St John the Baptist Church

Getting to know Littlehempston churchyard

Summary of walk led by Jenny Galton-Fenzi in April 2013:

On Saturday 13 April Jenny Galton-Fenzi led a walk round LH churchyard. The aim was to use LH History Archive material and local knowledge to give a deeper understanding of how the churchyard developed, and to point out some of the graves of former parishioners. LH burial records begin in Oct 1546, and it is clear that approximately 2000 parishioners are buried in the area of the churchyard, although only a small proportion of these have marked graves. Most people were too poor to afford a stone, and wooden crosses soon disintegrated.

We began at the east entrance to the churchyard, and looked at an old photograph from the 1850s, which shows a lychgate where the inner set of iron gates now stands, and a row of cob and thatch cottages which ran right up to the lychgate. These were demolished in the 1860s, and the two Victorian-style Church Cottages were built at a greater distance from the church. A set of inner iron gates were installed around this time, and then an outer set in 1932. The latter were said to have come from Gatcombe House but we have no proof of this.

We then walked back to the western entrance to the churchyard, to see how it had been enlarged by a gift of land from the Pole-Carew family in 1911. The Pole-Carews moved into Park Hill in the early 1900s. The remains of the old boundary wall can be seen behind the yew tree, as can the join in the stone wall bordering the car park. All graves to the west of this line are from after this date.

We then looked at a photograph of Percy Cose, who died in 1973. He lived in a cottage near Berry Castle, and amongst several other jobs looked after the Berry and LH churchyards, scythed the grass and dug the graves. In a newspaper interview from the 1950s, he remarked that it took him about four hours to dig a grave in LH, but about eight to dig one in Berry. This was because the land at Berry was much stonier. We discussed how death in earlier times had its good points, as people usually died in their own homes, with familiar sounds around them, had their coffins made on site by the village carpenter, and were then carried to the churchyard on the shoulders of family members and neighbours. We also considered the churchyard as a vantage-point when the new railway came straight through the village in the 1840s, bringing all the disruption and strangers for its construction.

We then went back to the east end and looked at some individual graves. The Gower vault, containing the remains of the Rev William Gower (Rector of LH 1823 – 1837) and his family, is now in a bad state and almost totally obscured by ivy. It lies immediately to the right as you enter from this side. The Gowers lived in what is now the Old Rectory (previously known as Ivy Cottage) next to the church entrance.

We looked at the stone recently erected for Ted Farmer, who was landlord of the Tally Ho for some years. This looks down on the Tally Ho to the left just inside the gate.

We moved on to the grave of John and Mary Reap. John Reap and his brother William farmed Court Farm from c1835 – 1875. In 1852 John married Mary Smale Shinner from Hampstead Farm. They eventually retired to Ackrells Hill, and when John died in 1884 Mary moved to Ivy Cottage to live with her Evans relations. She died there in 1899. LH History Archive is lucky to have images of both Mary (in a photograph taken with the Evans family behind Ivy Cottage in about 1891) and John in a portrait painted in 1881 by one of Mary’s Smale relations.

We then looked at the grave of William Forster of Fishacre Mill, who was killed in the First World War just seven days before the ceasefire. We moved on to look at the row of four graves belonging to former Rectors of LH, which are just in front of the yew tree. These four are Harry Hubert Heap (1923 – 1928), Fitz Henry Hele (1841 – 1886), Dunstan Rundle (1886 -1904) and Hugh Grismond Phillips (1928 – 1940), Fitz Henry Hele was the first occupant of the new Rectory, which is now Winton House.

We looked at the Cornish family tomb, and the row of graves belonging to the Evans family. William and Ann Evans farmed The Grattons, and their son Frank started the successful family cider business at Ivy Cottage. When he retired, he built South View and Devonia on the ridge overlooking the valley, and his son Arthur took over the business and continued to his death in 1939. Arthur’s wife Phyllis continued to live at Ivy Cottage until c1994, when she died, and did Bed and Breakfast for many years. The whole family were very musical, and Arthur’s daughter Joyce still plays the piano every day at the age of 86. The stained glass window on the south side of the church was given in memory of William and Ann by their family, and has three panels depicting (L to R) St Cecilia, King David and St Gregory.

We looked at the small grave of Charlie Peters, son of William Peters, who kept LH Post Office (now Post Cottage) for many years. Charlie died in 1921 at the age of 12. His parents are buried a couple of graves away from him. We have a photo of a small boy taken on the front step of the Post Office in about 1915, and are fairly sure this is Charlie.

We also looked at the three Pole-Carew graves near the gate into the car park. The Pole-Carews were a Cornish family, and the gravestones have Celtic embellishments. One grave belongs to the parents, another to a son who died in 1913, and the other to their son Richard, who was killed in the First World War at the battle of the chateau of Polderhoek.

We then moved inside the church and looked at the two war memorials. Only those killed were allowed a memorial inside the church itself, and this has six names on it. The men who served and survived are named on a memorial in the porch – a total of 32 men. It is clear from the names that several members of the same families served. We also looked at the Cornish memorial over the main door in the church. This branch of the large Cornish family had connections with the East India Company. They were responsible for the gentrification of Gatcombe House, adding the pillars and the carriage entrance.

The sanctuary of the church was remodelled – apparently without permission – in the early 1950s, when the Rev Gordon Samuel dug up some sea cobbles from Man Sands in Brixham, and used them to replace the Victorian tiles. He took seven of the best gravestones from the churchyard and used these in the new arrangement. Which explains the gap in the gravestones to the left of the path, and the absence of a grave for William Reap, brother of John, and his parents – this was one of the stones which was moved. This area is protected by a stretch of rush matting, but this can easily be moved if you want to look at the gravestones there.

We talked a little about the LH bells. Sadly there is no team of ringers at the moment, although this may change in the near future. Bells were an important means of communication at one time, and had many functions, including sounding the curfew (‘couvre-feu’ – when people had to extinguish their lamps and candles to avoid a night time fire) at night, and announcing deaths of parishioners. Men had nine strokes of the bell, women six and children three. Hence the saying ‘Nine tailors (tellers) maketh a man.’ Sometimes the age of the deceased was also rung out after a pause.

Jenny finished by giving an update on the Living Churchyard project. The churchyard is cut early and late to allow wildflowers and insects to flourish. The churchyard was professionally surveyed, and has about 70 kinds of wildflowers and ferns, 48 sorts of insects and bugs, 17 sorts of grasses and 88 types of lichen. An insect logpile has been established to the rear of the yew tree, but needs more logs, if anyone has some to spare! Efforts were made last year to remove ragwort from the churchyard, as it is poisonous to animals, however it appears to be coming back with a vengeance again.

Jenny concluded by reading the poem ‘Church Going’ by Philip Larkin, and everyone then enjoyed a hot cup of coffee, especially welcome as the weather was very wet!

Many thanks to Jenny Galton-Fenzi for writing up her talk.

Some Old Devon Churches

By J. Stabb
London: Simpkin et al (1908-16)
Page 147
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.

LITTLE HEMPSTON. St. John the Baptist. The church was rebuilt in 1439 and consists of chancel, nave, north and south aisles, south porch with parvise over it, and embattled west tower with four bells, the first dated 1847, the second and fifth 1700, the remaining two are early bells with legends in Old English characters. The chancel retains a piscina with shelf, and also the ancient priest’s doorway.

There is a fine rood screen (see picture below), it is to be regretted that all traces of the ancient colouring and gilding have disappeared, and that it has been painted a dark brown. The groining is gone, but there is a good deal of delicate carving remaining, the cornice is carved with foliage, clusters of grapes and birds. The rood staircase remains, as does the staircase in the south wall to the room over the south porch. In the north aisle there is an effigy of a knight clad in mail, with the legs crossed, which is supposed to represent Sir John Arundell, date 1243. In the south aisle there are two 14th century effigies.

The ancient rectory house, built round a courtyard just twenty feet square, is almost unique of its kind.

The registers date: baptisms, 1544; marriages, 1539; burials, 1546.

Little Hempston: Rood Screen

Note: This information is provided by GENUKI and must not be used for commercial purposes.