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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

Old Paignton Photo Walk 4

The final part of this series is about the ancient, St John the Baptist, Parish Church of Paignton. It's hard to believe now that this walk was back in February, so much has happened since then, but I am glad now to be able to finish this series on a high with this beautiful and historic church. This is a longer than usual post, but I decide in the end not to split it into two parts. Part 1 is here.

The first thing to notice is that the church is in Palace Place, as it was originally part of a complex of buildings including the Palace of the Bishop of Exeter whose nearby vineyards gave Vineyard Street or as it is now Winner Street its name.

From this view below, the church looks fairly ordinary, just like a lot of churches that look vaguely Victorian and gothic. At first glance it could be 150 years old.

The lych gate adds to this illusion with its classic Victorian terracotta ridge tiles, just like many residential middle class villas of that era, without crosses of course.

So it is a surprise that when you get up close and personal it looks nothing of the sort, because either the Victorian exterior was pretty shoddy when built or this is a lot older than you thought. Not only that, but what you are looking at is in fact the third building on the site.

The first church was made of wood, and although nothing remains of it, above ground, the foundations are still there and have been discovered under the Chancel. This wooden building was replaced not long after the Normans arrived and it went up in around 1100 but that was a first draft from the new rulers of England eager to make their mark and it only lasted until around 1250. That is when today's church was born, although it has been transformed over the centuries.

This is the red sandstone North Doorway or the Wedding Doorway and dates to the 14th century, the wooden door itself is thought to be 16th century. Difficult to see clearly, but in the lower left of the door is a small "door within a door"used to eject small unruly animals from the church. Did this happen often? It's difficult to say, but the church was also used as a public space, like community halls of today so maybe animals played a part in some of the events.

Just to its left hand side is the Holy Water stoup, originally a small basin that held Holy Water for passers by to bless themselves on entering the church. The water would be blessed by the priest and it served to symbolise baptism. It is particularly appropriate in a church named for St John the Baptist.

In the grounds of the church are these very grand and ornate standard lamps.

This is the South door and porch. Not much used today although it houses statues of the Nativity at Christmas time.

This is the south side of the church with the later vestry addition of 1914, in the foreground.

The west tower has three stages and has an "embattled parapet" top with pinnacles. The south porch is 19th century, protecting an inner doorway with 16th century wooden door.

Along the top of the windows of the later vestry, is carved the memorial of the benefactor.

"These vestries were erected by Adam Mortimer Singer AD 1914, Sacred to the memory of his wife Mary Singer."

The Singer name is not unfamiliar to the people of Paignton. They were great philanthropists and many people in Paignton benefitted from their largesse.

Sir Adam Mortimer Singer, KBE, JP was an Anglo-American landowner, philanthropist, and sportsman. He was one of the earliest pilots in both France and the United Kingdom. Singer was born in 1863 in Yonkers, New York, to Isaac Singer, the founder of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, and his wife Isabella Eugénie Boyer, a French model. He was the couple's first child. Shortly after his birth, his parents moved from New York to Paris, and then, following the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, to Oldway Mansion in Devon, England. His father died in 1875 and the children, with their mother, inherited substantial wealth of 13 million dollars ($364,000,000 today).

Singer matriculated at Downing College, Cambridge, in October 1881; although he left the university without taking a degree. While originally born an American citizen, he was naturalised as a British subject in 1900. He married Mary Maund in 1888.

Exeter and Plymouth Gazette - Monday 30 July 1928

PAIGNTON HOSPITAL. Sir Mortimer Singer, who laid the foundation stone of an extension to Paignton and District Hospital Saturday, was announced to have made a gift of £2,000 (£82,000 today) towards the cost. It was stated that the extension would bring the number of beds to 42.

Singer's father, Isaac, produced 810 sewing machines in 1853, while only 23 years later in 1876 the Singer Corporation produced 262,316 machines making a cumulative total of 2,000,000 machines. The 2 millionth machine was exhibited in Philadelphia that year.

The Singer family memorial is in nearby Torquay Cemetery.

Western Morning News - Wednesday 26 June 1929

....... A memorial service to Mortimer Singer will be held tomorrow at Paignton Parish Church at 12.30 p.m. to coincide with the funeral service. The main funeral service will be conducted at Golder's Green Crematorium, and on Friday the ashes will be conveyed to Torquay, arriving at Torre Station on the 2.30 p.m. train, for burial in the Singer family vault at Torquay Cemetery.

At the base of the tower on the west side is the main door in use today. This doorway is 12th century with alternating red and white stones and "detached shafts" with scalloped capitals. The beautiful round arch has three layers of carved decoration starting inside with chevrons and moving outwards with saltire crosses and finishing with beads.

The font is Norman, of red sandstone. Fonts are often the oldest part of a church as they were considered the Holiest object and were usually transferred to any replacement building.

The carving on the bowl is variously described as palmette in style or resembling honeysuckle, although you need a bit of imagination.

This font has had an eventful life and in the 15th century it was obviously not thought so Holy that it couldn't be given a decent burial in the churchyard and replaced with something a bit more fashionable. Its replacement was Perpendicular in style. 400 years later this original font was rediscovered and repurposed as a garden vase before being placed at the sister church of St Andrew. Eventually a fair swap was made between the two churches in 1930 and it returned to its original home. The base is later.

In the south wall is what is known as a cadaver monument or gisant, showing a decaying corpse. Religion was no holds barred back then and sobering reminders of what lay ahead kept Judgement Day at the forefront of the minds of the congregation. What naughty little boy wouldn't be given nightmares by this.

This particular figure is thought to represent a 15th century Irish Suffragan Bishop who died in Paignton. A Suffragan Bishop has a subordinate role to an actual Bishop usually leading a diocese other than the main diocese in an ecclesiastical province, a sort of deputy role. With the Bishops Palace right next door, this seems likely, as the Bishop himself would have been leading the cathedral in Exeter.

The Parish Registers start in 1559 and are complete to date, they can be found at the Devon Record Office in Exeter.

Available to see by appointment is a copy of "The Treacle Bible". This Bible was printed in 1572 and after having been discovered in a sorry state has been fully restored. In the early days of both translating and printing Bibles, there was a trend of giving certain editions nicknames because of mistranslations or typos that they might contain. For example the church in Loddiswell South Hams contains a "Breeches Bible"of 1583.

This "Treacle Bible" is also known as a "Bishop's Bible".

Historically, the first complete translation of the Bible into English was prepared by Myles Coverdale (1488- 1569), and published in 1535 followed by the Great Bible in 1539 Subsequently there were several other attempts at this work by various people until we come to 1566. It was then that Archbishop Parker allocated sections of the Great Bible to various translators many of them Bishops, to check it against recent Latin versions of the Hebrew text. Thus the Bishops Bible came into being.

As for the treacle reference? Jeremiah 8:22 was translated "Is there no tryacle [treacle] in Gilead?" Modern translations usually render the Hebrew as "balm" or "medicine" instead. In Early Modern English, "treacle" could mean "a cure-all" as well as "molasses."

The crowning glory of the church has to be the Kirkham Chantry or St. Michael's Chapel, separated from the main body of the church by a carved stone screen and an arched doorway. The four recumbent figures in pairs either side of the doorway are thought to be Nicholas Kirkham of Blagdon and his wife Jane and opposite them his parents Robert and Elizabeth Kirkham. The screen is covered with smaller male figures, many of them defaced, making identification difficult. The twelve figures around the door are the twelve Apostles. Various other saints appear as do twelve mourners in contemporary clothes.

Inside are twelve female saints and twelve female mourners.

This panel depicts the Visitation. In Christianity the Visitation is the visit of Mary, who was pregnant with Jesus, to Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist, in the Gospel of Luke, Luke 1:39–56.

It is described by English Heritage in its Grade 1 listing as a: Spectacular late C15 chantry chapel, the best in Devon outside Exeter Cathedral, identified by Prince as being the chantry of the Kirkham family of Blagdon.

A deep stone screen with two Tudor arches contains tomb chests between a central doorway, the whole crowned with masses of pinnacles and carved angels. Recumbent effigies of a lady and knight on the chests, the arches and those of the central doorway with miniature fan-vaulting.

Figures damaged, but the minor figures decorating the chest and the iconographic scenes are of a high quality and retain some traces of medieval colour. The iconography is very elaborate and discussed in detail in an article by Rushforth. Inside the chapel a C17 tomb chest to Sir William and Lady Kirkham with two kneeling figures facing one another under flat arches.

Torbay Express and South Devon Echo - Friday 15 July 1960


A LARGE audience in Paignton Parish Church listened to a concert of music by Handel, given by the choral section of Paignton Amateur Operatic, Dramatic and Choral Society.

The recital was conducted by John Nancekivell.

The programme opened with the well-known coronation anthem, " Zadok the Priest," written for the coronation of George II in 1727. Then followed a work that was less known, the Dettingen Te Deum, composed as a thanksgiving and commemoration of the battle of Dettingen in 1743 (the last occasion on which a King of England personally led his troops to battle). Solo parts were taken by Mary Greeves, Mabel Pickersgill, Gladys Williams. George Harris and George Booth. Rev. H. E. E. Chevalier (priest in-charge of St. Andrew's) welcomed the performers and said this was the first time the choral section had performed in the Parish Church. The collection at the concert, he said, would be for the fund for the renovation of the church organ. " We need at least £6,000" he said (£125,000 today). The choral section ended the programme with three items from Messiah.

This organ was the fourth to be installed in the church, although it was originally fitted below the west tower, and then moved into its present position in the south aisle chapel in 1896.

In 1889 Paris Singer, Mortimer's younger brother donated the funds totalling £2020 (£166,000 today) for its creation. The superb case was designed by Mardon Mowbray and built in Peterborough. The organ was rebuilt in 1906, 1930 and again in 1967. It was converted to electro-pneumatic in 1980 and further altered in 1985. It was last overhauled in 1998. It has 2500 pipes and is considered to be one of the finest Parish Church organs in the West Country.

Paris Eugene Singer was the 22nd child, and third son of the sewing machine industrialist Isaac Singer. Paris Singer had built a string of hospitals in England and France "for the war-wounded" (in the First World War). At the urging of Lady Randolph Churchill, he donated the use of his house at Oldway in Paignton to be used by the American Women's War Relief Fund as a military hospital.

Born in Paris, he married Cecilia Henrietta Augusta ("Lillie") Graham, who bore him five children.  He had a tempestuous romance with famous dancer Isadora Duncan, whose career he helped, and with whom he had another son, Patrick (born 1910, drowned 1913). Singer Island, Florida, is named for him.

Isadora Duncan was a pioneer of modern contemporary dance who performed to great acclaim throughout Europe and the US. She famously died in Nice, France, when her long fashionable scarf, trailing behind in the wind, while she travelled in an open sports car, got caught in the wheels and axle of the car. Vanessa Redgrave portrayed her in the eponymous film of 1968.

Cycling - Saturday 06 May 1893

..........If I thought the especial audience to which these poor notes (one must be at least ostensibly modest !) are addressed would bear with me, I would describe the antiquarian treasures of Paignton Church, for they merit a moment's stay. However, I forbear, although one cannot help quoting from an inscription to the memory of "Mistress Joan Butland and Son."

"In Night of death, here Rests ye good and fair, who all life day, gave God both heart and ear, no Dirt nor Distance hindered her Resort, for love still Pavd ye way, and cut it short."

She died, and then her son, for.....

"he kind poor lamb for his dam a full year cried, alas in vain ther for for love he died Anno Domi 1679"

The interior is described thus..... "arcades with octagonal piers, double-chamfered arches and moulded capitals".

The heavily carved pulpit is very rare as it is pre-reformation. The damage to the sculptures was caused during the Civil War period by iconoclasts. Iconoclasm is the social belief in the importance of the destruction of icons and other images or monuments, most frequently for religious or political reasons. The damage mainly targeted the heads of the figures.

This example is carved from Beer Stone and dates to the 15th century. During the Civil War the villages of Torbay, as they were then were not seen as strategic, so there is little mention of them in the historic record. However, it is believed from what is known that the local sympathies were with the Parliamentarians rather than the Royalists.

On October 4 1643 the Royalists attacked and quickly took the town of Dartmouth. The battle claimed the lives of 17 Dartmouth men. Hence, as there were similarities between Dartmouth and the Bays’ fishing communities, we could assume a similar political outlook.

Colonel Edward Seymour, then resident at Torre Abbey was instructed by King Charles nephew Prince Maurice to deal with :

“Diverse persons disaffected to His Majesty’s service and peace of the Kingdom do associate and meet together about Torbay in a hostile manner to the great terror and distraction of His Majesty’s loyal subjects… I authorise you, for the suppression of which insurrection to repair with your force to Torbay… there to repress and reform the same, and in the case of opposition or resistance to slay, kill and put to execution of death by all ways and means.”

Did these "disaffected persons" take off the heads of the sculptures in the local church? We don't know, and we also don't know if Seymour followed orders, and took off their heads.

The beautifully carved rood screen is from 1906 in traditional Perpendicular style by Herbert Read of Exeter. The screen stands between the Nave and the Chancel in the tradition of Rood Screens. Originally, Rood Screens had a practical purpose of supporting a mezzanine floor above the Chancel, called the Rood Loft. Most Rood Lofts were removed under the reign of Elizabeth I. Original Rood Screens still remain in many Devon churches, notably in the nearby villages of the South Hams.

In the chancel the decorated roof is a 19th century boarded wagon roof with moulded ribs, carved bosses and painted panels.

Here in the Chancel is a layer cake of all the different ages of the church. Under the floor are the remains of the original Saxon church. The two side walls remind us of the original Norman church, and the Perpendicular windows are the work of Edmund Lacy, the15th century Bishop of Exeter who attended Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt.

Four hundred years later Edward Pusey of the Oxford Movement, on holiday in Paignton caused the altar to be restored and the Chancel redecorated. The choir now occupy the Chancel although they originally occupied the Rood Loft before 1740.

The Sedilia (ornate bench seats) in the south wall were restored in 1870 constructed partly from old fragments with "bright" 20th century painting. English Heritage has a way of using the word "bright" with a certain disdain even though historically our ancient churches were indeed brightly painted.

This is the stunning carving on the Reredos. The Reredos is situated behind the High Altar in the Chancel. Reredos is both a religious and secular architectural term. In a church it refers to the carved screen or painting placed behind the altar usually featuring religious images. In secular architecture it can refer to any similar structure, if elaborate, for example a carved chimney piece.

This piece dates from 1927 and was donated by the Chapin family of Springfield Massachusetts, USA. Paigntonian Samuel Chapin was baptised in 1598 and then married in 1624 in this church. He emigrated to The New World as it was then called, in 1624, before it became the USA and helped to found the city of Springfield. The American link with Paignton was only discovered by his descendants in 1913. Samuel's descendants include four Presidents of the USA.

In the year Samuel arrived in America, Virginia became a Royal Colony and New York was still called New Amsterdam. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was only founded four years after he arrived.

Samuel had many illustrious descendents not the least of which were......United States Presidents Grover Cleveland and William Howard Taft, Canadian Prime Minister Richard Bedford Bennett, abolitionist and author Harriet Beecher Stowe, financier J.P. Morgan, poet and playwright T.S. Eliot, auto industry pioneer Roy D. Chapin, American painter James Ormsbee Chapin, and James Ormsbee's son, jazz drummer Jim Chapin, and his sons, singers Harry Chapin, Tom Chapin and Steve Chapin; singer Mary Chapin Carpenter; and world champion sailor Dave Chapin;

There is a good collection of 19th and early 20th century stained glass, some by Heaton, Butler and Bayne and others by Hardman, Clayton and Bell.

In the north wall is another recess, containing a grave cover. The cover has no connection with the recess but was found in nearby Well Street where it was being used as a drain cover. The carving on its surface leads some authorities to speculate that it was originally intended for the grave of a Crusader's widow.

The Nave roof is also a 19th century open wagon roof with similar carved and gilded bosses to that of the Chancel.

Outside in the grounds, the remaining tower and walls of the Bishop's Palace offer a romantic backdrop to the scene.

Western Times - Monday 18 July 1904


Members of the French Automobile Club who are touring round the South of England, arrived in Exeter Saturday, having left Weymouth in the morning. They proceeded to Torquay, where they stopped until yesterday. Twenty members of the French Automobile Club were Saturday evening entertained to dinner at the Hotel Redcliffe, Paignton, by Mr. Paris E. Singer. Dinner was served in the lounge, the menu holders taking the form miniature automobiles.

The minstrel gallery was bedecked with the French and English flags, with a banner inscribed with the names of the King and President Loubet beneath. In the illuminated grounds the Volunteer Band played selections, rendering the " Marseillaise" as the guests took their seats. Mr. Singer occupied the chair, and Mr. J. H. Cooper the vice-chair, and the party included Mr. J. VV. Stocks, under whose auspices the tour is held. A recherche meal was served, after which (there being no speeches) the guests took coffee in the grounds, which command a grand view of the bay and a fleet of warships. The members of the Automobile Club afterwards returned in their cars to Torquay.

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