Tuesday 1 July 2014

The Bells of St. Michael’s

One might be reasonably sure Nicholas Shepheard (1716-1786) would never have considered that Wayne Shepheard, great-grandson of his great-grandson, would have had an interest in the bells installed in the parish church at Cornwood, Devon – some 230 years later.

My family has deep roots in Devon, England – in particular, Cornwood parish in the southwestern part of the county. I have been able to trace my Shepheard ancestors back 11 generations in the area. Shepheards lived there from the early part of the 17th century until the early 1900s. I mentioned a few things about Cornwood and my ancestors in an earlier post here, titled How I Became an OPC, published on August 17, 2013.

For much of its history, the community and activities of the citizens of Cornwood parish centred around St. Michael and All Angels Church. It is here where new births were recognized through baptisms, marriages were solemnized and residents at the end of their lives were buried.
St. Michael and All Angels Church in Cornwood Parish, Devon County, England
(photo taken by Wayne Shepheard, 2004)
In a booklet published by the church it is described thusly:

The Church is built on the highest point of a low ridge overlooking the original village which, 700-800 years ago, would have consisted of a straggle of cob and thatched cottages, running from the present cross-roads down towards Langham Bridge on the road to Ivybridge, together with some ten outlying farms … The oldest part of the Church is the squat, slightly tapering tower. The remains of its lancet windows suggest that it dates from the early part of the 13th century. It was probably part of an earlier building whose nave and chancel may have corresponded in size with the present nave. We know that the Church and three altars were re-dedicated in 1336. The addition of the final bay of the chancel, the porch, the vestry and, in 1984, a small annex against the north side of the tower, does not alter the basic design of the 14th century church in the Perpendicular style which is characteristic of so many churches in Devon.

Many members of the Shepheard family were active in the Church’s activities over the centuries. Of particular note was the Nicholas Shepheard I mentioned above, my 5th great-grandfather. He was one of the main landowners and leaders in the area, as well as a tax assessor and collector for many years. Nicholas was also the Churchwarden in 1770, when five of the six bells in the tower were installed. As a result of his being responsible to their manufacture and installation, his name was part of the inscription cast into these bells.

When we toured the church in 2004, some of the things I most wanted to see were the bells, as they had a personal and historic meaning to our family. A description of them in The Book of Cornwood and Lutton said that they “were cast by John Pennington IV of Stoke Climsland, [Cornwall] in 1770, and bear the name of Nicholas Shepherd [sic], churchwarden.” The bells were determined to be unsafe and taken down in 1939. They were sent to the foundry of John Taylor & Co. of Loughborough, Leicestershire, where they were turned and had new hangings made. The bells were rehung and rededicated, by the Bishop of Exeter, at a special ceremony, in April 1940. A letter from the Taylor company also indicated the bells bore the name of Nicholas Shepherd.
Left – Part of one of the bells showing the name of Nicholas Shepheard
Right – Wayne standing alongside one of the church bells on which Nicholas Shepheard’s name appears (Photos from Shepheard family files, taken in 2004).
I was curious about this because all formal documents that showed his surname spelled it the way I do. One of the local residents, along with the head bell ringer took me up into the tower where we could see the bells and clock first-hand. Much to my delight, as can be seen in the photo below, the bells indeed did show the name of “Nicholas Shepheard”.

Seeing the bells was a highlight to our trip to Cornwood. It is always a special experience when you can find your family name recorded for posterity in an important piece of the history of an area.

The bells can be heard at my Cornwood OPC website. Just click the box below St. Michael’s Bells on the Home page.

Wayne Shepheard is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy and is a past Editor of Chinook, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Family Histories Society. Wayne also provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated.


Dobinson, M. [Ed.]. (1997). The Book of Cornwood and Lutton. Tiverton, Devon, England: Halsgrove.