Kents Cavern priest challenged teaching of church

Inside Kents Cavern prehistoric cave in Torquay

Inside Kents Cavern prehistoric cave - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Ian Handford, chairman of Torbay Civic Society, gives us the who and how each of Torbay’s Blue Plaques was chosen. This week: Rev John MacEnery:  

It was in 1997 that the Torbay Civic Society were approached by Nick Powe of Kents Cavern to see if a Blue Plaque to Father Rev John MacEnery might be appropriate.

Nick Powe of Kents Cavern

Nick Powe of Kents Cavern - Credit: Kents Cavern

The Catholic priest had arrived in Torquay from Ireland in 1822 to be chaplain to the influential Roman Catholic arm of the Cary family of Torre Abbey and ultimately he would end up challenging the teaching of the church, making him a truly significant man of Torbay's history.

Having agreed a plaque was appropriate, past chairman of the society, Mrs Ena Hocking, must also have believed it was likely to be of the most significant plaques she had yet installed.

From 1825 until 1834, Rev MacEnery had in his spare time explored what was then Kents Hole - later Kents Cavern - with initially Mr Northmore, a leading druid and an amateur archeologist.

His reverence in later years would find he was in dispute with what his own church taught on the ascent of man.

Alongside Wiilliam Pengelly, he unearthed evidence in Torquay and at Brixham, items that proved almost conclusively man existed long before what the church taught about God's words.

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Charles Darwin's ideas and theories were condemned as heretical and the Rev John officially had to retire from archeological digs in 1834, to become a virtual recluse until his death at Torre Abbey in February 1841, aged 45.

With the wording of the plaque was arranged by historian Arthur Ebdon and agreed by Mr Powe on behalf of Kent Cavern, before an order was placed with the Royal Label Factory of Chipping Norton in November 1997.

At the time they produced all the large aluminium and stoved plaques. Eventually, the company went out of business and today the licence and franchise plus use of the 'Royal Warrant' lies with current supplier, Leander Architectural in Buxton Derbyshire.

The MacEnery plaque took months before the society finally took delivery in April 1998 when Mrs Hocking had then written to the Worshipful Mayor of Torbay, Councillor John E Davis, to invite him and the mayoress Vivienne Davis to officially to the unveiling of the plaque.

It was also agreed with Mr Powe that a short tour of Kents Cavern would be made prior to the unveiling at 11am, while at the end of the formal ceremony refreshments would be served free, making the morning event one that few people wished to miss.

During his short life Rev John MacEnery had often been referred to as 'The First Systematic Explorer of Kents Cavern' and certainly today's records prove the systematic way he and William Pengelly carried out the archealogical digs, which have rarely been bettered. 

When  Rev John walked away from the digs of many other caves he had researched including the Kents and Brixham Caves, the overall findings were substantial.

The plaque was sponsored by Kents Cavern and it may still be viewed when you visit the caves situated at the entrance of what today includes a large shop and restaurant area.

With plenty of literature available for those wishing to learn more about either Rev MacEnery or William Pengelly, all you have to do is arrange a visit.

Thanks also go to the Catholic Sisters of Les Filles De La Croix Church due to their funding of a fully restored headstone for Father John in the churchyard of what was originally St Andrew's Church in Lucius Street, Torquay - although today is the Torquay Greek Orthodox Church.

No formal pamphlet to Rev MacEnery is in print but if you like an A5 biography of the Rev John written for the English Riviera Magazine in 2018, this can be sent by supplying stamps of 50p plus a stamped addressed envelope to Torbay Civic Society, 1 Palace Avenue Business Centre, 4 Palace Avenue, Paignton TQ1 1DE.