Going down in the world: from family tenants to lodging-house, and a local scandal

The Kennaways had been trying to sell the house from at least 1876, but it was not until 1879 that it was bought by William Hine Haycock, a solicitor who had retired to Sidmouth and owned Belmont, another Regency house. However, by 1888 he had decided to move to London and another long process of attempting to sell followed.

By 1891, the house seems to have deteriorated into a boarding house, as the census returns show. It was occupied by Daniel Hook and his wife (fisherman and lodging-house keeper, with two servants), and the current lodgers were Elizabeth Symes and her sister (occupying three rooms) and Francis Field and his son (two rooms). In 1901 Sarah and Susie Searle were recorded as lodging-house keepers, but in May 1904 the local paper reported "a meeting of the creditors of Miss Sarah Ann Searle, late of Fort House" attended by six out of her forty creditors, who reluctantly agreed to settle for "9/3 in the £".

Edwardian benefactors: the founding of Church House

Mr Hine Haycock died before a purchaser for Fort House could be found, but in 1905 the trustees of his estate took a brave and unusual step. In spite of a higher offer from a property developer, they sold Fort House to Mr Richard Wood for £3,170. As the third Sir John Kennaway said in an address in 1906, "That house had always been a great feature of Sidmouth and if it had been pulled down to make way for rows of modern houses it would have been a great loss to the town".

Richard Wood and his wife came to Sidmouth from Rugby in 1896. They had been great benefactors to their native town and continued their generosity towards their adopted one, funding projects varying from the purchase and gift to the town of the land that is now Blackmore Gardens to the provision of Sidmouth's first steam fire engine. Mr. Wood had made his money largely through partnership with his wife's brother in an iron merchants' business in Manchester. Mrs. Elizabeth Hatton Wood was wealthy in her own right: the Sidmouth Observer mentioned a sum of £83,478 left after her death in 1904, and shortly after that, recorded the bequest of "the handsome sum of £500 to the Sidmouth Victoria Cottage Hospital" and "£100 for distribution among the poor of the town".

In 1906 the house changed both its purpose and its name. In accordance with his late wife's wishes, Mr. Wood not only purchased the property, but refurbished and endowed it. The new name reflected Mrs. Wood's concern that Sidmouth did not have a place for the social activities of the parish: to quote Sir John Kennaway again, "For the lack of a building like that there were...many young fellows who went to the bad..." The name, however, did not mean that the house belonged to, or was financed by, the church.

Church House in the twentieth century

A board of trustees administered the building, but the activities of a unit of Territorial Cyclists for whom the house was requisitioned in the First World War, combined with massive storm damage in 1930, caused the chairman to lament that "the income is hardly sufficient for the necessary upkeep." This was to be a constant theme throughout the twentieth century.

Matters came to a head in 1999, when the trustees commissioned a survey which disclosed that the house needed such extensive repairs (eventually costed at £1 million) that its closure to public usage, and disposal for development, seemed inevitable.