- Originally built as chapel in 1843
- Designed by Benjamin Ferrey, one of the best early Victorian church architects
- Displaying a lovely simplicity that still keeps our interest
- Very nice stained glass
- Three fascinating characters with connected to here
- Very nicely lettered Ten Commandment boards
Chevithorne parish was created in 1889, a latecomer in the parish stakes as it were, and its story is a sweet little sketch of change and permanence in the new Britain of the nineteenth century and three men who were part of that change.
For a thousand years or more Chevithorne was part of the enormous parish of St Peter’s in Tiverton, with three or four priests caring for the resident souls. Chevithorne was part of what was called the Tidcombe Portion, which had its own dedicated priest, and was not quite a parish but really was a kind of parish, just not called one.
Or something like that…
In the 1840s the priest of this ‘Portion’ was William Rayer, whose Dad had brought the right to appoint the rector and collect the tithes just a tad previously, likely enough to pop his son into a good job.
So far, so nepotism, so unattractive to us nowadays but they were not living in nowadays.
But here the story gets more interesting because William Rayer was part of a new breed of parish priests who took their jobs very seriously and were deeply influenced by a new movement in the church. He believed that the church needed to change, to make Christianity more relevant to all, to make churches more accessible and to bring ritual and the Communion back into the way of worship, or at least make them far more central in worship. More of this a tad later.
The design of Chevithorne church
One thing that Billy Boy did was to build a new chapel out in Chevithorne in the early 1840s. Not a church, because there was no parish as such, but a chapel.
And he got one of the most famous church architects of his time to design it, Benjamin Ferrey, who worked in the grand spanking new area of the Neo-Gothic, basically a style that rhymed with the Medieval; not just the architectural style but the layout of the church too.
If this had been built 20 years earlier it would have been very Classical, with large windows, probably rectangular (no separate chancel like this has on the right), big stone blocks (not local stone as used here) and pillars and suchlike; Roman or Greek style. More or less anyway.
This design was oh so modern for the 1840s, and is a delight to find in this spot. When it was finished in 1843 Victoria had only been on her throne for six years and the riches of the British empire were doubling or tripling up.
So, a new design for a new era and a new way of worship…
The rose window
The whole church cost about a £1000, and the reverend donated a fair share himself. Some say around £300.
And part of the money was for this lovely Rose Window. A delight, especially with those little carved heads either side. So very definitely not Classical in style.
Hanging a bell
And just as a passing aside, for all those of us who have ever wondered how a bell in a bellcote is hung… now we know. At least the modern way of doing it. Or at least the Devon way of doing it. Or the Chevithorne way… because I have never seen this engineering before. It has a certain ‘Devon Creative’ approach, but hey, if it works…
Chevithorne Church, a radically modern style
We enter and can see a couple of things straight off.
The first is what this new way of worship was about. There is a clear view to the altar (no screen), and the pulpit is tucked away in a corner; previously the pulpit would have an enormous needy beast demanding everybody’s attention, because a service was all about the sermon and the word of God, with the Communion coming a very far third.
The pews are not original, but the style is. Also this chapel had seating for 220 folk, of which 200 of the seats were free; parishioners did not have to pay rent on them.
Yup, in many a church and chapel most seats had been rented out. Sad but true. Since benches and pews had come into churches in the late fifteenth century the poor sat at the back, and the richer and more posh you were the closer you were to the front.
Somewhere there might be a lost gospel quoting Jesus giving that exact message, about the rich being special, but we might need to wait awhile to find it. A long while.
So, the altar being so much in view meant that that taking the Communion was now much more important, along with the ritual surrounding it and the Divine mystery that it contains. The small pulpit showed that long sermons were far less important and the free seating meant that the church was bringing us all back to being Children of God, equal in the eyes of the Divine.
To be fair, the priests taking up this new movement were working in a highly class-ridden society, but they were trying, and full marks for that. And they were usually heavily involved in arranging free schooling for all children, as well as help for the poor and the sick, long before the state got involved.
The Reverend Rayer himself was one of the founders of Tiverton Infirmary, medical help for all.
Benjamin Ferrey, genius
The second thing we mights see is just what a mighty fine architect was Benjamin Ferrey.
Take a couple of rectangular boxes and there is not a whole lot to play with it, but he plays, delightfully so. The way he emphasises the arches with double or triple lines, the careful use of stained and clear glass to allow the sunlight to splash around inside in the most enjoyable of ways, that nice big colour of the Rose Window down the west end…
And the chancel itself, in the first interior image, the way the chancel arch rhymes with the East Window, and making sure that the chancel opening is full width, so the focus is on the altar and the window, with the side walls framing them…
He was one of the earliest, ablest, and most zealous pioneers of the modern Gothic school. … His work possessed the rare charm of simplicity, without lacking interest. … He managed to secure for his buildings a grace that was deficient in many contemporary designs, which had been executed with far more elaborate decoration and at greater cost.
Eastlake, Charles L. A History of the Gothic Revival.
And Benjy was another example of the new men of the nineteenth century, not only in his mastery of the fresh architecture but also he was the son of a draper, a cloth retailer and dealer, who rose to the height of his profession through his own talent.
A revolution in images
The Rose Window glass, with the Four Evangelists symbols in the centre and angels around the edge, was part of William Rayer’s donation, and shows another radical side of the new way of worship along with these…
Instruments of the Passion
… Instruments of the Passion, symbols connects with Christ’s crucifixion, not really approved of for nearly three hundred years since Henry the Robber King and his heirs looted the monasteries and churches and turned the world grey. No more images, no more symbols, no more colour in worship. The word of God, the scriptures, were the only thing.
And now they are back. Not only the altar and the Eucharist, as mentioned, but colour and symbols and images. Ritual.
Here it is early days, and very subtly done, but are they not lovely? Something for the faithful to meditate on and find their path to the Divine.
And marvellously, they also rhyme so well with Devon, because it is only here in this county that so many of these symbols survive from Medieval times, on benchends, on roofbosses, in stained glass and carved in stone. No other county has such a wide collection.
And the Exeter Diocese, the Bishop and his posse, was one of the top two dioceses in the country for the early adoption of this moment and its architecture.
So radical, yet so deeply rooted. A proper revolution.
Whilst here we have a little nod to Classical style, which this Neo-Gothicry was replacing, with the lovely painted foliage and the subtle arch over the window. I don’t know if the painting is original or not, but it surely does not matter. It is a lovely touch, framing a nicely balanced window in colour and shape.
And a simple sanctuary, very effectively so. Remember that comment about Ferrey’s work?
the rare charm of simplicity, without lacking interest
Seems pretty accurate here, the glazing on the East Window adding a heap of interest to the simple yet well defined design elements.
John Heathcoat and his so very complicated machine
One thing that leaps out at us is how good a condition the church is in, and here we come across the third of the ‘new men’ of Victorian England and his family, a farmer’s son, John Heathcoat.
He comes from Nottingham and is one of those geniuses that appear from time to time, self taught and magnificent. After working in the lace industry up there, at the age of only 25 he invented a special lace making machine
by far the most expensive and complex textile apparatus until then existing
That totally revolutionised the industry and made his fortune.
As an aside, lace was the top class bling of the day, the lacier and the more expensive the better, and his machines made the very so lacier stuff.
To cut a bit of a story short, by 1816 we had moved his factory to Tiverton, and his company is still going strong, Heathcoat fabrics, no longer lace making but specialist textiles.
So his great-grandson, John Heathcoat-Amory (1829 – 1914), did what rich folk did back in those days, decided to become a country gentleman. He bought an estate, arranged for a deadly famous architect to build him a massive new status symbol, obtained a title (‘Sir’ – a baronetcy to be technical) and decided Chevithorne would be his local church and built a rectory there.
Then, and this is speculation but not over the top, in 1889 he helped arrange for Chevithorne to become a new parish by an Act of Parliament.
The church has a bunch of memorials to the Heathcoat-Amory clan, both inside and out, and is still part of their lives though they donated the estate to the National Trust some time ago.
And thus the care of the church. And thus the descendants of a farmer’s son becoming pillars of the Tory establishment.
Regardless of politics, a wonderful freedom to have in a society, which arguably led to the much greater freedoms we have now.
The start of modern times
For me, the simple, delicate East Window sums up the church, easily passed over but when looked at, really looked at, it is such a delight. The colours, the textures, the glazing, a masterly little touch to a masterly little church.
But the story of the church’s birth and development into a parish, and three of the folk connected to it (I am not forgetting the community at all, it’s just not part of this particular tale), now that is a story of change; a change that was like a steam train chuffing out of an ages old station, gradually picking up speed to come roaring through the twentieth century, arriving here in all its glory.
Obviously best imagined sitting quietly inside this little darling, or ambling around to cherish all the marvellous details.