November 10th 2015.

About this time the Old Dissenting Meeting House adopted a shorter nickname, Dissenter of Sidmouth, acknowledging that it was now no longer on the outskirts but was firmly at the centre of Sidmouth.

The identities of those mentioned on the memorial gravestones remain unknown. Future plans for the site could include the commissioning of a sculpture recalling the Great Ejection, a mural representing three formidable Unitarian women from the nineteenth and early 20th century, a memorial to Hugh Barlow, chair of the Unitarian congregation who died on August 27th 2015 and to Elizabeth Barlow the lay leader who died shortly after her husband. But the Trustees’ priority is for the needs of the living in our community. History is, of course, important and constantly contested: questions, amendments or additions to this information leaflet are welcomed. To contact see the front cover.

Sidmouth Unitarians:

The French Revolution (1789) and Napoleonic wars prevented members of the British establishment from visiting continental Europe and the “fleshpots of Paris”. And so Sidmouth was transformed from a fishing village into a fashionable Regency resort for those such as Joseph Addington, an ineffective Prime Minister and reactionary Home Secretary, who became the 1st Viscount Sidmouth, famously lampooned in JMW Turner’s satirical painting “Sidmouth” and castigated in Percy Shelley’s great poem about the Peterloo massacre The Mask of Anarchy in 1819 – another time of upheaval, and of dissent.
In 1807 the Reverend Edmund Butcher, a passionate advocate for the cruelly exploited “Honiton lace” workers of the Sid Valley, led his Presbyterian congregation at the Sidmouth Meeting House, to join the Unitarian church. Butcher was also the author of
Sidmouth’s first guide book. His successor William Heineken, mentor to Sidmouth antiquarian and chronicler Peter Orlando Hutchinson, was a composer (whose anthems were performed by the West Gallery Music Association in Dissenter of Sidmouth’s
restored West Gallery in 2018.)

Local Unitarians over the subsequent hundred and thirty years included numerous artisans and workers (who sat at the back of the chapel and whose remains are in the burial yard) as well as leading families of local gentry such as the Carslakes occupying
the front pews, who are buried and commemorated in the church itself.

Nationally renowned suffragists Annie Leigh-Browne and her partner Mary Kilgour, led a 25 year campaign to achieve the 1907 Act permitting women a role in local government. Their local contributions included the securing and landscaping of “the Byes”; a maternity hospital; the Victoria Hospital; the museum (at Woolcombe House); the School room (now the Dance Studio at Dissenter); and Sidmouth’s first council houses. Annie’s sister, Dame Mary, professor of mathematics at London university,
endowed and managed Sidmouth’s observatory on behalf of her second husband, the astronomer Sir Norman Lockyer. She, with her sister and Mary Kilgour, had founded the first women’s university hall of residence in Bloomsbury – at a time when Oxford and
Cambridge were closed to Unitarians and denied full membership to any women. In 1931 Sidmouth’s first female parish leader, Constance Harris was appointed at the Old Meeting House. By now the church had become a centre for the socialist movement in the valley. Dissenter’s role in the civic life of the town continues to evolve. In 2015 it registered as East Devon’s first religious building for the solemnisation of same-sex marriages.

As part of our commitment to inter-generational justice, we aim to make the buildings and gardens at Dissenter of Sidmouth self-sustaining and carbon neutral. 15 metres above sea level, the site may survive rising sea levels into a foreseeable future.
Though the congregation for Sunday worship has dwindled, Dissenter of Sidmouth continues to offer the wider community opportunities to pursue their own path, free from dogma and imposed creeds. The restored Peace garden is an open invitation to participate in a further three centuries of work for social justice and environmental creativity at “the centre of Sidmouth”. Feb.2023.

Meeting Targets by Robert Crick
(Gulliford Dissenters Burial Ground 28th Oct. 2021)