Medieval Bridge over Exe
Medieval Bridge over Exe

Exeter Cathedral Memorials with Links to Empire

Thursday, 13 October 2022

Our speaker, Peter Wingfield-Digby, spent his working life as an international statistical consultant, living and working in developing countries. Since retiring, he has been a guide and steward at Exeter Cathedral for ten years. This prompted his desire to produce a book describing some of its memorials. The book has details of 63 memorials with links to Empire and encompasses a wide range of experience: soldiers and sailors, missionaries, explorers, colonial administrators, people employed by the East India Company and – almost inevitably – some connected with slave plantations in the Caribbean.

Peter highlighted the University College London research into the records of compensation paid to slave owners (but not to the enslaved who received nothing) after the abolition of slavery. Each entry in the book displays the memorial of interest and provides a brief introduction to the person’s life.

The memorials are divided according to the part of the world in which the person (or some close relative) was involved; there are sections for India, the rest of Asia and the Pacific, the Caribbean, North and South America, and Africa. The descriptions here are necessarily brief; much more information for all of the memorials is to be found in Peter’s book.

For our talk Peter confined himself to fifteen of the memorials and explained that only the very wealthy or well-connected could secure a memorial. A ledger stone marks the actual burial site. Peter also handed out a ground plan of the Cathedral, showing the location of all 63 monuments. In his talk he described the memorials, moving round the Cathedral in a clockwise direction, but for this write-up it is simplest to show the 15 memorials grouped according to region.



  • Indian Uprising 1857: This memorial commemorates the officers and soldiers of the 32nd or Cornwall Regiment Light Infantry who died defending Lucknow and Cawnpore during the Indian Uprising, as well as the “43 soldiers’ wives and 55 children who were barbarously massacred at Cawnpore in the month of June 1857”. Peter explained that the wording used on memorials can be a problem when read with current-day sensibilities.
  • John Macdonald: Born on the Isle of Skye, he was the fifth son of the famous Flora Macdonald. He served with the Bombay Infantry, and then with the Bengal engineers in Sumatra. While there he carried out a survey of Dutch settlements about to be restored to Holland, and also made a survey of the coastline. He was skilled at drawing maps, some of which are now in the British Museum. He spent the last 30 years of his life in Exeter.
  • John Sydney Lethbridge: Major General Lethbridge MC was a military person who lived through the period leading up to the end of Empire. Born in Calcutta in 1897, he saw service in World War I at the battles of Ypres and the Somme. The book gives a description of his army career and records his retirement to Bondleigh near North Tawton in 1960 where he died a year later.


Asia and Pacific (except India)


  • Arthur Corfe Angel: The eldest son of Alfred Angel who was organist at Exeter Cathedral, he was a merchant shipman serving on the overladen steamship ‘London’ when it foundered in the Bay of Biscay in 1866 on her voyage to Melbourne. Only 19 of the 263 souls were saved. In order to prevent the overloading of ships a campaign led by Samuel Plimsoll, MP, saw the introduction of the ‘Plimsoll Line’, showing the maximum draught to which ships could be laden.
  • Jane Hope: She was the youngest child of John 4th Earl of Hopetoun and Louisa Dorothea Wedderburn. Her father was a Governor of the Royal Bank of Scotland. while her mother was the daughter of the planter Sir John Wedderburn, the biggest landowner in Jamaica at the end of the eighteenth century. Jane’s brother Louis emigrated to Australia and grew and milled the first commercially grown sugar in Queensland. The 7th Earl, a grand nephew of Jane, served as Governor of Victoria and later as the first Governor General of Australia.
  • Robert Falcon Scott: Captain Scott of Devonport was leader of the national Antarctic Expeditions of 1900-1904 and 1910-1913. He and four companions died from hunger and cold after reaching the South Pole in 1912. The sledge flag carried in his first expedition was presented by his mother and hangs above the memorial tablet. Peter’s final note in his book records that “the naturalist Sir Peter Scott was his son”.




  • Mary Irvine: Mary was the widow of Arthur Henry Irvine, Lieutenant Colonel Commandant of the Yorkshire Hussars, who had died of yellow fever at San Domingo in 1796. At that time the place, later to become Haiti, was probably the wealthiest colony in the world, but was convulsed by the greatest slave revolt of the time. With France going through its own revolutionary period, the British saw an opportunity, and despatched about 20,000 soldiers to help the planters, but the losses from tropical diseases were enormous.
  • Bryan Blundell: Bryan Blundell was an army officer serving in the Caribbean. In 1794 he was in command of the Second Battalion of Light Infantry at the taking of the islands of Martinique, Guadeloupe and St Lucia. Bryan Blundell’s father, Jonathan, was a major shipping merchant in Liverpool and was involved in funding at least 70 transatlantic slavery voyages, purchasing or capturing slaves from West and Central Africa and taking them to the Americas.
  • Henry Phillpotts: He was Bishop of Exeter for 39 years from 1830-1869 and because his name appears in the compensation records it was thought that he was a slave owner. The truth is that he acted as a trustee and executor for someone else who was a slave owner and there was no evidence that he had actually himself benefited from the compensation payment. But he did have a younger brother, Thomas, who was a slave-owner in Jamaica for 25 years and who then became a West India merchant in London and Gloucester.


North and South America


  • John Horden: He was the first Anglican Bishop of Moosonee, located in a very remote area of Ontario on the edge of James Bay which runs into Hudson Bay. He was born in Exeter in 1828 and attended St Thomas’s Church. He died at Moose Fort in1893. His memorial records that “This brass was erected by Devonians and Friends interested in the Bishop’s Missionary work”.
  • Rachel Charlotte O’Brien: She was the eldest of 12 children of Joseph Frobisher (one of Montreal’s most important fur traders and merchants) and Charlotte Jobert. Rachel married Captain Edward James O’Brien of His Majesty’s 24th Regiment and their daughter Charlotte was born in 1799. Tragically Rachel died in an Exeter hotel when her clothing caught fire, saving her baby at the expense of her own life at the age of 19. The book records interesting details about her parents and her husband’s career.
  • Louisa Harford: She was born Louisa Pigou, daughter of Frederick Pigou who in New York City, imported taxed tea from Britain and was indirectly involved in events leading up to the Boston Tea Party of 1773. Louisa was the wife of Henry Harford and she died at Exmouth aged 34. Henry’s father and grandfather were owners of Maryland in America, a major tobacco producing area with slave plantations. His ancestors had been granted their charter of ownership by Charles I. Following American independence, the British Parliament granted him £100,000 for the loss of Maryland.
  • John Gilbert: Sir John was a half-brother of Sir Walter Raleigh and was married to Elizabeth Chudleigh. They they lived at Compton Castle, a fortified manor house six miles from Torquay and now managed by the National Trust. Peter’s book describes the interesting history of Sir John’s younger brother Sir Humphrey Gilbert, who was a soldier, sailor and explorer. He sailed to the Americas in 1583 and officially laid claim to the port of St John’s for the Queen. Newfoundland thus became the very first British colony. He lost his life on the return voyage to England when his ship the Squirrel sank with all lives lost in a storm off the Azores.




  • George Knight-Bruce: He was born in Devon in 1852 and had various posts as curate and vicar in the UK before becoming Bishop of Bloemfontein in South Africa and later a pioneering missionary and first bishop of Mashonaland. His memorial records that he was “driven by fever from the mission-fields of South Africa.” He retired back to Devon to become Vicar of Bovey Tracey but died of a fever a year later.
  • Peter Hennis: He was a highly respected local doctor in Exeter who gained his reputation during the terrible cholera outbreak of 1832. The following year he got caught up in a dispute with Sir John Jeffcott who had taken a job as Chief Justice in Sierra Leone. Sir John came back on leave, hoping to get married to a granddaughter of Flora Macdonald. But the young woman had called off the engagement and Sir John suspected that Peter Hennis had warned off the family. When they met at the Royal Clarence Hotel he challenged Peter Hennis to a duel. They met the next day on Haldon Hill outside Exeter. Sir John fired on the initial instruction of ‘Prepare’ and fatally wounded Peter Hennis but the doctor did not die until a week later. Some 20,000 people lined the streets for his funeral, which took place at St Sidwell’s Church. This was the last duel to take place in Devon. Jeffcott and his accomplices fled back to Sierra Leone, but in their absence they were found guilty of wilful murder. When he returned to England he was acquitted, with the prosecution offering no evidence but he lost his job as Chief Justice of Sierra Leone. In 1836 he was appointed as a judge in the new colony of South Australia but drowned a year later when an overloaded boat he was travelling in sank near Adelaide.


Exeter Cathedral memorials with links to Empire, 2022, by Peter Wingfield-Digby, is priced at £10 and is available from

McCoys Arcade
off Fore Street

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