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St Mary’s, Black Torrington

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The parish church of St Mary, Black Torrington, has stood on this site from at least late Norman times. It was probably built in the form of a cross with a long nave and a north and south transept. Part of the north transept, possibly built in the 12th century, remains, and in the restored east wall has been placed a Norman holy water stoup which was found during restoration work in 1900.

The earliest record of a Rector of the parish is the institution of Henry Fitzwarren in March 1278. The Fitzwarrens were related to the Zouche family who were Lords of the Manor and patrons of the living at the time. Alice Fitzwarren, who married Richard Whittington (of pantomine fame), was later descendant of the same family.

Most of the present building has its origins in the 14th and 15th centuries. The arcades date from the late 14th century. The capitals of the heads of the Perpendicular granite columns are embellished with lozenges. The granite font, which holds the water for baptism, probably dates from the same period, or even a little earlier, judging by the style of the column (decorated gothic). It has been moved at various times, and is placed on a new plinth.

The granite tower was built about 1500, and the south aisle was added or enlarged about the same time. The roof of the south aisle still has most of the old 16th century timbers of the rounded 'wagon' roof with some very finely carved bosses. The plaster ceiling however has been removed. The main roof was totally renewed when the chancel was rebuilt and enlarged in 1901-2. The nave roof timbers, of English oak, are a copy of the ones which were put there in the 14th century.


The chancel, with its solid Edwardian choir stalls, had earlier restoration by two incumbents: first in 1588 (the year of the Armada) by George Close, who was Rector for 30 years but was 'degraded' in 1615. Then in 1708 it was restored by the Revd. James Lake, who was Rector for 50 years until he died in 1713. He married Elizabeth, the daughter of James Bampfylde who was Rector during the Civil War. Mr Bampfylde was imprisoned at Dartmouth in 1646 by the Parliamentarians after being dispossessed of the living of Rattery in South Devon, which he held in plurality with Black Torrington.

There is a memorial stone to James and Elizabeth Lake lying outside the church against the north chancel wall. It is broken in two pieces, but is still legible. Set up in the rebuilt chancel wall, either side of the east window, are two stones commemorating the earlier restorations. The earliest remaining complete memorial stone lies against the outer west wall of the porch, and is in memory of John Parsons of Beara who died in 1675.

Inside the church on the north wall, and on the north side of the arcade, are several memorials to the Coham family who were buried under the floor of the north transept. In the chancel is a brass memorial to the Revd. John Russell, Rector from 1879 until his death in 1883 at the age of 87 years. He is famous as one of several notable 'hunting parsons' and the breeder of the terrier which bears his name. The east window, behind the altar, was given by Arscott Coham in 1870 in memory of his parents, the Revd. William Bickford Coham and his wife, Augusta. The south and west windows in the baptistry at the west end of the church are memorials to the Revd. John Penleaze and his wife, Elizabeth, and were erected in 1876 and 1880. Mr Penleaze was Rector from 1834 to 1879. He gave the window in the tower in 1871.

The tiles on the baptistry floor are 17th century Barnstaple tiles which are common in many north Devon churches. The old Jacobean communion rails, removed when the new chancel was refurnished, were placed in the baptistry in 1930. A new pulpit was provided in 1797, but only the sounding board of it remains, hanging above the present pulpit which was carved by Mr. Northcott of Ashwater in 1909. He also carved the altar in 1911, and both were given in memory of the Revd. J. Jephson Gardiner. The ends of the oak pews, placed in the nave in 1902, were carved by Col. E. Woodward-Scott in 1927.

The north wall of the nave was rebuilt in 1798 with square-headed windows. These were brought from the old mansion of Heanton Sachville in Petrockstowe which had been burnt down. There is an entry in the churchwardens accounts for 1798 paying £2. 5s. to the representative of Lord Clinton for two stone windows; and 2s. 6d. to Churchwarden Joseph Chapman for his expense in going to 'Henton' for the stones.

Four bells in the tower were made up to six in 1772, when the old bells were recast with additional metal by John Pennington of Stoke Climsland. Two bells were recast again in 1856 by Mears and Stainbank, and the peal was tuned and re-hung in 1924. The tower clock was given by Miss Mary Coham in 1875, just before her death.

In 1819 a gallery was built in the north transept. It was taken down in 1869 and a vestry was formed in the space. In 1868 a harmonium was in use in the church. Before that date music was provided by stringed instruments. After the restoration of 1902 the Revd. E. A. Donaldson, then curate, gave the present organ. It was made in 1791 in London by John Avery and probably first used in a private house. It came to Black Torrington from Berrow church in Somerset, having previously been in the parish church of Brent Knoll. It was completely restored in 1987 by William Drake with the help of grants from the Pilgrim Trust, the Leche Trust and the Northcott Foundation.

Some of the panelling of the old box pews of 1799 was used to form the back of the screen which helps to make the present vestry behind the organ. The front of the screen has two early 19th century tablets of the Ten Commandments. These, together with the tablets inscribed with the Lord's Prayer and the Apostles Creed, now placed on the vestry walls, were probably originally hung in the old chancel. The framed texts hung elsewhere in the church are from the 18th century.

(Sample possible entry)

New Communion plate was given by Mr. Holland Coham (elder brother of Arscott and nephew of Mary) in 1860; but the Georgian silver chalice and paten made by "J.B." in Exeter in 1740 were restored and retained. The parish also possesses a domed lid pewter tankard given in 1783. The parish registers date from 1545. All the registers prior to 1837 are deposited at the Devon County Record Office in Exeter, but transcripts are kept in the parish.

The old Rectory, now named Bampfylde House, was built by the Revd. Richard Warwick Bampfylde about 1825-30. It has Victorian additions built by Mr. Gardiner. The house was sold in 1974 and anew Rectory was built in 1975, after the living was united with the parishes of Bradford and Thornbury in 1973. Highampton was added to this union in 1982.

G.L.M.

December 1987.


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