John Howe Barrow was born in 1812 at North Molton and died in 1896. He lived all his working life in Challacombe. Though small in stature, he was a considerable presence in own time. To everyone, rector or labourer alike, he was always ‘Mr Barrow’. By trade he was a shoe maker, but he was also parish clerk, a self-taught schoolmaster, musician, church choir and orchestra leader. AG Bradley in his ‘Exmoor Memories’ names him as ‘Isaac’ and tells us just how he and his sons entirely dominated the music in church with their unique renderings in their shrill Devonshire voices. The rector of the day found him a real force to reckon with. Later his school was replaced by a state one, and his orchestra by a harmonium played by the new school teacher. This must have hurt him, but he had the grace to carry on with his other church duties, remaining as parish clerk to the end of his life.

Mr Barrow ran his school in part of his home. Copies survive of the highly complicated sums he set the sons of farmers, complete with coloured illustrations of the lands they were to measure. He also taught music, doing his cobbling while his pupils played to him. Even today, well over 100 years later his name is far from forgotten and his descendants are still around.

John Howe Barrow and his wife AgnesIt was Bernie Knill, one of his great-great-grandsons, who in 2009 discovered among old family papers, three very interesting documents: John Barrow’s Indenture as an apprentice to a cordwainer dated 28/11/1826; a Family Register which deals with every event in his family; and his ‘Memorandums of Baptisms, Weddings and Burials’ which run from 1854-1896. It is this last well written work which is of such value to family historians. Unlike official church records, this book gives chapel baptisms as well, births when not followed by baptisms, and events outside the parish which involved local people. He records people’s occupations and sometimes where they worked.

He took over from his father-in-law as parish clerk in 1854, and continued until ill health stopped him in January 1896. In addition to the official church record, he kept his own memorandum of events which include 312 births/ baptisms, 99 marriages and 194 burials (59 of which were infants aged five or less). The exact time of birth is sometimes given. Especially interesting are the causes of death. Beside fits, diphtheria and measles we have suicide, drowning, falling down the cellar stairs, and butt or gig accidents. One man was killed by a huge stone in a lime quarry, another burnt to death, and another died after swallowing ‘glass lugles’(whatever they are). Yet another killed by a bull, and one poor soul was simply ‘worn out’.

On Mar 28th 1889 he records that ‘The body of Mr Gammon has been found this morning on a ledge of rock in Pinkery Pond, as the pond had been let go the night before by a hydraulic press and the water drained away in the night. He was discovered at about 6.15am. He had been there 15 days. He had been in water 8feet down although the pond is 40 feet deep in the middle. He was on a ledge on the west side of the pond.’

John Howe Barrow headstone in the churchyardWe are not only given names of sons or daughters, but the order of each one’s birth in the family. Sometimes useful extra useful bits about how people are related, especially if that was someone within the Barrow family. There is a touching record of one couple emigrating to Australia on 26th July 1857. ‘At two o’clock in the morning Richard Squire, Mary his wife and all their family left Challacombe Town for Australia amidst the deep sorrow of her mother and sister…’ He also noted in the margin an earthquake shock on June 25th 1883.

The ‘memorandums’ are largely factual. On one occasion he notes that the bride’s father was doing ‘penal servitude’. Normally Mr Barrow leaves us to make up our own minds about the people he records, but on one occasion he could not help noting that on 7th October 1865 a certain gentleman turned up for his wedding in ‘his old clothes’.

On another occasion Mr Barrow does offer an opinion. On March 29th 1862 John the son of William and Susan Grant of Hooks Foot was buried. ‘This child was never baptised nor his birth registered till he was dead, and the death was very mysterious and there was an inquest held into it. Most probably it was suffocated by being over laid by its mother.’

Mr Barrow’s handwriting remains firm and clear right up to almost the end, when a seizure rather affected it. The only difficulty in reading arises when in tiny letters he squeezed in some entry which he had evidently missed.

In the static world of a small place like 19th century Challacombe, a limited number of names appear again and again – both as surnames and also as middle names. Some of the most common are:- Ridd, Huxtable, Dallyn, Leworthy, Barrow, Pile, Antell and Norman.

I wonder how many other parishes have a record like this. We are enormously grateful to the family for allowing it to be published. It is quite invaluable as a document. They have agreed that a transcribed and indexed copy of it will be given to the North Devon Record Office.

Mr Barrow calls them ‘Memorandums’. It would have been a very brave person to tell him they should really be ‘Memoranda’.


Christopher Tull Jan 2011.