Alleged child murder at Kenton

If you are a fan of Who Do You Think You Are you will probably remember the story of Danny Dyer’s great great grandmother and the account of her concealment of the birth and death of her illegitimate child. It was a sad tale of a young woman who gave birth alone and in secret. When she found her new-born infant was dead she tried to hide the body. Later she was charged with murder, but eventually cleared of that charge but convicted of concealing the birth.


A chance find in the British Newspaper Archive revealed a similar case in Kenton[i]. This case occurred in 1865, when  Harriet Vooght  appeared before the Exeter Assizes charged with the wilful murder of her new-born female child in Kenton. Vooght was 21 years old and a servant in the household of Mr Martin Strickland of Starcross in the parish of Kenton. She was nurse to Strickland’s five children and had been in the household for two years. Witnesses reported that on Monday 9 January 1865 Vooght was taken ill. She went to bed at six or seven in the evening where she remained for the whole of the following day. The doctor didn’t call until the Wednesday as he had been in Exeter on the Tuesday.

At the trial the doctor reported that he had seen the patient and asked her if she had miscarried. She had replied that she did not know. Having asked for the key to her box the doctor found the body of a child loosely wrapped in a cloth, under some clothing. He took it out and found some narrow tape wound tightly around its neck and tied neatly with a double bow. From the appearance of the body he thought it likely the child had been born on the Monday night. He later carried out a post-mortem examination. It was a healthy full term child. The lungs were pink and filled the chest cavity and he was satisfied the child had breathed although he could not say the child had ever had a separate existence. He then went on to add that without doubt the cause of death was strangulation.

The defence lawyer intervened at this point and told him he should not go any further as he had not been able to confirm that the child had had a separate existence and therefore the more serious charge of murder should not be pursued. The judge confirmed that if this was so it would not legally be murder. He suggested that the defence lawyer should ‘soften the moral aspect of the case’. Under cross examination the doctor confirmed that immediately after giving birth, and especially for the first time, mothers were not conscious of what they were doing half the time and that a woman might destroy her offspring without even being aware of it.

The court had already heard evidence from Vooght’s employer and her fellow servants about her good character, her kindness and generosity, her gentleness and how fond the children in her care were of her. She was kind to animals and ‘she would not tread on a worm’.

It would appear that everyone involved sympathised with Vooght. Her employer and colleagues all spoke of her kind nature. Her defence lawyer argued that there was insufficient evidence for murder and addressed the matter of concealment. The prosecution had spoken in a ‘feeling and temperate way’. The judge summed up very favourably for the defendant. The jury acquitted Vooght on the charge of murder but found her guilty of concealment of birth, strongly recommending her to mercy. She was sentenced to imprisonment for fifteen months after the judge remarked that the jury had returned a just verdict but that it was impossible to pass over the fact that tape had been found tied tightly around the child’s neck.

So how common was this kind of case in the Victorian period? A search of the British Newspaper Archive using the terms “alleged child murder” with “concealment of birth” brings up a total of 1347 results. 45 are during the period 1800-49, 1242 occur between 1850 and 1899, and a further 60 from 1900 to 1929. Of course this shouldn’t be interpreted as the number of individual cases. In most instances the same case will have been reported in multiple newspapers and in some cases the defined search terms will have missed an incidence.


The Offences Against the Person Act (1861) created the offence of concealing the birth of a child with a maximum sentence of two years imprisonment. A proviso allowed a jury to find an alternative verdict of this offence on a charge of murder. Given the number of cases it would appear that this was a common device within the legal system. It appears to have allowed sympathetic juries and the legal professionals to find an alternative to lengthy prison sentences or execution for murder in such cases. This sympathy can also be seen in the number of infanticide cases during the same time frame when women were deemed to have been suffering from puerperal insanity and committed to an asylum. It has been estimated that 15% of all women admitted to asylums at the time were suffering from ‘post-natal mania’.[ii] Pleading this form of temporary insanity was frequently met with a sympathetic response. In the case of Harriet Vooght described above, we can see that the defence lawyer and the medical witness were preparing the way for such a response if the alternative plea of concealment had not been successful.

A finding of concealment or of temporary insanity may have made the crime more understandable to the Victorian public at a time when motherhood and the ‘angel in the house’ role of womankind was revered.

[i] All the information regarding the case is taken from a detailed report of the court case printed in The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 24 March 1865 via British Newspaper Archive


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The Old Post Office, Kenton

I recently came across the best picture I have seen of the old post office in Kenton. Most of the pictures I have seen have come from old postcards and are part of group scenes of The Triangle, but this picture is a photograph of just the one building. It probably dates from the early 1920s. Its clarity enables a close examination of the architectural detail in a way that most pictures do not. In this photograph it is the subject rather than being the backdrop to The Triangle. The photograph is included in A E Richardson and C Lovett Gill’s Regional Architecture of the West of England (1924)[i]. That photograph is, I believe, still subject to copyright so unfortunately I will not be including it here. Instead I am inluding a scene of The Triangle, which has a good and reasonably detailed view of the Old Post Office. This is taken from a postcard of around 1910.

The Old Post Office to the right with the Diamond Jubilee horse trough centre front

The Old Post Office to the right with the Diamond Jubilee horse trough centre front


The building occupied by the old post office adjoined what is now The Rodean Restaurant. It was demolished in 1965.

The building is thought to have dated from around 1810. A newspaper report suggests 1817.[ii] As can be seen, it was of classic Georgian proportions, symmetrically double fronted, two-storied and with a centrally placed porticoed doorway. There were flat, segmented sashed bow windows either side of the door and a central attic dormer. Tall elegantly proportioned chimneys are prominent features, as they are with many of Kenton’s period buildings. Regional Architecture of the West of England described it as a “good specimen of the treatment of flat segmental bows to a house of small size”.[iii]

By the time it was demolished it had become neglected and dilapidated. It had operated as the post office from the earliest time that a post office was established in the village. But in 1963 the building and the business were purchased by Mr Johnson, who had a grocery business very close by. He transferred the post office business to his grocery store, where it remains to this day. The building itself was left empty. Although he tried to sell the building as a residence, there were no bidders, despite it already being listed of architectural and historical interest.

Then Devon County Council purchased the building with a view to demolishing it for road widening, although a Council spokesman was reported to have said that various points of view were being considered and that its fate had not been decided.[iv] Opinion was divided, with some thinking that the removal of the building was essential to make the road safe for traffic. Others thought that the road was, paradoxically so dangerous as to be already safe and that if the road were widened motorists would be tempted to drive faster through the village.

Local residents organised a petition calling for the building to be saved stating that the post office had been scheduled as a building of architectural interest. The Georgian Group had also protested to the County Council about the demolition scheme. Local protests also claimed that demolition would be a waste of ratepayers’ money when a by-pass was already in the County’s plan, which would turn the village into a rural backwater. A local councillor claimed that “In five or six years’ time there will be a by-pass around the village, so why waste money and spoil the beauty of the village for what amounts to a temporary road improvement?”[v]

The protests were to no avail, and the Old Post Office was subsequently demolished. At the same time part of the village green The Triangle, was sacrificed to the road widening, and the horse trough, place to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee was dismantled and moved. The horse trough is now used as a planter for the village flower displays.

So what does hindsight tell us about this event? The most obvious is that because the road had been widened, the much talked about by-pass was never built, presumably because it was felt to be no longer a priority. Traffic still flows through the village on the now much busier A379 and although the one tightest pinch point was removed others remain. Traffic speeds through the village to the point that traffic calming measures have had to be implemented, and the pavement widened elsewhere to slow traffic.  And a building recognised as being of great historical and architectural merit was lost forever and can now only be appreciated from period photographs.

[i] A E Richardson and C Lovett Gill (1924 facsimile edition 2001) Regional Architecture of the West of England p112

[ii] Express and Echo 4 January 1965

[iii] A E Richardson and C Lovett Gill (1924 facsimile edition 2001) Regional Architecture of the West of England p115

[iv] Express and Echo  Express and Echo  4 January 1965

[v] Express and Echo 1 February 1965

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A story of disability from the Overseers’ Accounts

Another trip to the Devon Heritage Centre has uncovered a disturbing story that left me feeling rather uncomfortable.

Names are important. In many ways they define us. They are how we identify ourselves to the world and how the world knows us. There have been times when the naming of names has assumed a particular significance, such as after the war of 1914-19. Then the state poured enormous effort and resources into naming the names of the war dead. There have been other occasions when names have been replaced by numbers as a dehumanising tactic. Here the primary example is probably that of the Nazi’s treatment of their holocaust targets, who were tattooed with identification numbers. Perhaps it is for this reason that there was such controversy about the dehumanising effect of politicians describing refugees as swarms or hoards. So finding an example of a person with a disability having their identity disregarded has left me feeling rather disturbed; to modern eyes and ears it just seems shocking.

There are gaps in the Kenton Overseers’ records. No records seem to have survived for the period 1782 to 1811. The Overseers’ Account books in the Devon Heritage Centre resume in November 1812 so the first entries cover the period from November 1812 to Easter 1813 when, alongside the usual records of payments for out- relief to named individuals, and disbursements, there are some entries  for ‘the Dumb Girl’. The first of these is for ‘clothing for the Dumb Girl’ and then an entry which shows that she was in receipt of 2 shillings and six pence per week.

20 weeks at 2s6d a week for the Dumb Girl          £2 10s[i]

Later the amounts accounted for show that payments were increased to 5 shillings a week, with occasional payments to others for the purchase of items of clothing for her such as ‘Mrs Bear for clothing for the Dumb Girl’ and ‘Mary Gooding for worsted for the Dumb Girl.’[ii]

Sometimes the entries record payments as simply being for the Dumb Girl but other entries show payments being made ‘to Mary Rugg for the Dumb Girl.’ Mary Rugg seems to have been the ‘go-to’ person at the time. She is shown as being paid for numerous tasks such as mending clothing and bedding from the poor house, watching over those who were sick, and washing the recently deceased.

The Overseers’ Accounts continue to record payments made for Dumb Girl until the end of 1821, when the records again break off. Entries variously refer to The Dumb Girl, Dummy, Dumey, and once, Dumb Maid.[iii] When a different Overseer takes over, indicated by a change in handwriting, he began to record payments in approximate alphabetical order of the name of the recipient. His entries into the accounts book at this point have her payments recorded in the ‘D’ section of his accounts.  So

Davey Thos

Dawe Walter

Dumb Girl

Dally Elizh

Just once during the whole of the period from 1812 to 1821 is there anything which gives a clue to the ‘dumb girl’s’ identity, when in 1817 a single entry refers to Dummy Frost[iv], but at no time is a forename given. That single entry makes it clear that her identity was known to the Overseers but it looks as if it did not seem necessary to them to record it, although all the other paupers who were receiving support were named in full.

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of this case however comes from some entries in the accounts book during 1816 and 1817. In July 1816 an extra payment of 1 shilling is made against a description ‘Dumb Girl ill’ followed shortly by a second 1 shilling payment to ‘Sarah Evans for attending the Dumb Girl.’ The next entry for her though sheds some light on the illness

attendance for the Dumb Girl in labour                  5s[v]

and on the 5th August a blanket is purchased for the child, described as ‘Dumb Girls child.’ The child was then removed from its mother and given to a wet nurse who was paid for nursing and caring for the baby. Once again no name is mentioned. Entries are recorded against ‘Dumb Girls child’ or ‘Dummys child’. In February 1817 wood is purchased ‘for use of Dumeys child ill’.[vi] No further mention of the child is made.

It is impossible not to speculate about the circumstances which led to ‘Dumb Girl’s’ pregnancy and the birth of her child. We do not know the nature of her ‘dumbness’. However it seems certain that if she had been assaulted, which seemed likely to me, she would have been unable to report the offense or identify the perpetrator. There is no indication that efforts were made to identify the child’s father. This would be the usual course of action when an illegitimate child was likely to be a burden on the poor rates. The Overseers must therefore have determined that no information was likely to be forthcoming and so nothing was done to either make the father pay for the upkeep of his child or to determine if any criminal charges should have been brought.

The gaps in the surviving records are frustrating. We do not know how long Dumb Girl had been supported by the parish before the surviving records open, nor from the Overseers’ Accounts do we know what became of Dumb Girl or her child. But armed with the two pieces of information – the surname Frost and the birth of a child in around July 1816 – I determined to name them and restore their identities. Knowing that the child had been born alive it seemed certain that the Overseers would have ensured it was baptised, and so it proved. The baptismal records show that on 28 July 1817 Jane Frost, illegitimate daughter of Jane Frost was baptised in All Saints’ Parish Church, Kenton, having been born four days earlier on 24 July.

Jane Frost lived just 7 months and was buried on 12 February 1817, shortly after the entry in the accounts recording the purchase of wood, presumably to keep the child warm when she was ill. A short, sad life, but not a nameless one. Jane Frost, her mother, died in November 1823. The burial records show her as Jane Frost of The Poorhouse, Kenton. Surprisingly she was 48 years old. She was therefore over 40 years old when she gave birth to her daughter and although constantly referred to as the Dumb Girl was not a girl but an adult woman. Sadly I’ve been unable to find any more information about her. There are no readily identifiable potential baptisms for c1775 which could confirm her own parentage. However the fact that Jane Frost was, in fact, in her 40s at the time that her own child would have been conceived, and not the child I had imagined from the numerous references to her as a girl, opens up another possibility. It is still possible, and perhaps likely, that she was subjected to an assault, but just possibly, as an adult albeit disabled, she made her own choices about her sexual activity.

But Jane Frost Senior and Jane Frost Junior whose lives were short and quite possibly traumatic at least have their names.

[i] Devon Heritage Centre, Kenton/70A/PO6 Overseers Account Book November 1812-March 1813

[ii] Devon Heritage Centre Kenton/70A/PO6 Overseers Account Book 1 January 1816

[iii] ‘Maid’ is being used here as the colloquial term often used in Devon and Cornwall for girls and young women, rather than in the sense of a domestic servant

[iv] Devon Heritage Centre Kenton/70A/PO7 Overseers Account Book Lady Day 1817

[v] Devon Heritage Centre Kenton /70A/PO6 Overseers Account Book July 1816

[vi] Devon Heritage Centre Kenton/70A/PO7 Overseers Account Book February 1817

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John Rack, a child that was found

A recent visit to London’s Foundling Museum prompted me to follow up the story of a local foundling.

Thomas Coram established the Foundling Hospital in London in 1739. He had been moved by the sight of children abandoned on the streets of London and wanted to provide an alternative option for mothers who felt unable to care for their babies.[i] The Foundling Hospital was Britain’s first home for abandoned children.  When babies were accepted into the Hospital they were given new names, removing the ties to their parentage. But what happened to those children who weren’t admitted to care of Coram’s institution or those who weren’t in London?

Fleeting glimpses of one such appear in the records in Kenton, and I have attempted to recover some of this child’s story. The brief mentions of this true foundling – a child that was found – can only give some bare details but even so there is enough to recover a shadowy outline of this one foundling child. As with the babies at Coram’s, this child’s origins will now never be known. It seems that a baby boy was found abandoned somewhere within the parish boundaries of Kenton in May 1747. The baby was almost certainly a newborn infant, although this isn’t anywhere specified. The first mention of him is in the Overseers’ accounts which state that Joan Standfast had been paid 2/- (two shillings) ‘for keeping the child that was found.’[ii]

Unless the parents could be found and held responsible for the upkeep of their child, in such circumstances the child was likely to prove a charge on the parish poor rate for many years to come. With Overseers generally concerned with keeping the poor rate low this was to be avoided if at all possible. And so the Overseers offered a reward for discovering who had abandoned the child.

For crying a reward for the child that was found to Kenn and Powderham      [two neighbouring parishes] and Kenton and carrying notice – 1/6.’[iii

Their efforts were evidently unsuccessful – the child remained with Joan Standfast. Joan Standfast was apparently engaged as the child’s wet nurse. She herself had given birth to a son, Richard, in November of the previous year, a child described in the parish records as her ‘bastard son.’ Joan had been receiving relief of small amounts from the poor rate on an ad-hoc basis accounted for on the basis that she was ‘in need’. It is tempting to speculate that by placing the child with Joan, the Overseers had, at least, managed to achieve a saving of the roughly weekly sixpences that had been paid to Joan. Once she was in receipt of regular payment s of 2/- per week for keeping the child there are no further entries for the ad-hoc payments for herself for as long as the child was with her.

On the ninth of June the parish registers show that the child was baptised and for the first time begins to take on an identity. We now know that the child is, in fact, a boy, and he is given the name John Rack. How this name was chosen isn’t clear. There appears to be no-one in Devon called Rack at the time so he hasn’t been named after an overseer or benefactor. When children at Coram’s were re-named they were often given names of famous people or benefactors but that doesn’t seem to have been the case for John.

John stayed with Joan Standfast for almost a year whilst Joan continued to receive 2/- per week from the Overseers for that period. The Overseers’ accounts also show amounts being paid for items of clothing for John; capes, a stay, shifts, stockings, and shoes are all accounted for during this period as well as an entry suggestive of rudimentary medical care. One entry reads ‘for stuf to cover his gound and doing it.’[iv] Gound (also known as rheum) is the mucus that collects in the corner of the eye and in excess can be the sign of an infection or problem with the tear ducts.

In April 1748 the weekly payments to Joan Standfast come to an end. By this time John would have been weaned and no longer in need of a wet nurse. By September Joan is once again in receipt of occasional payments as she is once again in need but John is unaccounted for. He is still within the parish as payments continue to show for items of clothing for him, but there are no weekly payments for his care. The most likely explanation is that he is now in the poor house and being cared for there, maybe even by other inmates. His name re-appears in the accounts in 1751 when weekly amounts of 1/3 for his upkeep start to be accounted for. This, however, seems to be more likely to be related to a change in the way the accounts were prepared than a change in John’s circumstances, as other inmates of the poor house are also then listed individually.

John’s name continues to show in the accounts with weekly sums until August 1754, by which time he was seven years old, when an entry shows that £1 5s was paid to a Mr Brice in some capacity linked to John Rack’s apprenticeship and a further 4/- is paid for the indentures. This is the final entry for John contained in the Overseers’ accounts.[v] However, the parish apprenticeship records show that an indenture was made on 17th August 1754 which apprenticed John Rack in husbandry to William Martin until he reached the age of twenty-four.[vi]

No further evidence of John Rack has been traced in the Kenton parish records. So what happened to this child with no known parents and an invented name? Since there were no other people of the name Rack in Devon at this time it seems very likely that an entry in the parish records for nearby Topsham could relate to him. In 1772 there is a record of a John Rack marrying Elizabeth Pudner in Topsham. John Rack is said to be a mariner of Woodbury and Elizabeth is of Topsham. At this time many farming folk in the area combined a life of husbandry with some seafaring or fishing roles, so that fact that the child John was apprenticed in husbandry does not preclude the mariner who married at Topsham from being the same person who was apprenticed in husbandry in Kenton eighteen years earlier. This couple went on to have at least three children; Ann who was baptised in 1778, Sally baptised in 1781, and Jane baptised in 1784.

The fragments of evidence have proved to be sufficient to establish an outline of this one life but there must be many more similar stories obscured in parish records throughout the country. Coram’s Foundling Hospital saved many lives but many others must have been cared for by parishes in the way that John Rack was.

[i] The story of the Foundling Hospital is recounted in Gillian Pugh’s London’s forgotten children: Thomas Coram and the Foundling Hospital published in 2007 by The History Press

[ii] Devon Heritage Centre, Kenton/70A/PO4 Overseers account book 3 May 1747

[iii] Devon Heritage Centre, Kenton/70A/PO4 Overseers account book 17 May 1747

[iv] Devon Heritage Centre, Kenton/70A/PO4 Overseers account book 16 August 1747

[v] Devon Heritage Centre, Kenton/70A/PO4 Overseers account book

[vi] Devon Heritage Centre, Kenton/70A/PO6899 Overseers Apprenticeship Records


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Homes for the workers

In my previous post I discussed the Victorian architecture of Kenton. This time I am considering the social background to the building which took place after the fire had destroyed so many homes.

During the 1840s, and largely as a result of Edwin Chadwick’s Report on the sanitary condition of the labouring population of Great Britain (1842), influential people became more aware of the appalling housing conditions endured by the poorer classes. Although Chadwick’s report is often thought to concentrate on the problems of urbanisation, living conditions in rural areas were also examined, highlighting a lack of drainage, sanitation and fresh water. Overcrowding was also a concern. Many cottages had only one bedroom and the moral concerns associated with shared sleeping accommodation were also stressed. The Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes (SICLC) was established in 1848 to promote improved standards of convenience and hygiene in cottages. Prince Albert became president of SICLC and began to provide model cottages for his tenants at Sandringham and on other royal estates.

Other wealthy landowners including the Duke of Bedford followed suit. Bedford was a well-known advocate of such schemes and provided model housing for his tenants in and around the Tavistock area as well as on his Woburn estates. The Bedford cottages were built to a common plan or ‘estate style’ which was widely publicised in architectural and agricultural journals. Each cottage had two ground floor rooms consisting of a kitchen fitted with a range, and a scullery fitted with a boiler, and two or three bedrooms, one of which had a fireplace. There was also an outbuilding for a privy and there was an oven shared by each block. The cottages were substantially constructed but the inside face was whitewashed rather than plastered and the only ornamentation was a slab bearing the ducal crest[i].

It is likely that Lord Courtenay was influenced by the model village movement. The cottages in Kenton were extremely forward thinking in the facilities that were provided. They appear to have drawn on the principles of the model cottage schemes advocated by Prince Albert and the Duke of Bedford, but also developed the ideals by providing additional conveniences such as front parlours, individual ovens and water closets.

Each cottage had a parlour with a fireplace and all the bedrooms were also fitted with fireplaces. Cast iron galvanised furnaces were fixed in the sculleries, and the kitchens had cottage stoves with ovens and boilers. In a village with no sewerage system or piped water supply it would be reasonable to provide earth closets. However, each cottage was to be provided with its own privy with syphon pan, connected to new sewerage systems and with a slate cistern covering the privy to collect water for flushing. For the third group of nine cottages, externally each house also had a piggery and wood store[ii]. At a time when most labourers had extremely poor living conditions these homes for the farm labourers of Kenton were remarkably well-appointed.

Statue of William Reginald Courtenay, 11th Earl of Devon Northernhay Gardens, Exeter

Statue of William Reginald Courtenay, 11th Earl of Devon
Northernhay Gardens, Exeter

The almshouses, built to provide free accommodation for four elderly widows, were of course smaller and less well-appointed as they were not intended for family occupation. Even so each had independent offices without the need for shared facilities[iii].

Although Kenton could not, in any sense, be described as a ‘model village’ elements of the model village influences can be seen in the planned nature and the high quality, both architecturally and functionally, of the Victorian housing. Courtenay became the eleventh Earl of Devon in 1859 and became known as ‘the good earl’ for his many charitable and philanthropic activities[iv].


[i] Havinden, Michael (1989) ‘The model village’ in Mingay, G.E. (ed.) The Rural Idyll, London: Routledge

[ii] DRO, Courtenay of Powderham, L1508M/London/Estate/Building Contracts/Kenton/3; Courtenay of Powderham, 1508M/London/Estate/Building Contracts/Kenton/4; Courtenay of Powderham, L1508M/London/Estate/Building Contracts/Kenton/6

[iii] DRO, Courtenay of Powderham, 1508M/London/Legal & General Correspondence/Kenton Papers 1835-1925/1875-6

[iv] W. P. Courtney, ‘Courtenay, William Reginald, eleventh earl of Devon (1807–1888)’, rev. H. C. G. Matthew, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn.


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Kenton’s Victorian architecture

The consequences of the devastating 1856 fire previously described, and the decision to build a different style of house, can now be seen across the extent of the former Devon Estates’ lands. Kenton itself would be changed dramatically.

Teignbridge District Council’s Conservation Area Character Statement for Kenton now describes the village’s most characteristic feature as its nineteenth-century architecture which ‘sets it apart from other villages.’[i] Many of these buildings are listed as being of special architectural or historical interest.


After the fire Lord Courtenay evidently considered some re-building to be a matter of urgency but as he had already said, he did not intend that the new cottages should be of a vernacular style of cob and thatch. Instead he commissioned JW Rowell to design new cottages for the village. Joseph William Rowell (1828-1902), a young architect in Newton Abbot, had recently been appointed surveyor to the Devon Estates and by the time of the fire was already engaged in preparing the development plan for the Wolborough Hill area of Newton Abbot and the completion of Devon Square and Courtenay Park for Lord Courtenay. Even so by early June plans for Kenton were well under way. On 12 June Rowell sent drawings for two groups of cottages to John Drew, the estate steward. By 23 June detailed plans and specifications were ready with a ground map showing the proposed positions of the cottages. And just three days later, Rowell was writing that tender documents would be completed and ready within days. On the same day an advertisement appeared in Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post inviting tenders for the contracts to build the first two groups of cottages[ii].

Tall corbelled chimney stack

Tall corbelled chimney stack

In the meantime, Rowell was writing yet again to Drew that he would prepare the plans and elevations for the row of cottages opposite the church. Detailed specifications for all three groups of cottages still exist and are held by the Devon Heritage Centre[iii]. The first two groups show many elements of gothic style. The cottages are constructed of red brick and have steeply pitched and gabled slate roofs, cranked-arched windows and doors and tall chimney stacks with one front stack corbelled out over the central door. Both groups are built to a symmetrical plan.

By the time Rowell came to design the row of cottages opposite the church, a terrace of nine houses, he was much surer and confident in the gothic style which he adopted. A terrace of nine houses might perhaps have provided the scope to adopt the principles of polychromy for a domestic street scene. These cottages, which were constructed between 1857 and 1858, utilise the elements of the high Victorian style at a time when their use was mostly confined to church and country house architecture.

The predominant building material is red brick, but structural adornments are achieved by the additional use of yellow and black brick banding and detailing. The plinth is constructed of limestone and Bath stone has been used for the sills of the windows, abutments, key stones of the arches and the weathering of the plinth. Church StreetThe caps, corbels and weathering of the chimneys are also of Bath stone. Purbeck or York stone was specified for the entrance steps. Although not as clearly visible now, the use of ground blue lias lime and coal ashes for the pointing material would have also added to the polychromatic effect. The terrace is mainly constructed to a symmetrical plan, with some asymmetric detailing, another typical high Victorian gothic feature. The cranked-arched windows and doors are accentuated by the use of Bath stone for the key and corner stones. The terrace is gabled at the ends and has two large gables to the front and rear at each end of the terrace. There is also a half hipped centre bay, gabled dormers and deep eaves and verges and brick porches to the cottages at either end of the terrace. The roofs are constructed of Delabole slate and have crested ridge tiles.

Almshouses and adjacent cottages

Almshouses and adjacent cottages

Further gothic style building continued for a number of years, notably The Almshouses and another pair of adjacent cottages.. The almshouses with their wooden gabled veranda with gothic timber tracery are again constructed of red brick with yellow brick and Bath stone dressings. As with all the other Kenton cottages designed by Rowell, the chimney stacks are prominent features. Both the almshouses and the two cottages have attractively carved bargeboards with gothic quatrefoil detailing.

All these groups of cottages and almshouses have combined to give the village the distinctive character referred to in the conservation area character appraisal. The character appraisal does, however, incorrectly give a date for the buildings as ‘late Victorian’ and speculates that economic difficulties had led to a delay in re-building after the fire. Adding credence to this speculative date is an often expressed assumption that architectural creativity took longer to reach the provinces. It is clear, though, that there was no delay and that the architecture is not just distinctive but was also innovative, pre-dating earlier assumptions by around forty years.

It is interesting to speculate whether such a ‘modern’ and radically different building style would have been permitted by planners today or whether the rebuilding would have had to be undertaken as a replication of what had existed previously.


[i] Teignbridge District Council Teignbridge District Conservation Area Character Appraisals: Kenton (2009) p.7

[ii] Devon Heritage Centre, Courtenay of Powderham, L1508M/London/Estate/Building Contracts/Kenton/3-6

[iii] Teignbridge District Council (2009) p.7


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The ‘Great Fire’ of Kenton

It seems that no community is complete without its own Great Fire! So numerous were fires in nineteenth century Devon that Frank Gentry was able to craft an entire book around descriptions of disastrous examples in small Devonshire towns.[i] Perhaps the number of thatched buildings throughout the county explains why there were so many. Kenton, of course, also had its own Great Fire.

Cottages which survived the fire of 1856

Cottages which survived the fire of 1856

The 1840 tithe map of Kenton shows a village of densely packed cottages typical of Devon. Cottages were arranged around the parish church and alongside a number of lanes radiating from the village towards neighbouring hamlets and farms. Opposite the church there was a line of mostly thatched cottages divided by the road to Mamhead, with the Dolphin Inn forming part of this line. Behind the Dolphin Inn was another thatched cottage. At around midday on 16 April 1856, a fire broke out in this cottage. It was suggested at the time that the fire may have been caused by ashes which had been thrown out, and which had been caught up in the wind and then landed on the thatch. A high wind quickly spread the fire to the many thatched properties in the area, but it missed other buildings with slate roofs including the fifteenth century church house. Eventually, though, twenty-four houses and cottages were alight.

A telegraph was sent to Exeter which resulted in the arrival at about 1.30pm of the West of England fire engine, followed shortly by the Sun fire engine. Other engines from Powderham Castle and the Exminster Lunatic Asylum as well as the Kenton parish engine joined them. Efforts were mainly directed to preventing any further spread of the fire, rather than extinguishing the fires that had already taken hold. It was not until nightfall that the fires were finally controlled, by which time all twenty-four houses and cottages had been destroyed and ninety-nine people had been left homeless. All but two of the houses destroyed belonged to the Trustees of the Earl of Devon.

The following day Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post carried a report about the fire which it described as a conflagration, adding that ‘many poor families [were deprived] of the homes that were dear to them and of the household furniture which has taken them many years of arduous toil to accumulate.[ii]

A day later a subscription fund was launched in order to alleviate the distress occasioned by so great a calamity. It was later stressed that those who received relief from the funds were of the ‘of the most worthy and industrious of their class’, and that they ‘bore their losses uncomplainingly, and received the relief afforded them with gratitude.’[iii] It was, of course, necessary to emphasis that these were ‘deserving poor’ rather than the feckless type in order to maximise the amount of the donations being received.

By the morning after the fire, news had reached Lord Courtenay (William Reginald Courtenay, later eleventh Earl of Devon (1807-1888)) in his office in Whitehall, where he was secretary to the poor law board. He immediately wrote to the steward of the Devon Estates at Powderham, suggesting possible accommodation for poor villagers who had been left homeless. He instructed that the upper rooms at the Belvedere might be made available as well as one or two of the rooms at the stables, and possibly, an unoccupied room in the north gateway for an individual.[iv]

He also added that he was of the opinion that the Estate should never again build thatched properties. This view was endorsed by the Flying Post which, in a report a week later stated ‘for the safety of property and the protection of human life we hope that steps will be taken, where practicable, to remove thatch from dwelling houses, and not to build any more houses with thatched roofs.’[v]

In my next post I will be discussing the Victorian houses which replaced those lost to the fire.



[i] F.D.Gentry Take care of your fire and candle (Exeter, Devon Books, 1985)

[ii] Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 17 April 1856

[iii] Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 8 May 1856

[iv] Devon Record Office, Courtenay of Powderham, D1508M/Estate Correspondence/Box 2 , 17 April 1856

[v] Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 24 April 1856



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