Robert Stephen Hawker

Tonacombe Manor

Tonacombe Manor, from a postcard by A. H. Hawke, Helston

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Ever since I first came across the J. L. Pethybridge illustration (see below) of the interior of Tonacombe Manor I’ve been hoping to acquire more pictures, so I was delighted when four postcards turned up recently on eBay. The only useful information on the house I’ve been able to find online is a comprehensive but rather dry description on the British Listed Buildings website and a couple of photos in the Country Life Picture Library. According to British Listed Buildings, Tonacombe Manor is very little altered since Christopher Hussey wrote about it in his article of November 11th, 1933 (pp.500-506), but unfortunately the  Country Life website doesn’t include the accompanying text. Once again Byles’ Life & Letters provides a good deal of information not readily available elsewhere:

‘Morwenstow is one of those remote districts where the centuries have wrought but little change. The same families of the good old yeoman stock have occupied the land, and intermarried, for generation after generation. It is a place where names, and the men who bear them, live long. A tablet in the church is inscribed to the memory of one John Shearme of Harscut, the Eleventh John Shearme successively : “Who departed this Life in the Year of Our Lord 1771, in the 91st Year of his Age.” Other names such as Brimacombe, Harris, Adams, Mountjoy, Venning, Cory, Burrow, Trewin, Seldon, Cottle, Jewell, Cholwill, Kinsman, Cann, Trood, Rouse, Boundy, Manning, Shephard, Walter, Bray, Tape, Heard, Mugford, Hambly, Littlejohns, are likewise indigenous to the soil, and recur again and again in the Parish records, or on the gravestones in the old churchyard. During the whole time of Hawker’s incumbency, the Brimacombes tenanted the two largest estates in the parish, Tonacombe and Marsland.’

Tonacombe Manor, from a postcard by A. H. Hawke, Helston

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‘Tonacombe Manor, the residence of Mrs. Waddon Martyn, is a perfect specimen of mediaeval domestic architecture. It is of no great size, but complete in its preservation, and unspoiled by modern additions. Seen from a distance, it shows a picturesque cluster of low roofs, gables and chimneys. From the moment of entering the massive gateway, the visitor feels himself transported out of this twentieth century into the Middle Ages. An old-world air pervades the whole place.

‘A door with an old portcullis, and a porter’s lodge at the side, leads into a small courtyard, and the arrow-slits pierced in the thick strong walls of the lodge indicate that it was built in times when the house might have to resist an armed attack.’

Tonacombe Manor, from a postcard by A. H. Hawke, Helston

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Interior of Tonacombe Manor by J. L. Pethybridge, from The Life and Letters of R. S. Hawker

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‘The interior deepens the illusion that the clock has been put back several centuries. The sombre hall, with its great beams overhead, its flagged and sanded floor, its minstrels’ gallery, its mighty open hearth, piled in winter with blazing logs, its windows like the “tall oriels” of a dimly-litten chapel, its walls hung with antlered heads of great beasts slain in the chase, portraits of departed heroes, rusty weapons, tattered banners, and ancient coats of arms – all these things combine to banish from the mind consciousness of the present, and to call up before it “the brave days of old.” Before Hawker came to Morwenstow, the minstrels’ gallery had been partitioned off, and the beams of the roof hidden by a ceiling. It was he who pointed this out to the owner, Mr. Martyn, and persuaded him to remove the partition and the ceiling.

‘The rest of the house is equally old-fashioned – odd flights of stairs, winding corridors, and unexpected rooms, all panelled in dark oak, and sometimes leading one into another, – an ideal scene for a ghost story. In one of the upper rooms a narrow loop-hole gives a view of the hall, by means of which the mistress of the house could enjoy invisibly those scenes of revelry at which her sex forbade her to appear.

‘The design of the grounds and buildings is considered to be of Saxon origin. There are five courts, and five gardens. (Compare the end of chapter II. of ‘ Ivanhoe.’) One of these gardens, called the Pleasaunce, is the scene of Hawker’s legend of ‘The First Cornish Mole.’

‘”Tonacombe,” writes its late owner, the Rev. W. Waddon Martyn, “is mentioned in an old Deed, enrolled in the Books of the Diocese at Exeter, A.D. 1296, where it is described as “the three Vills of Tunnacombe.” It formerly belonged to the Jourdens (Jourdains), and from them has passed by marriage successively to the “Leys (or Leighs), alias Kempthornes, Waddons, and now to the Martyns.”‘

Tonnacombe, Moorwinstow, from a postcard by Thorn, Bude

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‘Tonacombe is the original of “Chapel” in ‘Westward Ho !’ which was partly written there. Round the panelled drawing room are the arms of Ley (or Leigh) and Courtenay. There is a Chapel House in Morwenstow, but it is of recent date (about 1800), and has no traditions. Kingsley adopted the name and applied it to Tonacombe. A writer in Chambers’ Journal says that Kingsley visited Morwenstow many times, and there met Hawker, who “pointed out to him the site of the old house of the Grenvilles at Stowe.” Hawker did not consider that the local colour in ‘Westward Ho ! ‘ was accurate. In 1857 he writes to a friend : “You would have grievously failed in your search for the localities referred to, but by no means identified, in ‘ Westward Ho ! ‘ The whole Book is an assumption – and me judice a failure.”‘

The Waddon Lantern, Hawker’s walking-stick and holy water stoups, at Tonacombe Manor, from The Life and Letters of R. S. Hawker.

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‘Among the curios at Tonacombe is an old lantern once in Hawker’s possession, and unique in its construction and its history. It was made for Thomas Waddon of Tonacombe, who died in 1755. His brother, Edward Waddon, lived at Stanbury, and their sister, Honor, was the wife of the Rev. Oliver Rouse, Vicar of Morwenstow. The three families used to meet regularly at each other’s houses for dice and cards, and what the old song ‘ Arscott of Tetcott ‘
describes as

Gay flowing bumpers and social delight”

‘In the excess of their merriment the cronies would dash their glasses on the table, and the broken pieces were preserved as a record of the jest. In course of time there was a goodly collection of these fragments, and in order that their memorial should not perish the lantern was made, of solid oak, square, with a pointed roof and little windows formed of the round bases of the broken glasses and other pieces cut in the shape of dice, hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades. Thereafter, when the festive party broke up, those whose turn it was to walk homeward through the dark lanes had their way lighted before them by this emblem of their wit and humour.

‘There are also to be seen at Tonacombe several massive old stone vessels, which Hawker called “holy water stoups,” but which more prosaic persons have explained as corn measures. Tradition tells that he collected them from small ruined chapels in the neighbourhood. There were at one time eleven of these little shrines in Hartland parish alone. The small cross over the piscina at Morwenstow came from one of these at Longfurlong.’

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The extracts quoted above are from The Life and Letters of R. S. Hawker edited by C. E. Byles, John Lane, 1906, pp. 47-50)

No ancient Manor House is complete without at least one ghost, and Hawker himself told J. F. Chanter ‘in the summer of 1874’ that Tonacombe was haunted by the spirit of a person he identified as ‘Master Zachary’, whose bedroom, ‘Master Zachary’s chamber’, was accessed by an external stone stair leading from the little courtyard (Life & Letters, p. 616).

Michael Williams, in his book Supernatural in Cornwall (Bossiney Books, no date, pp. 5-10), records an interview with David Waddon Martyn in which the latter describes a number of apparently benign resident spirits, including one known as ‘The Old Lady’. He suggests Katherine Kempthorne as a possible candidate; Katherine married John Kempthorne of Tonacombe at Chudleigh in 1558 and was buried at Morwenstow church on 14 February 1613, in the Kempthorne tomb. Ghostly appearances aside it would be interesting to find out why her wedding took place at Chudleigh, which is on the far side of Dartmoor just a few miles west of Exeter. The commonly held belief that ‘people didn’t travel far in the old days’ is frequently overturned by stories like this one – see for instance my piece on Mary Chudleigh at Literary Places.

A public footpath from Morwenstow to Stanbury runs just to the west of Tonacombe Manor – there’s a photo on Geograph – but the house and grounds are not open to the public.

ADDENDUM 30 JUNE 2012 – 

Two more Thorn postcards obtained recently from eBay:

Tonnacombe interior

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Tonnacombe exterior. The absence of a formal driveway and the fact that the stonework above the window looks unaltered suggest that this is an earlier picture than the one posted previously.

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Photos and additional text © Angela Williams 2012


7 responses to “Tonacombe Manor”

  1. Barbara Swindlehurst Avatar
    Barbara Swindlehurst

    Hello Mrs Wiliams
    I have two original items relating to Tonacombe Morwenstowe.

    One is the advertisement when the house was offered for “To let furnished for a term of years” in 1937. There is a photograph and descrpition of the house.

    The second is an original five page article with 14 photographs published in Country Life dated 11th November, 1933.

    If of interest I would be happy to forward on approval for your inspection.
    Kind Regards Barbara Swindlehurst

    1. Phil Kempthorne Avatar
      Phil Kempthorne


      I would love to have copies of both of the items you describe. What are the chances?

      Phil Kempthorne
      Houston, TX

  2. Guy Dodd Avatar
    Guy Dodd

    Mrs Williams
    We walked past Tonacombe and nearby Stanbury six months ago and have been trying to find out a bit about their origins so was v interested in your piece. I am intrigued to know what economy supported the building of two substantial (and quite un-Cornish?) houses in a relatively poor area. Can you help?
    Guy Dodd, Flushing

    1. admin Avatar

      Guy, your question is a good one but I don’t have a ready answer as I’m not a historian by training and am learning as I go along.

      I’ve been very surprised by what I’ve discovered so far about the history of the major property-owning families in north Cornwall and in Devon – they seem to have travelled between London and their various country residences quite frequently, despite the enormous discomfort involved. I’ve written a little bit about this in connection with Lady Mary Chudleigh of Ashton on my other website, ‘Literary Places’:

      Much as I’d like to do more research on Tonacombe I can’t really justify it right now as Hawker is my main concern. However, I seem to remember that I came across quite a lot of information online while I was writing this article so if you search the web for the families concerned you should find some things of interest. According to the book ‘Morwenstowe Since Stuart Times or A History of Morwenstowe after the Restoration’ by Rev. F. C. Hamlyn, in the 15th century Tonacombe was in the possession of the Jordan family and in the early 16th century John Ley alias Kempthorne married Thomasin, daughter and heiress of Robert Jordan of Tonacombe.

      Of course the Grenvilles were at Stowe so the area was by no means a social backwater. Some other manors and mansions listed by Hamlyn ‘in the period of Morwenstowe’s prosperity’ are Lee, Cleave, Eastway, Stanbury, Cornekey and Marsland.

      Sorry I can’t be more helpful just now. If I do find out any more I’ll certainly let you know.

  3. antonia willis Avatar
    antonia willis

    I think if you were seriously interested in the history of Tonacombe the current owner, William Waddon-Martyn, wouldn’t mind answering a letter – though he is strictly snail-mail not email! He is a delightful gent & an historian by training. You can find the Tonacombe postcode online. Just a thought…..

  4. Alan Kempthorne Avatar
    Alan Kempthorne

    I have a transcript of the Kempthorne Family 1300 – 2000 which says ” the golden age of the Kempthornes occurred in the 16th Century with the ownership of Tonacombe Manor in the parish of Morwenstow. Built in the 15th Century and subsequently enlarged, Tonacombe is regarded as one of the finest fortified Tudor Manor Houses in the West Country. Acquired by the Kempthornes through marriage in about 1530, it was lost by them through the same route in 1646 when Honor Kempthorne, married Thomas Waddon a prosperous merchant of Plymouth. Tonacombe changed hands again in 1761 when Laetita Waddon married Reverend Robert Martyn……..

  5. Brian Calder Avatar
    Brian Calder

    Dear Mrs Williams, I enjoyed the website. At the 1841 census, one of my unmarried ancesters, Jane Cleverdon lived at Woodford with two of her children. Her 14yr old daughter Elizabeth lived at Shop, while her 12yr old son Thomas lived as a man servant at Tonacombe Farm. Is Tonacombe Farm Tonacombe Manor, or are they different houses altogether. By the way, all the children were baptised by Hawker. Do you think they were all involved with wrecking?