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Sampford Spiney Church

Sampford Spiney Church

A pleasant two miles by turf and road, and we cross a bridgeless stream and skirting the base of Pew Tor, reach Sampford Spiney, a hamlet of but few houses, the most noticeable an old farm near the church, whose pinnacled tower rises above a little grove of trees. The situation is pleasant – in a hollow sheltered from the blustering winds of the moorland and watered by a tiny stream which keeps the verdure ever fresh. – J. Ll. W. Page, p.132.

Take a glorious Spring day, a drive through the Dartmoor lanes, God in His heavens and all was well with the world. In other words one could not pick a better day to visit St. Mary’s church in the picturesque Dartmoor village of Sampford Spiney. With a name such as Sampford Spiney one would suspect that the village has a history stretching way back in time and one would be correct. In 1997 a post-Roman inscribed stone was discovered at a farm in Sampford Spiney that is thought to have dated back to AD600. This if it remains in-situ (?) could well indicate that it marked the boundary of some early estate.

The first documented record of the settlement appears in the Domesday Book of 1086 when it simply appears as Sanford. Simply meaning in modern terms; ‘the sandy ford’ which was on the river Walkham. Back then the population was fourteen households which would have been considered as being a medium sized settlement. These comprised of twelve villagers, one small holder and one slave. However it only returned a small tax assessment of 0.5 gelds which would not have swelled the Norman coffers very much.

The place-name later had a second element added, this being Spinne which referred to Gerard Spineto who held the manor, Glover et. al. p.238. Over time the spelling slowly changed to that of Sampford Spiney as it is known today.

It has been suggested that the modern church began life as a chapel to the manor and is first documented in 1257. It was then given to the priory at Plympton who retained the ownership between 1334 and 1547, they were then succeeded by the Dean and Canons of Windsor who still retain the patronage, Hamilton Leggett – online source. The first known dedication date for the church is around 1873 when since then the church has been known as St. Mary’s, before then nothing is known. However in 1740 the feast day was said to have been held on Whit Tuesday, Orme, p.197.

The usual ‘clinical’ Pevsner description of the building is:

Perpendicular west tower of granite ashlar, with tall pinnacles. South aisle with straight headed three-light windows, also perpendicular. The north transept and chancel C.14, also the arch from nave into north transept, with a fine carved head corbel on the west side. Simple tracery in the north wall of the north transept, with tomb recess below. South arcade of granite with A type piers and double chamfered arches.”, p.716.

The little church lies nestled amongst a palisade of trees and exudes an air of aged tranquillity. A place where the long departed parishioners lie peacefully in their graves all topped with a variety of granite headstones. From a layman’s point of view the church is very much typical of a Dartmoor church, the Robourough granite has been dappled with centuries of grey lichen growth. The four large pinnacles, each crowned with weather worn crosses, point to the heavens also adorned with coats of gray and orange lichens.

When walking clockwise around the outside of the church the first thing that catches your eye is the large and quite ornate grave which is enclosed in iron railings. Unfortunately the inscription has become weather-worn but you can just make out; “In loving memory of Emily Elizabeth, The beloved daughter of, J & E Isaac, Who entered into rest, September 13th 1894, Aged 17 years, For ever with the Lord.”

Then the north tower looms into view soaring up to its crowning pinnacles and obligatory crows croaking down. There is an imposing church door with heavily age-worn steps that surely have seen the tread of numerous feet. Although in my visit I totally missed it, there is somewhere on the tower is a cross keys motif which some say are representative of Plympton Priory. Hamilton Leggett suggests this is not the case as the tower was built after the church came under the patronage of the Dean and Canons of Windsor. However it may have been some original stonework that was reused. He also quotes R. H. Worth’s suggestion that the motif may well be the cross keys of St. Peter which is also the Papal Arms, Hamilton Leggett – online source.

Sampford Spiney Church Sampford Spiney Church Sampford Spiney Church Sampford Spiney Church

Sampford Spiney Church

On turning the corner of the tower the eye cannot fail to be drawn towards a large mausoleum standing in the farm corner of the churchyard. The question being why should such a grand tomb be located in a small, sleepy Dartmoor churchyard? This is the Godden Mausoleum which was built in 1887/8 and one hundred years later in 1987 became a grade two listed building. The structure is designed in the Neo-Greek style and is constructed from granite rusticated ashlar. The entrance is located on the west side and has a four panelled door along with a cast iron ventilation grill with ‘A1888D’ written in its centre. Above the door is the inscription; ‘Family Tomb of John Godden’, above this is a frieze containing a Celtic cross. On the southern wall is a memorial plaque to Anna Maria Jane who was the wife of John Godden. The other two walls also have memorial plaques to other members of the family. Apparently inside the mausoleum are shelves which hold the family coffins and the structure is still used by the present family today.

Why such a grand mausoleum in a quite Dartmoor graveyard? The father of John Godden, William Godden was the manager of the North Wheal Robert Mine (which was located just north of nearby Horrabridge) and his family resided in Sampford Spiney. John Godden followed his father in the mining business and became a mining engineer. At the age of twenty he travelled to Curacao in the Caribbean Sea and in 1871 discovered huge deposits of guano or specifically sea gull droppings on Klein Curacao (a small, uninhabited  island south-east of Curacao). The guano was particularly high in phosphates which made for ideal fertilizer. Godden later found large deposits on the actual island of Curacao itself which again he exploited, both ventures made him a very wealthy man. Whilst living out there he met and married Anna Maria Wagner, the daughter of the Governor of Curacao. Together they had six children with Anna sadly dying in 1887 after which John Godden remarried and had another four children. So it seems this was a case of ‘going back to one’s roots’ and resulted in the ‘Godden Mausoleum’ being built in Sampford Spiney.

Sampford Spiney Church Sampford Spiney Church Sampford Spiney Church Sampford Spiney Church

Sampford Spiney Church

Moving on and entering the church the eye is initially drawn to the large funerary hatchment mounted on the wall ahead. The name ‘hatchment’ has derived from the French word ‘achevèment‘ and refers to a lozenge shaped depiction of the deceased’s heraldic achievement. Hatchments normally depict the family coat of arms, along with a crest and supporters. Such things are normally associated with the nobility and are hung in the home of the deceased for the mourning period then later transferred to the local church. This particular hatchment of 1817 belongs to Lt. Col. Maine Swete Waldrond and sports the motto ‘Resurgam‘ which roughly translates as; ‘I shall rise again’. Above the door is the second hatchment dating to 1801, this one belongs to Humprey Hall, its motto being ‘In Cœlo Quies‘ translating as ‘There is peace in heaven’.

As with many churches St. Mary’s has undergone several phases of restoration since the fourteen century and probably the most extensive of these took place in the 1860s. I do not intend to go into each and every phase but full details of the architecture and its dates can be found – HERE. Suffice it to say that today the church is a grade 1 listed building.

Sampford Spiney Church Sampford Spiney Church Sampford Spiney Church Sampford Spiney Church

Sampford Spiney Church

Mounted on the wall of the nave is a slate monument which reads; “The, Revd Samuel, Forster who departed, This Life November, the 24th Anno Domini, 1776 aged 53, Who served this, Parish 17 years, Cut by William, Shillabeer.” The granite font dates to the sixteenth century and has panels depicting shields with various crosses carved on them. Above the altar stands the only stained glass window in the church and was given by the wife of the one-time rector – Lancelot Henry. In the north transept can be seen some medieval encaustic tiles sporting pierced geometric designs. In the floor of the nave are various slate ledger stones dating to 1721 and and 1799. Many churches have examples of ledger stones and typically they were placed over a grave located inside the church. They are often decorated with heraldry and inscriptions pertaining to the family. In the case of the 1799 example in St. Mary’s it marked the grave of Jane Hall and depicts two coats of arms. Again in the nave is another stone marking the vault of the Manadon families which according to the inscription measures fourteen feet by nine feet. Probably the most ornate item of furniture is the carved reredos which stands in the small chapel located in the south aisle. The centre panel depicts Christ being crowned although with what I don’t know. To the left is a panel in which St. Peter stands holding his tradition keys to heaven. To the right of the centre panel stands another saint who holds a book again as to who this is I have no idea. Above these panels are a line of four carved heads one being the Virgin Mary and child. Other furniture in the church are a plain pulpit and equally plain and simple lecture. At the back of the church stands the pipe organ which was bought from the church at St. Endellion in Cornwall. The organ was gifted to the church in 2001 and lovingly restored by Peter Bazeley of Tavistock.

Inside the tower hang the modern peal of six bells which were remodelled and in 2008, until then a peal of bells had not been heard over Sampford Spiney for thirty years. In the church inventory of 1553 there were three bells listed and according to the Reverend Ellacombe these were still insitu in 1865, p. 142. . Their inscriptions read; “AMBRES FORTESQE IO GODE WARDEN I. P. 1674.”, “JOHN BOOMAN JOHN DENNING GENT CHURCH WARDENS 1653 T. P. I. P.” and lastly “WALT KING RICHD KING Sp MAN PENNINGTON FECIT 1764.” As with many of Dartmoor’s church bells the ‘I. P’ AND T. P.’ inscriptions denote the bell founding family of Penningtons as it was they who cast the bells.

In 1890 two more bells were donated by John Godden these were cast by the Bristol based founders – Llewellins and James. Both bells were inscribed with the name of the then rector, James Henry.

As mentioned above, in 2008 the peal was remodelled with the old tenor bell being melted down to produce two new bells thus bringing the peal to six bells, Hamilton Leggett – online source. The inscriptions on these read:


Sampford Spiney Church Sampford Spiney Church Sampford Spiney Church Sampford Spiney Church

Sampford Spiney Church

So there you have a brief tour of St. Mary’s church but in no shape or form can this do justice to the place, for that you need to visit. Oh, one last thing, when you do visit walk into the new cemetery and peer over the field wall, if you are lucky you will see a herd of alpacas. These are part of a herd of 46 belonging to the Pugh family of Sampford Manor – see HERE.

Sampford Spiney Church

Cherry, B. and Pevsner, N. 2004. The Buildings of England – Devon. London: Yale University Press.

Rev. H. T. Ellacombe 1872 The Church Bells of Devon. Exeter: H. T. Ellacombe

Gover, J. E. B., Mawer, A. & Stenton, F. M. 1992 The Place Names of Devon, Nottingham: English Place-Name Society.

Hamilton Leggett, P. 2014. A Brief History of St. Marys – online source HERE

Orme, N. 1996. English Church Dedications – Cornwall and Devon. Exeter: Exeter University Press.

Page, J. Ll. W. 1895. An Exploration of Dartmoor. London: Seeley & Co.


About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor


  1. That was a fascinating read. I mean I know that every sculpture and every building has a history of its own but then once you stumble upon something like that you are still dumbfounded. Very cool.

  2. I visited Sampford Spiney a few times recently and latterly made time to take a closer look than I ever did when resident in Horrabridge almost 30 years before. The church is incongruous because of the small size of the parish and population but of course it has to be remembered that this is now; the church has existed for centuries and things may well have been different throughout that time.
    It is an idyllic hamlet, isolated to a degree although within 10 minutes drive of Tavistock. There are no pavements and I have yet to see a resident walking through (or, for that matter, even out in their gardens). There is a beautiful tranquility to the place, very little traffic and definitely a place to spend a little time when in the area.

  3. It is part of my bucket list to visit your church as I am lead to believe that one of my ancestors Jane Head is buried in the church yard. She and my great great great grand father lived at according to a census at Masons Gate,

  4. Christopher Richards

    I live in Curaçao where John Godden mined for phosphate. My father (from Cornwall) worked at the mine. He passed away several years ago. I am particularly interested in information on the extraction of Phosphate on the small uninhabited island of Klein Curaçao. Any idea where I could obtain any?

    “John Godden followed his father in the mining business and became a mining engineer. At the age of twenty he travelled to Curacao in the Caribbean Sea and in 1871 discovered huge deposits of guano or specifically sea gull droppings on Klein Curacao (a small, uninhabited island south-east of Curacao). The guano was particularly high in phosphates which made for ideal fertilizer.”

  5. I have visited St Mary’s several times, although not for some time.
    My great aunt, Louisa Morgan, her husband Ivor, and her mother, Mrs Robbins are buried there.
    Their grave is close to the large John Godden monument.
    No one has been laid to rest in Louisa’s grave since the 1950s.
    I sometimes wonder if local parishioners are surprised that this grave is maintained so long after the last person was buried there.
    My late father, Louisa’s nephew, Herbert Francis Bland, lived with Louisa in a corrugated construction he referred to as the ‘Bungalow’ from circa 1920to 1924. He had good reason to be grateful to his aunt. His mother had died, leaving him alone in London at 16 years old. His father was in Shanghai.
    My father ensured that Stacey’s, monumental mason’s from Liskard, Cornwall, maintained the grave. They still do.
    My father passed away in 1990. Since then, I have continued to do it for him. I never met Aunty Louisa. I wish I had.

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