Down St Mary
Some Old Devon Churches
By J. Stabb
London: Simpkin et al (1908-16)
Transcribed and edited by Dr Roger Peters
Full text available at
Prepared by Michael Steer
Between 1908 and 1916, John Stabb, an ecclesiologist and photographer who lived in Torquay, published three volumes of Some Old Devon Churches and one of Devon Church Antiquities. A projected second volume of the latter, regarded by Stabb himself as a complement to the former, did not materialize because of his untimely death on August 2nd 1917, aged 52. Collectively, Stabb's four volumes present descriptions of 261 Devon churches and their antiquities.
DOWN ST. MARY. St. Mary. The present restored church was erected probably in the 14th century, but before this there existed a Saxon church, remains of which can be seen in the present building. The most remarkable of these is to be found in the tympanum of the south door [plate 88a], said to date from Saxon times, and representing a male figure in the centre and animals on either side. The carving has been variously described as Adam naming the animals, Daniel in the lions' den, and as representing one of the legends concerning St. Anthony.
The church consists of chancel, nave, north aisle, south porch, and west tower containing three bells, two dated 1677 and 1754 respectively. As we enter the church we notice the Norman arches and pillars, the latter are monoliths with tracery on the capitals, the font is of granite and of the same date as the pillars, so it would seem probable that the main part of the building is not of later date than the 12th century. The south wall has been entirely rebuilt and faced with stones of various colours. The sanctuary shows signs of the loving care which has been bestowed upon it. There is a beautiful reredos, the walls have been covered with alabaster, and the clergy stalls face eastwards in the old fashion.
The glory of the church is its rood screen [plate 88b]. It was one of the first to be restored in the last century [19th], some portions of the old screen have been preserved, and have been worked into the new. This screen in hitherto published descriptions has not received the notice it deserves; probably because it was restored through the aid of local talent; indeed one account simply says that it has been "roughly restored by the village carpenter". The cresting and cornices are most deliberately carved, and taken as a whole the screen compares favourably with any in Devonshire.
There are some good bench-ends; on one there is a curious figure of a man holding a stick with something at the end, which, it has been suggested, might be intended for grapes, but I do not see the resemblance; it seems to me much more likely that the figure is intended to represent a flagellant [plate 88c].
Another "end" is carved with two heads facing each other, with their lips in close proximity. This may be intended to represent the "Kiss of Peace" [i.e., the greeting reserved for brethren who share the common faith], although the expression on the faces hardly suggests it [plate 88d]. Originally it was not the custom in churches to provide fixed seats for the congregation; there were sometimes stone seats round the base of the pillars, and probably the old and infirm brought their own seats with them. We know that Jenny Geddes used hers [in 1637] to throw at the preacher [the Dean of Edinburgh]. As time went on seats were fixed in the chantry chapels, and from there the custom grew of having seats in the body of the church; by the 15th century the custom had become general. The system of pew rents, or if not the payment for pews, certainly the appropriation of seats by members of the congregation, must have begun fairly early, as the number of seats that are decorated with coats of arms shows that there must have been a considerable number of people who could walk into the parish church on Sunday, and say, "Please move up; this is my seat."
Devonshire churches are almost as famous for their bench-ends as they are for their rood screens, and fine examples will be found at the following places:- Colebrooke, showing the Copplestone arms; Ilsington, with the arms of the Beaumonts and Pomeroys; Rewe, with the arms of Waldham impaling Chiseldon and Seymour; Abbotsham, Alwington, Ashton, Atherington; North Bovey, Braunton, Broadwood Widger, Buckland Monachorum, Christow, Clayhanger, Cockington, Colyton, Doddiscombsleigh, Frithelstock, Hartland, Kenn, Lapford, North Lew, Lew Trenchard, Monkleigh, Ottery St. Mary, Sutcombe, North Tawton, and Woolfardisworthy. There is a great variety in the designs used, sometimes initials are carved, sometimes figures of saints, and occasionally symbols of the Passion.
The tower of the church was wrecked by a hurricane in 1413, and special "indulgences" were granted to those who aided the work of rebuilding. It was again restored by the Right Rev. Bishop Kestell-Cornish, when two bells were added, bringing the number up to five. The general restoration of the church is due to Rev. W. T. A. Radford, who from the year 1843 was rector for 53 years.
The registers date from 1696.