James Davidson’s East Devon Church Notes


Who was James Davidson and why are his church notes important?

James Davidson (1793-1864) was the son of a London stationer from whom he inherited a fortune. In 1820 he bought Secktor House (Axminster, Devon) and lived there until his death. Whether the discovery of finding Secktor estate, formerly belonged to Newenham Abbey (Axminster) and was mentioned in their cartulary as the property of Thomas Stede, prompted him to carry out his archaeological research is difficult to answer.

In the Devon Heritage Centre are five seminal volumes of church notes recording all 499 Devon Churches which Davidson documented between 1826 and 1844: eight Commonplace books containing his observations on archaeological sites around Axminster; copied extracts from printed books; and newspaper cuttings covering a wide spectrum of Devon life in the early 1800s and also his published books relating to Axminster. There are, though, no personal papers: possibly this is because on the death of his son, Davidson’s library was sold to the Plymouth Institution, which was destroyed in the WWII bombing of Plymouth, and therefore much of his original research was lost along with possibly personal papers. 

The importance of Davidson’s church notes is that they contain empirical handwritten information about a church before Victorianisation and the sweeping changes that occurred due alterations in the liturgy. The vividness of detail provides a unique picture of churches on the brink of change due to both economic and social factors and imperatively all the churches’ memorial inscriptions.     

What can the church notes tell us about East Devon at this time?

In actual fact the church notes tell us very little about East Devon in the early 1800s. Occasionally we have a glimpse of the church’s location such as at Branscombe which he visited in 1829 where ‘the church of this sequestered village formed a highly picturesque and interesting object in the romantic scenery of the valley in which it stands’- the same could be said of it today. We do however learn of the death of a large number of children in a family in the 1800s at a young age, the number of drownings along the coast of East Devon and the number of ex-military men and their wives who came to the area for their health and died.      

What lead James to visit every church in East Devon? How many churches were there?

Between 1826 and 1844 Davidson visited 499 Devon churches of which 110 are in East Devon. In the 1800s East Devon covered an area from Bampton on the edge of Exmoor to Uplyme in the east, Topsham in the west and Church Stanton in the east. Today, two of the churches are now in Dorset and one in Somerset, sixty-nine in East Devon, thirty-five in Mid Devon and three in Exeter. These 110 churches provide information which has been lost from the archaeological record. Five churches were built during Davidson’s lifetime and have not been altered, the same as Forde Abbey and Widworthy church. Fifty-four churches were rebuilt, such as at Sidmouth which resulted in 135 memorials being destroyed, and fifty-eight churches have been restored such as Axmouth, where nineteen memorials are missing from the twenty-eight Davidson recorded.

As to why he visited them we have to make an assumption. Since 1478 when William Worcester (1415-1482) carried out a pilgrimage from Bristol to St Michael’s Mount antiquarians have been recording evidence of their journeys. Devon antiquarians had been preoccupied with the aim of writing a history of Devon since John Hooker (1527-1601) undertook a topographical survey with a view to writing the county’s history. However, Hooker made few references to churches and their memorials, nor did his fellow Devon antiquarians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as they principally focused on the genealogy of Devon’s gentry.

Devon’s Georgian antiquarians again while collecting material to write Devon’s history provided the first documented evidence of the churches and their memorials, collected in the field. Possibly the first documented evidence is provided by Dean Jeremiah Milles (1714-1784) who sent out a questionnaire asking over 100 question to all the parishes and visited 318 Devon churches between 1747 and 1762: which included sixty-seven East Devon churches and documented the memorial in thirty-two churches. They are recorded in Miles’ ‘Parochial History of Devon’ which remain unpublished.

Davidson made no mention of Miles’ research, possibly because he did not know of Milles’ undertaking. As noted above Davidson carried out empirical research and did not rely on the findings of earlier writers. By making comparisons between Milles’ documentation in the 1750s and Davidson’s it is possible to ascertain what was lost in the succeeding ninety years. For example, in Woodbury church the north side aisle had been removed, the wainscoting (wooden panelling) had gone, as had the painted glass in the north aisle, a brass memorial plate, a memorial of a man and his daughters kneeling at a desk, and the black marble altar within the altar rails. 

Other Georgian antiquarians documented Devon churches. Between 1769 and 1779 the Recorder of Barnstaple, a Mr Benjamin Incledon (1730-1796), visited fifty-one churches in East Devon. He made pen and ink drawings of the monuments and their inscriptions giving a brief description of the church and recording 310 memorials of which 206 had been removed by the time Davidson recorded the memorials.

By Davidson’s time there were also published descriptions of some East Devon churches. The Revd. Richard Polwhele (1760-1838) was the only Devon antiquarian to publish a History of Devon (1793-1806) which contained information on churches. Polwhele made observations on forty-two East Devon churches and recorded the memorials in twenty-three and their inscriptions in nineteen. The brothers Daniel (1762-1834) and Samuel Lysons (1763-1819) wrote Magna Britannia: Being a Concise Topographical Account of the Several Counties of Great Britain (1806-22); and published Devon (vol. 6) in 1822. This work contains information on Devon churches, listing the architectural periods, roodscreens and rood lofts, pulpits, fonts and effigies; although there is no mention of any monuments and their inscriptions. The Lysons provide detailed information about Devon’s gentry and their heraldic devices. Davidson owned a copy of Magna Britannia and could have used it to ensure he had correctly assigned the heraldic devices to the right family, but we have no proof of this.

Davidson was a contemporary of a number of other nineteenth-century writers on Devonshire churches. He corresponded with George Oliver who published articles on Ecclesiastical Antiquities in Exeter’s newspapers, where he documented twenty-eight East Devon churches and mentioned the memorial inscriptions in sixteen.

Davidson also knew William Spreat (1816-1873) who provided the engravings for his Newenham Abbey(1843) and published Picturesque Sketches of the Churches of Devon (1842) with lithographs showing the exterior and interior of twenty-one East Devon churches. Spreat wrote in his introduction that the book ‘was to fulfil the increased interest in Ecclesiastical Edifices’ and cater for the Societies that had been formed to look at church architecture. It was not his intention to enter architectural discussions or to recall the good and the great under the pavements ‘where nothing remains except a tablet’. Spreat’s lithographs provide a pictorial record which allows comparisons to be made with the churches today.

Two other projects to record Devon’s churches were also underway at the time Davidson was writing. The Exeter Diocesan Architectural Society was founded in 1841 and their aim was to report on the churches’ fabric and approve the design of new churches. Davidson referenced their work and produced the index. Then in the 1850s the Devon and Exeter Institution began collecting material on ecclesiastical antiquities for their ‘County History’, sending a questionnaire to all Devon churches asking who built the church, the ground plan, whether it was pewed [had box pews] and if it had a library; however there is no evidence of any questionnaires being returned, and by the 1850s Davidson had completed his survey, so he could not have used the information they collected. Against this background of recording antiquities, possibly this is what promoted Davidson to carry out this mammoth task. 

In addition, Davidson may have been responding to social and economic changes which were affecting the Church, with changes to the liturgy and consequently the internal layout of the church. Between 1800 and 1900 the Church of England was simultaneously in a state of transition and continuity with the past. It underwent a transformation more rapid than any that had been experienced since the Reformation. The Church, which had been closely linked to the political and legal systems, now became a denomination, powerful and legally recognised as the established Church. 

Alongside these political changes came calls to change the liturgy and the layout of parish churches. The John Keble Assize Sermon of 1833 called for the reinstatement of the altar as a focal point for worship and a change in theological thinking away from the auditory church of the eighteenth century (which had focused on the word and preaching). 

The Tractarians and the Cambridge Camden Society wanted the church to return to becoming central to daily life as it had been in the medieval period, focusing on the symbolism of the sacrament. They were against the social divisions of rich and poor and wanted Christian equality within the church building, without having the poor relegated to the galleries. In Devon John Hayward (1807-1891), the official architect for the Exeter Diocesan Architectural Society, was a member of the Cambridge Camden Society, and he was influential in restoring or rebuilding seventeen East Devon churches in the gothic Revival style.

Was there anything in these notes that especially surprised you?

Until I read Davidson’s Church notes I had always assumed quite wrongly that a church had always looked the same and had not undergone all the changes that reading James’ notes has identified, especially regarding the memorials. In East Devon’s 110 churches alone, he catalogued 1,748 memorial inscriptions and these were an underestimation because some memorials he wrote were hidden under pews or so worn he could not record them. By 2022 some 749 memorials have been removed. Their only record is in Davidson’s Church Notes. Just imagine this number multiplied across the whole of Devon or for that matter across the UK. 

 We can only guess at the cost of these memorials and the heartbreak they convey even today. The large family memorials with the family kneeling at prayer with the men on one side and the women on the other – do we stop to notice the swaddled babies at their feet which represents the families’ dead children? Or the countless floor inscriptions worn away by thousands of feet that frequently we do not consider the people lying beneath, often too worn to be readable? Before they would have been venerated and revered and been part of a family.

Is there anything else you would like to tell us about James and his notes?

There are two aspects of James’ notes: firstly the importance of recording the heraldic devices accurately and assigning them correctly to the right family, something in this day and age we possibly do not consider when looking at the devices on a memorial. Too often they are missing, especially the brass memorials where James listed them so carefully. We know at Kentisbeare, for instance, the brass in memory of John Whyting was stolen and never found even though a reward of 25 guineas was offered. 

Secondly there are in East Devon two churches in particular where James’s Church notes are the only record of their interior fixtures and fittings. Honiton church (St Michaels’} was partly destroyed by an arson attack in 1911 and very little remains of the original church as he documented it. The other church is Clyst St George that was demolished by a WWII bomb in August 1940. Here memorials alongside fixtures and fittings were destroyed and not replaced when the church was rebuilt in the 1950s.   

What do you have planned next? Is there more to discover on this topic?

To fully read Davidson’s Commonplace books to ascertain if they contain any reference to his personal life or any other aspect of his research that I have not researched. 

James Davidson’s East Devon Church Notes

Edited by Jill Cobley

9780901853028, Paperback
£30 / $ 39.95
440 pp, 8 b/w illus.
Devon and Cornwall Record Society


£18 / $23.97


Also Available

Save 40% and enjoy free delivery with your Medieval Herald discount