Chaytor (1990) Ermington Days

This is a curious book, yet one that has been a source of inspiration and valuable information. It is attributed to Elaine Chaytor, daughter of Mary Rashleigh Pinwill, but was complied, edited and published after her death by her elder daughter Claire Garnett, with assistance from other members of the family. The main part of the book is the reason for the title, being memories of holidays spent at the Vicarage in Ermington, written by Elaine at the age of 86. It is told for children ‘to give them an insight into rural life 100 years ago’ (p.6). Nevertheless, there are nuggets of information, with plenty of family photographs. The rest of the book consists of four appendices. Appendix One is a series of short biographies of four generations of the Pinwill family from Edmund and Elizabeth down to their great grandchildren. Appendix Two is a memoir about Violet Pinwill that appears to have been published separately as a booklet prior to the book, as copies are in circulation marked as being printed by ‘Underhills, Plymouth’. Appendix Three is an obituary of Violet Pinwill taken from The Times, 10 January 1957. Appendix Four is a set of family trees that provide (rather surprisingly) personal details on further generations of Pinwill descendents, produced by professional genealogists. The Appendices are interspersed with more family photos, several being pertinent to the woodcarving business.

In the publishing details at the front of the book, the copyright is asserted as being held by Elaine Chaytor 1990, which ostensibly provides the date of publication. Yet in the family trees in Appendix Four, there are people included who were born up to ten years after that date. This means that there is no way of verifying from the book when it was published, which causes difficulty when attempting to cite it. This, coupled with the fact that the Appendices were written by people other than Elaine, means that Chaytor (1990) is not strictly accurate but, nevertheless, is the citation used throughout this Catalogue.

From the perspective of producing this research, probably the most valuable part of the book is Appendix Two. Vast amounts of information about the Pinwill woodcarving business, gathered from numerous sources, have been synthesised and distilled into the memoir. Charlotte (Alice) Ward, daughter of Bertha Pinwill, acted as one of Violet’s executors and was largely responsible for writing it. She tells the story of the arrival of the Pinwill family in Ermington and the events that led up to the three sisters becoming woodcarvers. The memoir continues through Violet’s working life, providing snippets of information on the more notable commissions. It concludes with a list of the churches where her work exists. The result is an astonishing story of the establishment and development of the company in the early days and in this respect it cannot be surpassed, as there is no other written verification of how and why the sisters emerged as talented woodcarvers. It is later in the story that documentary evidence opens up an alternative narrative to the one presented by the family.

Probably the most intriguing omission in the family’s account is the role of Mary and Ethel in the development of the business; evidence suggests they were highly instrumental, particularly Mary. The memoir also contains a number of inaccuracies, such as the date of the fire in the workshop (1910 not 1905), the timing of the move to Belgrave Road (during WWII not WWI) and the extent to which Charles Gait carried on the business after Violet’s death (months not years).

One of the most valuable resources in the memoir is the account of work carried out and the list of churches where the company’s work exists, but with no indication of what that work may be. Most of the churches in the list can be cross-referenced with photographs at PWDRO but many cannot. When visiting these churches, other evidence has often been found to enable an identification of the work. In quite a few cases, however, nothing in the church suggests itself and there is no indication from any other source as to what the item may be. It seems incredible that so many items could be indiscernible or have been removed, and some other explanation seems necessary. Although the preamble to the list mentions the company photographs, another source may have been the numerous plans that Violet no doubt retained. Some of these plans may have been prepared as part of a tendering process for work that was then not awarded to the company. Hugh Harrison, who took over the Herbert Read woodcarving business in Exeter, inherited a wealth of plans, many of which it transpired were for work not carried out by that company. Indeed, in some cases, the tender was won by V. Pinwill. It seems plausible that a less reliable source, such as plans, may have been used to add to the list in Chaytor. Nevertheless, the inventory of Pinwill work given in the book has proved invaluable in finding work not illustrated in the photographs at PWDRO.

Pinwill Photographs at PWDRO

It was the discovery of the Pinwill photographs at PWDRO that inspired the production of the Catalogue. The collection consists of five albums and three sets of loose photographs, deposited on three separate occasions. The largest group of loose photographs (116/1 to 116/125) was given to PWDRO first, followed by the albums (244/1 to 244/5) and another set of loose photographs (244/6). A further group of six photographs (255/1 to 255/6) was deposited later. The identity of the person(s) making the deposits is confidential, but one candidate is Robert Ward, as his mother’s name (Dr A. Ward) and address appear on the front of 244/5, the largest and most comprehensive of the albums. In the Catalogue the source of the photograph (PWDRO) is followed by the accession number (e.g. 116/1), which is then listed in the references.

Apart from the 116 series, which has been placed roughly in alphabetical order of churches by PWDRO, the photographs are in no particular sequence. Each album appears to have been assembled separately, and certainly not in chronological order; early work by the Pinwill sisters is interspersed with later pieces by Violet. They may have been compiled for different purposes: for potential customers or as gifts to members of the family. At least two other albums were compiled for employees, as a remembrance of their time at the company.

Most of the loose photographs and the ones in the first three albums are labelled with details of the church (or secular organisation), sometimes with what the item is (often useful), the architect (if one was involved) and, almost always, ‘Rashleigh, Pinwill & Co. Plymouth’ or ‘R. Pinwill Plymouth’, or ‘V. Pinwill Carver Plymouth’, depending on the time at which the piece was made. In contrast, photographs 116/102 to 116/117 are all unidentified churches and many of the ones up to 116/125 bear minimal information. In 244/4 hardly anything is labelled and, along with 244/5, many photographs are duplicated. It has been possible, however, to assign quite a few unidentified items to particular churches but secular pieces have proved more difficult. On the backs of many of the loose photographs are the stamps of professional photographers who were called upon to produce these images taken in the workshop. They include Hawkings Studio, Ebrington Street, and Coupe & Bennett, Bedford Street, both of Plymouth, but occasionally photographs taken after installation were by local professionals.

These photographs are an invaluable asset to this research, enabling the Catalogue of Pinwill work to be developed. It is regrettable, however, that more documents related to the business were not retained. It seems that all the day-to-day business material of the Pinwill company, including plans, drawings, invoices, letters, etc., were disposed of and only the photographs were retained. A fire in Violet’s studio in 1934 may have destroyed a lot of the material up to this date, but more would have been generated after that point and none seems to have been kept. A small number of Pinwill company documents are available at PWDRO, CRO and DHC, mainly in association with church faculty petitions.

Goldsmiths College Women’s Art Library (WAL)

At Goldsmiths College there is a small Pinwill collection, consisting of about 20 photographs of various pieces of work, four sets of notes and sketches made by Violet during her research for the Truro Cathedral Quire saints project, several prints of (mostly medieval) paintings and carvings, and a set of photographs of furniture made by Violet for members of her family.

The peculiar thing about this collection is that, apart from the last item mentioned above, no-one knows when or how the items were deposited. Althea Greenan, the Library Co-ordinator, found them by chance amongst other material placed by former employees of the WAL in the attic of Fulham Palace, where the collection was located at the time. She created the Pinwill Archive at Goldsmiths but could not trace anything further about how it came to the WAL. Robert Ward visited the collection in 2003, once it was settled in Goldsmiths, and he was also somewhat mystified as to where the items might have originated. Robert then added photographs of the pieces of furniture he had in his home at that time, and a copy of the memoir of Violet Pinwill that appears in Chaytor. He also added a few personal observations on the life of Violet Pinwill, as well a copy of a newspaper interview she gave in 1934 and a transcript of a short TV programme about her that was broadcast in early 1977.

Most of the photographs in the Goldsmiths collection appear in the albums at PWDRO. Some of those that do not are included in the albums discussed below. The remainder are of known items of work but from a different angle or prior to installation. One of the most interesting aspect of the collection is the notes and sketches for Truro Cathedral and the prints of works of art. The former illustrates the extent to which Violet researched the subject of Cornish saints in order to provide Truro Cathedral with as many authenticated figures as possible. The prints are also fascinating, underlining the fact that Violet was inspired by medieval and later works of art in the production of her woodcarvings. A print of Madonna col figlio by Guercino even has crop marks on it to indicate the portion of the picture to be used as the basis for a woodcarving. It is also interesting to see the surprisingly large number of pieces made by Violet for her niece Alice Ward and to read Robert’s personal view of his great aunt.

The newspaper interview in the Western Weekly News is, of course, extremely important, being one of the few occasions when we hear Violet’s own words. It is also available to view on microfilm at Plymouth Library, although the quality is not as good. The transcript of the TV programme reveals several fascinating aspects of Violet’s life and work. The presenter, Clive Gunnell, introduces the programme at Ermington Church, where he interviews Violet’s nephew Henry Caunter, then David Weeks, one of her pupils at Plymouth School of Art, and finally, at St Martin-by-Looe, the priest in charge Malcolm Byrom. A copy of the programme exists on video tape, transferred to DVD, but the quality is poor.

Hubert Minchinton Archive

When Hubert Minchinton retired from working with Violet Pinwill in 1951, she presented him with an album of photographs of woodcarvings produced by the company. It is now in the care of his granddaughter but copies of the photographs, other family information and some of Hubert’s recollections have been made available tothe author.

David West Archive

When Violet closed the business temporarily in 1917, David West was presented with an album of photographs of woodcarvings, together with a letter of recommendation to potential employers. At some point, possibly after his death, the album was given to Ermington Church for posterity, and is available to view by appointment with a churchwarden. David’s grandson has also contributed with recollections about Violet Pinwill from when he was a young boy, as well as memories of his grandfather’s work.

Arthur Elliot Archive

The step-granddaughter of joiner Arthur Elliot inherited not only photographs, but also postcards sent by him to his wife when he was working away from home installing woodcarvings. These have been made available to the author and form an important part of understanding the way the business worked.

Jenny Thomas Archive

As part of a course at Plymouth College of Art, Jenny Thomas undertook a project on Violet Pinwill completed in 1990. She gained access to the photograph collection of Charles Gait, who worked for Violet Pinwill for over 50 years, as well as other material that is no longer available.

Ron Dustan Recollections

As an elderly man, Ron Dustan gave an interview to Mike Hedges and Sue Andrew in which he recalled some of the churches in which he had worked for Violet Pinwill in the 1930s. This was published in the Dartmoor Society Newsletter in 2005. It provided a number of very good leads to finding pieces of Pinwill woodcarvings, although some of the work cited has proved elusive. The Ron Dustan recollections are referred to as Hedges (2005).

Ermington Church

Held at Ermington church is a small collection that includes the album given to David West described above. In addition, there is a photograph of the young Pinwill carvers with Sedding the architect, Giles the carver and Flashman the joiner. There is also a leather-bound book inscribed with the names of all the local people who contributed to gifts for the Revd Pinwill on his retirement, donated by David West’s grandson. These can all be viewed by appointment with a churchwarden.

Plymouth City Museum Pinwill Collection

This is not work by Violet Pinwill but a collection of pieces of woodcarving deposited by her in 1942 (R. Smith, Curator, Plymouth City Museum, pers. comm.). There are 48 pieces and all except six are labelled with the place of origin. Most of them appear to be parts of church screens presumably removed during restoration, as they shows signs of woodworm and rot, but some are from Place House in Fowey, Cornwall.


A faculty is a licence issued by the Church of England to carry out works to church buildings, their contents and churchyards. It is required for the addition of any new fittings and furnishings, such as those provided by Violet Pinwill. In order to obtain a faculty, a church must submit a petition for a faculty to the Diocese, together with information about the proposals, such as plans and specifications. If there are no problems, the faculty is issued, sometimes with provisions. After an appropriate length of time, the Diocese deposits the documents with the County Record Office. Faculties can often be invaluable in obtaining additional information, such as the date that an item was made or for confirming that the work was allocated to Violet Pinwill if there is no other corroborating evidence. Documents accompanying the petition for faculty can include letters, estimates and drawings. Most faculties for Pinwill work are held at Cornwall Record Office (CRO) or at Devon Heritage Centre (DHC).

Church Visits, Guides and Wardens

Nearly every church in Devon and Cornwall in which Pinwill work is thought to exist has been visited in the course of this research, in order to verify that the carvings are there, to find evidence of dates, to take photographs and to explore the possibility that other items may have been commissioned. Many churches provide a guide and although some are useful in providing information such as dates, others tend to exclude mention of more modern pieces of work, even when they are large or important. Churchwardens can be instrumental in gaining access to those churches not left open and they sometimes provide important information and assistance.

Newspaper Articles

In the days when the church was the centre of community life, most activities there were reported in the local newspaper. New furniture and fittings in churches are usually dedicated, sometimes by a Bishop, and this occasion was often the subject of a newspaper report. These reports, which sometimes name the woodcarver, are invaluable as a source of dates and other information. They are accessible through a subscription to the British Newspaper Archive, although not all dates and newspapers are covered.

Historic England

The vast majority of churches are Listed Buildings, designated by Historic England (HE), previously English Heritage, an executive non-departmental public body of the British Government, under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990, for their special architectural or historic interest. In the listing, a description is provided in which the main features of the church are given. Occasionally, information in the listing is unavailable elsewhere and becomes a valuable source, especially for dates. On the other hand, ‘modern’ work is often overlooked, even when it is important. For instance, there is absolutely no mention of the Pinwill sisters in the HE listing for Ermington church, which is inexplicable. The most easily accessible repository for listings is the HE website.

Other Sources

Occasionally, no written source is readily available for information that enhances the entries in the Catalogue and websites such as Wikipedia are utilised.