Throughout the West Country many carved bench ends are decorated with punch marks, repeated decorative designs hammered into the wood using a punch. Usually the same punch mark is found on several bench ends in each church in which it appears – which makes sense: making a punch would have been an arduous task, so having made one you’d certainly use it more than once. However, it was brought to my attention by Todd Gray that throughout Devon the same punch was not used in more than one church, that is to say, each church with punched decoration had its own punch. I’ll explore the question in more detail in a later article, but for now let’s go with the idea that each church had its own unique punch mark, like this one from Sandford.
Not every church contains benches with punch marks, and in those churches which do have punch marks not every bench has been punched, but it was with the idea of unique punch marks that I looked at the benches in Lewtrenchard, Devon. The bench ends at Lewtrenchard fall into three distinct groups:
- The bench ends which were made for Lewtrenchard church some time around 1529, give or take (see Dating the Bench Ends, part 1.)
- Bench ends made in the Victorian period and installed in the church by the then vicar, Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould
- Historic bench ends, possibly from Staverton church, Devon, rescued and relocated to Lewtrenchard by Baring-Gould.
All three groups of bench ends owe their current presence in the church to the Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould, an archetypal Victorian polymath. Baring-Gould was an ordained minister in the Church of England, son of the Manor of Lewtrenchard, antiquarian, novelist, and collector of folk-songs and folklore. In more general circles he is best known as the composer of the hymn Onward Christian Soldiers. At a traditional musician myself I have long been familiar with his Songs of the West, a battered copy of which lived atop the harmonium in my parents’ house throughout my childhood, and his various collections of West Country folklore and legend have been edited and reprinted many times. Because of his devotion to preserving music and folklore I have always considered Baring-Gould to be one of the good Victorians.
In 1881 the curacy of Lewtrenchard church became vacant and, as the lord of the manor, Baring-Gould appointed himself and began a program of work which involved undoing much of the ‘improvement’ of his immediate predecessors, including his uncle, the Rev. Charles Baring-Gould. Seven bench ends had been deposited in the church tower, along with fragments of the 1520 rood screen, and Baring-Gould reinstated bench ends and rood screen into their proper places. These bench ends include images of instruments of the Passion, St. Michael, Christ, and some unidentifiable figures.
At around the same time Baring-Gould oversaw the manufacture of a number of new bench ends in an historical style, which make up the majority of the carved bench ends in the church. Some of these bear images but most are pairs of initials, including a BG for Baring-Gould himself. Though they are obviously newer than the original bench ends Baring-Gould’s workmen did a fine job of making them a very sympathetic addition to the church.
The third set of bench ends are perhaps the most interesting. In 1877, before Baring-Gould took the curacy of Lewtrenchard the Church of St. Paul de Leon, Staverton, Devon, was ‘restored,’ and Baring-Gould rushed to remove the Gould family memorials there to prevent them being lost or destroyed. The Staverton bench ends were removed at the same time, but lost. After installing himself at Lewtrenchard Baring-Gould discovered four historic bench ends in a curiosity shop, one of which bore the arms of the Gould family of Staverton. On 1 March 1882 Baring-Gould noted in his diary that he had
‘recovered what I believe to have been four of the old bench ends from Staverton church, removed at the restoration (so called) some thirty years ago… the book desk has on it our early arms, a chevron between 3 roses, the colours not indicated… I do not know for certain that these came from Staverton, but I cannot conjecture in what other church our arms could be.’
These four bench ends were removed to Lewtrenchard church, where they still reside.
The first of Baring-Gould’s ‘Staverton’ bench ends, which bears the arms of the Goulds of Staverton. Although Baring-Gould’s identification of Staverton as the original church in which this bench ends resided was speculation, it seems reasonable to accept that he was probably correct.
The second of Baring-Gould’s ‘Staverton’ bench ends is similar in style to the first. The top half has been completely replaced, which gives us some idea of the poor state it must have been in when he found it.
The third ‘Staverton’ bench end must also have been in a poor state of preservation because Baring-Gould had it restored. In this case he was perhaps a little over-enthusiastic in the restoration for he recorded that on of the original shields still had discernible choughs on it, which he had planed off to provide a surface on which to fix the new shields, based on designs he saw in Boscastle. Sad though it is that Baring-Gould had the original design destroyed, the bench ends of Boscastle have since been lost so this ‘restored’ bench end at least gives us an idea of how vibrant they must have been.
The fourth of Baring-Gould’s bench end discoveries stands out to me. It is quite unlike the other three (probably) from Staverton or any of the surviving bench ends from Lewtrenchard. The tracery in four panels and the crenellated top are both highly unusual and I am fairly confident that Baring-Gould was mistaken about its origin. I cannot offer any real speculation as to where it might have come from, but I don’t think it’s part of the Staverton set.
So what does any of this have to do with punch marks?
Lewtrenchard is one of the churches where a unique punch mark can be seen on the original bench ends.
The design is repeated on several of the original bench ends at Lewtrenchard and consists of a central hole surrounded by a circle of eight points, much like a sun or star.
When Baring-Gould had the new bench ends made for the church he evidently paid close attention to the details of the historic examples, and had a punch made which was very similar to the original punch, in this case a central hole surrounded by a circle of seven points.
The second, third, and fourth of the ‘Staverton’ bench ends have no punch marks at all. That’s not surprising, as I said earlier, lots of bench ends don’t have punch marks. However the first, the one bearing the Gould coat of arms, is decorated with punch marks, and at first glance they look very similar to the Lewtrenchard punch marks.
This got me wondering, what are the chances of two churches in Devon, both with connections to the Gould family, having near-identical punch marks? It’s possible, of course: other churches share similar but not identical punch marks. The Goulds did not arrive at Lewtrenchard until 1626, long after the bench ends there were made, so it’s not as if the similarity of design could be ascribed to a whim of a member of the Gould family.; The coincidence of members of a family moving into a manor, the church adjacent to which had the same (more or less) punched design on its bench ends as those in another church where a different branch of the family lived would be remarkable indeed. However, there is no coincidence and the answer is disappointing rather than remarkable.
Closer examination of the punch marks on the Gould coat of arms shows that they have seven points, and were made by the same punch as the marks on Baring-Gould’s new bench ends. They were added to the sixteenth-century bench end in the nineteenth century. Baring-Gould’s reasons for vandalising the bench end in this way can only be guessed at. Misguided ‘restoration’ of bench ends is one thing, but the deliberate alteration of an otherwise perfectly sound bench end seems a bit unnecessary. It is quite enough to make me consider revising my opinion of Baring-Gould as a good Victorian. Still, at least he didn’t replace them with stackable chairs.