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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

The Church of St James Avonwick

A more detailed look at St James' church in Avonwick, already mentioned in my previous River Avon series here.


The first thing to say about St. James' is that it is a Proprietary Chapel.

A proprietary chapel is a chapel that originally belonged to a private person, but with the intention that it would be open to the public. In 19th-century Britain they were common, often being built to cope with urbanisation. They are anomalies in English ecclesiastical law, having no parish area, but being able to have an Anglican clergyman licensed there.

In short it is a private chapel served by an Anglican priest through arrangement by the owner and the bishop with the agreement of the local parish priest. St James' Avonwick is believed to be one of only five of these "anomalies" left in England. The village of Avonwick was a late developer as, historically, the nearby church in North Huish was the parish church. Over hundreds of years, the population of North Huish declined and that of Avonwick, as it became called, flourished. The village found itself straddling the borders of four different parishes with services in those parishes a long walk on a Sunday.


The Cornish family, as the local landowners, were responsible for the flourishing of the village and of its expansion as part of their estate. The expansion of the village led to a need for a church that was more easily accessible to the residents of the new village. In fact it was only in 1870 that the village received its new name of Avonwick.


It was James Cornish who first saw the need for a church in the village as every Sunday he witnessed all the villagers head off on foot in four different directions in all weathers to their respective churches, some miles away. As the plaque above attests, he never saw his church completed due to an untimely death after a fall from his horse. However after his death, his daughter Esther Priscilla Cornish married Frederic James Bowden and the two of them changed their surname by deed poll to Cornish-Bowden, after which, residing at Black Hall, they made arrangements for church services to be held in the village Tennis Club Pavilion. The services were very popular and for two years attracted congregations averaging a hundred people. This underlined the need for a church in the village.

As Mr and Mrs Cornish-Bowden owned all the land in the village and much of that surrounding it, finding a site was no problem. Mr and Mrs Cornish-Bowden built the church at their sole expense and it was dedicated on the 6th August 1878.

The church is Grade 2 listed by English Heritage.


It seems that no expense was spared. The building was erected by Messrs Mills and Son of Newton Abbot. The Reredos, screen, pulpit and choir stalls were made by Mr Harry Hems of Exeter and the architect for the entire work was Rev Medley Fulford ARIBA of Exeter.


The tiling in the chancel is by Webbs Tileries of Worcester. This company was based at Rainbow Hill, Worcester in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They made and decorated their own tiles with a series of registered designs, and also supplied many blank tiles to others for decoration, including Wedgwood.


In the late 1940's the Priest in Charge was the Right Rev John Dauglish, formerly the Bishop of Nassau in The Bahamas. A newspaper article of 1942 relates his being given a gift of a dressing gown from none other than Queen Mary.

An accompanying letter from the Queen's Lady in Waiting Lady Cynthia Colville said how sorry the Queen was: "To think of your sufferings from the cold in this awful weather after your years of tropical existence, and waiting shiveringly for the arrival of your clothes from Nassau! The Queen happens to have an Indian dressing gown - gaudy! but very warm! - which her Majesty would be only too pleased to give you, if you would accept such a gift?"

During the Great War, Dauglish served at Shotley Barracks where he was regarded as 'most zealous and conscientious 'and, from July, 1918, on HMS Queen Elizabeth on which he witnessed the surrender of the German High Seas Fleet and conducted the service of thanksgiving.


The pipe-organ was commissioned from Mr George Tucker of The Arcade, Plymouth to a design by Mr T Roylands-Smith of Torquay. The instrument was first used on St James day 1881, a mere three years after the completion of the church.


The frame is of polished teak. "The general opinion of those who first heard the instrument was that the tone was of beautiful clarity and purity, reflecting the highest possible credit on the builder."


A pipe-organ works with air pressure and early organs were provided with this pumped air by manual labour. Over the years four different systems have done the job here.

Those who manually operated the bellows when the organ was new, were rewarded by a payment of one farthing per service from the "Farthing Box" which is still in existence.

The Farthing

The British farthing was a denomination of sterling coinage worth one 960th of one pound. Yes, prior to 1971 the British pound had coins 960 of which were equal to one pound. The small copper coins had an embossed wren on them.

Initially minted in copper and then in bronze, which replaced the earlier English farthings. Before Decimal Day in 1971, Britain used the Carolingian monetary system, wherein the largest unit was a pound sterling of 20 shillings, each of 12 pence. Each penny was divided into 4 farthings, thus, a pound sterling contained 960 farthings, and a shilling contained 48 farthings. From 1860 to 1971, the purchasing power of a farthing ranged between 12p and 0.2p in 2017 values.

Today the organ has an electric pump built into its cabinet.


The brass light-stands in the chancel once supported acetylene gas lights before electricity was brought to the church. Prior to electricity, acetylene gas lighting was considered a great step forward, giving very clear white light.

Electricity was finally installed in 1937 by A W Cranch of South Brent. The receipt for the works states - June 21st. to Electric Lighting Installation, carried out to the GEC specification, and as quotation given March 2nd 1937 - £39 16s. 0d. To fixing galvanised conduit to carry cables to the Gate Light with inspection boxes and watertight covers, fix switch control same etc. £3 19s 4d.

The shop in South Brent belonging to A W Cranch is still there today with the original gilded shop sign. It is now an art gallery.


All of the decorative metalwork is original to the church apart from the handrails below which guide people from the nave to the chancel up two steps. Due to the listed building status, special permission had to be agreed with English Heritage, resulting in a very convincing and beautiful design in keeping with the other features.


The East Window consists of three lights. The centre light depicts Joseph, Mary, and Jesus with a lamb and lillies. The Left light depicts the adoration of the Wise Men.

Once again I am in awe at the great skill and artistry that creates such detail and beauty from such simple materials. This window was dedicated by the Bishop of Plymouth in the mid 1920's and was created in memory of the church founders, by their children.


Esther Mary was the eldest daughter of the family who devoted her whole life to the work of the church. She was responsible for designing and making the beautiful "frontals" and was known locally as "Miss Essie"

This example hangs on the lectern.


In 1995 the west window was restored and new stained glass added. My host at the church explained that this was a memorial to her mother Nancy Marigold Cornish-Bowden 1913 - 1991. It's a beautiful contemporary landscape featuring the river Avon and the old bridge.


An interesting feature of the church today are these three family memorials in white marble, newly moved from North Huish church to reside here, when the church at North Huish was declared redundant and taken over by a charity. The future of that church being uncertain, the Cornish-Bowden family decided to remove their family memorials to this new location.


In the church is a splendid carved oak memorial to Colin Cecil Langford, who, I am reliably informed was the only resident of the village to be killed in the World Wars


The family memorial to the right of the altar bears the Coat of Arms of the family. Above the shield which uses lion and rose motifs to represent both Cornish and Bowden, are on the left a demi lion drawing a bow for Bowden and on the right a Chough, a rare bird of Cornwall for Cornish. The motto in Latin is Deus Fortis Arcus, God the bow of my strength.


The walls of the church are of local stone with bands of red stone from nearby Diptford.

Along the front wall of the church are some memorial plaques and I am always on the lookout for an interesting story. The name Van Der Kiste caught my eye as being quite unusual for the area and also the title Wing Commander, so of course I had to get Google going to find out more.


Wing Commander Van de Kiste, DSO., was born at Limerick, Ireland, in 1912 and educated at Cheltenham College, and commissioned in 1936.

Distinguished Service Order

"In April, 1941, this officer was the captain of an aircraft which carried out a reconnaissance of the Norwegian coast from Hammerfest to Harstad, entailing a flight of many hours. The greater part of the reconnaissance had to be carried out at a height of less than 2,000 feet owing to low cloud, but Flight Lieutenant Van Der Kiste made such skilful use of the low cloud and the topographical features of the country, that very little opposition from the ground was encountered. At Harstad, where there was no cloud, he approached the town flying just above the water level and, despite heavy and light anti aircraft fire, flew right in and completed his reconnaissance. By skilful low flying among the fiords he was able to avoid any damage to his aircraft. On a previous occasion, Flight Lieutenant Van Der Kiste carried out a reconnaissance at a low altitude under extremely trying conditions. Although his aircraft was damaged by enemy fire he completed his mission and skilfully flew back to base. He has displayed high qualities of leadership and has contributed materially to the efficiency and high standard of morale obtaining in his Squadron."


Looking back at the church there are two prominent rows of gravestones with stylised stone crosses that appear to be Celtic in design, this may allude to the name Cornish, as these are the final resting places of the Cornish and Cornish-Bowden family. Esther Priscilla Cornish-Bowden lies third from the right, next to the church that she founded for her father.


At the entrance to the church, the lamp standard and gates and gate piers are also Grade 2 listed by English Heritage. Commemorative lamp standard in churchyard. Dated 1887, erected to commemorate Queen Victoria's Jubilee. Granite octagonal wreathed base and pedestal with cast iron standard above; the standard is moulded and ribboned and supports a lantern with a finial. Described in lead on the pedestal a Maltese Cross and V.R. 1887 + LAUS DEO (Praise to God)


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4 comentarios

Miembro desconocido
18 ene 2023

What a neat place to capture photos. So many interesting subjects/objects. Of course the stained glass caught my attention and as you mentioned, such artistry. Another very nice and interesting post.

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Gethin Thomas
Gethin Thomas
18 ene 2023
Contestando a

Thanks Camellia.

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John Durham
John Durham
18 ene 2023

The stained glass depiction of the Adoration of the Three Wise Men is stunning. I also loved the restoration of the West Window - very well done! Not to be morbid, I also enjoyed the last couple of cemetery shots - I do fancy (oh, crap, you British are rubbing off on me) a set of crusty, old headstones. Methinks you might have to start numbering your photos, too, my friend.

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Gethin Thomas
Gethin Thomas
18 ene 2023
Contestando a

Thanks John. I actually thought that when you clicked on them they were numbered. I have added numbers manually for now. Hopefully I can find something auto.

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