The Remarkable Pinwill Sisters

In this fascinating blog, Helen Wilson tells the story of some truly remarkable women pioneers – the Pinwill sisters, who ran their own ecclesiastical woodcarving business in Devon in the 1900s.


In about 1890, Mary, Ethel and Violet Pinwill took the audacious step of setting up their own professional ecclesiastical woodcarving company, competing for work in an almost entirely male-dominated occupation. The company thrived and by the 1950s Pinwill carvings, in both wood and stone, could be found in over 200 churches across Devon and Cornwall and elsewhere.

Mary Rashleigh (b 1871), Annie Ethel (b 1872) and Violet Alice (b 1874) were the middle daughters of seven sisters, children of the Reverend Edmund and Elizabeth Pinwill. In 1880 when Edmund, the newly appointed vicar, and family arrived in Ermington, south Devon, his first challenge was how to deal with a church in dire need of restoration. The resolution lay in the hands of wealthy local landowner, Henry Bingham Mildmay, a partner in Barings Bank and a firm supporter of the principles of the Arts & Crafts movement. Not surprisingly, Mildmay turned to one of the greatest exponents and interpreters of that movement, the architect John Dando Sedding. After preparing plans for the restoration of Ermington church, John Dando handed over supervision to his architect nephew, Edmund H Sedding.

The family background of the Pinwills played an important role in what happened next. Elizabeth encouraged her daughters to develop their talents in a range of ‘accomplishments’ and, when the restoration of Ermington church began in 1885, she saw an opportunity to extend their skills. It was she who asked the head woodcarver to teach Mary, Annie (known as Ethel) and Violet to carve. This may seem an extraordinary request but during the late-nineteenth century woodcarving was an acceptable pastime for genteel young ladies, often taught (by women) in private classes and in girls’ schools.

Violet Pinwill later revealed that their mother Elizabeth, from the beginning, felt her daughters ‘would be the happier in having professions’ and so arranged the carving classes. This was a most extraordinary revelation – that a woman born in 1839 believed that her daughters should be given the opportunity to develop careers and that they would, as a consequence, lead happier lives.


Choir stall bench end with bramble and spiders web

 at Plympton St Mary, Devon, 1898 (Photo: Helen Wilson)

Establishing themselves as professional woodcarvers, setting up their own business as ‘Rashleigh, Pinwill & Co’, and competing for work in an almost entirely male-dominated field, was a brave and extraordinary move. Confidence that commercial success was possible stemmed partly from Edmund H Sedding who, as a talented architect with a respected name, was well-positioned to become patron to the new company.

An unexpected yet crucial episode in this series of events was the death of John Dando Sedding in April 1891. Despite being heir presumptive to his uncle’s well-established London business, Edmund decided instead to set up practice in Plymouth at the same address as the Pinwills. This must have been a most convenient arrangement for both businesses, with an urban base from which to advertise and obtain commissions.

In August 1900, however, Mary Rashleigh Pinwill married and bowed to convention by giving up her career. Violet, rather than Ethel, was prepared to take on the business in Plymouth and moved from Ermington to run the company. Ethel, meanwhile, remained in Ermington but carried out significant commissions on her own. This arrangement was not to last, and by 1911 Ethel was working as a professional woodcarver in Kingston upon Thames, Surrey, leaving Violet as the sole proprietor of the Plymouth business.

Without Mary and Ethel, Violet filled the vacuum by employing other carvers. Under Violet’s direction, the company flourished, and the period leading up to the Great War was prolific, with commissions from all over Devon and Cornwall and beyond. In order to accommodate the expansion of the company, larger workshop premises were secured in Plymouth.

The Great War saw Violet with far fewer commissions and fewer employees. She continued until the end of 1917, when she had no choice but to close the workshop. Violet contributed to the war effort by volunteering to make laminated propellers, in the same way that many other women took on occupations normally carried out by men. This role change was instrumental in changing not just the attitude of society, but also of women themselves, who could see an alternative to their traditional roles. Where Violet Pinwill and her sisters had led the way in 1890, other women now more readily and easily became professional woodcarvers. This is evident in the 1921 census, which reveals that at least two women were employed as woodcarvers in the Pinwill workshop, namely Lillian Wells and Phyllis Hunt.

When Edmund Sedding died in 1921, it was the end of an era. By then, though, commissions often came directly to Violet, and she was more than capable of acting on her own behalf. At many churches, including Sheepstor, Devon, and St Martin-by-Looe, Cornwall, Violet created inspired designs over several decades. She worked right up until the end of her life and died on 1 January 1957.

The company established by the sisters had been an enormous success, ensuring them recognition across the West Country, and a place within the pantheon of talented women who found expression through the Arts & Crafts movement. This fascinating story is told in much more detail in From ‘Lady Woodcarvers’ to Professionals: The Remarkable Pinwill Sisters, which can be obtained through The Remarkable Pinwill Sisters website,  or in independent bookshops. The website also includes a detailed catalogue of Pinwill work, as well as many images.

This research has been based almost entirely on unpublished material, including an archive of photographs of Pinwill work held at the Plymouth Record Office, newspaper reports and advertisements, church guides, census returns, and correspondence with members of the Pinwill family. The book reflects over ten years of research, during which almost all of the churches with Pinwill carvings were visited. The research is ongoing, with new discoveries informing the work of these remarkable women.

Biography: Dr Helen Wilson

In the 1970s I was one of three women who set up the first Women’s Group in Plymouth and was instrumental in the establishment of a Women’s Centre. After studying and teaching Environmental Science at the University of Plymouth, I developed an enthusiasm for church history and architecture in Devon and Cornwall, primarily researching the lives and work of the Pinwill sisters, ecclesiastical woodcarvers, over the last ten years. I am active in several local history and conservation organisations, including the Devonshire Association, for which I act as Chair of its Buildings Section.



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