Notice of supposed Acoustic Jars found in the Parish Church of St. Andrew, at Ashburton (1873)


Author(s): Amery. John S. Origin: DA Transactions
Topic(s): churches Year published: 1873
Location(s): Ashburton Pages: 203-205
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By John S. Amery. (Read at Sidmouth, July 22nd, 1873.)

When the chancel of the parish church of St. Andrew, at Ashburton, was renovated, in about 1838, by the late vicar, the masons in removing the plaster came upon some old urns built into the wall, and having small pieces of slate over their mouths. Supposing they might contain something of interest or value they dug them out, but found them quite empty. The reason of their being empty, and so completely buried in the plaster, remained a mystery.

They were thought by many at that time to be cinerary urns, discovered, in excavating the foundations of the church, on what was probably an ancient burying-place, and wishing to preserve them on the same spot they were placed in these holes.

Last year Lieut. C. Worthy, son of the present incumbent, took the matter up, and sent the following letter, with a sketch of one of the urns, to the curator of the British Museum:


“The Vicarage, Ashburton, Devon, 6th Dec., 1872.

“Dear Sir, – The enclosed sketch represents an earthen vessel, found in the chancel wall of St. Andrew’s Church, Ashburton (of which my father is the present incumbent), whilst the chancel was undergoing restoration. Leland says that Ashburton Church was founded by ‘Ethelward fil’ Gulmi. de Pomeroy’, who lived about AD. 1137.

“In 1186 Bishop John the Chaunter, the then bishop of Exeter, appropriated to his chapter the church of Ashburton.

“In 1314 (3rd April) Bishop Stapledon visited the church, ‘which he found in a dilapidated condition, especially the north aisle, which was ruinous. He ordered the church to be repaired, and the north aisle to be rebuilt, and a vestry to be constructed on the north side of the chancel.’ No trace of this vestry now remains.

“The architecture of the greatest part of the present building appears to date from the commencement of the fifteenth century, with the exception of the north entrance, apparently of the transition to semi-Norman period, and the window of a small chapel immediately behind the altar (now used as a vestry), which is Early English.

“The east wall, separating the chancel from this chapel, is about 3½ feet thick. The whole chancel is said to be of an earlier date than the rest of the edifice; but it was so thoroughly transformed before I first saw it, by the introduction of new windows and the blocking up of the ancient doorway, that I am not prepared to vouch for this assertion at present.

“Between 1836 and 1840 the alterations to which I have alluded were made by the late vicar, and it was then that the workmen found the original of the enclosed sketch, with some nine or ten others, lying in what one of them describes to me as ‘holes like those left by masons for the reception of their scaffold-poles’.

“They were not regularly piled one above another, but, to use my informant’s own words, ‘were scattered all over the north and south walls of the chancel on their interior sides’.

“The only ornament is a zig-zag line over a very faint white mark; no other indentation or moulding whatever. I may add that the vessels were all empty and unsealed, but had a small piece of slate placed in front of their mouths. They are of the roughest description of common red clay, like a flower-pot in appearance and quality, and were firmly fixed in the recesses with mortar.

“Yours, &c.,
“CHAS. WORTHY, late 82nd Regt.”


To this letter he received a reply from Mr. Winter Jones, in which he says:—

“The subject is interesting, but is also very obscure; for the object or purpose of these is not known. Many have been found in chancel walls and in passages running under chancel floors, their mouths flush with the face of the wall.”

Subsequently one of the jars was sent to London, and exhibited before the Society of Antiquarians.

In January of this year Lieut. Worthy’s letter was printed in the proceedings of the Society of Antiquarians, with a woodcut and the following note:

“But for the circumstance mentioned by Mr. Worthy, that a piece of slate was placed in front of their mouths, it might be conjectured that these vessels had been designed to serve the purpose of those acoustic vases to which my attention has not unfrequently been called in this and other countries, and of which a succinct account is given in the Norfolk Archaeology, vol. vii. p. 93, by the Rev. G. W. W. Minns; see also Archaeological Journal, vol. xii. p. 276.”

From this it seems highly probable that they are acoustic jars. The fact of the slate over their mouths may be easily explained. From the time of their being first placed in the chancel, whenever that may have been, up to the Reformation, the mouths were doubtless left open, and the somewhat rude workmanship of the pottery was concealed by the decorations on the chancel walls. At the Reformation, when they were probably no longer required, and the decorations were taken down, leaving the walls bare, it was found easier to put a piece of slate over them and plaster them up than it was to remove them, especially as they might again have been required on any change of the State religion.

For the main facts of this notice I am greatly indebted to Lieut. C. Worthy, and to Mr. Eddy for the loan of the jar which I have exhibited before you at this meeting.