Parishes in Devon


Arthur French

What is a Parish?

"St Andrew's? What denomination is that?" People who have been brought up in non-European countries may find the historical position of the church in England is a little unfamiliar!

The Established Church

From the earliest times until the Toleration Act of 1689 there was only one legal 'Church' in England. There had been conflict within the Church, such as the Lollards in the 14th century and especially during the Commonwealth. Some 'dissenters' had begun to organise worship in homes, barns, halls, etc., in the late 17th century, but they suffered hostility and persecution. Only the Society of Friends (Quakers) began, about 1650-1670, to keep systematic records of births (not baptisms!), marriages and deaths, and very few of those survive. And nobody called them a "church"! (Quakerism was strong in the north at first, but soon spread to the south-west.)

The idea that 'C of E' is one 'denomination' among many did not become fashionable until after World War II. 'Nonconformists' were legal and respectable, but until 1840 baptism in the C of E was necessary condition for holding public offices, and it was only in 1871 that an Act forbade universities to exclude nonconformists or others on the grounds of belief.

The Roman Catholics

Although the Church of England rejected the supremacy of the Pope in 1534, 4 years before official parish registers began, the system of dioceses and parishes continued unchanged. Those who did not accept the change were regarded as traitors. These 'recusants' were subject to legal penalties, and, for many years, had to worship in secret. The papal authorities made no attempt to set up a rival administration of parishes in England until 1850 (and even then in the face of some hostility). They now have a system of dioceses and parishes, which are bigger than Church of England units. Devon is in Plymouth R.C. Diocese.

County and Diocese

'Diocese' and 'Parish' are unambiguous until 1850. They always referred to the Church of England. The whole of Devon was in Exeter Diocese, which, from 1040 to 1876, included Cornwall too. (But the County and Church boundaries both changed in one place in 1836, when Thorncombe, an isolated parish, was transferred to Dorset, in exchange for Stockland and Dalwood.) County and Diocese still have similar boundaries.

The parish system

The pattern of parishes in Devon changed hardly at all between the start of registers in Tudor times and the 19th century. Even then, the main changes were in the large towns like Exeter, Plymouth, Torquay and Barnstaple (see below). Indeed, many parishes can trace their history back to Norman and Saxon times, though I think the remains of Saxon buildings are very rare in Devon compared with further east. The basic pattern of parishes, and their administrative grouping into rural deaneries, was established by the ninth century. Ipplepen, where I live, was a parish and the name of a deanery, in those days; and it was still Ipplepen Deanery until the mid-1990s. By that time it included Torquay and Paignton, and it seemed sensible to have a Torbay Deanery and a Newton Abbot Deanery, but having had the name Ipplepen used for 1000 years they call the latter 'Newton Abbot and Ipplepen'.

Parish boundaries were related to medieval manorial boundaries. There could be more than one manor in a parish. In Ipplepen there were small manors of Combe and Battleford in the Domesday Book, as well as Ipplepen itself, but they have never had churches. In some parts of Devon there are still substantial medieval manors or farms which had their own chapels, licensed by the bishop and officially consecrated, but the owners would still have paid tithes to the parish church. Most of these chapels fell into disuse in the troubled times of the 16th and 17th centuries, and were used for storage. They didn't give rise to written records.

The church was sited for the convenience of the lord of the principal manor in the parish, and may not have been central. If some parishioners lived a long way away, they may eventually have persuaded someone to let them build a chapel-of-ease. This may have been a full-size 'church', but it was subject to the vicar and churchwardens of the parish. A few of these became separate parishes. An example is Woodland, which was a part of the Manor of Ipplepen, but separated from it by the parish of Torbryan. It got its independence early (its records go back to 1560). The petitions claimed that the roads from Woodland to Ipplepen were 'mountainous', which is a bit of an exaggeration. People were still arguing about the relationship of the two parishes right up to the 19th century.

Parishes in the towns

The old pattern of parishes didn't suit the rapidly growing towns of the 19th and 20th centuries. In Devon it is only the largest towns that are affected. The most complicated situation is in Exeter, where they had over 20 tiny parishes in the City. Many of these have been amalgamated, and some churches were closed, but new parishes have been created in the suburbs. Except in the actual town centre, the old parish names have been preserved, even if the boundaries have changed.

In Plymouth, all the old names seem to be there, but many new ones have been split off. In Torquay, too, the old names are unchanged except that Tormohun seems to have become All Saints, Torre. The parishes of Tormohun (or Tormoham) and St Marychurch used to cover most of the area where the town now stands.

Exmouth was covered by the old parishes of Littleham and Withycombe Raleigh. This is unchanged except that they are now called Littleham-cum-Exmouth and Withycombe Raleigh (Exmouth). Newton Abbot is in the parishes of Wolborough and Highweek. There is no parish called Newton Abbot.

New parishes in country areas

There are a few new parishes in rural surroundings. Princetown, where the prison is, is an example. It was, like much of Dartmoor, in Lydford parish. It started keeping its own records in 1807, when there were prisoners there from the Napoleonic War, but it didn't become a separate parish until 1912. Yelverton was separated from Buckland Monachorum in 1929. New parishes like this are an exceptional, modern phenomenon.

Redundant Churches

Some churches in very small villages have been declared redundant. They are sometimes kept open to visitors, and may have two or three services a year, but parishioners are expected to transfer most of their allegiance to a larger neighbouring parish. The cost of maintenance is borne by a trust. Examples are Torbryan, where the neighbouring Ipplepen has become 'Ipplepen with Torbryan'; and West Ogwell, now joined with East Ogwell and the parish is called 'Ogwell'. The old registers are in the Devon Record Office, but the latest register may still be with the 'mother church'.

Brian Randell, 9 Nov 1999