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St James the Less, Plymouth

This is the first in a series of articles I’ll be writing on the history of Plymouth’s superb Anglo-Catholic churches – the vestiges of which have nearly all gone…

During its lifetime the Church of St James the Less, Plymouth held the accolade (amongst some) as Plymouth’s most beautiful church. It held itself up as a successful, and occasionally persecuted, bastion of Anglo-Catholicism in Plymouth. The Church was located behind the Duke of Cornwall Hotel on Clarendon Place, (Citadel Road). The site is now occupied by St Andrew’s CofE Primary School.

I truly love this long-gone Church. Indeed, this was the first “lost church” in Plymouth to get under my skin and I felt I needed to research it to bring it back to the memory of Plymothians and all interested in the Oxford Movement.

Photographs of St James the Less certainly depict a beautiful, sumptuous and ornate church – where in some respects no expense was spared in the provision of ornamentation for the Greater Glory of God.

The Church had a life span of less than 100 years; the Parish was constituted an ecclesiastical district apart from the Parish of St Andrew, Plymouth in 1847 under an Act of Parliament commonly known as “Sir Robert Peel’s Act.” It was destroyed during enemy action on the night of 20 March 1941 – the first night of the Plymouth Blitz.

The history of the Church from 1847 to 1911 was ably documented and recorded by Mrs Dorothy Frances Gurney (1858-1932) – a poet and hymn writer – perhaps known best for penning the wonderful words:

“The kiss of the sun for pardon,
The song of the birds for mirth,
One is nearer God’s Heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on Earth”

Dorothy’s husband, the Rev. Gerald Gurney (1862-1939) was Curate at St James the Less and this enabled her to write a particularly interesting and informative history. Copies of her “short history” were sold in 1911 on behalf of the church funds and surviving editions are rare. A copy is held at the Plymouth and West Devon Record Office; I was lucky enough to purchase a copy from a second-hand bookshop in Looe!

Dorothy Frances Gurney

Dorothy Frances Gurney, 1858-1932

Gurney’s account of the early history of the Church is very interesting as it records the employment of Russian prisoners, taken during the Crimean War, as labourers used to set out the foundations:

The first incumbent or perpetual curate was the Rev. W. Hookey. During the eleven years of his incumbency all that was accomplished was the purchase of a site – very inconvenient, but the only one available – and the laying of the foundations of the church. This was done by the Russian prisoners taken in the Crimean War, who were confined in the Millbay Barracks just opposite the church. We might give them a thought when we pray that God will have mercy on all prisoners and captives. The Barracks were pulled down in 1909 and the present park was made on the ground they formerly occupied. These foundations remained for years in a very neglected and desolate state, an eyesore and reproach to the neighbourhood. Meanwhile, services were held in a room in a building called “the Union Baths,” which at other times was used – as its name denotes – for baths and also for many other incongruous purposes.

The early services were as Gurney says held in the old Union Baths on Union Street. The Union Baths had seen rather a change in fortune. At their creation in 1828 (by Foulston, architect) Union Street was a very desirable residence; the introduction of the railway in the late 1840s brought a change in social dynamics and the gentry soon left to inhabit areas in Stoke Damerel or Mannamead.

Royal Union Baths.JPG

Royal Union Baths, Plymouth, c1830

So it was here in the Union Baths and later a room in a property in Bath Street that services were held until 1861.

On 3 May 1860, the building of the permanent church was begun from designs by Mr [James Piers] St. Aubyn, and the first stone laid by James Yonge, Esq., an old inhabitant of the parish.

Gurney takes the history forward:

In the following year, 1861, the chancel, the organ chamber, the south aisle, and a small portion of the nave, reaching only to the first column, were completed, and this part of the church was consecrated on October 24 by Dr Aubrey Spencer, Bishop of Jamaica, as the Bishop of Exeter, Dr Philpotts, was incapacitated by old age.

The House of God thus dedicated to His worship is still, after fifty years of existence, incomplete, and cries aloud to those who love God and the Faith to make every effort before the close of the Church’s Jubilee Year to present it to Him as a finished thank offering for the many spiritual privileges they have known in its worship and ministrations.

It’s interesting to note that in 1911 works still had not been completed, as per the architect, St Aubyn’s, plans. Indeed the intended works were never to be completed before her destruction in 1941.

St James the Less subscribed to the Anglo-Catholic movement – and this was much loved at the Church. Gurney says:

We also find in 1873 the first mention of a chasuble in the list of expenses, and subscriptions to the English Church Union and to the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament, showing the Catholic trend of the church. The statements all end with pathetic appeals for more money to carry on the work of the church.

The wearing of vestments for the “Mass” was somewhat controversial in those days and it took a further eleven years before the Church introduced a yet more controversial addition to the liturgy – incense…

On October 26, 1884, being the Sunday within the Octave of the Dedication Festival, incense was first used at the Consecration of the Eucharist, a use which has continued unbrokenly to this day.

The 1880s marked a period one could label as progressive at St James the Less. The church was highly embellished during this and the subsequent decades – transforming the incomplete and plain church interior to something beautiful and radiant.

Gurney takes up the story:

On October 29, 1885, in the Octave of the Dedication Festival, the present font was placed in the Baptistry, as a memorial of the nine years work of the Rev. F. Gurney as vicar. It is an octagonal bowl on a pedestal and pillars of polished local marble, and was made and erected by Messrs. Goad, of the Phoenix Works, Millbay. It was solemnly dedicated by the vicar in the presence of Mr Gurney and a large congregation. A brass plate was inserted in the north wall of the Baptistry with the following inscription: “To the Greater Glory of God and for the Increase of His Kingdom and in grateful appreciation of the nine years’ work as Vicar of this Parish, of the Rev. Frederick Gurney, M.A., this Font has been erected. October 24, 1885.”

At the same time Lieut.-Col. McLaughlin, R.A., then parish churchwarden, gave an image of Our Lady and the Holy Child, which was blessed and set over the altar in the Lady Chapel. This image is now raised and placed in the Gothic canopy at the side of the altar. In the years following 1885 the familiar names of Messrs. Swain, Pridham and Woollcombe appear on the lists of the church officers, and in 1891, just twenty years ago, there is a significant entry in the records which we quote in the hope that the year 1911 may see a similar entry. “Mr Mellor reported that the whole debt had been wiped out, and that a small balance in hand remained.”


Lady Chapel Altar, 1911

By the turn of the C20 the church had seen a great deal of “improvement” and restoration and a change in leadership arrived in 1903 by the appointment to the Church of the Rev. Reginald Hanbury Miers.

The Rev. Miers continued, much in the 1880s tradition of embellishing the beauty of the Church and he bestowed a number of beautiful gifts to the Church. Gurney’s history records:

Mr Miers gave a very fine old Spanish crucifix to the chapel, but subsequently removed it to make room for the present beautiful little Renaissance crucifix, which was more in keeping with the candlesticks.

The Guild-Chapel, or Chapel of the Precious Blood, was enriched by the present splendid red altar hangings, old silver crucifix, candlesticks and lamp. These, and the beautiful banner of the Blessed Sacrament, were the gift of Mr Miers.

In 1907, perhaps the most striking addition was made to the Church by the installation of a stunning hanging Rood. This Pugin-esque addition was very much in the tradition of our medieval forebears who would have been well used to such striking images in our parish churches.


The Rood

The vicar and his sister, Mrs Arthur Vizard, gave a superb hanging rood, designed by Mr Kitsell and carved by Mr Hunt, in memory of their parents, Richard Hanbury Miers, and Elizabeth Ann, his wife. The figures on the rood are remarkably strong and dignified, and remind one of the best old German work. Seen from the west end of the church this rood is extraordinarily impressive; its severity is thrown into relief by the colour and jewel-like setting of the high altar, and when the west doors are open during service in the summer there is generally a small crowd in the street, drawn primarily, no doubt, by the beauty of the scene. Let us hope that many passers-by carry on with them some though of the crucified Saviour as they go on their way.

Towards the end of 1908 the organ was discovered to be in a dangerous state of disrepair, and the floor or the church was infested with dry rot. This brought about the need and ability for some serious restoration and beautification!

Gurney again takes up the history:

In 1910 the exceedingly mean and ugly little wooden screen and equally ugly stone pulpit were taken down, and two very beautiful alabaster ambone, the gift of the vicar, were erected on either side of the chance arch. These are joined by side screens of alabaster and gates of wrought iron, beneath which are circular black marble steps. The gates, which are remarkably beautiful, were carried out by Messrs. J. W. Singer & Sons, from designs by Mr Kitsell, and were given by the Guild of King Charles the Martyr, founded the year before by the vicar, for the object of restoring and beautifying the House of God. To this Guild we also owe the exquisitely carved and painted canopy over the high altar, and the later alterations, decorating and painting of the roof, arches and pillars of the chancel.

The Church was now very much in its “completed” state and there were no further large scale additions to the church fabric until the destruction of 1941.

St James the Less (post 1911) (2)

The interior of St James the Less, c1940

The eloquent prose of Dorothy Gurney sums up her history in a beautiful fashion. It seems most fitting to finish therefore with some of her own summary:

This short account of St James’ Church would be quite worthless if it left the reader with an idea that the church is only a beautifully decorated building for the maintenance of a dignified and splendid ritual.

It is more, far more, than that. It is a spiritual force, and its priest and people have to thank God for wonders of conversion and healing scarcely short of miraculous.

Over and over again have passing strangers said of the church: “There is something here, an influence, we don’t know what, but we feel it.”

One of these, a sailor, remarked to the vicar: “It there were more churches like this, sir, we should not forget God.” And another said that, though he was an unbeliever, he came every day while he was in Plymouth and sat in the church because he found peace, and a “Something” there which puzzled him.

The abiding presence of Our Lord in His Sacrament is the explanation of the wonderful hold St James’ Church has over the unbelieving passer-by, but is also due in part to the real devotion to our Blessed Lord in the Sacrament felt by the vast majority of the congregation.

Newcomers say that they feel at home in our church, and that “people seem nice to each other in St James.”

This is a fact for the deepest thanksgiving, and it is not set down here in any spirit of boasting or rivalry, but merely to incite the worshippers in St James’ Church to still higher devotion, and loving kindness, to a very great humility in the presence of the Sinless One, and to a more fervent desire to bring others to our own joy in the Faith once delivered to the Saints.

It might be of interest to ecclesiastical historians (especially those, like me, who love researching early Anglo-Catholic churches!) to know the names of the clergy of St James the Less:

Rev. George Stephen HOOKEY, priest, 1847-1858
Rev. James BLISS, priest, 1858-1872
Rev. Harvey MARRIOTT, ­curate, 1861-1864
Rev. S. W. E. BIRD, curate, 1867
Rev. Thomas Curling LEWIS, curate, 1871-1873
Rev. Horace Stone WILLCOCKS, priest, 1872-1875
Rev. Ibbott Alfred MASON, curate, 1873
Rev. Frederick GURNEY, priest, 1875-1884
Rev. SCOTT, curate, 1875
Rev. Newton William John MANT, curate, 1875
Rev. Geoffrey Barrington SIMEON, curate, 1879
Rev. Charlton OLIVE, curate, 1879
Rev. Charles BENSON, curate, 1879-1885
Rev. T. C. A. BARRETT, curate, 1883
Rev. William Humphrey CHILD, priest, 1884-1898
Rev. Charles Edward GANDY*, curate, 1885-1886
Rev. Henry Charles LANG, curate, 1887-1889
Rev. Charles Roydon Worsley HUGHES, curate, 1888
Rev. Arthur Gordon STALLARD, curate, 1890
Rev. Francis Wilfrid OSBORN, priest, 1898-1903
Rev. John Henry ROBINSON, curate, 1901
Rev. Reginald Hanbury MIERS, priest, 1903-1918
Rev. Frank Powell WILLIAMSON, curate, 1903-1907
Rev. Maurice CHILD, curate, 1912-1917
Rev. Thomas Clement WOOLLCOMBE, priest, 1918-1931
Rev. Edward Courtis BARNICOAT, curate, 1918-1928
Rev. John Leonard NOSWORTHY, priest, 1932-1940
Rev. Charles L. WRIGHT, priest, 6 March 1941 [two weeks before destruction of Church]

*Converted to Rome, 1888; Ordained Priest at Plymouth Cathedral in 1891 and was Bishop’s Secretary; later became Monsignor Canon Gandy of Sacred Heart, Exeter and at St Mary, Axminster (1916)

I, for one, cannot help but feel and lament the loss of this beautiful church – for although it is long gone from memory in those who actually worshipped there – it lives on in part, with the “new” St James the Less, built at Ham, Plymouth in the post-war years.

© Graham Naylor


St Luke’s Church, Plymouth

Although St Luke’s isn’t an ancient church by historical standards, it is certainly historic and an important religious site within the greater history of Plymouth during the C19. It’s also a building I know well as I’ve been privileged to work within the walls of this former church for many years.


Charles Chapel, 1865

St Luke’s Church, located on Tavistock Place, Plymouth began life as “Charles Chapel”- an episcopal chapel of ease to her Mother church, Charles Church (now the bombed out church) in the roundabout.

Charles Chapel was erected on land then outside the town boundary, known as Gibbons Fields in 1828; the Foundation Stone was laid by the Rev. Septimus Courtney on 1 March of that year. Work progressed quickly and contemporary newspaper reports suggest that by September 1828 works were nearing completion. The building of Charles Chapel was deemed important to ensure that many of the locals remain with the “Established Church” – the Church of England – rather than succeed to the non-conformist churches that thrived in the area.

The Chapel was consecrated by the Bishop of Exeter on 1 July 1829 and the Rev. Septimus Courtney was licensed to the Chapel in December that year. For many years Charles Chapel was known affectionately as “Mr Courtney’s Chapel”. This was down to the Chapel being effectively built for him. [Courtney hadn’t succeeded the Rev. Hawker at Charles Church as expected in 1827, and so as to keep him within their midst the parishioners of Charles Parish endeavoured to build Courtney his own chapel…]

Throughout the ensuing 50 years the Chapel went from strength to strength through a succession of interesting and charismatic clergymen, including the Rev. George David Doudney – who was a well beloved preacher in the Chapel during his 14 year ministry in the 1850s and 1860s.


Charles Chapel, 1865

On 17 March 1874 the Chapel earned the distinction of a parish church and was dedicated to St Luke. The “upgrading” from a chapel of ease to parish church saw a number of developments in the building, including the erection of a new chancel (1878) and the introduction of many memorial stained glass windows (1887-1897).

In 1913 one of the most interesting features at St Luke’s was installed – the outdoor pulpit. This is a rather unusual feature and has led rise to many odd rumours over the years – including one in that John Wesley once preached from the pulpit. Since John Wesley died in 1791 this would be no mean feat!

A plaque behind the pulpit records that it was erected “In memory of Caroline Louisa Courtney, wife of Bishop Frederick Courtney, 5th Bishop of Nova Scotia and past Incumbent of Charles Chapel.”

Bishop Frederick Courtney

Bishop Frederick Courtney

Like with much else in Plymouth’s history the Church’s last heyday was during the 1930s – until the Blitz of 1941. St Luke’s was herself not particularly damaged and at times acted as an air-raid shelter to local residents. But the damage wrought on ordinary residential houses in the parish through WW2 brought the real damage to St Luke’s.


St Luke’s Church, 1911-1915

In March 1941, St Luke’s mother church, Charles, was destroyed due to enemy action. For a period of time immediately after the Blitz her congregation met at St Luke’s – but this was relatively short-lived as the congregation later moved to St Matthias, at the top of North Hill.

The post-war years were ones of depression and decline for St Luke’s. A lack of parishioners (many had moved elsewhere in the new post-war estates) meant that money was tight and the congregation was dwindling fast.

The last Vicar of St Luke’s, the Rev. John Allen James died in January 1961 and after his careful love and attention there was no-one left to fill his shoes. The days for St Luke’s was numbered.


St Luke’s Church, c1941 – note the burnt out ‘ruin’ of the Central Library

St Luke’s was soon to be declared redundant. But the process was slow. The last regular services were held in St Luke’s on Easter Sunday, 1962 at which 54 communicants were recorded at the 9.30 Communion Service. The Church remained open for “special services” – baptisms, marriages or funerals, but these ceased by late 1963.

On 6 March 1964 the benefice of Charles with St Luke (as St Luke’s had become known) was permanently united with the benefice of St Matthias, Plymouth to form a new benefice with the cure of souls under the title of the Benefice of Charles with St Matthias, Plymouth. The Church of St Matthias was designated the Parish Church of this benefice and this paved the way for the complete closure of St Luke’s.

After the closure of St Luke’s its fate looked rather uncertain. Various uses for the building were suggested – including one to pull it down to increase car parking facilities in the City Centre!

The Western Evening Herald of 10 December 1965 interesting reported the beginning of St Luke’s secular use. The newspaper carried a report entitled Church to become library extension in which it reports that:

A Plymouth church which was closed in 1962 is to become a temporary home for the branch superintendents department for the City Library.

It took another three years, (1968) before the former St Luke’s was finally converted for Library use and in those early years the old church was used by a number of skilled staff as the Bookbinding Department. The ensuing years have seen the building used by generations of Library Staff as Libraries HQ.


The Bindery, c1970

The former St Luke’s Church remains a landmark building within the student heartland, north of the city centre today. Although the building itself appears perhaps a little unassuming it has played a great and interesting part in the religious and social history of Plymouth.



“Behold, I lay in Sion a chief corner stone, elect, precious: and he that believeth on him shall not be confounded” 1 Peter 2:6 – panel from a stained glass window inside the former St Lukes Church, 2015

Text © Graham Naylor

St Michael and All Angels, Poughill

The parish church of St Michael and All Angels, Poughill is located in a remote and picturesque part of Devon, roughly 5 miles north of Crediton. NB – This parish isnt to be confused with Poughill in Cornwall, near Bude!

The journey to Poughill (from Cruwys Morchard) takes the traveller along the narrowist of Devonshire lanes, however the journey is worth it.

My visit to St Michael’s took place early one Summer evening in 2015 and I’d long wanted to visit the Church since it carries a great significance in my family history. Like with Cruwys Morchard I have direct ancestors who were Rectors here during the 17th century. It was incredible to discover tangible evidence of their lives remaining in this church…


St Michael and All Angels, Poughill (2015)

The village of Poughill is small and narrow. The church is located in the centre of the village and stands prominently overlooking rolling fields and pasture land.

The pathway from the roadside to the church takes the visitor through part of the interesting ancient churchyard towards the south porch.


View towards chancel (2015

The first impression on entering the church is its size. It’s a small church – comprised of nave, chancel, tower with north aisle. In many ways the remoteness of the church has probably aided its charm and character and the church possesses a great many features of interest:


The stained glass inside the church is truly beautiful and the sunshine streamed through the windows on my visit. I found the east window in the chancel to be especially beautiful.


East window of chancel (2015)


The church possesses some interesting C18 box pews in the north aisle – its so pleasing to see such relics remaining in churches. So many were lost during C19 and later restorations.


Box pews in north aisle (2015)


The church was ‘restored’ during the C19 and the stencil work appears to be a remnant of the work carried out in 1856. Once again, I found it pleasing to see these remains of stencil work – given that so much similar work has been lost elsewhere.


Of greatest interest to me were the many varied and important memorial stones being used to pave the aisles. Many were very ancient, I suspect one or two were almost certainly C16 although their inscriptions were partly obscured by the C18 box pews!

The most interesting memorials relate to the FRANK and BRADFORD families – both featuring in my own ancestry and I found memorial slabs to my direct ancestors which (as any family historian will testify) was a great thrill!


Rev. William FRANK, d. 1675 (2015)

The memorial to my 9th Great Grandfather, the Rev. William FRANK provides a slight conundrum since the Burial Register records that he died on 28 September 1674, not 1675 as suggested on this stone. The inscription is unusual in that “R” is replaced by “Y”.

It reads:


A wander around the churchyard here is of interest too; although many aged headstones do not appear to be in existence.

In all, a visit to Poughill, off the beaten track, is well worth it. Alongside Cruwys Morchard one could feel as if they had gone back in time… and I’m sure I’m not the only person to appreciate that in our modern world!



Tower of St Michael and All Angels, Poughill


The Denys/Dennis Family of Holcombe Burnell, Devon


 Arms: DENYS of Devon

One set of my 13th Great Grandparents are Sir Thomas DENYS, of Holcombe Burnell, and his wife, Elizabeth MIRFYN, nee DONNE, of London.

Sir Thomas Denys was born circa 1476 in Holcombe Burnell, Devon. He married Elizabeth, daughter of Angel Donne (of London) in 1524.

Sir Thomas met Elizabeth whilst he was living or studying at the New Inn?, London. A marriage licence was granted by the Bishop of London for their marriage on 14 July 1524.

Elizabeth was sister to Gabriel Donne, the last medieval Abbot of Buckfast Abbey. He had been presented to the Abbacy by Thomas Cromwell in 1535 and remained there until the surrender of monasteries and monastic lands to King Henry VIII in 1539.

Ancient Seal of Buckfast Abbey

Medieval Seal of Buckfast Abbey

After the Dissolution, the Abbey of Buckfast passed from Sir Thomas Denys to his son, Sir Robert, and then from him to his eldest son, another Thomas, who left two daughters and co-heirs – Anne, married to Sir Henry Rolle, and Margaret, who became the wife of Sir Arthur Mainwaring. The manor of Buckfast, which had acquired the name of Buckfast-Dennis, was the property of Anne, and descended to her grandson, Sir John Rolle, who died in 1706, in possession of that lordship. Though extinct in the male line, the family of Sir Thomas Dennis has been carried down through females by the families of Rolle, Mainwaring, Chichester, Arundel and Benthal.
[Source: Guide to Buckfast Abbey, by Dom John Stephan., O.S.B., 1932]

In many respects, of greater interest to me personally, is the career of my 14th Great Uncle, Abbot Gabriel DONNE, of Buckfast who after the Reformation became a Canon Residentiary of St Paul’s Cathedral, London.

Gabriel Donne, born circa 1491 was the eldest child born to Angel and Anne Donne of London. Although no records exist which accurately record his date of birth the year 1491 is an educated approximation given that Angel Donne married his wife, Anne Sparrow circa 1490 and by 1506 Gabriel was old enough to belong to the religious order of Cistercians at Stratford.

Gabriel was an educated and powerful cleric and he rose to great prominence in 1535 upon his appointment to the Abbacy of Buckfast Abbey by Thomas Cromwell. History however has not been kind to Gabriel since he was alleged to have played a pivotal role in the betrayal of William Tyndale in 1535. This allegation rose to greater prominence during the 19th century when the subject was tackled many times by a large number of protestant authors. Gabriel was also falsely regarded as having been appointed to the Abbacy of Buckfast by Thomas Cromwell as a way of reward for betraying William Tyndale to the authorities. Gabriel’s subsequent resignation to the powers of King Henry VIII in 1539 saw him surrender Buckfast Abbey to the Commissioners of the Reformation. For this action Gabriel has been wrongly regarded as an impostor into the Abbacy of Buckfast. Modern research has shown that despite great religious upheavals in England during the 1530s it could not have been known in 1535 that the Suppression of the Monasteries was to be so wide scale and complete and that therefore it is a great disservice to Gabriel to suggest he willingly handed “his” Abbey over to the Commissioners in 1539. This falsehood was further developed by the new community of Benedictines who had returned to Buckfast in 1882.


St Pauwls Church [From Hollar’s Map of London, 1665]

After the dissolution of Buckfast Abbey Gabriel pursued duties as a secular priest in London. His educated status and his Pre-Reformation role as Abbot enabled him to become a Residentiary Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. This was an excellent opportunity for Gabriel to continue in his ministry back in a part of the world he knew from his childhood. Records indicate that Gabriel performed his duties at St Paul’s from 1540 until his death in December 1558. Gabriel was buried immediately next to, or before the High Altar in St Paul’s Cathedral, a burial place reserved for the very ecclesiastical elite.

Gabriel had outlived the tyrannical King Henry VIII and the reign of the King’s son, Edward IV. In 1553 Catholicism reigned once more upon the Queenship of Mary. Under Queen Mary many of the religious and liturgical ‘undoings’ of the former monarchs were undone and Catholic practices came back once more. How Gabriel adjusted to life as a Catholic once again can only be speculated but it must have come as something of familiarity and of pious devotion to him.

Gabriel’s death came only weeks after the death of Catholic Queen Mary. It would be interesting therefore to speculate how his funeral was conducted at St Paul’s. It seems most probable that it would have been largely Catholic in nature despite the fact that Queen Elizabeth I had now taken the throne. Although it is of a somewhat contentious argument there are those scholars who agree that Queen Elizabeth was a Catholic sympathiser so the recitation of the Hail Mary or use of Rosary Beads would not have been out of place in the early weeks and months of her reign.

© Graham Naylor

Holy Trinity, Buckfastleigh, 1848

Buckfastleigh - Copy (3)

A (c1850) drawing of Holy Trinity, Buckfastleigh – south elevation

In 1848 the Exeter Diocesan Architectural and Archaeological Society began to publish “Rough Notes” on each of the churches in the Diocese.

An entry for Buckfastleigh appears under the “Rough Notes, Sheet 14,” of churches in the Deanery of Totnes, Archdeaconry of Totnes. It offers the richest and most fascinating description available to the historian from the early years post restoration.

It reads:

Parish: BUCKFASTLEIGH, dedication to the Holy Trinity. 6270 acres, 2576 population, 530 accommodation [in the church].

[Description of the church follows…]

Buckfastleigh - Copy (2)

A (c1850) drawing of Holy Trinity, Buckfastleigh – ground plan

CHANCEL: length 31 feet; breadth 17 feet; Rood turret half decagonal, north. Five piscinae were found during late repairs. East window Early English, 3 unequal lights. The chancel arch springs from bold dissimilar corbels. The sacrarium includes the vestry door, – near is a hagioscope, reredos of wood, illuminated decalogue, &c., oak table and rails, presented.

NAVE: length 64 feet; breadth 19-6 feet; Piers of granite, 8r. with bell caps and obtuse pointed arches. A handsome modern carved oak pulpit, by Webber, of Exeter, 1846, – at base of first pier. A lectern (for both purposes) of wood, and another small one for clerk behind it, are on a footpace, south-east of the pulpit. The walls were raised five feet when the present open roofs were put on. No gallery.

NORTH AISLE AND TRANSEPT: length 55 feet; breadth 9 feet; Ranging ease with south.  Transept, 10 by 14-6. Raised choir seats. Windows modern, except two of good perpendicular work. The old altar stone, with its five crosses, is in the nave, inscribed 1653 and 1693 as a memorial of an old county family.

SOUTH AISLE AND TRANSEPT: length 79 feet; breadth 13 feet; Transept 10 by 14-6. A memorial figure window by Beer.

TOWER: West tower, Early English, of two stages, with spire. Stair turret 8r. South buttresses of small projection, of two on square, to an early corbel table above, the work is modern, except the base of the spire. The west arch is lofty, acutely pointed, without mouldings, open and used. The six bells being rung from the ground level. The lightning conductor saved the spire the day after it was put up. Height 80 + 55.

Buckfastleigh - Copy (4)

A (c1850) drawing of Holy Trinity, Buckfastleigh – west elevation

FONT: Norman of red sandstone, very good. – under last south arch.

PORCH: South porch, with original eastern Early English gable cross, a new one having been placed on the chancel. The roof is of wood, open.

PECULIAR FEATURES &c: This Rectory was an appendage of the Abbey. The Church having been closed for two years and two months for repairs, was re-opened July 23rd, 1846. Its situation is high, commanding the scenery of the Dart, Buckfast Abbey, the Buckland and Brook Woods, and the forest of Dartmoor. The ruins of the Abbot’s Chapel remain in the yard, covered with ivy. The appearance of this restored church is such as should give courage to all zealous in the cause of these Holy Houses of Prayer. The general effect is exceedingly good, – the height, ample aisle, and unencumbered chancel, very striking. The roofs (lean-to in the aisle, and richer in the chancel,) are of oak, and stained wood, open and substantial – after Mr Hayward’s plan. The pews are equal, low, decent, and of good proportion; and the gallery gone! The happily combined zeal of the Vicar and Churchwarden, aided by land bequeathed in olden time for the purpose, have effected all this, and most gratifying must it be to the parishioners at large. The “Sepulchre”, or Lord of the Manor’s tomb, in the yard, with its sheltered seat around, and a modern granite coffin over a grave may be noted.

Holy Trinity, Buckfastleigh, 1846

Holy Trinity Church, Buckfastleigh was closed for worship for over two years in the mid 1840s for what was considered at the time – a long overdue restoration.

The local press of the time made little out of the reopening ceremonies at the church on Thursday, 23 July 1846 but the ultra-Protestant newspaper – the Plymouth and Devonport Weekly Journal, of 23 July 1846 reported (rather scathingly) :

BUCKFASTLEIGH. – The parish church of this place has just been repaired at an expense of £1,300 – and will be opened today by the Reverend Prebendaries Woollcombe and Luney. The interior of the church has been fitted with open seats, and has a new open roof. It has also been provided with a new “altar”; and the steeple, which has for the last 120 years, according to tradition, been in a damaged state, has been raised.

This has all be done partly by subscription, and partly by the mortgage of the church lands, on which £900 has been raised. The appropriation of a fund left for the purposes of the poor, as well as for the repair of the church, will have a serious effect upon those who have no power to help themselves. For some years the poor have been in the habit of receiving considerable assistance out of the funds arising from the church lands of the parish; but these funds are now mortgaged, and will probably remain so for generations to come. The parishioners do not appear to have had anything to do with this part of the arrangement, the trustees of the charity having thus appropriated the money on their own authority.

Holy Trinity, Buckfastleigh, 1870

On 1 February 1870 the noted antiquary and ecclesiastic, Sir Stephen Glynne (1807-1874) visited Holy Trinity Church at Buckfastleigh. What follows is taken from his account published in Notes and Queries, 5 November 1932.


1 February 1870.

A large church situated on a lofty eminence above the Town; the church consists of Nave with aisles, north and south Transepts, Chancel, South porch, and Western Tower with stone Spire. The Nave and aisles are of great width and the church is generally of a plain and severe character with some features of a local type, but with some earlier work than is usually found in Devonshire.

The arcades of the nave are each of 4 wide pointed arches of octagonal pillars all of granite. The chancel has north and south chapels opening to it by lower pointed arches. The chancel arch is pointed and springs from heavy corbels against the wall. The transeptal chapels open by pointed arches to the aisles both of nave and chancel. There is a small squint from the north transept into the chancel and the door to the rood steps. The nave roof is not coved but open with collar and arched timbers apparently renovated and coloured very dark within.

The whole church was restored about 1840 [actually 1844-1846] and though in good case and with a remarkable solemn interior not up to the mark of the present day. The seats low and uniform but with doors. The pulpit of wood having pretty ogee niches. The tower arch is a tall narrow pointed one but very plain upon imposts.

The windows of the south aisle are square headed and late Perpendicular, of three lights without foliation. In the south transept is a three light of plain arched lights and one similar in the north transept, having an Early English look, but probably late. The east window of the aisles and the west window of the tower are nearly similar. There are some late square headed windows in the north aisle of four lights. The octagonal rood turret is seen on the north at the intersection of the transept.

The north and south aisles of the chancel seem to be additions to the original plan encroaching on the Early English work which appears in the single lancets north and south of the chancel. The chancel has three sedilia undivided merely with separate canopies of plain character pretty clearly Early English. There is a plain double piscina and in the north wall a pointed recess. There are small flat arched piscinae in both north and south chapels of the chancel. The roof of the chancel is of cradle form with foliaged bosses and ribs.

The Font is Norman, the bowl cup shaped, on a stem set upon a high base, and surrounded by four mutilated shafts of marble with Norman capitals. On the bowl is a kind of scroll pattern and round the top a course of rope ornament. There is on the north side of the nave what appears to be a modern addition. The roofs are covered with slates.

The south chancel aisle is embattled. The porch is very large. The tower is of the coarse character prevalent around, is tall and has battlement with corbel table under it, shallow buttresses not at the angles and an octagonal stair turret in the centre of the north side dividing the belfry windows. There is a west window and plain pointed doorway. The spire stands within the tower and is octagonal without ribs. The walls of much of the church are covered with plaster.

The churchyard is spacious and the view seen from it has much beauty and picturesque effect, with rock and wood. Near the east of the churchyard are ruins of what was evidently a chapel, but not on a large scale, having only single light windows.