The lives and work of the Pinwill sisters is the subject of my forthcoming book, in which the full story is told. The front cover, showing a beautifully-carved praying angel from Plympton St Mary, Devon, is featured on the right. Watch this space for news of the book’s publication in February 2021.
The Pinwill sisters, Mary, Ethel and Violet, worked as professional woodcarvers in Ermington and then Plymouth from about 1889. They were three of seven daughters of the Revd Edmund Pinwill and his wife Elizabeth, who encouraged their daughters to learn woodcarving from a team of craftsmen who came to Ermington to restore the church there in 1884. One of their first large commissions was the pulpit at Ermington, completed in 1889. The sisters then set up their own company, Rashleigh, Pinwill & Co., Ecclesiastical Carvers. While it was not unusual for women to learn to carve in the late Victorian period, it was quite extraordinary for women to set up in business as woodcarvers and the name of the company may well have been devised to give the impression that they were men.
The establishment and success of the firm was due in no small part to the patronage of the architect Edmund H. Sedding. He was the nephew of the Arts & Crafts architect John Dando Sedding and had come to know the family well during the restoration of Ermington church. Commissions designed by Sedding ensured a high standard was established and a good reputation gained. Other architects soon recognised their skills and commissioned work from the sisters, including Frederick Bligh Bond and George H. Fellowes Prynne.
When Mary married in 1900, she left the business, which by that time had moved to Plymouth to premises shared with Edmund H. Sedding, initially in Buckland Terrace, Millbay Road, and then Athenaeum Street, near The Hoe. After Ethel moved to Surrey sometime after 1907 to work as a woodcarver, Violet became the sole proprietor. She continued to work with Sedding, but after his death in 1921 Reginald F. Wheatly became the company architect, although Violet had by then established a reputation and increasingly won commissions in her own right.
Violet employed other woodcarvers as well as joiners and established a large workshop in St Lawrence Yard, Plymouth. She travelled all over Devon and Cornwall, mostly by train and bicycle, to meet with vicars and churchwardens to talk about the work they required. Violet never advertised, owned a typewriter or a car, and did not employ a secretary. By the time she died on 1st January 1957, over 185 churches in Devon and Cornwall and several in other counties contained at least one item made by the firm.