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Church Houses

Church Houses

Hath not the diuell (Devil) hys Chapell close adioning God’s Church?‘ – Nash 1593

It has been said that there was at one time a church house in every ancient parish of this country and by 1961 G. W. Copeland had identified at least 64 in Devon, (Copeland, 1961, p119). The church house was what could be described as very much a West Country speciality and were no means confined to Dartmoor. Today there are 12 definite examples and another four (Dean Prior, Moretonhampstead, Shaugh Prior and Whitchurch) possible examples to be found within the Dartmoor National Park. Out of these there are two outstanding examples of a church house which can be found at South Tawton and Widecombe in the Moor. 
Some are now private residences, a few are still used as a parish/public hall, one is a school, two are inns and South Tawton’s is still used as a church house. The suggested dates of construction all fall between the late 15th and early 17th centuries which in itself has raised a few discussion points with regards to their origins. It had been suggested that church houses were erected prior to the building of the church and that they served as shelters for the various craftsmen who were working on the site, (Copeland, 1961, p.116). This theory would mean that all of the churches associated with the above table were built during the 15th – 16th centuries? But purely by their dedication dates it can be proven that some of the churches had been constructed prior to the building of their church houses. For example, the church at Chagford was dedicated by Bishop Bronsecombe in 1261, Manaton’s dedication to St. George dates back to 1486 and Peter Tavy’s dedication to St. Peter is documented in 1276, (Orme,1996, pp. 142, 180, 191).
Another idea is that the precursor to the church house was the manorial or Lord’s brew house where the parish feasts were held, these were in existence from at least the 12th century. The building was held in common by the tenants who would then pay a quarterly rent for the privilege of using it. Many of the celebrations held were ‘ale days‘ of various sorts, these included Church Ales, Clerk Ales, Bid Ales, Wakes etc., (Copeland, 1961, p.117). Eventually there came the need to move these secular activities from the brew house or perhaps from within the church itself to a separate building, this led to the coming of the church house. Church Houses at first, were used to brew ale, store the necessary equipment for brewing, in some cases bake bread and prepare food, and to generally hold social gatherings of various kinds. In effect they were a combination of the modern-day village hall and local inn. However, the church house was not merely a place for brewing, storage and holding festivities it also served a more communal and economic purpose:

The prevalence of church houses, particularly in rural parishes, reflects the importance of parish gatherings. Use of the church house and its contents enabled householders to expand their income by means of small-scale brewing without having to purchase the necessary equipment… The church house could also be rented for private parties, wedding receptions, pr charitable ales… The appearance of church houses in the fifteenth centuries suggests an attempt to classify and then relegate non-liturgical activities to outside the church. Although church houses helped raise money that ultimately benefited the liturgy, the clergy officially disapproved of such activities, even though individual clergy often attended church ales...’, (French, 2001, p.113).

The church house was a secular possession of the parish. It was never part of the benefice; it lay outside the jurisdiction of the church courts and tended from the sixteenth century to displace the nave of the church as the venue of most of the social activities of the parishioners. Indeed, the growing practice of using the church house rather than the church itself for parochial gatherings is part of the creeping secularisation of the parish. It was usually a substantial building, often of two storeys and comparable with the home of a well-to-do yeoman. It was often found just outside the consecrated ground of the churchyard. A number of church houses have survived little altered in the south-western counties, where. it has been claimed, they were of greater social importance in an area of scattered settlement.’, (N. J. G. Pounds, 2000, p.166).

As noted above, many cases the church house stood very near the parish church and in some examples actually abutted into the churchyard. In general terms they were rectangular in shape and normally comprised of two floors, the top floor could either be accessed by internal stairs or external stone steps. The ground floor contained a large open fireplace with an oven at one side, part of the room would have been partitioned off for use as a cellar or store chamber. The upstairs room was either opened roof or a flat plaster ceiling which no doubt was a later addition, it was here that the majority of the functions were held.

During the mid 1600s the Puritan movement saw the ale days as occasions that ‘led to drunkenness, riot and immorality‘, which be fair on some occasions they did. Clearly this did not agree with their pious and sober outlook and complaints were soon made at the highest order regarding these occasions, especially in Devon. However, despite various decrees the ale days were never actually banned until 1603 but they certainly began to decline in popularity prior to then. As the various celebrations connected with ale days were normally held in the church houses their use began to decline as well.
Having been made virtually redundant by the 17th/18th centuries the church houses began to adopt differing roles. In some cases, having been once used as ale houses, they became inns that were privately managed. As can be seen from above there are two such examples on Dartmoor; The Royal Oak at Meavy and The Church House Inn at Holne who still retains it’s original name. Although there are no examples on Dartmoor, other inn names that suggest a one-time church house are; The Cross Keys (representative of St. Peter) and The Lamb and Flag (representative of the Paschal Lamb), (Friar, 1996, p.109).
Other church houses were utilised as poor houses and from the Charity Commission’s records of 1818 the following Dartmoor church houses were listed as such; Chagford, Dean Prior, Islington, Manaton, Moretonhampstead, and Widecombe in the Moor, (Copeland, 1961, p.122).
As of today, a few of the church houses became parish/village/public halls which meant, apart from the brewing and selling of ale, they remained as a social focal point for local people, examples today being; Chagford, Drewsteignton, Lustleigh and Widecombe in the Moor. In the case of Widecombe in the Moor part of the church house became the residence of the local sextant whilst others became private residences. Other uses that church houses adopted were schools, examples of such being Sampford Spiney and Chagford.

But as mentioned above there is one solitary church house that today serves its original purpose and that is the one at South Tawton which in this instance will serve to show the evolution of a typical church house. The first evidence of the structure was in 1454 when the building consisted of a 5 bays and 2 floors, the ground floor was the kitchen with an oven where the baking brewing and cooking was done. The top floor was where the various ale days were held along with their accompanying feasts. From 1454 to the mid 1500s various inventories showed that despite several attempts at banning the ale days they were still being held. The evidence for this is the listing of crocks, cauldrons, trestles, boards, a spit etc, all indicative of food preparation and brewing.

From 1572 – 1575 various repairs were carried out on the church house which included the rebuilding of the west wall, repairing the oven and re-thatching the roof.
In 1599 the church ale days were prohibited in Devonshire and to prove this point it is suggested that by 1603 the church house possibly became a poor house for a short while.
By the mid 1600s the building was simply used as a focal place for meetings and a store house
In 1663 a schoolmaster was appointed at South Tawton and the church house became the school.
More construction work was carried out in 1700 when a new central chimney was added along with 2 upstairs and 2 downstairs fireplaces and 2 upstairs rooms were created along with 3 new downstairs rooms.
In 1754 an outside toilet was added to the building which does beg the question as to what arrangements there were previously?
By 1799 the church house ceased to be a school and it became/reverted to a poor house which by 1841 was home to 20 people.
By the early 1900s the building had ceased to serve as a poor house and the top floor was used for public meetings and Sunday school.
In 1940 the building was used to billet Dunkirk soldiers and later served as a canteen following which it reverted back to a meeting place.
In 1962 the church house was refurbished and mains electricity was installed after which it became the focus for a youth club, Sunday School, a Quaker meeting place and various celebrations such as weddings and christenings.
In 1967 the building became a grade II listed building and this was upgraded to a grade II* listing in 1987.
By 2002 the roof of the church house was in desperate need of re-thatching and it was at this time proposed that the whole building should be renovated.
In 2005 the newly renovated church house was officially opened, the cost of the whole project amounted to around £333,000, 78% of which came from the Heritage lottery and fund and 22% from major donations. To mark the completion of the restoration project a beer was produced at the Exe Valley Brewery which was/is called
Today the church house serves as Heritage Visitor Centre and a function hall that can be hired for almost any event, for much more information on the church house and its restoration you can either visit it in person or visit the website by following the link below:

Church Houses

Website – HERE

Copeland, G. W. 1961. Devonshire Church-Houses, Transactions of the Devonshire Association – Vol. XCII, PP. 116 – 141.
French, K. L. 2001. The People of the Parish, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Friar, S. 1996. A Companion to the English Parish Church, Stroud: Sutton Publishing.
Orme, N. 1996. English Church Dedications – Devon & Cornwall, Exeter: Exeter University Press.
Pounds, N. J. G. 2000. A History of the English Parish, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

One comment

  1. Paul Seaton-Burn

    Dear Tim
    Thank you for your excellent website – a wonderful gift to a lot of people, locals and visitors – but you need to make a minor tweak to the above article. Bishop Bransecombe rode over from Exeter to dedicate the (latest) church building at Chagford in 1261 (not 1441).

    By the way, South Tawton Church House continues to host an amazing number of modern exhibitions, concerts and community events; including church services during the winter months (which are lovely and warm and less formal as a result!).

    Thanks again,

    Revd Paul (Rector of Chagford, South Tawton et al)

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