- A beautiful red stone church
- A powerful story about a vicar here, Canon Girdlestone, and how he helped clear the rural slums of Devon
- A stunning interior
- Beautiful stonework
- A very early, and very beautiful, medieval pulpit
- A very pretty Victorian reredos in the north chapel
- Good stained glass
Halberton Parish and rural slums
When Canon Girdlestone arrived in Halberton in 1862 to become vicar, fresh from the beating heart of the Industrial Revolution in Lancashire, he expected to find a rural village of reasonably paid agricultural workers in clean accommodation, with farmers taking care of their employees, the kind of village life he knew.
Instead he found…
Many of the peasant’s cottages were unfit for the housing of pigs. Pools of stagnant water stood in different parts of the parish, many of the ditches of which were offensively odorous…
[The village’s] open sewers ran through it, frequently trickling down from the cottages into the village brook, from which cattle slaked their thirst and the villagers and their children often drank!
Peasant Life in the West of England, FG Heath, 1881 (via The Halberton History Group)
And there was more.
Wages were so low that people lived on starvation rations, breakfast being dried bread and hot water, lunch and dinner bread and hard, dry, skimmed milk cheese, supper potatoes and cabbage with occasionally a small piece of bacon. Work was eight to twelve hours a day, as sunlight and need dictated, sometimes more, and no overtime was paid.
This was slum life, hard, vicious, rural slum life, where pigs were treated better than humans and the farmers exploited who they could.
But around this oh-so-pretty red stone Devon church, newly renovated, full of beauty, how did this happen? And what did the Canon do about it?
Halberton Church of St Andrew
And pretty it is too, like this stunning fifteenth century tower door As Marion Royle says:
The vermilion in the terracotta stonework sings with the burnt umber door and the hint of green in its portal
It is meetings like these that are the sprinkles of stardust on the richly flavoured church crawling cake.
The pretty porch
Or this strong fifteenth century porch (the battlements are nineteenth), a fine entrance to a grand church. Medieval parishioners would still have recognised this in Canon Girdlestone’s time, but they surely would not have recognised the lifestyles of their descendants.
The problem was that the Industrial Revolution had taken off in the North, near to coal and water power as it was, and good deep water ports for global imports and exports, especially cheap cotton. The Devon cloth trade was trashed, the whole process done cheaper and better up north, except for a few factories left down here.
So folk lost their jobs, their piece work, their livelihoods and there was a massive over supply of labour, which the farmers took full advantage of. The opposite happened in the Lancashire and places, where the new factories sucked in massive mounts of better paid labour, raising the wages and condition of everybody, rural and urban, over time.
Plus the farmers had lost their moral compass, truly deeply so, even though they still trundled up to church in a glory of self-gratification.
Inside Halberton Church
And trundling into this church is still a pleasure, hopefully with a better moral compass, or at least an awareness and repentance when it goes awry.
Those attractive red stone arches gracefully flowing up the nave, dipping elegantly to meet the octagonal pillars, drawing the eye toward the rood screen…
The ancient Halberton rood screen
Ah yes, that rood screen, maybe the earliest in Devon, around 1420 to be inexact, a stunner to be pinpoint exact, a spectacular display of horizontal and vertical lines with that simply moulded cornice up top bringing everything to full stop; it is the only one in Devon that is not carved with foliage.
Then the thin verticals on the panelling below and the uprights in the windows, split by the extra thick middle uprights.
Here, take a closer look…
The rood screen up close
This screen is, in its way, a pregnant pause. Rood screens started in stone, and then in the later 1300s, more or less, wood started taking over; woodworkers took the new English Perpendicular style and ran with it, using their material in most awesome ways.
In this, the last and most beautiful phase of Gothic art, horizontal and vertical lines played a very important part in the design, and these suited the fibrous nature of wood to perfection. The woodworker rose from one triumph to another after the year 1400 the mason was no longer predominant.
English Church Woodwork, Howard and Crossley, 1917
But this is not yet there, the astounding blossoming of late Medieval Devon screen work (and more) is a decade or three down the line, work in truth that would rival the best that cathedrals and abbeys had to offer.
Here the screen’s
Simplicity of line, large timbers, deeply cut mouldings, and severely rectilinear tracery are its main characteristics
English Church Woodwork, Howard and Crossley, 1917
But to succeed in a simple design like this is not a matter of chance, or bunging up a few bits of timber across the nave; it takes a fine eye, an understanding of proportions, much experience and lots of serious planning.
I particular love the way that the woodworker has introduced the small curves on the decoration in the panelling, how the vertical and horizontals do work so well together, and especially that minimalistic tracery in the windows that brings such a deft note of intricacy to the party.
Then there is the vaulting…
The naked vaulting
It is open.
Nothing like it in Devon, and very little in the country, and again with the little bit of intricacy, prophesying the marvels to come and yet still just tickety-boo for this creation.
The fascinating roundels
Whilst all over that vaulting are this roundels, around two hundred and counting. Just in case anybody was thinking that all this vertical and horizontal talk was about severity they pop up and say ‘Surprise!’. Such fun, so creative, and all around plain joyful.
Sure, they probably have meanings, meanings which the parish folk came to know, but the main thing I venture was the sharing of grins and fascination amongst the community.
A job well done, surely so.
The chancel and the Canon returns
Sadly though that community thing was not around when the Canon turned up, and here in this newly renovated church, he took responsibly for his flock and started talking with the local farming community.
To no avail, except for vicious pushbacks and a ‘how dare you’ or ten.
They so did not know their Canon.
But Girdlestone, he also understood savage poverty, he did not come down as a saviour to the worse off, he knew what happens to the human spirit, his own father had once been bankrupt.
Michael Harrington, writing about vicious beggary in rural America a hundred years later, sums it up.
… maimed in body and spirit, existing at levels beneath those necessary for human decency. If these people are not starving, they are hungry, and sometimes fat with hunger, for that is what cheap foods do… This poverty twists and deforms the spirit.
… pessimistic and defeated, and they are victimised by mental suffering to a degree unknown in suburbia.
The Other America, Michael Harrington
So he took a two pronged approach.
The Victorian tiles
In the midst of this prettiness too, like this delicious tiling in the chancel.
I wonder if he asked himself if this beauty mattered when so much suffering was going on?
Personally, I vote a cautious yes, because without beauty, free to access, there is no end to grimness and despair.
Others might disagree.
Grief in stone
Talking of despair, or the grieving version as here, this little memorial is a fine use of coloured stone, bringing out the figure, exhausted and all mourned out.
But the Canon, he did not succumb to despair, he wrote to newspapers, his church contacts and the farming and business communities in the northern counties. His aim was to organise an internal migration, finding positions for men and their families in good accommodation and at a fair wage.
The astonishing medieval pulpit and the Canon’s roar
And from this astonishing early fifteenth century pulpit, probably built the same time as the screen, the Canon thundered forth a sermon condemning the farming community, the good and great of the parish, and stood unbowed under the return fire.
War was declared; it was, I reckon, the proudest moment in this pulpit’s long life.
A pulpit with a lot to be proud of too.
For one thing is could come straight out of the 1300s
Looking at that tracery, without any preconceptions, I would want to call it fourteenth century
Michael Bullen, Architectural Historian
Well, why not? Could be. For one thing it could be carved from stone, the potential of wood is still not explored here, especially the sinuosity of the organic that we see in later medieval pulpits in Devon. Though that middle horizontal rail is apparently an innovation, maybe the first in the country.
And again, no foliage carving on the top frieze or between the panels, nor any statues or painted saints in the niches; those will come later.
Enchanting carving inside a vicious war of words
Though one popular Devon style is already here, the the canopy over the niche, and how the arch comes out then is caught back by the finial above, like here, not that easy to see admittedly.
Plus I really should get out more and talk to humans, there is that too.
Cracking carving though, seriously so.
So back to the war, and boy did it get vicious, with the good and the great taking the Canon to court trying to stop him choosing his own church warden (they lost) and slandering him at every opportunity they could find; sadly many of the local clergy ostracised him too.
He did get support though, from the parish folk, from farm labourers around the country who he in turn supported in forming a union, from others around the country who donated money and from businesses and farmers elsewhere who promised employment to those who came.
And he also consistently treated the local farmers with love and respect, possibly understanding that we can all be trapped in our habits and beliefs, entwined in the wiles of the devil.
A fair number of his congregation ended up marching off down the road in high dudgeon to join the local Methodist church, whose minister, to his everlasting credit, told them to take a hike back up their own place because he did not fancy the likes of them in his house of worship.
A pretty altar back
To get back to pretty for a moment, this is this from the altar back (reredos) in the north chapel, delightful stencilling, really very nice.
Mary the Mother of God
And below it are some sweet paintings, including the Annunciation and the Nativity, the start of Christ’s life on earth…
The Good Shepherd serving his flock
The man who defined himself as the Good Shepherd, the Divine that became man.
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep
Just as a priest was seen as the shepherd of his parish, he had the care of their souls, which included the sick and the poor. At least according to Canon Girdlestone. And Christ.
Meanwhile the supported emigration of Halberton’s destitute to other counties had started, yet the farming community’s interpretation of scripture was somewhat differing from the Canon’s, and they seemed to disagree with Jesus too. Probably not the best stance to take, to be fair.
Even Punch magazine, a very popular satirical weekly based in London, took notice
Mr Pearce said… he (the Canon) was not one the good shepherd ‘who gathered the lambs to his bosom’ but ‘one of those hirelings who scattered the flock’.
Interference between the lambs and their shearers appears to have constituted the offence really given to Mr Pearce and is compeers (colleagues) by Canon Girdlestone. A good shepherd, in their estimation, is one who brings his lambs up to be shorn
Which is a good as a snark as I have heard for many a day, and must have burnt the ears of a fair few in the parish if not further afield around Devon.
Canon Girdlestone and his helpers
Now Halberton is at peace and the church is quiet and beautiful with such a stunning interior, but for a brief period in time it was at the centre of the storm, a storm that that ‘Love your fellow man as yourself’ thing causes, all too deliciously, and so troublesomely challengingly so.
By the time Canon Girdlestone left in 1872 he had helped around five hundred folk to move, many with their families, some to farm, some to join the police, some to different adventures, all to a better life, to work paying two or nearly three times as much with clean, safe accommodation.
They, in their turn, procured situations for their relations and friends in Devonshire, and undertook the work of getting them removed without any assistance from Canon Girdlestone.
Peasant Life in the West of England, FG Heath, 1881
Dorset, Wiltshire and Somerset, equally full of rural slums, soon joined the stream that became a flood.
The Canon that roared is near forgotten, along with the many other folk who were moved to help, the donors, the employers, the train staff who helped the travellers, the journalists, all who were inspired to fight for a life worth living in Devon and elsewhere…
And Halberton? In 1880 wages had risen over fifty percent (at least) and:
There were no offensive odours from bad drainage or fever-stricken air. The whole village, in fact, had an atmosphere of quiet comfort
Peasant Life in the West of England, FG Heath, 1881
Job well done, job so very well done, and I bet Christ is grinning beautifully in the shadows still.