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Parishes in Devon
What is a Parish?
"St Andrew's? What denomination is that?" People who have been
brought up in non-European countries may find the historical
position of the church in England is a little unfamiliar!
The Established Church
From the earliest times until the Toleration Act of 1689 there was
only one legal 'Church' in England. There had been conflict within
the Church, such as the Lollards in the 14th century and especially
during the Commonwealth. Some 'dissenters' had begun to organise
worship in homes, barns, halls, etc., in the late 17th century, but
they suffered hostility and persecution. Only the Society of
Friends (Quakers) began, about 1650-1670, to keep systematic
records of births (not baptisms!), marriages and deaths, and very
few of those survive. And nobody called them a "church"! (Quakerism
was strong in the north at first, but soon spread to the
The idea that 'C of E' is one 'denomination' among many did not
become fashionable until after World War II. 'Nonconformists' were
legal and respectable, but until 1840 baptism in the C of E was
necessary condition for holding public offices, and it was only in
1871 that an Act forbade universities to exclude nonconformists or
others on the grounds of belief.
The Roman Catholics
Although the Church of England rejected the supremacy of the Pope
in 1534, 4 years before official parish registers began, the system
of dioceses and parishes continued unchanged. Those who did not
accept the change were regarded as traitors. These 'recusants' were
subject to legal penalties, and, for many years, had to worship in
secret. The papal authorities made no attempt to set up a rival
administration of parishes in England until 1850 (and even then in
the face of some hostility). They now have a system of dioceses and
parishes, which are bigger than Church of England units. Devon is
in Plymouth R.C. Diocese.
County and Diocese
'Diocese' and 'Parish' are unambiguous until 1850. They always
referred to the Church of England. The whole of Devon was in Exeter
Diocese, which, from 1040 to 1876, included Cornwall too. (But the
County and Church boundaries both changed in one place in 1836,
when Thorncombe, an isolated parish, was transferred to Dorset, in
exchange for Stockland and Dalwood.) County and Diocese still have
The parish system
The pattern of parishes in Devon changed hardly at all between the
start of registers in Tudor times and the 19th century. Even then,
the main changes were in the large towns like Exeter, Plymouth,
Torquay and Barnstaple (see below). Indeed, many parishes can trace
their history back to Norman and Saxon times, though I think the
remains of Saxon buildings are very rare in Devon compared
with further east. The basic pattern of parishes, and their
administrative grouping into rural deaneries, was
established by the ninth century. Ipplepen, where I live, was a
parish and the name of a deanery, in those days; and it was still
Ipplepen Deanery until the mid-1990s. By that time it included
Torquay and Paignton, and it seemed sensible to have a Torbay
Deanery and a Newton Abbot Deanery, but having had the name
Ipplepen used for 1000 years they call the latter 'Newton Abbot and
Parish boundaries were related to medieval manorial boundaries.
There could be more than one manor in a parish. In Ipplepen there
were small manors of Combe and Battleford in the Domesday Book, as
well as Ipplepen itself, but they have never had churches. In some
parts of Devon there are still substantial medieval manors or farms
which had their own chapels, licensed by the bishop and officially
consecrated, but the owners would still have paid tithes to the
parish church. Most of these chapels fell into disuse in the
troubled times of the 16th and 17th centuries, and were used for
storage. They didn't give rise to written records.
The church was sited for the convenience of the lord of the
principal manor in the parish, and may not have been central. If
some parishioners lived a long way away, they may eventually have
persuaded someone to let them build a chapel-of-ease. This
may have been a full-size 'church', but it was subject to the vicar
and churchwardens of the parish. A few of these became separate
parishes. An example is Woodland, which was a part of the Manor of
Ipplepen, but separated from it by the parish of Torbryan. It got
its independence early (its records go back to 1560). The petitions
claimed that the roads from Woodland to Ipplepen were
'mountainous', which is a bit of an exaggeration. People were still
arguing about the relationship of the two parishes right up to the
Parishes in the towns
The old pattern of parishes didn't suit the rapidly growing towns
of the 19th and 20th centuries. In Devon it is only the largest
towns that are affected. The most complicated situation is in
Exeter, where they had over 20 tiny parishes in the City. Many of
these have been amalgamated, and some churches were closed, but new
parishes have been created in the suburbs. Except in the actual
town centre, the old parish names have been preserved, even if the
boundaries have changed.
In Plymouth, all the old names seem to be there, but many new
ones have been split off. In Torquay, too, the old names are
unchanged except that Tormohun seems to have become All Saints,
Torre. The parishes of Tormohun (or Tormoham) and St Marychurch
used to cover most of the area where the town now stands.
Exmouth was covered by the old parishes of Littleham and
Withycombe Raleigh. This is unchanged except that they are now
called Littleham-cum-Exmouth and Withycombe Raleigh (Exmouth).
Newton Abbot is in the parishes of Wolborough and Highweek. There
is no parish called Newton Abbot.
New parishes in country areas
There are a few new parishes in rural surroundings. Princetown,
where the prison is, is an example. It was, like much of Dartmoor,
in Lydford parish. It started keeping its own records in 1807, when
there were prisoners there from the Napoleonic War, but it didn't
become a separate parish until 1912. Yelverton was separated from
Buckland Monachorum in 1929. New parishes like this are an
exceptional, modern phenomenon.
Some churches in very small villages have been declared redundant.
They are sometimes kept open to visitors, and may have two or three
services a year, but parishioners are expected to transfer most of
their allegiance to a larger neighbouring parish. The cost of
maintenance is borne by a trust. Examples are Torbryan, where the
neighbouring Ipplepen has become 'Ipplepen with Torbryan'; and West
Ogwell, now joined with East Ogwell and the parish is called
'Ogwell'. The old registers are in the Devon Record Office, but the
latest register may still be with the 'mother church'.
Brian Randell, 9 Nov 1999
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