Henry Thomas Ellacombe (1790-1885)

Vicar of St Mary’s Bitton

Henry Thomas Ellacombe was curate of St Mary’s from 1817 to 1835 and then vicar till 1850. He published The History of the Parish of Bitton (2 vols. 1881, 1883) and was also an authority on bells and a renowned gardener.

His son, Canon Henry Nicholson Ellacombe, vicar of Bitton from 1850 until his death in 1916, continued these interests, and was also a well-known gardener, his garden famous for its collection of rare plants.

Family Background

H.T. Ellacombe changed the spelling of his name from Ellicombe rather than Ellacombe as he considered this to be the more correct rendering, but other members of the family retained the original spelling. He was born at Alphington, Devon, on 15 May 1790, the second of seven sons of William Ellicombe (d. 1831), rector of Alphington, and his wife, Hannah, née Rous.

He graduated from Oriel College, Oxford with a BA in 1812. After studying engineering at Chatham dockyard under (Marc) Isambard Brunel, he returned to Oxford in 1816 to prepare for ordination in the Anglican ministry, and became curate of Cricklade, Wiltshire. He was married three times. His first marriage, on 3 April 1818 at Rochester, was to Anne Nicholson (d. 1825), daughter of a government contractor. They had five daughters and one son. He married, second, on 11 September 1827, Ann (d. 1831), daughter of George Bridges of Ashton Lodge, Gloucestershire. He married his third wife Charlotte (d. 1871) on 6 January 1835, at Shillingford, Devon, daughter of the Revd R. Palk Welland.


Ellacombe was extremely energetic as a parish priest, restoring St Mary’s in 1822, and building three other churches in the district, where there was a large population of dissenters.

The first of these was the Church of the Holy Trinity on Kingswood Hill, which was the first church built by the Million Fund Commissioners, and was consecrated in 1821. In Oldland an Early English chapel was rebuilt as St. Anne’s Oldland in 1830, which in 1861 led to the formation of an Ecclesiastical District formed out of the Parish of Bitton. In Hanham, a Late Norman Chapel was restored in 1852. Also in Hanham on Jefferies Hill, Christ Church was built in 1842 which in 1844 became the Parish church of Hanham and the Chapel of Hanham Abbots was made a chapel-of-ease to it.   Arthur W. Hill in his Memoir provides some insight into Ellacombe’s divided interests in providing additional church places: ‘Mr. Ellacombe set out to provide for the proper spiritual welfare of the more outlying portions and at the same time was able to indulge his interest in church building.’

He became a supporter of the Oxford Movement (and his daughter Jane Ellacombe joined E. B. Pusey’s sisterhood). He was a friend of the madrigal composer Robert Lucas Pearsall, and introduced chanting into services at Bitton.

Ellacombe was also a keen gardener, corresponding with leading horticulturists and establishing the garden at Bitton vicarage; a catalogue of the trees and shrubs growing there in 1830 was later published, and he had a record of 5000 different plants that he had personally grown with success. The garden was made famous by his son Henry Nicholson Ellacombe, who succeeded him as vicar of Bitton in 1850. He took a great interest in architecture. His ‘Parochial Proceedings’ are primarily concerned with the changes he made to the vicarage and church.


Ellacombe’s interest in church bellringing led to him being recognized as possibly the first scholarly campanologist. His Practical Remarks on Belfries and Ringers, first published in 1849, drew on his experience of reforming bellringing at Bitton. He invented an ingenious and novel apparatus of chiming hammers that he had introduced to St Mary’s in 1822, at the suggestion of a local workman, to enable one person to chime all the bells in the steeple. Later, he continued his scholarly contributions to campanology, publishing works on the church bells of Devon (1872), Somerset (1875), and Gloucestershire (1881). Thomas Mozley recalled him as a man who cared ‘for everybody and everything’, and in whose company one could not be five minutes ‘without learning something worth knowing, and in a distinct and positive form’ (Mozley, 79).

Published Works

–       Practical Remarks on Belfries and Ringers Bristol, 1850, 4th edit. 1876.

–       The Bells of the Cathedral Church of S. Peter, Exon

–       The Bells of the Church London, 1862

–       History and Antiquities of the Parish of Clyst St. George, Exeter, 1865.

–       Memoir of the Manor of Bitton, 1867.

–      Church Bells of Devon, with a List of those in Cornwall and a Supplement,
Exeter, 1872.

–     Church Bells of Somerset, Exeter. 1875.

–     The Voice of the Church Bells, Exeter, 1875

–     Church Bells of Gloucestershire, Exeter, 1881.

–     History and Antiquities of the Parish of Bitton, 2 parts, Exeter,

Rev. H T Ellacombe from an illustration: 
photo courtesy Bath In Time/ Bath Central Library
Rev. H T Ellacombe from an illustration: photo courtesy Bath In Time/ Bath Central Library

Social Divide

Ellacombe was in a different sphere from his parishioners. As was usually the case during the nineteenth century there was a great social divide between the vicar and his parishioners. In Bitton Parish, the large majority of inhabitants were in hatmaking, coal mining and agriculture which gave poorly paid incomes and squalid living conditions that encouraged child labour, sickness and hunger. Ellacombe, by contrast, was affluent, living in a large country house, with servants and a social sphere of wealthy landowners. There is evidence however that he cared about his parishioners. In his History of Bitton Parish, he wrote

‘Whatever the colliers may have been in former times, it is a pleasure for me to say, that during my long residence amongst them, from 1817 to 1850, they were, with very few exceptions, the cleanest and most industrious parishioners: the majority (for some worked at night) going down the Pits at five a.m. and returning at one p.m., they washed in hot water, on reaching their neat cottages, and then worked as gardeners, tailors, shoe makers, or some other handicraft during the remainder of the day.’ (p.222)

The inequality accentuated the separation of the villagers from the middle and upper class of the parish and the associated deference, prejudice and patronization hastened the dissent from the Anglican Church, their embrace of evangelism and the building of their own chapels.


Clyst St George

In 1850 he left Bitton to be the vicar at Clyst St George (some 5 miles from the centre of Exeter), succeeding his brother William Rous Ellicombe (d. 1849) as rector of the family living. Here he rebuilt the nave of the church and in 1860 erected a schoolhouse.

He died at Clyst St George on 30 July 1885, and was buried at Bitton. In the chancel of the church at Bitton, Ellacombe had erected a mural tablet recording the deaths of his three wives. At the top, his name was also inscribed, leaving a space for the date of his death and his age.

Sources: A. W. Hill, Henry Nicholson Ellacombe: a memoir (1919), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, T. Mozley, Reminiscences, chiefly of Oriel College and the Oxford Movement, 1 (1882), 75–81