St Mary’s Church, Totnes: C19 alterations and restoration work

The notes that follow here, by Charles Baker King, describe alterations made at St Mary’s Church, Totnes during the nineteenth-century. I felt they are too interesting and important not to share to a wider audience. I know I found them most helpful. For example, I had no idea St Mary’s had been home to a late eighteenth-century baldacchino altarpiece. Although contemporary reports suggest this was rather “out of keeping” with the building I’d have loved to see it. Thankfully for us, Baker King, includes his architectural drawings of it. Wow! I hope you enjoy reading this article as much as I have!

[From the Report and Transactions of The Devonshire Association, Vol 36, 1904]

Some notes respecting the alterations made in the structure and fittings during the latter part of the nineteenth century.

By Charles R. Baker King, A.R.I.B.A.

(Read at Teignmouth, July, 1904.)

Thinking that some information respecting the condition of the church before the alterations may be of interest to those who did not know the building in its former state, I am induced to put the following notes on record.

My knowledge of the building dates from the year 1853, when I was staying in the neighbourhood for several months, and was in the habit of attending the services in the church. In the year 1866, when the late Sir Gilbert Scott, R.A., was instructed by the Restoration Committee to direct the enlargement, repair, and refitting of the church, I was entrusted by him with the preparation of all drawings, and with the general supervision of the work. The alterations were commenced in 1867, and extended over several years, the work being undertaken in sections as the necessary funds were collected. For the later works I was entirely responsible.


The plan of the church in medieval times consisted of the chancel with side chapels, nave with north and south aisles, western tower, and south porch; but in the earlier half of the nineteenth century a second north aisle had been built, corresponding in length with the eastern half of the ancient north aisle. A turret staircase, midway in the length of the north wall of this modern aisle, gave access to the gallery in this annexe. In the north wall of the ancient north aisle, just westward of the modern aisle, was a doorway opposite to that opening into the porch, and in the north wall of the chancel was the priest’s doorway leading directly into the churchyard.

Previous to the alterations, the interior of the church on the ground floor was crowded with high painted deal pews. The majority of these were of such restricted width that kneeling was practically impossible, and many of the square pews had their seat-boards placed on three sides, so that their occupants faced each other, and many sat with their backs towards the chancel and pulpit. Every available space had been made use of; so that seats (i.e. seat-boards) could be crowded in, it seemed to have been a matter of indifference in which direction the sitters would have to face. The chancel and chapels, as well as the nave and aisles, were pewed in this fashion.

The Corporation seats — of wainscot, well moulded and carved — were placed against the western side of the chancel and chapel screens, covering the space between the central and the side doorways. These seats were designed for and fitted to the spaces they occupied. Resting on the ends of the book-boards, about three feet in front of the screen, were carved oak columns supporting a cornice extending across the central passage, carrying the Royal and the Town arms with the date 1636.

The pulpit stood in the position for which it was designed — on the north side of the nave against the south side of the first pillar westward of the screen. A wooden canopy of ogee form, hexagonal in plan, surmounted the pulpit. The clerk’s desk was in front of the pulpit southward, and the prayer-desk was eastward of that, separated from the clerk’s desk by the narrow gangway giving access to the pulpit stairs. The font stood against the north wall of the tower; opposite the font were the wooden stairs leading to the western gallery. A partition with a door in it cut off the western part of the tower, which was used as a lumber space.

The entire width and height of the eastern end of the chancel was occupied by an altar-piece or baldacchino in white plaster of good classic design. Four Corinthian fluted columns on each side supported an arched top or canopy, beyond which eastward was a shallow curved recess in which stood the Holy table. The date of this altarpiece I have not ascertained, but I should judge it to have been erected about the end of the eighteenth century. The Holy table of the same date was very limited in its dimensions, the length being 3 ft. 9 in. only, to suit the space between the groups of columns.

In the window recess on the south side of the chancel stood the Blackall monument, the kneeling figures facing westward. The monument had probably been removed from some other portion of the church where the space it occupied was required for pews. The design suggests that it was intended to stand against a north wall.

On the south side of the chancel, extending out about six feet from the wall, was a modern deal staircase leading to the pews in the gallery over the western part of the chancel and south chapel, and to the vestry which was over the eastern part of the chapel.

The stone rood-loft staircase, its details much mutilated, gave access to the pews in the gallery over the western part of the north chapel.

A table placed longitudinally stood to the south of the central passages of the chancel with an L- shaped seat arranged to suit it. This table was used for the distribution of loaves of bread under an old bequest.

What chiefly struck one’s attention on entering the church, apart from the beautiful screen, was the extent and arrangement of the galleries. I have seen galleries in a considerable number of churches, but do not remember to have seen any church which could compare with that at Totnes in the manner in which galleries were crowded in. The western galleries occupied the western half of the length of the north and south aisles, as far as the middle pillar, while the nave portion formed a semicircle extending westward from these pillars. The divisions of the pews radiated, and the pews were in tiers one above the other, the arrangement being very much like that of a theatre. The organ stood at the western end of the nave gallery, cutting off all view of the tower.

The ancient rood gallery, some nine feet deep from east to west, extending over the chancel and chapel screens, was filled with pews facing westward.

The modern outer north aisle had also a gallery fitted with plain benches, not pews.

Before the middle of the last century the accommodation afforded by the church on the ground floor and in the galleries had evidently been found to be insufficient, and the outer north aisle had been built to give additional sittings, the spacing of the seats in this annexe being even more cramped than in the pews in other parts of the church.

The vestry was on the gallery level, the eastern part of the south chapel being ceiled across at the level of the top of the screen. This arrangement probably dated from the seventeenth century, a window of this period being inserted in the upper part of the eastern wall of the chapel to give light to the then newly constructed chamber.

The vestry contained the library, chiefly of theological books, a portion of which is now, I believe, kept in theparvise.

The galleries had covered so much wall space that the pillars had been made use of to receive monuments and tablets.

The ceilings of the chancel and nave were continuous, of arched form, plastered, with a few small deal ribs dividing the surfaces into large panels. The ceilings of the aisles and chapels were flat, also of plaster, with similar ribs. A dormer window on the south slope of the nave roof had been introduced to give light to the galleries and pulpit.

Externally the church had suffered much from decay and unsympathetic treatment. The only mullioned window retaining its ancient form was the two-light window in the north face of the tower below the belfry level. The two single-light windows on the south side of the belfry retained their cusped heads. The windows on the north and south sides of the chancel had been filled with rather poor tracery in the earlier half of the nineteenth century. The dressings of the eastern window of the chancel had been entirely removed, leaving only the red stone relieving arch on the outside, and the white stone rear arch on the inside. The window opening had been walled up to receive the altarpiece.

The side windows of the aisles had been renewed with meagre stonework of classic design in the eighteenth century. The dressings of the east windows of the chapels and of the western windows of the aisles had been removed, and the openings built up, as we now see them.

The parapets, pinnacles, and gable copings had, in part, been removed or altered.

The porch gable with the parapet and pinnacles of good seventeenth-century design were in fairly good condition, but the apex stone, with its cross or terminal, had been removed in the eighteenth century and a plain sun-dial — a slab only without any mouldings or carving — substituted. The outer archway of the porch had become much defaced, and the ground had accumulated above its original level, depriving the arch of its original proportions. Wooden doors had been fitted in the opening.

Sundial erected in 1903 [November 2017]

At the north-east angle of the chancel an archway existed, running diagonally through the two buttresses. These buttresses have indications that other buildings formerly abutted on this angle of the church. A few worked stones of mediaeval date were observable buried in the modern walling up of the east window. Some of these were fragments of circular shafts.

The diagonal pinnacles which formerly stood on the slopes of the buttresses of the tower were mostly gone. The belfry windows, having lost their mullions and tracery, were filled with plain wooden louvres the full width of the openings.

The ground around the church had risen much above the level of the floor inside, rendering the walls damp and discoloured.

The church was practically hidden from view from the High Street by the two-storied building known as the “Church Walk.” The open granite arcade erected by Richard Lee in the seventeenth century formed the frontage of this building next the street, but the boundary next the churchyard was a solid wall with a gateway about eight feet wide, that being the only space through which the south side of the church could be seen.

The alterations which were commenced in 1867 and extended over several years consisted chiefly of the rearrangement and refitting of the interior of the church. The galleries were removed, and to compensate for the loss of sittings afforded by them the outer modern north aisle was extended westward to the full length of the ancient aisle, the gallery arrangement in the modern portion being continued, although in an improved form. In later years exception has been taken to this gallery, but at the time of its erection it was considered essential that the sittings sacrificed by the removal of the other galleries should be supplied, as far as possible, by a gallery which would be less of a disfigurement than those which it supplanted.

It was felt that in the rearrangement of the seats in the body of the church the traditional practice of making them face eastward should be followed. This course obliged the removal of the Corporation seats. The most suitable place for their re-erection seemed to be the western side of the cross passage from the porch. Owing to the central passage in the new arrangement being wider than the doorway in the chancel screen, the cornice with the coat-of-arms could not be refixed as before; but so that this interesting feature might not be lost sight of, it was fixed against the north wall of the tower. The greater width of the central passage obliged a slight amount of shortening of the panelled fronts.

The retention of the pulpit in its ancient position was objected to on the ground that some of the seats in the nave would be to the eastward of it, and to meet this objection it was, after much discussion, arranged to remove it near to the screen and to place it on the south side, so that it might receive a better light than before.

The chancel could not at this time be fitted with choir seats, as the lay rector claimed all the accommodation for his tenants. Seats like those in the nave had, therefore, to be provided, but were placed choirwise facing north and south. Seats arranged specially for the singers were placed at the eastern end of the ancient north aisle in front of the organ. A detached prayer-desk placed in front of the chancel screen had to be provided. A brass eagle lectern was presented some years later.

The eastern part of the chancel had the modern altarpiece removed and the steps rearranged. The Blackall monument, which had been brought from some other part of the church, and which encroached upon the sanctuary space, was removed and placed against the north wall of the tower.

The organ was placed at the eastern end of the modern north aisle, the gallery being reduced in length to allow sufficient height for the instrument. The font was placed in a more prominent position in the tower.

The rearrangement of the seating and steps affected the positions of the paved passages, and obliged the removal of some of the monumental slabs. Before these were disturbed a plan was made showing their positions, with copies of the inscriptions. A tracing of this plan I recently presented to the Town Clerk for preservation with the town records. The monuments which had been affixed to the nave pillars were refixed on the main walls.

From the rarity of baldacchini in this country, and for the excellence of the design in this example, I was desirous of having it removed in sections and re-erected elsewhere, perhaps in the tower, as an interesting relic, but the timber- work of which the skeleton was constructed proved to be so fragile that it was impossible to save it. Before the removal I made a careful drawing of it in geometrical elevation, which I had lithographed, and copies of the print I presented to the British Museum, the Libraries of the two Universities, the Society of Antiquaries, the Museum at Plymouth, and other institutions. I wrote a paper in 1881 on the altarpiece and rood loft, which was afterwards published by the Society of Antiquaries and by the Archaeological Institute in their Transactions. It was also published in the local newspaper.


The removal of the altarpiece revealed a diagonal mass of masonry in the north-east angle of the chancel, rising to a height of several feet above the floor level, making the end of the chancel in its lower part most irregular in form. A proposal to screen this masonry and make a symmetrical arrangement by having hangings across both angles of the chancel forming “wings” to the altar did not meet with acceptance, and it became necessary to remove the intruding mass. To obtain the rectangular form in the chancel the passage way in the angle buttresses on the outside had to be walled up as now seen.

It was hoped that the removal of the altarpiece would have disclosed some remains of the east window from which its original design could have been restored, but the dressings had been entirely removed, with the exception of the arched head in the inner thickness of the wall. This inner arch, and the red stone relieving arch on the outside, were the only parts remaining to serve as guides for the restoration.

There being no ancient traceried windows in the church which could give any clue to the character of the original design, this window and all the other windows in the church were re-designed, the mouldings and forms of the tracery being founded upon ancient examples in the same district of the county.

The chancel with c.1879 window tracery [November 2017]

The approach to the rood loft was by the narrow stone staircase on the north side of the chancel eastward of the arch opening into the chapel. A beam resting on the southern edge of this stonework, running parallel with the stone parclose screen and framed into the eastern beam of the loft, carried the floor of the passage leading westward to the main part of the gallery. The loft extended across the north chapel, but as the solid masonry of the haunch of the arch encroached largely upon the floor space and left insufficient headway, a sort of gusset-piece of flooring was formed, supported by a diagonal beam framed into the eastern beam of the chapel loft. The end of this last-named beam came in the window recess, and therefore could not be supported by being let into the wall in the usual manner. The beam at its end was therefore supported by an oak chamfered and stopped post, resting on the inner sill of the window. Above the loft in the north chapel is an ancient doorway with winding stairs giving access to the roofs.

The rood-loft staircase originally gave access to the whole of the loft, but, when this was fitted up with pews, the commonplace but more conveniently arranged wooden staircase before mentioned had been provided.

To support the extra weight which the loft had to bear owing to its being fitted with seats, two iron columns were placed in the chancel under the eastern beam. These columns can be seen in the photograph of the interior of the church published in the Transactions for 1902, but they are omitted in Jewitt’s woodcut in Cotton’s History of Totnes.

The engraving in Lysons’ history of the county, published in 1822, shows the ceiling beneath the loft formed into panels by moulded ribs with carved bosses at the intersections, the outer cornice being enriched with foliage, but the view in Cotton’s history, published in 1850, shows the ceiling with a few small ribs forming plain panels and without enrichments in the cornice. This latter arrangement was as I found it.

Lysons shows on the side of the passage leading from the staircase to the loft what appear to be paintings of the arms of four of the bishops, the arms in each case impaled with those of the see; and, as a protection on the eastern side of the loft, a fence of turned balusters. Both these features are absent from Jewitt’s woodcut, and were not in the church within my recollection.

When the modern seating was removed from the rood loft I endeavoured to ascertain what the original design of the ceiling had been, but the evidence was insufficient to give this. I wished, however, to keep the old timbers as they were, laying new oak boarding upon the joists, but this course was overruled, and the floor was removed, much to my regret. The width of the loft from east to west was unusual, being nine feet from outside to outside of the beams. The central portion of the loft had a beam on its western front moulded on its front face, but without any mortises on the top to receive upright supports for the front fence. The eastern beam was chamfered only, not moulded, and on the eastern face was a simple decoration of conventional foliage in colour apparently of seventeenth-century date. The colour stops at a distance of five inches from its top edge, showing that a further moulding had formerly been fixed on its face. The top of this beam has mortises for balusters. The balusters and ornamental cornice as shown in Lysons’ view are therefore confirmed. This eastern beam has been shifted westward, and is now refixed against the stone screen, instead of being about five feet from it as before.

The north loft had a moulded western beam and a richly moulded eastern beam; the moulding stopped out at the ends. This eastern beam had on its western side two rows of mortises — the upper row to receive the floor joists, the lower row to receive smaller joists — forming the visible ceiling, the spaces between the timbers of the two rows being different. The face of the beam had been further enriched by an additional moulding planted on. This beam also had mortises on the top to receive the uprights of the fence or balustrade. The north end was secured by an iron strap to the oak post before mentioned.

The south loft had the western beam moulded on its front and its top mortised and grooved to receive upright framing and boarded panels. The ancient joists had been cut away in line with the eastern face of the stone screen, and were secured to a fir beam of modern date. As before mentioned, the whole of the south chapel had been floored over to form the vestry, and this occasioned the destruction of the greater part of the old loft.

The top of the pulpit in modern times had been added-to to form a wide book-board. The modern woodwork and the ancient stonework had been grained in imitation of dark oak. The removal of the woodwork showed that there had been a carved cresting of trefoil design on the band of stonework immediately above the stone mouldings which formed the lower part of the cornice.The modern graining I had carefully removed under my own supervision, and in the panels under the graining. I found traces of seventeenth-century colour decoration of arabesque character, and beneath this were traces of earlier figure paintings. On returning to the church after a few hours absence, I discovered that some mischievous person had scaled off all the decoration, so that I was unable to make tracings of the patterns as I intended to do.

The ancient pulpit – much mutilated [November 2017]

Upon the removal of the Corporation seats and pews which had covered the whole of the lower part of the chancel and chapel screens, the solid panels below the transom were found to be painted with figures of saints. These paintings were in a more or less injured condition owing to age and wilful damage. Some few repairs were made to the stonework, and the coloured decoration, where it had suffered much, was repainted. A decorator who had had previous experience of the restoration of ancient paintings was employed with full instructions to preserve untouched all that could be kept of the old work and to make all parts repainted correspond in tone with the faded tints of the old colour and gilding. In the panels where the figures had entirely disappeared the panels were merely painted of a plain subdued colour to harmonise with the others.

The screens between the chancel and the side chapels showed no signs of colour decoration. The canopies and pedestals of the niches of the rood-loft staircase which had been mutilated had those parts repaired, and the colour decoration, which remained to a great extent, completed.

The doors to the inner doorway of the porch, which are of rich Renaissance character, had had the lower half mutilated, and plain modern panels inserted in the old framing. The mouldings and carvings were completed and linen panels substituted for the modern plain panels. The ancient lockplate in wrought-iron has the badge of St. Eloy, alias St. Loo, the patron saint of workers in metals.

The internal angles of the porch have stone corbels with moulded stone wall-ribs, as if groining had been contemplated but the intention had been abandoned. The ceiling was of plain flat plastering. At the apices of the arched stone wall-ribs below the plaster ceiling were the germs of mouldings designed to be carried across horizontally. A new oak ceiling was designed to fit to these stone mouldings.

The stoup in the angle of the porch was preserved and made to serve the purpose of an alms-box, a metal cover with a slot in it being fixed above the bowl.

The roof of the outer aisle, a part of the alteration carried out in 1867, is of stained deal. Some years later an offer was made to replace the modern roofs and plaster ceilings of the other parts of the church with new oak roofs. These I designed, following the character of some of the richer roofs in the county, but my design was not fully carried out. At the foot of the main cross ribs it was my intention to have carved oak angels with large wings resting on stone corbels fixed just below the wall plate. Owing to an objection being raised to figures of any kind being introduced in the ornamentation of the church, whether in carving or painted glass, these intended features had to be abandoned. It was also my wish to introduce colour and gilding on the mouldings and carvings to a considerable extent as in some of the ancient roofs.

I may mention that when engaged upon the restoration of St. Andrew’s Church, Plymouth, in the nave and chancel roofs I found evidence of there having been angels at the feet of the cross ribs. The wall plates were carved with a running band of foliage which stopped before reaching the ribs, where an interval of plain surface occurred. The plain portions were to be covered by the figures. In this case the corbels and angels which had been removed were restored and the design completed.

The works at the outset having to be carried out in an economical manner, deal, unfortunately, had to be used as the material for the seats, and the design had to be kept as inexpensive as possible. Carving was out of the question, and tracery could only be allowed in the central passage.

The removal of the vestry from above the south chapel necessitated a room being provided elsewhere. The space on the north side of the chancel was adopted as being the most suitable, the ancient doorway affording convenient access to the addition. At the date of this erection surpliced choirs were not usual, and the room was intended for the use of the clergy only. At a later period I planned a second room for use by the choir, but this scheme has not been carried out.

The displacement of a memorial slab which stood against the outside of the north wall of the north chapel revealed traces of what appears to have been a portion of a deeply splayed opening near the floor level. Without removing much of the wall, it was impossible to ascertain the design or purpose of this opening, but a little of the later walling was I cut away to allow the worked splayed stones to be seen.

In removing the north wall for the extension of the aisle several fragments of late Norman masonry were found. They consisted of voussoirs of arches enriched with chevrons, beads, reels, and star ornaments, pieces of enriched string courses, a piece of a group of shafts, and a carved capital. Some of these were worked in red sandstone, and others in white Beer stone. The use of red and white stone together may be seen in the Norman doorway in the tower of Paignton Church. There was also one small fragment of Early English carving in white stone — a part of the foliage of a capital.


The only piece of ancient oak work which was brought to light was a piece of moulding about 2 ft. 5 in. in length, 6 in. in width, and 8 in. in depth. This timber had been re-used as a floor joist. It is enriched with colour and gilding, and has stencilled ornaments upon it. These fragments I directed to be carefully preserved, and suggested that a little museum should be formed in the parvise, but I fear that the guardianship of these interesting relics has not been so careful as it should have been.

Postscript. — The view of the interior of the church forming one of the illustrations to the paper on “Devonshire Screens and Rood Lofts,” by Mr. F. Bligh Bond and Mr. A. L. Radford, in the Transactions for 1902, is a reproduction of a photograph taken before the refitting of the church was commenced. The front of the rood gallery shown in the view was modern, of painted deal.