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Devon County

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Obituary 2:

From The Devon Year Book of 1917:




"On January 5th 1916, died Mr. Harry Hems who, for half a century had been one of the best known of Exeter's citizens, and had gained a world-wide reputation in connection with his craft as a sculptor. According to the Western Weekly news:


"He was one of the most extraordinary men Exeter ever knew. The present generation know him by repute, and are perhaps inclined to look upon the anecdotes associated with his name as overdrawn, and, at any rate, savouring greatly of the doings of one who at a time when the art was little known, forestalled his generation and realised the value of advertising. His friends will not deny - nor, could he speak, would he wish them to - his unalloyed joy in notoriety. He loved it; and he used it for the purposes of his business in a perfectly legitimate way, feeding the public with the sensation they liked, and enjoying the background and kudos of it. Underlying this trait, however, was a genuine spirit of philanthropy, the skill of a great craftsman, the industry without which no amount of advertising can achieve its aim, a love of travel, and a capacity for assimilating and applying experience. Above all he possessed the gift of humour. Thousands of Exeter poor learned to love his name. He was a constant and ever-welcome visitor of the sick. Specimens of his craftsmanship find honoured places in some of the world's most famous places."


He described himself as being "a cross between Whitechapel and Yorkshire." He was born, presumably in Whitechapel, in 1842, and when he was thirteen, his parents moved from Islington to Sheffield, his mother's native place. There he was apprenticed to Arthur Haybalt, a great wood-carver of his day, and attended the Sheffield School of Art. He excelled in athletics, and was one of the first to join the Rifle Volunteer Movement At the expiration of his apprenticeship, he went to London and in 1866 he was sent as a journeyman sculptor to Exeter, to work on the Royal Albert Memorial Museum. On emerging from St. David's Station he stumbled on an old hoseshoe, which he picked up "for luck" and afterwards had gilded and fixed in a place of honour in front of his business premises.


Among his more noteworthy works may be mentioned the restoration of the high altar screen at St. Alban's Abbey, and the embellishment of St. Louis Cathedral; but there are other specimens at Brisbane, Chicago, and practically all  over the world. At the great exhibitions at Philadelphia in 1876, Chicago in 1893, Antwerp in 1894, he received medals and the highest possible awards; and at other exhibitions he obtained numerous medals and distinctions. In his will he expressed the desire "that the "Chicago" rood beam shall be placed in the chancel of St. Sidwell's Church, and the following inscription placed thereon: - ' This Chicago beam was made by Harry Hems, sculptor of this parish, who lived and flourished here, 1869 - 19? and died - - -  having received the highest attainable  honours awarded at the World's Fair, Chicago 1893, and the gold medal at the International Exhibtion, Antwerp, the following year, for the work.'" *


In addition to  his work as a sculptor, he was a prolific writer to the technical and antiquarian papers. During a period of thirty or forty years it was said of him that he wrote more signed articles upon technical and general subjects than any single man living. In a letter written on May 22nd 1909, he said: " I happen to possess over 33,000 press notices of myself, all bound up and indexed, and anyone of them ready to be turned to at any moment (extending from January 31st 1868, down to five of today's date, added thereto this morning.)"


He was a devoted and valuable friend of the Exeter Hospitals and it is said he was the originator in England of the Hospital Sunday Movement. Under the spur of his enthusiasm and generosity, Christmas-day treats were annually given by him to old and broken-down citizens of Exeter.


Stories of his practical jokes and of his genius for obtaining publicity are almost without number. One of the smartest of these exploits arose out of a dispute with the Income Tax Commissioners. Finally, distraint was levied, and the authorities were compelled to force an entrance into his premises. An auction was held, and Mr. Hems himself prepared a catalogue of the goods to be sold, which included the crowbar with which an entrance was forced, his "faithful bulldog, Bob","the Twelve Apostles," and a number of "tombstones suitable for the graves of Income Tax Commissioners." Reports of the proceedings were reproduced all over the world, and everybody laughed at the way in which Hems had made the Twelve Apostles pay his Income Tax.


Undoubtedly he rendered good service in his day to the restoration and beautification of our churches, and if he had no very modest sense of his own merits, his foible was a very harmless one, and was more then redeemed by his genuine kindness of heart and liberality to his poorer neighbours."


*This never happened as St Sidwell's Church ignored his wishes and declined his gift.




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