THREE miles from Torrington, a lane leads away from the South Morton road to the quiet village of St Giles in the Wood. St. Giles is unlike most North Devon villages in that its cottages’ are singularly uniform in character, having been built for the purpose of housing the retinue of artisans, overseers, and labourers who comprised the outside staff of the Rolle estate which spread far and wide around the impressive mansion of the Rolle family—Stevenstone House.

There is not, therefore, that air of antiquity which one assumes with villages in these parts, so that it fails to claim the atten­tion of the historian in quite the same marked degree as some of the neighbouring settlements whose past is rooted in more ancient times.

There are, nevertheless, numerous visitations and pilgrim­ages to the spot for one reason or another, and both the local records and the long memories of older inhabitants are in con­stant demand as the various inquiries came trickling through.

A most practical inquiry came Last autumn from a man with a Yorkshire accent who pulled up in a big car in which were his wife and small family and asked the simple question: Where is the wood?”


Unfortunately, he accosted one who was not a native, with the result that the inquirer found himself surrounded by a con­sortium of natives and newcomers, none of whom was quite certain what had happened to the wood, but were all convinced that there had been one here once.

In a different category altogether were the two sets of searchers who came from distant places of the earth seeking to trace and confirm a link with their forbears.

There was a remarkable dis­parity in their way of life, for one is a business magnate in the sugar refinery world, while the other works as a missionary in faraway Papua. The curious thing was that both parties were un­aware of each other’s existence, even though they were bent on the same errand and were branches of the same family tree.

The relationship in each case was on the side of the respective wives, one of whom had been born in America and the other in Australia as the result of emigrations from St. Giles in the early part of the last century.

Mr. Hadley Brinsmead Williams, the sugar refiner, is now back in his American home in Douglastown, New York, while Mr. William Merriweather has returned to Tari to continue his work among the Dumas and Huli tribes under the banner of the Unevangelised Fields Mission.


They and their families have taken with them pleasant memories of their sojourn in which North Devon together with the satisfaction of having established a successful claim to a common ancestry. But what was the name they sought in faraway remote St. Giles in the Wood? And what is the story that emerges in the simple annals of the village?

The name is Brinsmead, and the first to live in St. Giles was one, William, who came to reside in a house called “The Holdings” around 1820. Little is known of him except that he was a staunch Wesleyan and was instrumental in the erecting of - a Wesleyan chapel on his own ground near to his house.

It is also known that at he helped with the labour, and made many laborious journeys with horse and cart transporting stones from a farm in Torrington, but as this project must have been dear to his heart, coupled with the fact that all else about him is shadowy and obscure, it may be as well to resist the urge to introduce the more entertaining account of his son Thomas at this point and follow the fortunes of the little Bethel.

The fact is, this old place of worship is still in existence on its original site, but is now used as a general utility farm out­house. It was built in 1833, and there are entries in its records which note a baptism in 1841 besides various births, marriages, and deaths.

For the first half century the cause seems to have held its own, but later reports reveal only too sadly a story of slow decline. A circuit report of 1897 states: “St. Giles chapel is forsaken except by two members, one of whom lives at a distance. The circuit has for some time had to pay all expenses.”

But for the long memories of village folk the “two members” would be faceless units in a dry inventory, but they were in fact both notable worthies in their day. One was the postmistress, Mrs. Trick, whose office in those days was a part of “The Hold­ings.” while the other was Thomas Couch, the village shoe­maker, and both of them attended the final service which was held one Sunday morning in 1900.

Actually, the place had been rebuilt in 1854 to seat 130 persons at a cost of £150, so that there must have been reason for great expectations at that time. Some say that it was the arrival of a certain Rev. A. Buxton, M.A., as Vicar at the Anglican Church, almost opposite, that turned the scales, for it is attested that he was a man of great charm and persuasion, besides being most eloquent in the pulpit.


Others blame the fact that the chapel came under the aegis of a different circuit, but all that is sure is that the lease was surrendered in 1906.

There are still traces and indications inside the building of its original function but, unless informed, few passers-by would see in this plain and practical shed the meeting house of those dour Dissenters of a century ago who entered the portals with reverence, held their services, celebrated their festivals, and held their treats and lovefeasts, until the day came when the sounds of the songs of Zion echoed around the precincts of “The Holdings” no more.

It is to Thomas Brinsmead that the spotlight must now turn, for he was an outstanding man of many talents. He was primarily an agricultural engineer, and had a workshop adjacent to the Parish Church. He employed a wheel­wright, a blacksmith, and a couple of sawyers; and it is interesting to note that when excavations were made a little over a year ago prior to erecting four council bungalows, traces of the forge were discovered along with other small finds that spoke of these craftsmen of long ago.

Thomas was his own inventor and designer, and specialised in the manufacture of reed-combing machines which were much in demand for the thatching industry.

He was sought after by the farming fraternity for his seed drills, too, as they incorporated useful innovations of his own design; and there was one memorable occasion in the village when a demonstration was held in a field behind the church of a revolutionary mowing machine that he had constructed. The whole neighbourhood turned out to watch events, and it is recalled that among the interested parties present were representatives of the famous firm of Ransomes, of Ipswich.


An existing memorial to his skill is the tower-like upper storey which he added with his own hands to his house. “The Holdings,” but it is also known that he constructed a complete pipe organ in his workshop for the Wesleyan chapel, and played upon it at the services into the bargain. One who remembered him, but has now passed from the scene, described him as a tall, upright, man with a flowing white beard.

Thomas’s musical strain must have been in others of his family, for it was one of them who branched out into the piano-making industry, and there are Brinsmead pianos in a number of homes hereabouts bearing testimony to the versatility of these one-time worthies of St. Giles.

There is a pleasing story of a childhood association in connec­tion with Thomas’s daughter, Rachel. She married a man by the name of Williams, and among the children that were born to them was a son whom they christened Hadley.

In the classrooms of the old charity school at St Giles, Hadley became friendly with a boy called John Clemens. When it became time to make a way in life their paths divided, and, somehow or another, Hadley was able to turn his inherent gifts to advantage and become a doctor.


Emigration seems to have been in the blood of the Brinsmead clan, for Rachel’s son went off to London, Ontario, where he practised as Dr Henry Hadley Williams. F R.C.S. for many years.

His old school friend had in the meantime served an appren­ticeship as a wheelwright at Eberleigh and strangely enough, bitten by the emigration bug, also betook himself to Ontario. When, later, he developed appendicitis he insisted on having no other but his old St. Giles friend to perform the operation.

Dr. Williams had no children, but his brother Alfred had a girl and a boy, and it was the latter, Hadley Brinsmead Williams, who really sparked off this delve into the past when he thought it worthwhile to make the pilgrimage from America to the Old Country, here to worship at the shrine of his ancestors and see the broad acres where once the Brinsmeads dwelt.

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