Avonwick, Devon

Extracts from the book by the Rev. Prebendary John T George, M.A.

(used with permission)

Proprietary Chapels (see Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church 1985 p.1133)

In the Church of England a "proprietary chapel" is generally a chapel built by subscription and maintained by private individuals. Such chapels are without constitutional existence or parochial rights. The Church of St James, Avonwick is one of the very few now remaining. It was built at the total expense of the founders.

The village of Avonwick and its Church

It was in 1870 that Avonwick received its present name. Previously it was known as 'Newhouse'. Avonwick is derived from 'Avon' which means river and 'wick' which is an old name for village. The river Avon, which joins the sea at Bantham, runs through the lovely valley in which Avonwick is set. It is on the road from Totnes to South Brent. The village school has long since ceased to exist but, for such a small population, it is fortunate still to enjoy the facilities of its own Post Office, Village Shop, Garage and Inn. It can also claim one of the longest established Tennis Clubs in Britain and a crochet lawn.

This, then, is the setting of the Church of St James founded for the use of those within its reach and to provide a convenient place of worship for those in the area who are far removed from the Parish Churches.

The Cornish Family

Mr James Cornish owned Avonwick and many farms around. He was a keen churchman who wished to provide a place of worship conveniently near for his own household, his tenants, for those who worked on his estate and, indeed, all who wished to worship. Sadly, he did not live long enough to see his wish come true, but it is to him that we owe the seed-thought which eventually brought into being the church as we now have it. There is a plaque on the south-east wall of the chancel which states: "This chancel is erected to the Glory of God and in loving remembrance of James Cornish of Black Hall who died 7th September 1865 AET 73 years in consequence of a fall from his horse near this place". He was buried in North Huish Church as were other members of his family before him.

In a newspaper account which appeared on 8th August 1878, Avonwick is described as "a small village, situated about two miles from Brent, South Devon, and is the meeting place of the four parishes of Ugborough, Diptford, North Huish and South Brent, and as the Parish church of each parish is distant 11/2 to 2 miles from Avonwick, the population were badly off for want of accommodation for public worship".

It was quite a long walk, in all kinds of weather, to any one of the churches mentioned. It did not help any village in search of unity of mind and purpose to be so divided. We can well imagine the frustration when there was need for common action within the community in search of projects for the general good. There was no centre common to all and little incentive for doing things together. Mr James Cornish must have seen more clearly than most, the ridiculous result when each Sunday the residents of so small a place were divided into four, each going in different directions to their respective Parish Churches. There was a growing desire for a Church which the community as a whole could attend and worship in unity.

The desire for a church in Avonwick did not wane. On the 14th January 1870 Esther Priscilla Cornish , the younger daughter of the late Mr James Cornish, married Frederic James Bowden, a barrister, who assumed, by deed poll, the name of Cornish in addition to Bowden on the 1st January 1873. Mr and Mrs Cornish-Bowden resided at Black Hall and made arrangements for church services to be held in the Tennis Club Pavilion which was then known as the Archery.

Services at the Archery Pavilion were well supported and met a real need, for, on average, about a hundred people attended the services held there for a period of at least two years. Mr and Mrs Cornish-Bowden built the Church of St James in the "Dilly Field" - so named after the Picadilly Coach which called at the Newhouse Coach Inn nearby, now the Post Office. The Church was dedicated on 6th August 1878. A newspaper reported,"On Tuesday 6th August 1878 the church was opened by the Bishop of the Diocese under very auspicious circumstances. ..... The Avonwick Choir had been trained by Mr Cornish-Bowden. ..... After morning service Mr and Mrs Cornish-Bowden entertained the Bishop, the clergy, and many others in a large tent on the grounds of Black Hall. .... At 4pm tea was provided in the grounds of Black Hall for about 400 people from the village and surrounding neighbourhood."

In October 1878 a licence was granted for performing divine service according to the rites of the Church of England at St James. Sadly Mr James Cornish did not live to see his hopes fulfilled but it must have given his widow Mrs Elizabeth Anne Cornish ne Hall who was present at the service, considerable happiness to witness the answer to her late husband's hopes and prayers.

James Cornish-Bowden became a Justice of the Peace for the Stanborough and Coleridge Division in 1924. He was chairman of the Avon Fishing Association, a member of the committee of the Deep Sea Fisheries, Chairman of the Diptford and North Huish Conservative Association, Treasurer of the South Devon Beekeepers' Association, Secretary of the Avon Vale Tennis Club, Chairman of the Avonwick Horticultural Association and a Trustee of the Feoffees of North Huish and Diptford. In 1916 he joined the Army Service Corps and saw war service in Salonika. He inherited and was responsible for the administration of St James' Avonwick and was an enthusiastic member of the choir and a server.

His wife Margaret Elizabeth Cornish-Bowden ne Watts from Newton Abbot lived for twenty-one years at Black Hall and her remaining years at The Rock in Avonwick. She was a lady of great influence in the village and took a great interest in all its families. She was a keen gardener and gave numerous gifts of flowers to those she visited. In her youth she studied the piano and violin, the latter in Brussels for two years. She was a Licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music and served as church organist for twenty-eight years.

The East Window was "Erected to the Glory of God and in loving memory of Frederic James and Esther Priscilla Cornish-Bowden by their son and daughters" and was dedicated by the Bishop of Plymouth in the mid 1920's. To the right of this window is the following inscription, "To the glory of God and in loving memory of James Cornish-Bowden of Black Hall, 1877-1933 and of his wife Margaret Elizabeth 1883-1964. Also of his sisters Esther Mary 1871-1932, Frediswide Floyer 1874-1961, & Elizabeth ffoulkes 1876-1967. They all served God most faithfully in this place."

Esther Mary Cornish-Bowden, known locally as "Miss Essie", was the eldest daughter of the family and devoted her whole life to the work of St James' Avonwick. Her sister Frediswide Floyer , known as "Miss Freda", taught for some sixty years in the Sunday School and at one time was a member of the Dartmoor Hunt and a very competent horsewoman. Her interests included coursing and the breeding of prize-winning greyhounds. The youngest daughter, Elizabeth ffoulkes , "Miss Betsy", also taught in the Sunday School and arranged the flowers on the altar. In the 1914-18 war she was a member of the Red Cross and in the 1939-45 war she was a group collector for National Savings.

Coat of Arms

The Arms of James Cornish can be seen on the memorial tablet in the chancel. The left half of the shield is black with a doubly embattled gold chevron between three silver roses (for Cornish). The right half shows his wife's Arms and is sub-divided into quarters, the first and fourth coloured silver with an engrailed black chevron with a gold star at the top between three talbots heads in black. The second and third quarters are black with a silver lion rampant with a red bar through it. The first part is for Hall of Lincs and the second for Churchill of Dorset. These Arms can also be seen on the brass memorial at North Huish where James was buried.

The Cornish-Bowden Arms can be seen on the wood panel to the right of the altar. The shield is quartered and the first and fourth quarters are for Bowden. These two quarters are sub-divided into quarters and are black and gold with the first quarter having a lion passant walking, in gold. The second and third quarters for Cornish are in black with an embattled gold chevron between three silver roses. The Crests above are: (1) A demi lion drawing a bow in gold for Bowden, and (2) A cornish chough for Cornish. The motto below the Arms is: 'Deus Fortis Arcus' - 'God the bow of my strength'.

These Arms and Crest are shown on the sign of the Avon Inn in the village. The crest is also on the main building in the centre of Diptford which was formerly the Rising Sun Inn. This was rebuilt in 1898 and bears this date with the crest. The Inn, and most of the village of Diptford, belonged to the Cornish-Bowden family at that time, and was sold in 1916.