The first impression when you walk into St Disen’s Church is of a spacious, well-lit building and that the stained glass, which is all 19th century, is rather plain. But this is misleading. Admittedly, the glass in the windows at the western end of the north and south aisles is clear but the other windows are full of colour and detail, and although the glass may be comparatively modern it has some interesting tales to tell. Of particular interest are the windows in St George’s Chapel, to the right of the chancel, but even the windows in the north and south aisles are not as simple as they may at first perhaps seem.
They comprise a set of patterned windows by Drake and Sons (c.1865-1957), a firm of ecclesiastical furnishers who were based in Exeter. The clear diamond patterned glass within the main three lights of each window seems especially designed to allow more light into the building. Yet each has a pattern of oak leaves, roses, fleur de lys or grapes within, bordered by red or blue glass interspersed with vine leaves and grapes. Above, in the ornamental stonework within each window arch, is richly coloured glass depicting shields and angels holding inscribed banners. Several of the windows also have memorial inscriptions along the bottom, including one at the western end of the north aisle to Charles Cumins, ‘author of this window’, and the date 1872.
The glass in the large window in the tower, above the west doors, depicts Christ sitting in judgement, and is from the workshops of Clayton and Bell. It was inserted in 1880, funded by a bequest of £200 from the estate of a Mr Linnington, whose name appears in the inscription at the bottom. The window was part of a suite of major alterations to the church which included the removal of the central part of the gallery that was formerly across the west end of the church, the relocation of the organ, that was formerly in the gallery, to the north side of the chancel and the addition of the south porch. However, not all were in approval of these plans. According to an article published in the Exeter & Plymouth Gazette on 4th May 1880, the proposals sparked lively discussions.
Revd Strong, vicar at the time, felt that the bequest together with a proposal to build a south porch provided an opportunity for ‘beautifying the church’ that should not be let slip by. He thought the gallery and organ were ‘detrimental to the architectural effect of the interior’ as they blocked out the light from the west window. The proposals, especially that of moving of the organ, were vigorously opposed by some, particularly by Mr C. R. Collins who was Mayor of Bradninch at the time and owner of Hele Paper Mill. Mr Collins, it is recorded, was very much against the ‘new-fangled idea’ of restoring Devon churches.
The objections were overcome, however, and in June 1880 permission was granted for the works. In August a recital was given on the organ in its new location which, according to the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 20th August 1880, gave much pleasure to the large number of parishioners who attended.
The window in the east wall of the chancel has three main panels depicting the Nativity, the Ascension and Mary at the tomb. The inscription reads ‘Glory to God in the highest’. The Devon Historian, J. Davidson, who visited the church in 1843, was rather disparaging about it, saying that it ‘has some modern coloured glass’. In fact it is typical of the beautiful, ‘soft’ artwork of the London based company, Ward & Hughes, formerly Ward & Nixon (1836-1883). It probably dates from the time of the partial rebuilding of the church in 1841.
The windows on the north and south sides of the chancel are dedicated to members of the Matthews family, that on the north to William Matthews who died in 1869 and that on the south to Charles Matthews who died in 1873. The north window depicts two saints each holding a Bible or book and on the south side is a depiction of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, holding a lamb, flanked by St Luke and St John. Beneath are the saints’ respective symbols of an ox and an eagle.
On the south side of the choir is a small chapel that was formerly the Lady Chapel but which was re-dedicated to St George in 1917 following its refurbishment as a World War I memorial chapel. The two windows though are older. Above the altar is the Resurrection Window which was designed by parishioner Sarah Yeatman in memory of her parents who are commemorated on the adjacent plaque.
The window in the east wall depicts Jesus flanked by two figures with three Biblical scenes below and is by Hardman & Co. (1838-2008) who were one of the world’s leading manufacturers of stained glass. It was donated circa 1880 by American Congressman George West in memory of his mother, Jane West, who died in 1854 and is buried in the churchyard. George West was born in Bradninch in 1823. He worked in the local paper mills until he emigrated with his family to America in 1849. Here he turned his paper making knowledge to good account, his factory in Rock City Falls in Saratoga County being one of the first to produce paper bags, which were cheaper than the cotton bags then in use. By 1880 West, who became known as the Paper Bag King, had 12 paper mills. He became a Republican Congressman, holding office from 1881-1883 and 1885-1889. He sold his business to the Union Bag and Paper Company in 1899 and died at his home in Rock City in 1902. George West is one of our American Connections.
There are also two small stained glass windows in the south porch, which as mentioned above, was built in the 1880s (although the dedication is dated 1876). One shows St George, the other St Denys. To choose St George, patron saint of England, is perhaps understandable but why St Denys? Well, it appears that the church was originally dedicated to St Denys (St Denis/St Dionysius). Back in 1208 a fair was granted to Bradninch on St Denis’ Day, 9th October. Such were all references to the church until 1831, when Samuel Lewis in his Topographical Dictionary of England stated that the church was dedicated to St Disen! For whatever reason, a misspelling perhaps or a misunderstanding of the local dialect, we shall probably never know. Then in 1899, in her studies on church dedications, Frances Arnold-Forster linked St Disen with St Disibod. The name change was sealed in 1911 when Charles Croslegh, then vicar of Bradninch, published the life story of St Disen of Disibodenberg in his History of Bradninch. Today our church continues to be known at St Disen’s.
The church hall also has an impressive array of stained glass. The main, two storey hall was built as a Sunday School in 1838. It was restored in 1908 with the addition with a single storey extension, called Strong’s Room in memory of Revd Strong, vicar of Bradninch from 1876-1888. The glass is all early 20th century, by local glass painters Morris and Wilfred Drake. That in the main hall mostly comprises heraldic motifs commemorating Bradninch families, although there is also a window that shows the hall’s origins as a school. The large rectangular window at the side of the stage (part of Strong’s Room) depicts fanciful scenes from Bradninch’s history.