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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

Stoke Fleming Church 1

Stoke Fleming church is not just a church, it is a museum, an art gallery, a page in a history book and also a shipping guide.

What we see today is a modern later construction of the 13th century, which replaced a probable earlier pre-conquest church which is known to have been dedicated to the Saxon St Ermund. The church rector in 1272 was William de Maccombe and rebuilding took place in 1312 when the side aisles were added. These aisles incorporated the existing transepts so later in the 15th century larger transepts were added as another enlargement of the building took place.

The tower is thought to be 13th century. The north porch seen below is 17th century and the vestry and organ chamber positively new, having only been built in 1861 a mere 150 years ago.

Stoke Fleming church appears to be the only known historical reference to St Ermund so we know nothing about him. During the reformation it became frowned upon to emphasise saints which was considered a little Popish and therefore suspect, so the dedication like many others was dropped. When dedications became popular again many generations later, poor St Ermund had been long forgotten so today's dedication is to St Peter.

Cornwall and Devon were both renowned for their wayside crosses usually placed at strategic places on travel routes, like crossroads. The War Memorial that greet visitors at the front of the church has a repurposed 14th century wayside cross that had already been repurposed as a gate post elsewhere. This was built in 1919, so it references that "Great War" that was supposed to be the last. That is back when "Great" meant big or significant, not fantastic or excellent, as it does today.

Brixham Western Guardian - Thursday 25 March 1920

STOKE FLEMING WAR MEMORIAL. Stoke fleming memorial to the men from the parish who fell in the late war was unveiled on Sunday afternoon, by Admiral Sir Hugh Evan Thomas, the service being conducted by the Rector (Rev. A. W. Smythe). The memorial is an old wayside cross, which has been renovated and erected in the churchyard, the names of the fallen being inscribed thereon. The Cross formerly stood in the parish, but fell into decay, and many years ago was taken by a farmer, who broke off one arm (the join on the renewed right arm can be seen above) and used the remainder as a gate-post. It was rescued by the former owner of Shepleigh Court, who as an antiquarian saw that the improvised gate-post was a genuine old Devon cross, and being accorded permission to remove it, he did so and placed it in the grounds of Shepleigh. Mr. George Beaton, the present owner of Shepleigh, readily gave the cross back to the parish for its present object.

The original granite framed west doorway at the base of the tower was blocked off in 1882 when the north doorway became the main entrance. This west doorway took the brunt of the prevailing westerly wind and rain which blew into the body of the church, so there was a practical reason, although it took 600 years to get it done.

The tower shows the original 15th century granite west window.

The tower is the key feature of this church as it had a dual purpose as daymark for shipping, guiding it into the well disguised harbour entrance of next door Dartmouth, as well as bell tower. The tower tapers elegantly as it rises up and the horizontal ledges, or stringing, serve the purpose of repelling rainwater in this exposed position.

The tower was originally lime plastered and painted white, deliberately, to act as that guiding light to safety. The Dartmouth authorities later built another daymark on the opposite side of the river just for this purpose. This area was a busy trading and fishing coast with imports from and exports to the eastern mediterranean and as far as west Africa.

In 1842 during some debate as to the merits of various ports along the south west coast this defence of the preference for Dartmouth was defended thus.

Western Times January 1842

He meets the objection to Dartmouth "that it a blind harbour," by a flat denial. He treats it as a vulgar adage, and most triumphantly refutes it . He says "It has been said, and it is a vulgar adage (and a very vulgar and erroneous one) that Dartmouth is a blind harbour; If it wanted any other object there is Stoke Fleming Church and it's lofty and commanding tower, which ,is quite a seamark enough; It is so visible to every man who chooses to look for it that it cannot be mistaken; that is about a mile to the westward of Dartmouth and standing high and bold on the shore."

As if to prove the point, this is the view of the horizon out to sea, and this is from ground level, not forgetting that those houses all came later. As well as serving as a daymark it also served the opposite role of lookout, through a history of threat of invasion from over that horizon. There was even an invasion attempt at the neighbouring beach of Blackpool sands.

The Battle of Blackpool Sands was the result of an attempted French raid on the port of Dartmouth, South Devon, England, in the Spring of 1404. William du Chastel assembled a fleet of 300 ships at St. Malo in Brittany. He embarked 2000 knights and men-at-arms, plus light infantry and crossbowmen. Discipline, however, was poor and, on the first day after sailing, part of the fleet attacked some allied Spanish wineships. Although order was restored, parts of the fleet broke away, leaving du Chastel to sail on towards his target of Dartmouth with reduced forces. On arriving off Blackpool Sands, near the village of Stoke Fleming, he dropped anchor and waited for six days to allow his fleet to reassemble.

The period of waiting forced on the French fleet allowed John Hawley, local merchant, privateer and former Mayor of Dartmouth, to organise the defence of the town. Local men were joined by troops from inland as well as a number of local women, mustering a force alleged by French sources to number 6000 in total. They prepared a fortified position at Blackpool Sands consisting of a water-filled ditch crossed by a narrow causeway and awaited the French assault.

The French disembarked and formed up to attack. Contrary to their usual practice, they did not deploy an advance screen of crossbowmen and the men-at-arms led the attack. As they advanced, they were shot at by English archers behind the ditch and pelted with stones by local women in the army. The main assault was made against the causeway but the French could not force the English back. An attempt was made to wade the ditch and, although some drowned, others succeeded in crossing. They were, however, unable to gain a foothold and were forced back. Eventually, the French gave up and attempted to retreat to their ships. Du Chastel, refusing to withdraw, was killed. Numbers of French were killed as they fled and a hundred prisoners were taken, including three lords and 22 knights. Among the captured were two of du Chastel's brothers.

At the rear of the church and with the best view in Stoke Fleming lie the mortal remains of George Parker Bidder, or "The Calculating Boy". George Parker Bidder was an English engineer and calculating prodigy. In childhood, his father, William Bidder, a stonemason, exhibited him as a "calculating boy", first in local fairs up to the age of six, and later around the country. Many of those who saw him took an interest in his further education, not least the astronomer Sir John Herschel and Sir Henry Jardine.

In 1834 Robert Stephenson, whose acquaintance he had made in Edinburgh, offered him an appointment on the London & Birmingham Railway, and in the succeeding year or two he began to assist George Stephenson in his parliamentary work, which at that time included schemes for railways between London and Brighton and between Manchester and Rugby via the Potteries. In this way he was introduced to engineering and parliamentary practice. He later worked on pioneering railways in Belgium, Norway, Denmark and India. Bidder died in Dartmouth and was buried here in Stoke Fleming.

In promoting his son's talent there was much advertising of his appearances and performances. One boast was the following. Being asked "If a coach-wheel is 5 feet 10 inches in circumference; how many times would it revolve in running eight hundred million miles?", George answered in 50 seconds, "724,114,285,704 times, with 20 inches left over."

The pillars supporting the arches in the arcades are thought to be Purbeck marble from Purbeck about one hundred miles down the coast. The red sandstone arches are more local in origin. This tells us that design and materials were very important then just as they are today. Church interiors were very much built with theatre in mind. Good roads and wheeled transport are a relatively recent development in this part of Devon, but that meant that heavy materials like stone, being shipped by sea offered no great challenge of distance as long as there was a nearby port to offload it. In this instance, the only obstacle was then transporting the stone up the hill from nearby Dartmouth.

The majority of the stained glass dates from the latter half of the 19th century.

This beautiful window, rich in colour represents the Four Evangelists, Mathew, Mark, Luke and John and is a memorial to Percival Norton Johnson who died in 1866. It was given by his widow Lydia. In Christian art each of the evangelists has a particular symbol and St Luke’s is an ox (or a calf), seen here top right. John the Evangelist, the author of the fourth gospel account, is symbolized by an eagle, often with a halo, an animal may have originally been seen as the king of the birds, seen here bottom right.

The Lion of Saint Mark, representing Mark the Evangelist, is pictured in the form of a winged lion, bottom right. A winged man, or angel, came to represent St Matthew, because his book opens with the human descendants of Jesus, top left.

Percival Norton Johnson was an outstanding metallurgist and founder of the company Johnson Matthey. His wife was one of the founders of The Royal London Society for the Blind.

Having trained in his father's business as an assayer, Percival Johnson established his own firm in 1817. He specialised in the assaying and refining of precious metals particularly gold imported from Brazil: he perfected a method of extracting the Palladium from the gold therefore improving the gold's colour. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1846. He went into full partnership with George Matthey, a stockbroker, in 1851. His expertise in refining earned his business the appointment of Assayer to the Bank of England in 1852.

He was also active in silver-mining and in 1854 moved to Stoke Fleming in Devon where he had mining interests. He retired in 1860 and died in 1866.

One of the most beautiful examples of stained glass here is the rich and lavish Three Marys window. On the left is Mary Magdalene who anointed Christ just before his crucifixion, in the middle is the Virgin Mary in the traditional blue robe with a lily of purity and on the right Mary the Sister of Martha.

In the night sky above is the constellation of Orion, part of which is named Orion's Belt the three middle stars of the constellation which were traditionally used in seafaring. These were nicknamed the Three Marys by sailors.

The rest of the design is a profusion of flowers and foliage. Mary Magdalen carries the pot of soothing ointment with which she anointed Christ.

The Virgin Mary's robes are rich with embroidery and gold all made real in the medium of glass, a hugely skillful art.

Finally in Part 1 are these organ pipes beautifully painted by a young woman from the village. Edith Whyllys only 22 years of age at the time, painted them as a memorial to her brother drowned in a shipwreck in 1874. Continue on to Part 2 here.

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