There has been a parish church in Torrington for at least 750 years. The oldest parts of the present building date from the 13th and 14th centuries.
In 1510 Henry VIII granted the rectory and advowson of Great Torrington to Cardinal Wolsey who appropriated them to his foundation of Christ Church, Oxford and since 1549 the perpetual curates (more recently called vicars) have been appointed by the Dean and Chapter of that College.
The older rectory had been at Priestacott (off the road to Huntshaw Mill) but when Margaret of Richmond became Lady of the Manor ‘she pitied the long path that the rector had from the church’ and in 1491 presented to the rector, Thomas Burswell, and his successors her manor house and land. The present vicarage which stands on this site dates from 1841.
During the Civil War at the Battle of Torrington in February 1646 there was an explosion in the church which killed some 200 people and destroyed part of the building as well as many of its records of other events. Restoration work was carried out in 1651. The lower part of the old south tower survived the explosion while the upper part and the spire disappeared. The church had previously had a leaded broach spire similar to the 14th century spires of Barnstaple and Braunton. A second spire was erected which remained at least until 1786 but at some time before 1830 was blown down by a gale and the remaining part of the spire was converted into the curious cupola shown in the old engraving of 1830 with a bell hung on the outside. During the 1830s a new spire was built at the western end of the church by local builder, Walter Brown Cock. The old south tower was converted into a transept and after 1864 it accommodated the schoolchildren and seating was put in for that purpose. In 1938 the seating was removed and the transept was furnished as a side chapel and memorial to the late vicar, the Rev. Frank Emlyn-Jones, who served as parish priest from 1894-1934. It is named the Chapel of St James after the demolished chapel of Torrington Castle.
The inside of the church feels large (107 ft / 33 metres long) and bare. The fine roof is of the waggon-shaped pattern typical of this part of England. The pulpit with its carved cherubs and gilded lions’ heads is typical 17th century work. During the restoration of 1860-64 (when the old galleries and box pews were removed) the pulpit was moved and the sounding-board discarded. Someone later rescued the sounding-board from a builder’s yard and gave it to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It remained there until 1960 when the Mayor of Torrington, Colonel J. E. Palmer, arranged for its return to the church.
The Willis organ is one of the finest organs in the West Country. It was built by Henry ‘Father’ Willis (1821-1901) for Sherwell Congregational Chapel in Plymouth in 1864. In 1989 Sherwell planned to get rid of the organ during alterations to the church and it was dismantled and rebuilt at Torrington church where it is much treasured.
The present parish priest is Father Peter Bevan.
For more details about St Michael’s and All Angels, see the church website: http://www.stmichaelstorrington.org.uk/