Some Old Devon Churches
By J. Stabb
London: Simpkin et al (1908-16)
Transcribed and edited by Dr Roger Peters
Full text available at
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.
SOUTH TAWTON. St. Andrew. The church consists of chancel, with north and south chapels, nave, north and south aisles, south porch, and west tower with six bells; there is a narrow priest's door in the south chapel. The nave is separated from the the aisles by four arches on each side, resting on Beer stone pillars with carved capitals. There are some good bosses in the roof, the 4th, 9th, and 10th in the north aisle bear respectively the horns, the veiled turban, and the outstanding netted coiffure, of the Lancaster York period [1399-1461]. In the nave the 9th boss from the west is a crowned head with long parted beard. In the south aisle the 9th boss has the three rabbits with the ears conjoined. The north chapel was the chantry of the Wykes of North Wyke; it contains an altar tomb with the figure of a knight in armour and wearing a ruff, at the back are the arms of the Wyke family. The figure represents John Wyke of North Wyke, who died 1592. In the south aisle there is the monument of Thomas Battishill, of Drewsteignton, 1728, and his wife, 1727. There are also monuments and arms commemorating the Oxenham family.
The old rood screen was removed about 1826, and a modern one erected in its place in 1901 [plate 212a]. The style is different to that of most Devonshire screens. The bays are very lofty with slender spiral mullions, the tops of the lights are filled with fine tracery with pierced spandrels and set in a rectangular frame. The cornice has a double row of fruit and leaves surmounted by a cresting. The screen encloses the chancel and chapels, but is not continuous, being fitted between the pillars of the nave. The chancel portion is surmounted by a floriated cross, with pedestals for figures on each side, but the figures are wanting; probably the designer of the screen contemplated their being present, for the screen being so lofty the cross by itself adds to the height, the addition of figures would make the screen appear broader. The old rood staircase remains, and from its present position it is evident that the present screen is higher than its predecessor. There is the following inscription carved on one of the panels:- To the Glory of God and in memory of William Lethbridge, of Wood, who died May 31st 1901, erected in 1902 by his sister Helen Kingsford and her children.
On the panels of the north portion of the screen are coats of arms, and the inscription:- William Wyke Finch, M.A. restored this Wyke Chapel in 1899, in memory of his ancestors of North Wyke, and to the glory of Almighty God.
The octagonal font in the church is modern, having been presented in 1851. The old font [plate 212b] turned out of the church years ago, and for a long time lay neglected in the vicarage garden, now stands in the churchyard near the south-west corner of the church; it has peg-holes in the rim, probably for the attachment of the cover, which is mentioned in the wardens' accounts of 1583.
There is a good Jacobean pulpit [plate 212c] with inlaid figures of the four Evangelists; the style of the pulpit is hardly in keeping with the screen, both good in themselves, together, one spoils the other. The west gallery was removed in 1881. There is a modern lychgate to the churchyard with stone coffin rest in the centre.
Just outside the lychgate is the old Church House [plate 212d], one of the finest in Devonshire, which dates from the 15th century. These church houses were invariably invested in trustees for the general use of the church and parish, and did not belong to the vicar or rector as part of the benefice. In early times in England it was the custom to hold church-ales and bid-ales within the church. The Puritans, with more reason than for many of their objections, tried to do away with the custom, and church houses were provided where these feastings could be carried on without offending the feelings of those who considered it inappropriate that celebrations of this kind should be held within the walls of God's house. Although in the time of Elizabeth [1558-1603] these church houses were numerous, for long after the Reformation [ca. 1550] the "ales" were held in the church; [Phillip] Stubbs, writing in 1583, states that the malt liquor provided for the church-ales, no less than the drink brewed for wakes, was broached, drawn, and sold within the walls of the churches.
The bid-ale was a device for helping a parishioner in pecuniary difficulties; his neighbours would give him gifts in kind, and he was expected to make a feast or "ale", at which the guests paid for what they had, and in this way enabled the giver of the feast to overcome his difficulties. The clerk-ale was a feast held in the same way to augment the salary of a parish clerk. Church-ales were feasts on a more elaborate scale, combined with sports, held in the churchyard or on the village green. The proceeds were used for the needful repairs to the church, for the support of the poor, etc. In later years these houses were used as poorhouses for the feeble and indigent parishioners.
The example at South Tawton is a very fine one; the steps with iron railings probably led up to a vestry room, and beneath would be a large hall for the guild meetings, and feasts, church-ales, and village entertainments. There would also be a kitchen, most probably with a large fireplace for roasting the joints, and altogether these church houses must have been the centres of the social life of the parish. We are so much wiser than our forefathers of the "dark" ages, that we send our poor to the workhouse, and raise money for the church by means quite as doubtful as the old church-ale.
The registers date: baptisms, 1541; marriages, 1558; burials, 1558; the churchwardens' accounts begin in 1524.