Thursday, 14 October 2010

Samuel Carter Hall visits Topsham

As it's of local interest, I cross-posted this from the Devon History Society blog.

If you visit St Margaret's Church, Topsham, you'll see in one corner, currently laid out over some pews, an old and very fragile military banner whose logo reads "[Dev]onshire & Cornwall Fencible Reg[iment?]" (text extrapolated, as there's a warning not to touch it, so I couldn't turn it over to see).

Mustered in 1794 by Colonel Robert Hall, with its headquarters at the Salutation Inn, the Devonshire and Cornwall Fencible Regiment was one of a number of such volunteer regiments - see The Forgotten Army: Fencible Regiments of Great Britain 1793 - 1816 - set up for domestic defence during the War of the First Coalition. Their role was somewhat equivalent to the Home Guard of World War 2, but they were more mobile, and many Fencible regiments did see action; the Devonshire and Cornwall Fencibles, for instance, were stationed in Ireland during the 1798 Rebellion.

The basics are on a plaque on a pillar nearby, but I found an interesting and more detailed account of how the banner came to be in St Margaret's in the autobiographical Retrospect of a long life: from 1815 to 1883 by Samuel Carter Hall.  This Irish-born art journalist (reportedly the model for the sanctimonious Seth Pecksniff in Charles Dicken's Martin Chuzzlewit) was one of Colonel Hall's sons. He spent part of his boyhood in Topsham, and in this extract from Retrospect of a long life, he tells of his return in old age, including the story of his father's donation of the regimental colours to the church; their sale to help fund the rebuilding in the 1870s; and their restoration in 1881.
The farthest removed of my memories carries me back to the period of the most glorious of Britannia's sea-fights—immortal Trafalgar. I remember it distinctly, partly because of the following incident : At Topsham, in Devonshire (where my father then resided) in common with all the cities, towns, and villages, of the United Kingdom, there was a general illumination. My father's house was, of course, lit up from cellar to attic ; in each pane of glass there was a candle—the holder being a potato, in which a hollow had been scooped, to supply the place of a candlestick. The universal joy was blended with mourning: Nelson was dead, and in losing him the nation had paid dearly for victory. My father had, therefore, twisted a binding of black crape round each candle—emblematic of the grief that had saddened the triumph. Few are now living who shared with me the sight of the rejoicings blended with mourning that commemorated the 21st of October, 1805.

In the September of 1881 I visited Topsham, the port of Exeter, in Devonshire. Former acquaintance with the town dated, as I have intimated, a very long way back : yet it was fresh in my memory as if barely a year had passed since the last day I spent there, as a boy. I visited first the house (it is the Manor House) that was so long our home, and where nine of my brothers and sisters were born between the years 1792 and 1807. I entered every room; each was as familiar to me as if I had seen it yesterday—every path, step, porch, door, " where once my careless childhood strayed," though I had not seen them for upward of seventy years. I recognized in the flowers descendants of those that had gladdened my childhood ; at least, I fancied they were such. Once, there was in the yard a large chestnut-tree, which, in its fruit season, tempted the boys to " rob " : without any very heavy penalty, I am sure ; but a poor lad fell from one of its branches, and was killed. My father then ordered the tree to be cut down. The school I attended up to my eighth year is now a dwelling let out in apartments ; the playground borders the churchyard, and the latter has absorbed much of the former. A mantle of venerable ivy still adorns the wall of the old house: the ivies were old when I was young.

My main purpose in visiting my old home was one that I think my readers will care to hear of: the memories it revived were such as to make me proud of the name I bear.

When the Devon and Cornwall Fencibles, commanded by my father, was disbanded in 1802, he presented the colors of the regiment to his parish church. They had remained over the altar for just seventy years, when the vicar sold them. Certainly the proceeds went to restore the ancient and venerable structure; but the act was utterly inexcusable—to say the least. I resolved, if possible, to discover what had become of those colors, in the dim hope of replacing them in the church. I found they had been purchased by a Major Keating, an Irishman and a Roman Catholic, whose hall they then adorned, and by whom they were greatly prized. He generously offered to present them to me. I tendered to him the sum he had given for them ; but he declined to receive it. I had the happiness to spend a week with him and his estimable lady at their beautiful dwelling, Westwood, near Teignmouth (her grandparents were relatives of my mother), during which visit arrangements were made for the restoration of the colors to the church, the present vicar of which —the Rev. John Bartlett—was as anxious to receive as I was to restore them.

It was a proud and happy day for me when such presentation took place—on the 20th of September, 1881, the fifty-seventh anniversary of my wedding-day.

I walked from the old Salutation Inn (the inn that was my father's headquarters when recruiting the regiment in 1794, and which in all important features remains unchanged), leaning on the arm of Major Keating, on either side a sergeant-major of the volunteer artillery (each bearing one of the flags), followed by many of the present Devon volunteers and large numbers of the townsfolk. We were received by the vicar; the church was full. Mr. Bartlett preached a sermon appropriate to the occasion ; I unrolled the colors and placed them on the altar. Over that altar they now rest; and there, where they had reposed through so many years that are gone, they will continue, I hope, to meet the eyes of the men and women of Devonshire through generations to come. They will remain, I trust (to borrow the words of Mr. Bartlett to the congregation), " where their children's children may see them—to hang there till they crumble into dust."

My share in the proceedings of that day will be, there is very little doubt, the last public act of my life. Surely the public life of any man could not have been more gracefully or more happily concluded. For with those colors are connected associations of which the counties of Devon and Cornwall may well be proud. There is not the stain of a single drop of blood on those banners of the Devon and Cornwall Fencibles. War is ever a horror; but no Christian man or woman can look at those flags in the church at Topsham without the reverence of love and honor. They dignify and grace the temple in which peace and good-will are preached.

During the Irish Rebellion of 1798 the regiment was quartered in one of the most disaffected Irish counties—Kerry. Under the considerate and humane sway of my father, well seconded by the mingled forbearance and firmness of his men, not a single life was taken in the district over which he ruled with almost autocratic power. Nor was any officer or man of the Fencibles so much as ill-treated, I think, dunng the time the regiment was quartered in "wild Kerry." To all who have read of the horrors elsewhere perpetrated in Ireland— both by rebels and loyalists — during that unhappy year, such a record will be eloquent. The colors presented by my father to Topsham church—that I was the happy means of restoring to their resting-place within the sacred walls — are more hallowed by the memories connected with them than they would have been if they had been carried in triumph over the reddest fields of victory.

- Retrospect of a long life: from 1815 to 1883, Samuel Carter Hall, 1883, D. Appleton and company.
The anecdote is confirmed in the Western Antiquary, which reproduces a newspaper report.
"Weekly Mercury" October 8th, 1881.


The Editor has received the following interesting communication, per favour of Mr. S. C. Hall, K.S.A., and thinks it of sufficient general interest to warrant its publication in the pages of the Western Antiquary.

In 1802, after the " Peace of Amiens," when the Devon and Cornwall Fencible Regiment was disbanded. Colonel Robert Hall, by whom that regiment was raised in 1791, presented its colours to his Parish Church of Topsham. They were hung in that church during a period of 72 years. But they were, in 1874, removed from the place in which they had been so long honoured, and were told—to aid a fund for restoring the church. They were purchased by Major Keating, D.A.V., of Westbrook, Teignmouth, and, very recently, were given by that generous gentleman to the son of Colonel Hall, Mr. S. C. Hall, F.S.A., the well-known author. Thus, by the patriotic sympathy of a Devonshire Volunteer of 1881, the old flags of the Volunteers of 1794 (for such were in reality the Fencibles of that period, although raised to serve in any part of the British Dominions) will be restored to a position they had occupied for nearly three-quarters of the nineteenth century.

The ceremony of their restoration will take place on Tuesday, the 20th of this month (September), with the warm approval of the Vicar, the Rev. John Bartlett, and the churchwardens : when the son of Colonel Hall will restore them to the church, in which, eighty years ago, his father placed them.

The Vicar is not only gratified and happy to receive back into the church these interesting relics of a faraway time : but will undertake that the fact shall be recorded on a brass plate fixed in the church.

No doubt many Devonshire Volunteers will desire to be present on an occasion that cannot but be, to them, deeply interesting. The grandchildren of some of his " companions in arms " may be living to render homage to the memory of the Colonel and their forefathers, respected and loved.

The regiment did the highest possible credit to the native counties of the thousand men who composed it. It was quartered in 1798, the dismal year of the Irish rebellion, in the most disturbed county of Ireland— Kerry; yet, to the honour of its Colonel be it stited— and still more to the honour of the good and true men he commanded - during his uncontrolled sway over that district, not a single " rebel" was hung or shot. According to the testimony of the old Exeter Historian, Jenkins (1806), and other evidence equally conclusive— " By strict discipline and good behaviour they (these soldiers of Devon and Cornwall) not only preserved the tranquility of the south-western parts of Ireland, but gained the esteem of the inhabitants in every station where they were quartered." The Volunteers of to-day may be proud of their predecessors of the long ago.

In Topsham Church, Colonel Hall had nine children christened, all born in Topsham between the years 1791 and 1807 ; and in that church he was married, in 1790, to a most admirable and estimable Devonshire lady, the beloved mother of his twelve children. He was, in all ways, a good and just man. He was horn in Exeter, in 1753, and died in London, in 1836. Yet his fourth son is living to bear testimony to his worth, and to accord him honour—justly his due—in his native county, Devonshire—129 years after his birth. Colonel Hall had three other children—born in Ireland while his regiment was quartered in that country.

Persons who desire to take part in the ceremony will assemble either at the old "Salutation Inn," Topsham (the head-quarters of the Regiment in 1794), at two o'clock, or in the Parish Church, Topsham, at three o'clock.

- The Western Antiquary, Volume 1, 1882, ed. William Henry Kearley Wright
I haven't been able to find out where Samuel Carter Hall was brought up in Topsham; his reference to the "Manor House" is puzzling, since Topsham had no manor house in the 1800s. He clearly misremembered, but what house did he mean?

Update. See also Salutation Inn, which mentions a literary connection and a sinister find.

Detail: banner of the Devonshire & Cornwall Fencible Regiment, St. Margaret's Church, Topsham. Heraldically, the coat of arms incorporates those of Exeter (left) and Cornwall (right).

 - Ray


  1. Interesting, as always. My ancestors were in Kerry at that time. They had a farm out on Kerry Head.

  2. As in "interesting times"... I didn't look into the backstory, but it was altogether a scary paranoid era in the British Isles: combined fear of outside invasion, and of internal revolt in sympathy with revolutionary America and Europe (this was the same period as when they were burning effigies of Tom Paine).