The Great War: Remembrance and Commemoration in Kenton

The War Memorial, which was the focus of my last post, was not the only way that the community in and around Kenton chose to commemorate the sacrifice and suffering caused by the great war of 1914-1919.

After the Armistice in November 1918, local communities across the country debated the best way to commemorate those who had been killed. The decision to bury the bodies of the dead in cemeteries alongside the sites of battle caused much anguish to many bereaved families, so another response to the loss and grief was required. Bereaved families, local communities and returned servicemen reacted to the mass bereavement by creating their own memorials. The form that the memorials should take was fiercely debated. Local gentry and clergy often favoured a memorial within the church or churchyard, whilst communities with strong non-conformist congregations preferred a location that was central to the village such as a village green. Returning servicemen and working people in particular frequently supported a more utilitarian memorial such as a water fountain, almshouses, a village hall or even, in larger communities, a memorial hospital. Utilitarian memorials were not just intended to commemorate those who had died, but were also concerned with those who had served and returned. Memorial halls in particular were seen as a way of promoting a more egalitarian community. They would provide a place for all classes and all denominations to meet together for social purposes and contribute to improving village life. They would also operate as self-governing institutions, free of local patronage, and controlled by democratically elected committees. In Kenton, several memorials eventually emerged from these debates.

Kenton’s memorials

The first of the war memorials to appear in Kenton was a temporary shrine in All Saints’ Church, which appeared sometime during the war itself. Nothing more is known about the shrine except that news reports of the time of memorial services held for the casualties mention a war shrine.

The most visibly noticeable memorial now is the obelisk on village green which I discussed in my last post. As this memorial was a private gift, no records have survived to show how the names to be included were identified. Some names appear to have been excluded and regrettably it is no longer possible to understand the reasons. In itself the memorial seems to have been felt to be inadequate to meet the needs of the community and so other forms of commemoration also took place.

memorial cupThe parish also set up its own memorial committee. A collection was raised for a ‘war memento’ to be given to every sailor or soldier from the village who had served in the war. The cost was £69 and money was collected for this by public subscription and by holding whist drives. The mementos took the form of two-handled loving cups in Welbeck plate on an ebonised stand bearing the inscription ‘Presented to the Sailors and Soldiers of Kenton who served in the Great War 1914-1919, from their grateful fellow parishioners.’ Ninety-four cups were presented to the men and to the relatives of those who had died. The cups were presented at a gathering in the Assembly Rooms at The Devon Arms on Friday 19 March 1920.

It was also decided to collect subscriptions for a ‘war shrine’ to be placed in the Parish Church of All Saints. The shrine was to consist of a memorial board which was commissioned from Herbert Read’s St Sidwell’s Art Works, the well-known firm of ecclesiastical woodcarvers. The board is of dark fumed oak with canopy work at the top, hinged wings at the sides and a shelf for flowers beneath. The names are listed in the order in which they died. Although placed in the parish church, the shrine itself was thought to be non-denominational and the dedication service on Sunday 11 July 1920 was attended by both the Anglican and the Methodist congregations. Eighteen names are listed on this memorial compared with the fourteen included on the obelisk.

The working people of Kenton also wanted to have a more utilitarian memorial in the form of a village hall. This would be somewhere where all sections of society could meet together regardless of age, gender or class. A committee of village people was set up to raise money for a hall. The most important of the fundraising events was the annual village fair and fancy dress fête known as ‘Our Day.’

Our dayDuring 1920, £400 was raised and the following year a further £200. Work on the hall began in 1922 and although still not completed it was opened in October 1922. The land and all the timber used in the building were given by Lord Devon. The Victory Hall, as it was known, served the village well for seventy years until it was destroyed by fire in 1991. It was reported that police thought the fire had been as a result of arson. Many of the village people were saddened by the loss of the hall which meant so much to them, their parents and their grandparents, and had served as a reminder of their loss and sacrifice during the War of 1914 – 1919. A new Victory Hall now stands in its place.


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The War Memorial: the good, the bad and the ugly

In my first post I mentioned the Kenton war memorial as one of the few changes to the village centre. It was recently listed by English Heritage, just a day or two before English Heritage ceased to exist to be superseded by Historic England. The reasons for the listing were given as

Historic interest: as an eloquent witness to the tragic impact of world events on the local community and the sacrifice it made in the conflicts of the C20

Architectural interest: as a memorial with a modest and sombre design

Group value: it forms a group with a number of other listed buildings in the centre of Kenton including the church of All Saints

War memorial unveilingThe war memorial is located at The Triangle and was constructed and dedicated in 1920. It takes the form of a granite obelisk. Unlike many communities, Kenton did not have to fund raise to pay for this memorial, as the then owner of Oxton House, Mr Joshua John Neale paid the entire cost. It is thought that this was an act of thanksgiving on Mr Neale’s part. He had five sons himself all of whom served during the war and all returned home safely.

The memorial, in the form of an obelisk standing on a moulded plinth, is of Cornish granite from the Penryn Quarries. It is 16 feet high and occupies a central position in the village. It was unveiled on Saturday 13 March 1920. Sadly Mr Neale died before the unveiling of the memorial so the obelisk was presented as the gift of his late father by his son, Wilfred Neale. The Parish Council chairman accepted the gift, undertaking that the Parish Council would care for it in perpetuity and it was unveiled by the Earl of Devon. The ceremony concluded with a muffled peal of the church bells. Fourteen names were inscribed on the memorial. After the Second World War a further eight names were added.

. The north face is inscribed

In proud, honoured and loving memory of the men of this parish who gave their lives for their country in The Great War of 1914-1919.“Their name liveth for evermore” Ecclus XLIV 14. “Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends” St John XV 14. “I saw that they had gotten the victory over the beast stand on the sea of glass having the harps of God” Rev XV 2.

The south face, which commemorates the Second World War carries the inscription

Also in grateful remembrance of those from this parish who in like spirit fell during the World War 1939-1945

war memorialThe Parish Council has honoured its undertaking and the war memorial itself is well cared for. It is sad therefore to see the setting so disfigured. One of the less welcome additions to the village landscape of the twentieth century has been a proliferation of highly visible, if necessary, utility infrastructure and ‘street furniture,’ Historic landscapes in urban areas are generally protected from such ugly intrusions with the undergrounding of services. This appears not to be the case in many villages. Despite its (admittedly recent) listing and its importance within the community the unsightly mishmash of poles and overhead cables significantly detracts from the war memorial’s  aesthetic and historic value. It has to be hoped that before too much longer the overhead cables, both for electricity and telephone lines, will be the subject of an amenity scheme by the utility companies responsible. Undergrounding of these unsightly intrusions into the historic village landscape in the centre of a conservation area would greatly enhance the setting for this listed monument.



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Setting the scene – Kenton in Devonshire

Writing in 1799 the Reverend John Swete described “the town of Kenton stretching itself a mile in a most picturesque manner.” This was later published as Travels in Georgian Devon. The Reverend Richard Polwhele had been rather less kind and in his History of Devonshire had written just a few years earlier complaining that the whitewashed houses were unpleasant to the eye. Polwhele, one time curate of Kenton and Swete of nearby Oxton House were both writers on Devon’s history and topography.

From White’s Directory of 1850

Kenton is a pleasant village in the picturesque valley of the small river Kenn, opposite the woody grounds of Powderham Castle and about a mile W. of the estuary of the Exe and 7 miles S.S.E. of Exeter. Its parish extends westwards to the lofty range of the Haldon Hills, and comprises 5400 acres of land, including the hamlets of South Town, Cofford, Fenbridge, Staplake, Lyston, Cheverstone, Wilsworthy and East Town and the large village of Starcross

Kelly’s Directory of Devonshire for 1914 offers the following description

Kenton is a large parish and village, on the road from Dawlish to Exeter, 1½ miles north-west from Starcross station on the South Devon section of the Great Western railway, 5 north from Dawlish and 7 south-by-east from Exeter, in the north eastern division of the county, Exminster hundred, Wonford petty sessional division, St Thomas union, county court district of Exeter, rural deanery of Kenn, and archdeaconry and diocese of Exeter.

The church of All Saints … is a fine building of red sandstone in the Early Perpendicular style… The Wesleyan chapel is a building of stone erected erected in 1870 and has sittings for 100 persons.

There are four almshouses, erected by William Reginald, 12th Earl of Devon (d.1888), and occupied by aged widows, who live rent free. In the centre of the village is an enclosed green containing a stone cross erected by the above Earl of Devon.

The soil is light; subsoil, new red sandstone. The chief crops are wheat, barley, oats and turnips. The area is 5182 acres of land, 11 of water, 1 of tidal water and 288 of foreshore… The population of the ecclesiastical parish in 1911 was 753.

Polwhele and Swete would find many changes now, mainly as a result of Victorian re-building following a major fire in 1857; and the village of Starcross now forms its own parish. The compilers of Kelly’s Directory though would find the village visibly recognisable. Of course there have been many changes since 1914. There is new housing around the outer edges of the old village but little in the part of the village described above. The most noticeable change in that part of the village is of course the war memorial. East Town has had more significant changes with the old East Town Manor and many of the thatched cottages now long gone and replaced by more recent housing.

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