Harry Hems (1842-16) was a master stone sculptor and wood worker who was born in Islington, London. He lived for a brief period of time in Sheffield and London, and then spent two years in Italy where he was allegedly arrested on suspicion of sympathising with Garibaldi.
Hems arrived in Exeter in 1868. It is said that he found a horsehoe just outside St David train station which he then kept for good luck – the horsehoe is nailed outside what is now known as the Harry Hems Centre on 84 Longbrook Street in Exeter (see below left), which he opened in 1883 with the name ‘Ye Luckie Horseshoe Studio’. Previously Hems had worked on 83 Paris Street. At its peak his firm, called Ecclesiastical Art Works, employed about 100 craftsmen and produced woodwork for over 400 churches and 100 public buildings. Hems lived next door to his workshop in ‘Fair Park’ (see below, right). He was buried in Exeter where he died shortly after his wife Charlotte Presswell Turner, whom he married in 1868. He allegedly had a history of violence and tax evasion, was a church warden at St Sidwells and a city councilor as well as a known philanthropist, holding Christmas lunches for the poor, supporting the Devon and Exeter Hospital and acting as a pioneer of the Hospital Saturday Movement, collecting items for local hospitals. He once donated 30 chairs to the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital so that patients would be more comfortable.
Hems restored a number of Medieval churches and saved items from destruction which he kept in his workshops for his workers to learn different techniques. He worked in Littleham, Staverton, Kenn, Winkleigh, Revelstoke, Ashburton, Swimbridge and Honiton, among other places. He restored the high altar scereen at St Alban’s Abbey, the embellishment at St Louis Cathedral. His work won medals at the Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia (1876), was exhibited at the Paris Exposition Universelle (1878) and also won prizes at exhibitions in Chicago (1893) and Antwerp (1894).
The Hems collection at RAMM is ‘one of the largest and most important collections of medieval woodwork held in a museum in Britain’. The collection contains roof bosses, angels and bench ends, as well as fragments of church screens and font covers, chest panels, a door and a misericord. There are no records showing where these pieces come from, which is what inspired us to develop a detective game so that communities living on Dartmoor, as well as visitors, could help us to find where these important artworks come from.
‘Harry Hems’, Mapping the Practice and Profession of Sculpture in Britain and Ireland 1851-1951, University of Glasgow History of Art and HATII, online database 2011 [http://sculpture.gla.ac.uk/view/person.php?id=ann_1303935746, accessed 8 April 2012]
Olding, Simon (1977). “The Indefatigable Mr. Hems of Exeter”. Devon and Cornwall Notes and Queries 33 (8): 25-31.