Axmouth Vicars

The list of Vicars (Rectors until 1374) of Axmouth goes back to Walter Bronescombe, who was Bishop of Exeter from 1257 to 1280, and who began keeping records from the time of his institution. In those days, the right of presentation belonged (with the Manor) to the Prior of Loders; a monk was often chosen to be Rector, and sometimes the Prior himself. Amongst the earlier holders of the office was Roger Hariel, Prior of Loders, instituted as Rector in 1320-1, and who resigned four years later. He is thought to have been the subject of the figure in the chantry, and may have been responsible for a partial rebuilding of the church during his incumbency.

Loders was essentially a French abbey (a cell of the Benedictine Abbey of Montbourg in Normandy), and during the war with France, the right of presentation was suspended by King Richard II, who presented at least two vicars himself over this period. One of these, Master William Slade, Vicar from 1393 to 1397-8 was a M.A. of Exeter College, Oxford, Fellow 1375, Rector 1380-83 (Library built there in 1383); in 1396 he sued Sampson Trygal, Prior of Loders for a more adequate income, and exchanged the living with John Coterell to become Warden of Ottery St. Mary. He was Abbott of Buckfastleigh until 1415. A classical scholar, he penned thirteen books.

His successor John Coterell was in dispute with the chaplain of St. Leonard’s, Dona (now Charton), a hamlet mentioned earlier lying towards the eastern borders of the parish of Axmouth. The chaplain, William Clerk, was instituted to the chantry of St. Edmund (sited near to the bridge over the Coly at Colyford and now disappeared without trace) on 1 June 1416.

Meanwhile, in 1414, Henry V had seized Axmouth, dissolved Loders Priory, and gave the property to the Augustinian Syon Abbey, which was to present seven Vicars. That Abbey was itself suppressed, in 1539, by King Henry VIII, and given, with Axmouth, to Queen Catherine Parr. Then in 1552, Edward VI gave Axmouth to Walter Erle, groom of the Privy Chamber (some records say that he purchased the manor).

The first vicar appointed by Walter Erle was John Hopkyns, in 1558. His predecessor, John Berry (or Bury) had survived the tumults of the Reformation and consequential changes to the pattern and language of worship before, and perhaps after, the reign of Queen Mary.

Walter Erle married a daughter, one of four heirs of Richard Weekes (Wyke), of Bindon Manor. He bought another share, and lived at Bindon, which had formed a part of the Axmouth Manor in pre-Conquest times, but which was separate by 1238. It had (and still has) a private chapel first licensed for worship in 1425, and renewed in 1972. The Walter Erle mentioned on the Bindon Chapel monument and described on an earlier page was a grandson of this original Walter.

Another partial heir (through marriage) of Richard Weekes sold his portion to William Mallache (Mallock). They lived at Steppes, (a good Tudor longhouse, at present divided into two separate dwellings), until they bought Rousdon from Sir Ralph Down. In his Book of the Axe George Pulman refers to several monuments in Axmouth Church erected to members of this family, but none of them are now evident.

Richard Harvey, Vicar from 1590 to 1632, and who came from a Lyme Regis family, married Dorothy Ley of Bindon, and by marriage became uncle to the Patron, Thomas Erle. His son William married Elizabeth Mallock in 1627. From 1611, this son was Vicar of Burrington, in North Devon, and became one of the many ejected from his living during the Commonwealth. It is said that he was looked upon as one of the most considerate of all the clergy.

The successor of Richard Harvey was more for Commonwealth than Crown. William Hooke became Vicar in 1632, but was forced to leave that Harbour because of his seditious sermons and his Nonconformity. He went to New England, but returned to Old England when the Grand Rebellion broke out, became Master of the Savoy, and Chaplain to Oliver Cromwell. He was also Minister of Rousdon from a date unstated until his deprivation in 1665, but had resigned the living of Axmouth in 1639.

William Wright was another puritan and presbyterian who served as Vicar from 1648 until his death in 1669, and so must have conformed at the Restoration of the monarchy and Established Church. On the death of his wife in 1658, he inherited some land at Colyton, and also had connections with the Pyne family of Combpyne and Pinhay. According to Pulman, the Pyne family also have a monument in Axmouth Church, but its whereabouts is not now known.

The next two Vicars, John Tucker (1670 to 1677), and Edward Rowe (1677-8 to 1706) both died locally, and were buried in the Chancel. In the South Aisle floor, one of the few stones still to retain legible inscription, bears his name with those of other members of his family.

In 1679, Axmouth was sold to Sir Walter Yonge, but Walter Oke became patron by grant of Thomas Erle. A few years later, in 1691, the Hallett family bought the manor and took over the patronage. The ensuing seventy years saw the appointment of several vicars, some of which appear to have held other offices elsewhere, and thus may have been absentees. As already related, Richard Hothersall Hallett became Vicar in 1764 on the presentation of his brother Southcott. Richard later resigned, but put himself back in 1783 (by now on his own petition), and as Rector of Rousdon as well. On his death in 1814, his youngest son succeeded to the livings of both Axmouth and Rousdon, remaining nominally until his own death in 1858, but, in practice, having taken little part in the affairs of either parish for many years before then. His nephew, George Thomas Comyns was appointed Curate in about 1835, and Vicar (of Axmouth only) on the death of his uncle. He, in turn resigned and moved away to become Vicar of Sidbury in 1864.

Edward Templer Harrington (1864 to 1874) was responsible for repairs to the roof of the South Aisle in 1867, and implemented various administrative reforms, in particular, that of 1870 by which future church expenditure was to be funded from voluntary contributions, and that the old Church Rate of between 2d. and 7d. in the should henceforth be abolished. He had family connections in Bath, where he died, and was buried nearby, at Kelston. He was the last Vicar of Axmouth to die whilst still in office.

The next Vicar, and the last one to be presented by a Hallett, was Samuel Clement Davis (1874 to 1892). He was closely connected to the Pridham family, and there are memorials to both in the nave of the church. Samuel Davis is chiefly remembered for his untiring efforts to organise and encourage the great programme of restoration and modernisation, begun in the early 1880s, and which culminated in the re-opening service of 1st October 1889 . He was able to achieve this despite severe health problems, and he undertook several trips abroad, to the South of France and elsewhere, and even an absence of six months, in 1888, when he visited Australia, to try to regain his fitness. All was to no avail, and after his wife died, aged only 49, in May 1890, his strength ebbed away rapidly. He resigned the living in 1892 and moved from Axmouth to Paignton where he died two years later. He is buried, with his wife, in Axmouth churchyard.

Arthur Lewis succeeded as Vicar in March 1892, but left again after only four years. Local legend has it that this was because of a disagreement with the patron of the living, Samuel Sanders Stephens, over styles of worship. After leaving Axmouth in 1896, he spent some time in India on missionary work, and later returned to East Devon to become Vicar of Chardstock, where he served from 1906 until 1919. His daughter, Miriam, was married there in 1911 to Arthur Francis Pridham, whose Axmouth Church memorial has already been described. Arthur Lewis retired, and lived in and around Bristol and Portishead, where he died in 1952 at the great age of 97 years.

John Frederick Starforth came to Axmouth in 1896, and served here for over thirty years, during which time he and his wife Margaret were to become much-loved friends to all. Born in Lanchester, Co. Durham, he studied at Durham University, and held posts as a curate in Yorkshire, then for six years at St. Martin’s, in Birmingham’s Bull Ring, before his appointment here. He enjoyed country and sporting pursuits, and made regular visits to Scotland for golf and the grouse season. One such holiday, when he was said to have been absent for four Sundays, coincided with the delayed celebrations in August 1902 for the Coronation of King Edward VII, when, as a result, there was no special service at Axmouth to mark the occasion. He retired from active ministry at the end of September 1928, and spent his remaining years nearby, at Seaton. Margaret died in January 1944, and his own death took place in September 1948, at the age of 85 years. Both are interred here in Axmouth.

The next vicar, Henry Meade Swifte, was not long in arriving at Axmouth. He had previously held the living of Warboys, Huntingdonshire, and had been ordained in 1924 after studying at the London College of Divinity. He had served as a Regular officer in the Great War, and was twice wounded, once severely, on the Somme. In the conflict of 1939-1945, he became Officer in command of the Axmouth Platoon of the Home Guard. He resigned the office of Vicar in 1946, and was subsequently appointed Rector of Broughton, near Brigg, in the Diocese of Lincoln.

The appointment, in 1946, of Hugh Peregrine Griffiths M.A. was effectively to bring to a close several chapters of Axmouth church history. He was to be the last Vicar to hold, as his sole responsibility, the parish of Axmouth; the last to be presented under the patronage of the Stedcombe Estate (which ceased in 1957); and the last ecclesiastical occupant of Axmouth Vicarage. He and his wife Dora came here in middle life from North Cornwall, after a varied career, and the book later written by Dora Griffiths, entitled Through a Vicarage Window, tells the story of their experiences both before and after their arrival in East Devon. In particular, the account of their first visit to Stedcombe from Cornwall, and of their interview by the two ladies of the manor, is a fascinating description. During their time here, they were to witness many changes, not least those which ensued after the death of Miss Stephens, and the subsequent break-up of the estate. In 1970, retirement came, and the couple went to live in Charmouth. Hugh died, aged 91 years, in June 1982: Dora aged 90, in August 1987. Like so many of their predecessors, they are buried here in the churchyard. Under the will of Dora Griffiths, Axmouth Church received a generous legacy, as a result of which a significant enhancement to the Organ, Vestry, and elsewhere was implemented in 1988-89.

After 1970, fundamental changes had to be faced: the right of presentation was suspended, and Axmouth came under the temporary care of Revd. Marmaduke Isherwood, Rector of Musbury, he himself approaching retirement age. John Victor Mapson B.A. then came to Axmouth, licensed as priest-in-charge, with effect from 1st September 1971. In a succession of complex administrative changes, he was inducted pro tem. as Vicar, under the patronage of the Church Pastoral Aid Society, on 25 July 1972; appointed additionally priest-in-charge of Musbury from May 1973, following Marmaduke’s retirement; and, finally, Vicar of Axmouth with Musbury from 1st August 1975, by now under the joint patronage of C.P.A.S. and the Dean and Chapter of Exeter. John Mapson never resided in the parish of Axmouth: he spent some time in the Colyford area, before moving into Musbury Rectory after it became vacant. John Mapson resigned the living in 1977, and was appointed Vicar of Cullompton, where he served for some years. He has since occupied other posts in the Diocese, and in mid-1999 was responsible for editorial and publicity aspects of the Exeter Diocesan News.

Brian Rowland Gerry (pronounced with a hard ‘g’) was inducted at Axmouth on 4th November 1977, under the same joint patronage as applied for his predecessor. He came to Axmouth from Battersea in South London, and lived in the newly-built Vicarage in Axmouth, very close to the old one. He remained here until the end of 1985, when he resigned the living and took a new appointment at St. Mary Magdelene, in Torquay.

More changes now took place: Musbury PCC petitioned for a dissolution of the union and that parish was joined to the Colyton Team Ministry. Axmouth then came under the care of the Revd. Frederick Stuart Worth, who had served as Rector of Uplyme since 1978. After more administrative processes were finally completed, Axmouth became a part of the combined benefice of Uplyme with Axmouth. The patronage was again amended in 1989, and is now jointly held by the Hyndman Trustees, and the Church Pastoral Aid Society. In 1996, Stuart Worth was honoured by his appointment as a Prebendary of Exeter Cathedral. He retired from active ministry on 31st August 2000.

Revd Jeremy White became Rector of Uplyme and Axmouth in 2001 and oversaw the expansion of lay ministry in the 2 churches, both qualified Lay Readers and other trained members of both congregations. He retired because of ill health in 2008 but continues to conduct some funeral services in both churches.

Following Jeremy’s retirement, the post of vicar in Uplyme and Axmouth was reduced to a part time living, initially as 0.5 and subsequently as a 0.7 position.

On December 6th 2009, Revd Gavin Tyte was installed as priest-in-charge of Uplyme and Axmouth on this basis. Known as the ‘beatboxing vicar’, Gavin is a performing artist as well as a priest. He moved on in September 2013.

Revd Kate Woolven, the next incumbent, is the first woman to have been installed as vicar of the two parishes. She was licensed as priest-in-charge on 30th January 2014 and relicensed as Rector on 15th November 2015. She expanded the training of the laity in support of the ministry in both churches. Kate resigned on 6th January 2019.

At this point, Exeter Diocese began consulting on whether the existing pastoral organisation in the diocese was still appropriate for the needs of the next ten years.  A lengthy process involving all the affected PCCs determined that Axmouth should join a larger group of local churches.

From 1st July 2020, the Axe Valley Mission Community (AVMC) was expanded to include Axmouth, as well as Uplyme, along with the existing churches at Axminster, All Saints, Chardstock, Combpyne, Membury and Woodbury. The Team Rector Revd Clive Sedgewick had already assumed temporary responsibility for all churches since September the previous year and the Team Vicar Revd Nicky Davies was licensed to join him on 11th August 2020. They now head up the AVMC between them: 2 full-time priests in charge of 8 churches.