The History of St John in the Wilderness Church of Exmouth

08:00 7 August 2022

St John in the Wilderness Church, now in the parish of Withycombe Raleigh which itself was only established in 1850, stands in one of the most beautiful locations a church could have, next to ‘a small lane in which there are charming houses, surrounded by fields. A church has been here for over a thousand years and the present church originally dates from 1381 to 1435. In Saxon times the church was owned by a woman, Alveva under the lordship of Gytha, mother of King Harold which was defeated by William the Conqueror. at the Battle of Hastings. Following this, the church was given by Guillaume to Guillaume de Clavill. Traces of this early church, probably a wooden structure with a thatched roof, have been discovered in the foundations of the current church. From 1150, Withycombe Manor was entrusted to various religious orders and then purchased by the Raleigh family following the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538 by Henry VIII.

The church, which is dedicated to St. John the Baptist, seems to have gotten part of its name from The Wilderness, as it was so isolated and inaccessible as it was in the 17th century. By 1788 it had become very dilapidated and services had ceased and as it was then in the parish of East Budleigh the vicar wanted it demolished. The communes of inquiry decreed that only the nave and the choir would be demolished and that two of its bells would be sold to help with the expenses of restoring the church. Records say they were sold to an ironworker in Exeter for £74, 18 shillings and 6 cents. The north aisle and tower have been saved from demolition and here are two memorial plaques to the Raleigh family, one in the north aisle and the other in the Lady’s Chapel which marks the spot where George Raleigh was buried in 1597. In the corner is a small Norman column which was part of the first Norman church. On the wall of the staircase leading to a balcony there are two wooden panels, believed to be Victorian, depicting the Ten Commandments.

Over the years the church deteriorated further and in 1850 it became part of the new parish of Withycombe Raleigh together with St John The Evangelist (the parish church) in Withycombe Village Road and All Saints Church on Exeter Rd. It was not until 1922 that it was finally decided to restore the church and that certain offices resumed there. The construction work took place between 1926 and 1932 thanks to the generosity of the parishioners and was finally completed in 1937.

Inside, the nave has been rebuilt on its original foundations and retains its 15th century holy water font on which is the oldest inscription on an Exmouth element, “Y.911” engraved on its base. The ground floor of the tower, which dates from the 14th century, has a pillar with a green man and a Tudor rose carved on it.

Outside, the cemetery is both picturesque and peaceful. The attached photo (credit: Bill Sleeman collection) gives you an indication of this. My great-great-grandparents are buried there, as well as three famous artists. Francis Danby, a resident of Exmouth who died in 1861, William Holwell Carr, who was vicar of Menheniot in Cornwall but whose parents lived in Exmouth, and finally Richard Thomas Pentreath, a Newlyn School artist who died in Exmouth in 1869. Just outside the gate is a private cemetery of the Bryce family who owned the Bystock and Marley estates. If you haven’t visited this beautiful church, you really must do it on a beautiful sunny day – just go and sit in the cemetery and let the world go by!

If you would like me to cover a particular aspect of Exmouth’s history, please email me at [email protected] or leave a note at the museum and I’ll see what I can do. Thanks.

Jerry B. Hatch