This is the first of four articles based on the parish magazine entries of Tony Barnard of Stoke Damerel Parish Church, looking at people and events that have made the Church what it is today.
The Reverend Doctor Edward Bridges Blackett was Rector of Stoke Damerel Parish Church for 38 years, from 25 May 1753 until his death in 1791.
During extensive works carried out to the church floor in recent years, a ledger stone was discovered. We believe it marks the location of his grave. The stone, which is ‘mirror’ polished black slate, was found close to the Organ Loft, in the north-east corner of the church. Untouched for over 250 years, it was a little dusty but otherwise in pristine condition. Its position is extremely puzzling though, as to our knowledge it’s below any previously known floor level.
Reverend Blackett’s incumbency started a few years after the church had been extended for a second time in 35 years – a southwards extension of 36 feet and 6 inches along the whole length of the building. An 80’-0” gallery was also constructed across the west end.
The acreage of the parish was probably then at its greatest, covering an area of land stretching from St. Budeaux in the north, along the River Tamar in the west, across to Pennycross in the east, and down to Stonehouse in the south. Stoke Damerel Parish Church, alone, served the fast expanding town of Dock (later Devonport) and, as other parishes were formed within its boundary over the years, became known as the ‘Mother Church of Devonport’. At the time, Dock was probably larger and more important than the adjacent Plymouth due to its naval dockyard. Congregations for Sunday services at Stoke Damerel were exceptionally large, necessitating the increase in its size.
About 20 years later, in 1771, even more space was needed for the ever-increasing number of attendees. A ‘Chapel of Ease’ was built nearby. St. Aubyn’s Church was the first of many new church parishes to be ‘carved-out’ of the parish and was named after the landowning St. Aubyn family.
Interestingly, the boundary between the parishes of Stoke Damerel and St. Aubyn runs along the wall line at the east end of St. Aubyn Church. At a later date, an extension was constructed to the worship space on the east side. The parish boundary was never altered so, for nearly 125 years, the altar and chancel of St. Aubyn’s Church has actually been located within the parish of Stoke Damerel!
Reverend Blackett was renowned for his comments about Stoke Damerel Church’s bells and bell-ringers. In 1788, three of the bells in the tower were cracked. At a Vestry Meeting in June of that year a proposal to re-form them into one large tenor bell was put forward.
The proposal was put to the vote in July. There were only four votes in its favour, including that of Reverend Blackett, along with 33 votes for a peel of six bells to be cast.
Reverend Blackett did not support this, even commenting: ‘Six bells would be productive of more idleness and drunkenness than is in the Parish already…’.
He was ignored and six bells were cast and hung in the tower in 1789. They first rang out when King George III visited Plymouth Dock, with Queen Charlotte and three Princesses. The royal party was driven past the church in a horse-drawn carriage. A commemorative board still hangs in the Ringers Chamber containing the ‘Ringers Rhyme’, which records the occasion.
The bells were re-cast again as a peel of eight, in 1977, as this commemorative board below records.
Perhaps Reverend Blackett upset the bell-ringers with his remarks? If so, they may have been responsible for ensuring his ledger stone was set below floor level and out of sight. It might also explain why the stone only records very basis information about him, as seen in this image. We will probably never know!
Here are some other interesting things that happened during Reverend Blackett’s tenure:
A ‘famous’ murder took place in the churchyard on 21 July 1787. Philip Smith, 2nd Clerk of The Dockyard Survey Office was set upon and killed. John Richards, and William Smith, were apprehended, tried, convicted, and hanged for the crime. The hanging took place in Exeter, after which a reported crowd of 2,000 people assembled opposite Stoke Damerel Church, to witness their bodies being placed in iron cages on a transvers gibbet – as depicted in a well-known etching which normally hangs in the church link-corridor.
It was more than seven years before the last of their remains disappeared. Reverend Blackett would have walked past the grizzly scene every time he journeyed between his home at The Rectory and the Church. The last pieces of the gibbet were reported to have been blown down in 1827, having been there for 40 years. It may seem appalling to us now, but commemorative snuff boxes were made from the wood by a local carpenter. Even worse, Christmas Cards depicting the event, were later sold to the public, one of which is now in the church archives.
During the 1700s, Devonport-born Tobias Furneaux sailed around the world with Captain Cook. There are a number of locations in South Australia and Tasmania which they named, and which are familiar to us in Devon and Cornwall. Tobias later went on to become the first person to sail around the world in both directions. He died at his home in 1781, at the age of 46, reputedly from gout. His grave and memorial stone are located outside the Church opposite the North Porch.
The Furneaux family resided at Swilly House, now demolished. A number of memorials to other members of the family still exist and can be seen in the North East corner of the church, not far from Reverend Beckett’s recently discovered ledger stone.