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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

River Avon Moor to Sea 19

This latest chapter of the river Avon series focuses on the ancient church of St Lawrence in the village of Bigbury, not to be confused with Bigbury on Sea. Bigbury is the older settlement being more strategically placed, slightly inland, and more protected from unwanted attentions of sea going invaders.

We left the last chapter headed up Stakes Hill from the tidal road to Aveton Gifford which runs along the river edge. Follow Stakes Hill up the lane and you come to St Lawrence's church.

The church is so tucked away that I suspect most of the thousands of holiday visitors headed for the beaches at Bigbury on Sea, and to see the beautiful Burgh Island probably drive through Bigbury village on the main road, not even realising it is here at all.

The Domesday Book of 1086 mentions Bicheberia as it was then called. The family of de Bikebury or Bigbury resided at the manor from 1066 until 1460. In that year Sir William de Bigbury was killed in a duel by his cousin Sir John Prideaux of Orchardton.

The list of former Rectors of the establishment reaches back to 1274, but most of what is visible today came later. As with a lot of ancient churches that were living buildings that served a community through the ages, they were maintained, altered, extended and modernised as the society around them changed.

The south doorway from the porch is 15th century and surrounded with deeply carved interlaced vine stems

This is the Chancel today and it is a mix of both ancient and modern. The oldest features, 14th century, are the stone arches on the side walls. On the right hand wall or the south wall is a row of four arches, these are the early, three seat Sedilia and the smaller Piscina while the larger arch on the north wall opposite is a tomb recess or Easter Sepulchre. The altar and Reredos, the wooden screen behind the altar are modern, 20th century, of oak, and dedicated in March 1968.

Much work was done in a renovation of 1868 - 72. These very common schemes of that period, carried out in many old churches, are today a bone of contention or controversy as much original fabric was often destroyed forever, by well meaning individuals who were often saving buildings from collapse.

The stained glass in the chancel is mid to late 19th century. The collection of windows at the church is a very fine one. The east window, above the altar was erected in memory of Rev James Parker Harris in 1864.

To the Glory of God and in memory of James Parker Harris, Priest, who died at sea, March 24th 1864. Aged 42. R. I. P. This East Window was placed by his Wife.

His wife, Georgina Maria Harris was responsible for the restorations as well as the window. Prior to living in Bigbury James Parker Harris had been a Chaplain of Lucknow in India during the siege of 1857. He was awarded "for the bravery with which he administered to the wants of the sick and suffering during that siege".

Reading Mercury - Saturday 20 February 1858

THE RELIEF OF LUCKNOW. The Gazette Extraordinary published on Wednesday contains a series of despatches received at the Indian House on the 15th inst., detailing the operations for the relief of the garrison of Lucknow by the force under General Havelock and Sir J. Outram, with the report of the Commander and officers of the garrison, describing the incidents of the defence of the place before it was relieved...........

.......An account of the proceedings of the relieving force down to the 25th of November given in a despatch from Sir James Outram to Major-General Mansfield, chief of the staff, bearing date, Camp, Alumbagh, Nov. 25. which he says, " I cannot conclude this report without expressing to his Excellency my intense admiration of the noble spirit displayed by all ranks and grades of the force since we entered Lucknow. Reduced to scanty and unsavory rations,—smitten, in many cases, by the same scorbutic affections and other evidence of debility which prevailed among the original garrison,-compelled to engage in laborious operations,-exposed to constant danger and kept ever on the alert, their spirits and cheerfulness, and zeal, and discipline, seemed to rise with the occasion.

" From the Rev. J. P. Harris, chaplain of the garrison, the sick and wounded received the most marked and personal kindness. His spiritual ministrations in the hospital were incessant; his Christian zeal and earnest philanthropy I have had constant opportunities of observing since my arrival in Lucknow; and but one testimony is borne to his exertions during the siege, and to the personal bravery he displayed in hastening from house to house in pursuit of his sacred calling, under the heaviest fire. Daily he had to read the funeral service over numbers of the garrison, exposed to shot, shell, and musketry."

The Relief of Lucknow, 1857

by Thomas Jones Barker

oil on canvas, 1859

The National Portrait Gallery

A detail of the altar rail carvings which feature either vine motifs as here or wheatsheaf designs. They were installed contemporary with the reredos.

The Lectern takes the form of a beautifully carved wooden and gilded eagle, by Thomas Prideaux. Records reveal that it was made between 1505-19 as it was a present from the Bishop of Exeter to the church at Ashburton from where it was later moved to Bigbury. It is thought that in the late 18th century, around 1777, a churchwarden at Ashburton took it upon himself to make many alterations at St Andrews at Ashburton.

"The interior of this sacred edifice must have been, at one time, extremely hand- some, but has undergone so very many alterations as to retain but little of its original appearance. The handsome screen, which was a splendid specimen of carving, was about eighty years since, entirely destroyed by the person who then officiated as churchwarden, who, at that period, it seems, had the whole management of the building, and by whose orders various specimens of architecture were removed and were just to benefit himself. The pulpit, with brass eagle, we are informed, were sold to the church at Bigbury near Plymouth." The Morning Post October 1848

The eagle's head is said to have replaced an original owl's head after the move to Bigbury. The Bishop of Exeter who commissioned it was named Oldham or Owldam, hence the owl. The replacement looks convincing to me but may not convince an ornithologist.

The pulpit, also from Ashburton, is octagonal, carved from wood and dated to about the 15th century.

The granite font as is often the case probably predates most of what can be seen today. It could well be 13th or 14th century but is more likely 16th century. As the most Holy part of a church fonts often survived rebuilding and were commonly reused or repurposed.

The bowl is octagonal with lozenge flower reliefs and heraldic shields. The short stem has a design of round shafts with cusped heads and the base is square with double rams-horn volutes at the angles.

A small display at the church features the ship's bell from the frigate HMS Bigbury Bay. The ship was originally ordered on 19 January 1943 as a Loch-class frigate to be named Loch Carloway, but the order was changed before construction began. She was laid down on 30 May 1944 by Hall Russell at Aberdeen, launched on 16 November 1944, and completed on 12 July 1945.

Following sea trials Bigbury Bay was prepared for service with the British Pacific Fleet. In February 1947 she was transferred to the Mediterranean Fleet, stationed at Haifa with the 5th Frigate Flotilla to carry out patrols to intercept ships bringing illegal Jewish immigrants to Palestine. In March 1948 Bigbury Bay left the Mediterranean for the West Indies, where she would remain for the next nine years, making regular return trips to Portsmouth to refit, as well as three tours of duty as guard ship at the Falkland Islands.

Western Morning News - Wednesday 10 May 1950



H.M.S. Bigbury Bay (Lieut-Com. G. R. P. Goodden, R.N.) is due at Portsmouth tomorrow morning after an eventful commission. Since joining the America and West Indies Squadron in July, 1948, the Bigbury Bay has steamed more than 48,000 miles and shown the flag in 20 countries from 51 degrees N. to 60 degrees S.

During her cruises in cold waters her crew saw 1,200 icebergs and brought back to the Falkland Islands eight ringed penguins and two Emperor penguins, both rare varieties.

Last month, as a climax to her adventures, she picked up from an open launch eight United States Marines and three Bermudians shortly before arriving back at Bermuda on her way from Antarctica. Relatives and friends may enter Portsmouth Dockyard at 10.30 a.m. by the main gate to welcome the frigate when she makes fast at the south railway jetty.

Something new that I discovered from this display is that it was a navy custom for the children of crew to be christened on board ship on the ship's return to port. Any children christened in this way had their names engraved on to the inside of the bell. In this close up you can see the name Goodden which you will recognise from the article above as the name of the Lieutenant Commander of the ship.

Portsmouth Evening News - Monday 09 November 1953

Petty Officer E. Harris, of Gosport, with his children, admiring the tortoise brought home by H.M.S. Bigbury Bay from the jungles of British Guiana, Looking out of the porthole is lan Field, infant son -of Commissioned Gunner F. J. Field.

Bigbury Bay was sold to Portugal on 12 May 1959 and renamed NRP Pacheco Pereira. The ship remained active in the Portuguese Navy until sold for breaking-up on 6 July 1970.

This is a detail of one of the beautiful stained glass windows in the church. "The Annunciation"

which is in the south window of the chancel. The colours are rich and the painting superb.

The window commemorates Georgina Farrer and was "given by her daughters". Georgina was the second daughter of the Rev. Frederic Farrer and with another Indian connection, she was born in Meean Meer in what was then India and is today Lahore, Pakistan. Her death in 1883 dates the window.

Morning Post - Saturday 29 November 1856


Farrer.— On the 20th September, at Meean Meer, Lahore, the wife of the Rev. F. Farrer, Assistant-Chaplain H.E.I.C.S. of a daughter.

This equally beautiful window in the south transept, commemorates Georgina Annie Wollaston. This led to quite a bit of confusion on my part because Wollaston was her married name and she was formerly Farrer. She married in Bigbury church in 1882 and died in London eleven months later.

So do both of these windows, which look contemporaneous, even possibly by the same hand, commemorate the same woman? If so there is the question raised in the first window, because it says "given by her daughters". If it is one and the same woman then her daughters must have been twins and she must have died in childbirth or soon after. I have not been able to confirm it after much delving into the archives. Maybe someone in Bigbury knows the story? Is the subject of the second window, depicting a woman holding a baby before the Christ figure, significant?

In the north aisle there are two more beautiful windows. The first shows St Francis and St George and they symbolise both peace and war. Once more, the details and colours stand out. They were given by Mr J Adams of Rew Farm Malborough near Salcombe. The first was dedicated to his brother-in-law Mr Sparrow Wroth and his nephew Mr Walter Wroth. The second window that depicts St Barnabas and Dorcas, was dedicated to the memory of his wife Ellen Sparrow Wroth.

This window commemorates two men, John Sparrow Wroth and Walter Adams Wroth. Sparrow Wroth was a large breeder of South Devon Pedigree Stock, a sportsman and keen ornithologist. His son fought and died in the 1st World War.

Brixham Western Guardian - Thursday 20 June 1918

June 19th 1918 - Lieut. W.A. Wroth, second son of the late Mr. J. Sparrow Wroth of Coombe, Bigbury, was killed in action at Malama, Portuguese East Africa. He was serving with the King's African Rifles and was 25 years of age.

The place was actually called Mbalama Hill and a long drawn out war had taken place for many months between the King's African Rifles and the German Schutztruppe in this now almost forgotten corner of the 1st World War in Portuguese East Africa where the British fought alongside Portuguese allies.

In late November 1917 Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and his men crossed the Rovuma River from German territory into Portuguese East Africa (today named Mozambique). The Schutztruppe was now a carefully selected force of about 300 Europeans, 1,700 Askari and 3,000 followers. The British did not directly pursue the Germans because supply lines, dependent on porters, were over-extended and heavy rain was expected. The Germans acquired arms and ammunition by seizing Portuguese military posts. Crops and cattle were obtained from local villagers.

The Portuguese had asked the British theatre commander, the South African General Jacob Van Deventer KCB, for protection for Port Amelia and, in late December, 250 men of the Gold Coast Regiment (GCR) occupied the port. In early 1918 Brigadier General W F S Edwards CMG (Devonshire Regiment) was sent as commander of the Port Amelia Force (PAMFORCE).

Mbalama Hill

PAMFORCE moved off in pursuit of Kohl's troops, and 4/4 KAR and the GCR were heavily engaged on the afternoon of 17 April. The next day KARTUCOL took over the lead with 1/2 KAR in the van. Small pockets of enemy were encountered and dispersed. The next day 2/2 KAR led and soon No 2 Coy bumped into Kohl's 17th Field Company. The Germans immediately brought their machine guns into action. No 2 Company took cover and replied with Lewis guns and Stokes guns (mortars). Two deserters from the enemy's 13th Field Company came over with information. PAMFORCE slowly moved forward against a German rearguard that fought and then quickly withdrew. Water was the important factor; the Germans defended water sources until the last minute and PAMFORCE fought for them. The men and mules had to be watered daily.

On 24th April 1/2 KAR fought up to the foot of Mbalama Hill on the Koronje road. The following day Lieutenant N Stewart (King's African Rifles) took a reconnaissance patrol from ‘B' Company and found that the enemy were in strength east of the hill and across the road. Captain P T Brodie MC (formerly 2nd Rhodesia Regiment), the Officer Commanding ‘B' Company, brought all his men forward to join Stewart. Brodie now made his own reconnaissance of the hill accompanied by Sergeant Morris and a platoon. Brodie's group reached the summit of the hill and were fired upon at short range. ‘B' Company occupied the summit of the hill and on observing this the enemy on the adjacent hills, who had been deployed for an area ambush on PAMFORCE, quickly withdrew.

Grim attrition ensued, the Germans nearly always fighting from ground of their own choosing. The British had to bury or evacuate their casualties after each contact and just push on, trying to manoeuvre the wily von Lettow into a decisive action. This was an infantry war.....

There is little doubt that Walter Wroth took part in this action and to this point, had survived. He was to die on the 31st May and was buried at Lumbo War Cemetery, Mozambique.

Commonwealth War Graves Commision

St George, meanwhile, has just killed the dragon and has one foot standing on its head.

This is the window dedicated to Ellen Wroth and both windows are by Beatrice Cameron of Grosvenor Square, London.

Dorcas was an early disciple of Jesus mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles. She lived in the port city of Joppa, today absorbed by Tel Aviv. Acts describes her as being known for her "good works and acts of mercy", sewing clothes for the poor. When she died, the widows of her community mourned her and sent urgently for Peter, who was in nearby Lydda. As evidence of her charity, they showed him some of the clothes she had sewn, and according to the biblical account he raised her from the dead

A box pew is a type of church pew that is encased in panelling and was prevalent in England and other Protestant countries from the 16th to early 19th centuries.

Box pews provided privacy and allowed the family to sit together. In the 17th century they could include windows, curtains, tables and even fireplaces, and were treated as personal property that could be willed to legatees.

By the eighteenth century it became normal to install formal box pews instead of random personal constructions. This provided a more classic line to the church. With the mid-19th century church reforms, box pews were generally swept away and replaced by bench pews.

When cleaned the roof bosses were surprisingly discovered to be of terracotta. They are now all toned to a uniform golden colour and feature a variety of designs. Patterns include the fleur de lys, Tudor rose, anchor, fish, as well as assorted types of foliage.

The piers and arches forming the south arcade are early 15th century, carved from freestone, well finished and well moulded with octagonal caps. The south transept arch has these additional foliage ornaments between the caps.

Also in the south transept is this squint, carved to allow sight of the chancel from this point.

In the south Transept or side chapel, a second piscina set into the wall suggests former use as a private chapel for the de Bikebury/Bigbury family. Here is where much of the ancient history is displayed.

Mounted on the wall is the Pearse monument, a slate plaque carved in the style of a brass panel. It features two incised figures and an heraldic shield and dates from 1612.

The figures are John and Jane Pearse, and half the monument contains a verse. The shield features three fish swimming and there is some debate as to whose arms these are. The likeliest answer seems to be the arms of Jane Pearse or the mother of John Pearse both of whose ancestry was the Roche family and whose arms featured the fish called Roach as a consequence. In the West Country "three roaches naiant in pale" are most commonly associated with branches of that family. The verse is very clever and also a tongue twister.

Here lies the corpses of John and Jane his wife.

Surnamed Pearse whom death bereaved of life.

O lovely Peirce untill death did them call.

They objectus were to love in generall.

Living they lived in fame and Honesti.

Dieing they left both to the Progeni.

Alive and dead at wares their charitie.

Hath doth and will help helples Povertie.

By nature they were two by love made one.

By Death made two againe with mournful mone.

O cruell Death in turning odde to even.

Yet blessed Death in bringing both to Heaven.

On earth they had one bed in earth one toombe.

And now their soules in heaven enjoy one roome.

Thus Pearse being pierced by death doth peace obtaine.

O happie Peirce since peace is Pearses gaine.

He dyed the 10 day of December 1612.

She dyed the 31 day of Julie 1586.

Also in the south transept is a brass memorial showing the ravages of time. This monument is supposed to be of two sisters, the daughters of Sir William de Bigbury, named Elizabeth and Margaret. They are credited with the construction of the north aisle in about 1400. Their father was the man killed in the duel already mentioned. This first figure is Elizabeth, and at her feet are two small dogs.

Western Morning News - Thursday 22 June 1950

Bigbury's largest post-war fete helps church


BIGBURY-ON-SEA'S largest fete since the war was attended by more than 350 people in the grounds of Mr. and Mrs. Clifford Penwill's home, Inishcrome yesterday, despite frequent showers. It was held to help finance repairs needed to St. Lawrence's Church, Bigbury. About £200 had already been donated, and £500 was still required. It was noticed early this year that the weather-cock on the spire of the church failed to rotate. When steeplejacks climbed to oil the bearings they found that the top 12 feet of the steeple needed rebuilding. An architect examined it, and saw that girders supporting the bells were so dangerously corroded that ringing was forbidden.


Neither the spire nor the bell girders had been repaired for at least 40 years. The work on the girders was so urgent that it has already been completed, and the six bells will ring again on Sunday for the first time since early April. The 70-foot spire of the church, parts of which date back to the 14th century, is about 400 feet above sea level and a well-known landmark to mariners. Yesterday's fete was attended by parties from Newton Ferrers, Modbury, and several adjoining villages. A coach took men from the R.A.F. Station at Collaton Cross. Many of the sideshows and games were loaned by the R.N. Barracks, Devonport. The fete was opened by Mrs. M. Drew, who was introduced by the Rector (Rev. A. N. W. Pye).

Nearly 75 years later, and the maintenance continues to this day.

Bigbury bells set to ring again for the King.

The bells are set to ring again at a South Hams church with restoration work underway. The Venus Company which runs beach cafes including Bigbury-on-Sea and East Portlemouth has been making regular donations over the last two years to ‘The Tower & Bells Restoration Project’ at the magnificent and historic church of St Lawrence which is partly C14th- and partly rebuilt in 1872 by J. D. Sedding.

“The tower joints have now been repointed with the more appropriate lime mortar specified for heritage buildings, which allows the joints to ‘breathe’ and accommodate movement. “The cockerel has been firmly replaced on the spire top, and new floors, ceilings, and oak door have been installed in the tower.”“We now await a firm date for the bells’ return, with a team of local volunteers eager to reinstall them in the belfry. Other keen volunteers are training to bell ring with the help of Modbury and Kingston churches.”

In the next and final part of my journey down the River Avon we'll reach the sea at Bantham where the waters pour into the English Channel at Bigbury Bay. This bay was always notorious throughout history as a ship's graveyard as the coast is lined with rocks lying in wait for those westerly winds that will drive a helpless vessel ashore here. Many are lost with all hands and some fare better as they run onto a beach or maybe can even be refloated but in any case this area had a terrible notoriety for the practices of the people who lived here centuries ago.

Caledonian Mercury - Tuesday 30 December 1755

Extract of a Letter from a Correspondent in Staffordshire, dated December 9. ........."The Three Crowns", Michael Ruleau, from Stockholm for Bristol, laden with Iron and Deals, was by a terrible Gale of Wind at S. S. W. put on Shore in the Mouth of Arm River, at Muddicomb, near Bigbury-Bay ; but as she luckily drove in to almost a Harbour, and at High-water, she lies on a Bank of Sand, and having received but little Damage it is hoped she will be got off by taking out a Part of her Cargo, if the Cannibals (as the Master of a Ship stranded here called them) don't come down with Saws and Axes, to prevent which, a Party of Marines, with a military Officer, is sent out to assist the Officers of the Customs, that she may not be plundered by the Country-people, and her Planks converted into Firewood, to burn in the Christmas Holidays.

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