In 2009 a kind benefactor commissioned Debrett Ancestry Research to produce a comprehensive history of Offwell Church and parish. It is known that a church was in existence here in 1200 and in the early fourteenth century Bishop John de Grandisson, being newly appointed to the Diocese of Exeter, believed that he was being sent to the very edge of the known world.
Centuries later in 1698, the traveller Celia Fiennes found the west country still astonishingly remote and wild. On her return to London, she was pleasantly surprised by the section of road that took her from Exeter to Honiton, which was:
“…a fine Gravell way, ye best Road I have met with all in the west.” I wonder if she would be so effusive today!
The Debrett history is full of glorious nuggets of Offwell history, from the Royalist Rector, Thomas Jones, who eventually joined the Royalist Army, to the wealthy Copleston family. The Coplestons provided a continuous succession of Rectors from 1772 until 1954, including Edward Copleston, Bishop of Llandaff, whose eccentric Bishop’s Tower’ is just one of many architectural legacies in Offwell.
The editor recently received an email from the great, great grandson of Edward Copleston’s nephew, Reginald Edward. The correspondent had just found a journal in his late mother’s possessions belonging to Reginald Edward Copleston, covering the years 1845 to 1856, when Reginald Edward was Rector of Barnes. The journal includes references to the sermons he preached and church affairs of the time.
The Debrett History enabled us to further inform the correspondent on events, names and dates connected with his very complex and extensive Copleston ancestry.
Intrigued by this enquiry, I took another look at our Debrett’s for 1845: John Gay Copleston (Reginald Edward’s elder brother) was Rector of Offwell at the time and one of his daughter’s was to become a missionary. In the 1840’s smuggling was rife and a smugglers’ sunken lane ran from the East Devon coast to the London road right through Offwell. (part of it is still in existence today and one of the village houses was known as a regular haunt for brandy kegs ‘up from Branscombe’.) The church and belfry were in constant need of repair and there were neighbour disputes over land ownership. One can imagine that John Gay’s sermons would be full of pious condemnation on the evils of drink and the need to raise the standard of worship and Christian values amongst his parishioners.
A second correspondent to the Editor has written to share his memories as an evacuee in Offwell during the Second World War. An Offwell resident was able to update this correspondent with information about the family he stayed with and wrote so warmly about: “…even the passing of 76 years has not dimmed the memories of my good fortune in receiving the love and affection I had from this family.”
Anyone wanting to learn more about their or their ancestors’ connection with Offwell should contact the firstname.lastname@example.org. Copies of the Debrett History are still available, with all proceeds going towards church funds.