The story concerns a visit to the area by the Reverend Lewis Way:
Now it so happened that in the winter of 1811, shortly after the death of Miss Jane Parminter, Lewis Way was staying with some of his wife's relations in Devonshire, when one day he rode with a friend along the road which leads from Exmouth to Exeter. Two miles from the former town he was suddenly struck by the sight of A la Ronde, and in some amazement begged his companion to tell him to whom belonged this strange dwelling which looked more like a residence for South Sea Islanders than an ordinary country house. His friend gave him full particulars ; adding that Miss Jane Parminter had recently died and — according to local gossip — in fulfilment of her wishes had been buried with her coffin standing upright in the little Chapel of Point in View, while her will, or a codicil to her will, contained a singular clause. In reference to a group of oaks in the grounds of the house she had decreed as follows;Inspired, Way become a prime mover in kick-starting the London Society for Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews - loosely a Christian Zionist organisation - and the story rapidly became a promotional meme within that society and among others with a similar agenda. However, the archives of the Society reveal a debunking late in the 19th century.
These oaks shall remain standing and the hand of man shall not be lifted up against them till Israel returns and is restored to the land of promise.
- The Ways of Yesterday: being the chronicles of the Way family from 1307 to 1885, Anna Maria Wilhelmina Stirling, 1930
It is the duty of a faithful historian to relate everything connected with his subject, so long as he avoids wounding the susceptibilities of the living and reflecting upon the dead. A Society like this has its "secret history"; a secret history which is more or less public property. Of such a character were the two controversies to be treated of in this chapter. Let us take what we may call, for want of a more exact name, the Irish Controversy — which lasted for some weary years, and was a source of much grief, heart-burning, and even dismay in certain quarters. This is how it all came about.
In the summer of 1882 Mr. Benjamin Bradley, the Society's Accountant, was spending his holiday in Devonshire. With him the Society was first, foremost and everything. He was whole-hearted in its cause, and always about its business. Being in the county of Devon, it occurred to his active mind that he could not spend his time more profitably or agreeably than by visiting the "Oaks of a la Ronde," near Exmouth; that far-famed spot which, with its traditional associations, had given inspiration to Lewis Way, and thus led to the regeneration of the Society. To Mr. Bradley's intense surprise and disappointment he learnt that, as a matter of fact, there was no clause in Jane Parminter's will about the preservation of the oak trees to which the attention of Lewis Way had been called, and which, in course of time, had become a fascinating legend, held by generations of members of the Society, narrated in a thousand speeches, and the subject of two most interesting pamphlets — The Oaks of a la Ronde *, and another founded upon it, Jane Parminter's Will, by the Rev. Ralph W. Harden, the Irish Secretary. Now, Mr. Bradley was the embodiment of exactness and accuracy. He returned to town burning to let the truth prevail. He brought together the results of his discovery in a paper, and succeeded in thoroughly alarming the Committee, who were persuaded that the very existence of the Society depended on pricking the bubble at once. This they proceeded to do in a very remarkable way. Instead of communicating with the writers of the delightful pamphlets mentioned, and advising the necessary alterations, they suspended their issue, which was regarded as a very high-handed proceeding.
* The Oaks of a la Ronde, translated from the German of Professor Franz Delitzsch, by A.O.F.I., and republished by the kind person of Dr Moses Margoliouth in 1880.
- pages 416-417, The history of the London Society for Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews, from 1809 to 1908, William Thomas Gidney, 1908. Internet Archive ID historyoflondons00gidnuoft.
To cut a long story short, this led to considerable drama in the Society. Harden went on the offensive, pamphleteering with allegations of mismanagement. The differences were eventually resolved, but Bradley's debunking failed to kill the oaks meme, whch continues to this day.
The English translation of Delitzsch's pamphlet The Oaks of A la Ronde appears in the 1877 edition of The Hebrew Christian witness and Prophetic Investigator (ed. Dr Moses Margoliouth). Delitzsch did make some attempt to verify the story:
These consecrated oaks are still standing at A la Ronde. And yet scarcely a person at Exmouth knows anything of the testamentary clause. The present vicar even knew only of a confused report, which stated that Miss Parminter had ordered the oaks to be preserved that the Jews might build ships with them, or, if not, use them in some other way. And the gardener, who has lived there for nearly twenty years, knew no more than that he had heard say that the deceased lady thought a great deal of the trees. But we have the story on the very best authority, namely, a letter written by Miss Drusilla Way (which we give farther on), describing the sympathy which her sainted father felt for Israel from the first, his self-devotion to labour for the cause (which is not forgotten to this day), and stating that it was by means of the oaks of A la Ronde that the first idea of such work entered into his heart.
In November, 1875, the Rev. P. L. D. Acland, Pastor of Broad Clyst (diocese of Exeter), paid me a visit. I asked him whether he would, on his return, find out for me all the proofs of the story of Lewis Way's waking up to the interests of Israel by a sight of one of the wildest nooks of Devonshire, which was, by the will of the owner, to be left untouched till the re-establishment of the Jews in the Promised Land. This request he has fulfilled in the most faithful and conscientious manner possible.
In Exeter none of the lawyers whom he questioned had any knowledge of the singular will. And then it suddenly came to his memory that an old friend of his had married a Miss Way. He communicated with the family, and obtained for me from Miss Drusilla Way, the eldest daughter of him who fell asleep in the year 1840, the valuable information which is subjoined at the end of this narrative. It fully establishes the truth of the story. But he also travelled himself to Exmouth, and procured for me a guide-book, which was quite an old-fashioned one, but found scarcely any mention of the testamentary clause in Miss Jane Parminter's will. So that without the testimony of Miss Drusilla Way, the story would have been banished to the realm of tradition and its fancies. So that we are the more pleased to have its authenticity vouched for by this veracious witness.
"It is indeed true," writes Miss Drusilla Way, "that my father's first interest in the Jews was aroused by an incident of a peculiar nature. It happened in the winter of 1811-12, when he was living at Exmouth, in Devon. A friend with whom he was riding pointed out to him a house named A la Ronde, the owner of which, a Miss Jane Parminter, had lately died, and had left the remarkable clause in her will that certain trees were not to be cut down till the Jews were restored to Palestine. This information produced the most powerful impression on him. His subsequent deep spiritual concern for the salvation of the ancient people of God, and his untiring efforts on their behalf, date from this starting-point.
- The Oaks of A la Ronde, Franz Delitzsch, trans. A.O.F.I., The Hebrew Christian witness and Prophetic Investigator, 1877.
This seems very sloppy research, with a deal of confirmation bias. It rejects all the negative data points, but accepts the one with the sought-after confirmation. Being a family member does not necessarily make a person a reliable source. Drusilla Way was a strong apologist for her father, and she was 71 at the time of the enquiry, making her only 7 at the time of Way's epiphany; over a lifetime, she could easily have acquired a piece of family mythology. The bottom line is that the research failed to find the primary source: the alleged will itself.
What I find very suspicious, about 150 years later, is that I've been unable to find a version of the Lewis Way story in print prior to the 1870s (a bit strange for something said to be "held by generations of members of the Society, narrated in a thousand speeches") and the specific text of the claimed codicil - These oaks shall remain standing ... etc - seems to make its first appearance in the 1877 translation of the Delitzsch pamphlet.
Addendum: December 15th 2011, upgraded from Comments:
This post, correctly, leads to the conclusion that the story of the Oaks was mythology that arose sixty years after the death of Jane Parminter in 1811. I have been able to examine the original probate copy of the will and can confirm that it contains no clause whatsoever in regard to the oaks nor is there a codicil. A letter from Oswald Reichel, a distant relative and a historian, who was living at A la Ronde at the time was published in the local newspaper, the Exmouth Journal of 24 June 1911. He refers to the story of the oaks as “a curious myth, the source of which appears to be a little book entitled “The Oaks of A la Ronde” written by an imaginative lady with material supplied by a still more imaginative travelling foreigner”. Reichel added that there were never any oak trees planted at A la Ronde for the purpose and, at the time of his writing, none remained at Point in View. Reichel suggests that the interest of the cousins in Jewish converts arose from the Grand Tour when they witnessed in Rome the Christian baptism of a Jewess and learned of the difficulties besetting the after-life of such a convert when cut off from her people.
I also occasionally read suggestions of a lesbian relationship between Jane Parminter and her second cousin Mary. Until recently it was perfectly normal for orphaned children to be taken into a related family or individual. In Mary’s case it was previously understood that Cousin Jane was her guardian but recent research shows that her father’s will that role was to be undertaken jointly by a cousin (Samuel Lavington of Bideford) and her own Aunt Mary. My research over many years of the family history has revealed no evidence whatever to suggest that Jane and Mary were “an item”.
It was great to read that you were fascinated by your visit to A la Ronde. The volunteer guides (I am one) do their best to make the property interesting to our visitors.
Brilliant! Thanks very much for clarifying this, Trevor. Even the brief tour was very thought-provoking, and I'd recommend A la Ronde to anyone. Hilary kindly just sent us a complimentary pass for a proper visit, and I look forward to it.