New from the Devon and Cornwall Record Society, James Davidson’s East Devon Church Notes, edited by Jill Cobley, sheds light on the history of East Devon’s churches from the Middle Ages onwards. We are grateful to the editor for introducing us to this new publication and the almost unknown James Davidson.
The intention of the 2022 Devon and Cornwall Record Journal is to highlight one aspect of the almost unknown James Davidson (1793-1864) and his recording of 499 Devon churches between 1826 and 1844. He produced four handwritten volumes covering Devon and one documenting Exeter cathedral and its churches. His other interests are briefly discussed in the Journal and include recording archaeological sites in East Devon, keeping a Common Place Book where he recorded everything that interested him about Devon, its people and their occupation, in both handwritten notes and newspaper cuttings.
We have to question how and possibly why Davidson undertook these expeditions from Axminster (Devon), where he lived, across Devon, considering the poor state of the roads which were on the whole just rutted tracks; because he left no personal details of his journeys. Sometimes he only visited one church in a day and on others six in the same vicinity. He would have travelled by horse or possibly he had his own coach. However, he could not have returned home each night; therefore it would have been interesting to know where he stayed and who he met. Did he sense isolation as he travelled across to what was then remote parts of Devon without his family, or was his mind filled with the prospect of another church to survey and record? Another question has to be: did Davidson realise he was creating history by recording the minutiae of these village churches before Victorianisation?
This volume concentrates on the churches of East Devon which, during the period Davidson was collecting empirical information, covered an area from Uplyme in the east to Bampton on the edge of Exmoor, to Topsham in the west and Church Stanton in the east, which is now in Somerset. Davidson descriptions follow the same format, although sometimes he gives a brief description of the church’s location. For instance, at Branscombe which he visited in 1829, Davidson saw that 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 difficulty of access to the place arising from the steepness of the hills and roughness of the roads is amply repaid by various points of rural beauty approaching very nearly to the character of Welsh scenery. The approach to the church from the east brings to mind the fact that churches were anciently parochial fortresses for the heavy square tower with its corbel table resembling machicolations and its circular turret the appearance of a strong hold rather than a temple of peace’. Or at Otterton, which he visited in 1835, ‘that the church was situated on a hill at the west end of the village overlooking the river’.
The 110 churches which Davidson recorded 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. This could in some cases be due to the erection or removal of galleries. He provides details of the fabric and fittings of a church and this makes it possible to trace what has been moved in a church such as the font at Ottery St Mary. In East Devon Davidson provides a unique picture of what was in Honiton church which was destroyed by fire in 1911 and Clyst St George which was demolished by enemy action in 1940. The other outstanding fact is that Davidson wrote out the memorial inscriptions of 1,748 graves which has to be an underestimation as he frequently wrote the inscriptions were too worn or hidden under pews. Of these, 750 memorials have been removed through rebuilding and restoration of churches and to changes in the liturgy and fashion, linked to social and economic changes which took place during the nineteenth century. One can only guess at how saddened the families would be to think the memorials they saved to erect had been removed.
This guest post was written by Jill Cobley.