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Church of St Mary and St Gabriel in the Totnes Mission Community
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The Pencarrow Quartet and Stoke Gabriel

Five hundred years ago, in November 1517, Martin Luther pinned 95 theses to the door of Wittenburg Castle Church, which started the Reformation of the church in Europe.

Two hundred years ago, in November 1817, Richard Ford, an aristocratic young man from Oxford, travelling in Europe with two companions met Ludwig van Beethoven in Vienna; they were doing the “grand tour “of Europe.

Later in 1824 Richard married Harriet Capel a daughter of the Earl of Essex. Because of his wife’s poor health in early 1830 he went to live in Spain. While in Spain, he based himself in the Alhambra and Seville travelling all over the country on horseback making notes wherever he went, buying paintings and collecting manuscripts. The Ford’s had three children. They stayed in Spain for nearly four years, coming back to England in late 1833.

The Ford family came to live near Richard’s brother, James, who was a Canon in Exeter Cathedral. Richard built a large house at Heavitree; he was very happy there, rebuilding the old Elizabethan cottage and gardens. A Blue Plaque marks the spot on the corner of Church Street just north of the Royal Devon and Exeter hospital. Harriet sadly died in 1837. For some time, Richard had known Eliza the sister of the tenth Lord Cranstoun of Sandridge here in Stoke Gabriel, “a beautiful little hamlet in one of those quiet sequestered nooks on the Dart, where the woods slope into the clear waters”, he wrote to a friend! Richard and Eliza were married on February 24th 1838 in Stoke Gabriel church. It was officiated by the Reverend Finney Belfield.  Eliza was very nervous which made Richard nervous as well, it must have been a big occasion. They had one daughter Margaret known as Meta born in October 1840. Between trips to Sandridge, London and Europe, Richard wrote many articles for the Quarterly Review. It was at a meeting with John Murray, the publisher of travel books, that he was asked “if he knew anyone who could write a travel guide to Spain?” “I will do it myself” he replied.

He started writing in 1840 hoping it would take six months to do, but it took five years. ‘A Hand-book for Travellers in Spain’ became a best seller. It was printed in fine print and two columns a page. Ladies found it difficult and irksome to read, so he wrote another book called ‘Gatherings From Spain’. In this book, in larger print, he used articles from the Hand-book and added new material, it is still being sold today.

In 1846 Mrs. Eliza Ford’s health began to decline, she lingered for three years dying in 1849. Richard was now 54. In the summer of 1851 he married Miss Mary Molesworth sister of Sir William Molesworth of Pencarrow near Bodmin in Cornwall. In 1850 Sir William Molesworth was showing some friends a tree on his estate at Pencarrow, grown from seed brought from Chile by Archibald Menzies, Araucaria Araurcana, when one of the party, a lawyer, Arthur Austin said “it would puzzle a monkey to climb that”. There is a double row of Monkey Puzzle trees at Bicton College, Budleigh Salterton, the first ever planted in England, and a splendid Chilean Pine in the grounds of Orchard House in Stoke Gabriel!

In 1999 Lady Molesworth St Aubyn needed the roof of Pencarrow house repaired. To raise money for this she auctioned off some old manuscripts that were stored in the house. Dr Stephen Roe from Sotheby Auctioneers inspected them and was intrigued by one piece of paper with a musical score on it. On the right side at the bottom was the legend; ‘This quartette was composed for me in my presence by Ludwig v Beethoven at Vienna Friday 28th November 1817 Richard Ford’. This was a piece of music by Beethoven unknown to anybody else in the world.

The Quartet is on one piece of paper and only lasts for fifty-two seconds. The day before the auction it was played by the Eroica Quartet of musicians. At the auction on December eighth 1999, it was sold to a Swiss Museum for £166,500.

John Abbiss (who became Rector of St Bartholomew the Great in London) was a companion on the visit in 1817. On the following day, Beethoven composed a Quartet for him, this music was also unknown until Richard Ford’s music was discovered. The other person was the book dealer, David Constable.

The Quartet has been played on BBC Radio Three, and there is a recording on You Tube. Richard Ford died at Heavitree on August 31st 1858.

John Cox

January 2018

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