Mary Parminter was born in Barnstaple in 1767, the eldest of the three daughters of Richard Parminter and Mary (née Walrond). The Parminters were wealthy merchants trading overseas in general goods, whilst her mother’s family were extensive landowners in Devon and Somerset with links to the aristocratic Rolle family. Mary’s grandfather Walrond was an active dissenting preacher, as was also her cousin Samuel Lavington, and the Parminters held firmly to the Independent tradition of worship.
When Mary was five years old her mother died and she was placed under the guardianship of her twenty-three-year-old cousin Jane, the daughter of a wine-merchant based in Lisbon. Mary’s father then died when she was twelve and she inherited from him considerable estates in Devon, followed a few years later by extensive property inherited from a great-uncle, including some properties in London.
When Mary was seventeen, she and Jane set out on the Grand Tour of Europe, travelling widely over a period of ten years, with many details recorded in Jane’s diary, especially of the churches they visited. Upon their return to England, the two cousins decided to settle in Exmouth, where several other family members were living in the area, and bought land on the edge of the town where they built the house of A la Ronde, designed in the style of an octagonal church they had visited in Ravenna. Mary was thirty-one when they took up residence in 1798 and the two cousins spent much time and energy in decorating the interior with carefully crafted artwork made from paper, feathers and shells. A la Ronde, now owned by the National Trust, is particularly famous for its unique shell gallery with walls covered in pictures and patterns created totally from shells.
At a later date they also decided to build their own little chapel nearby, because of the difficulty of getting down into town for Sunday worship when the weather was bad. The story of “Point in View” is told on a separate page. Unfortunately, Jane died in November 1811, just before the building was finally completed and consecrated for worship, and she was interred in the chapel in a vault beneath the floor, to be joined by Mary 38 years later.
So it was left to Mary, now aged 44, to carry on the work planned by the two cousins and establish a charity to provide for a resident chaplain to conduct worship in the chapel and for four almshouses to house needy women as well as a small school for six poor local girls.
The Trust bearing her name was set up in 1813 and she remained actively interested in it until her death in 1849. She was a generous benefactress, providing an annual gift of clothing and educational books for the children. She laid down a firm framework for the continuation of the charity which is still providing worship and accommodation 200 years later.
She also continued to care for A la Ronde and in her will she gave strict details of the succession of ownership in the family after her death. In particular she was insistent that inheritance should be only through unmarried female family members, naming her cousins and nieces in sequence, together with the requirement that they live at the property and that if they married the inheritance would pass to the next on the list. Once it reached the last named person, she was then free to dispose of it as she saw fit and arranged to sell it back to her married cousin Stella (one of the previous inheritors) who sold it on in 1880 to her brother, Revd Oswald Reichel, the first man to own A la Ronde.
The obituary recorded in the Minute Book of the Charity Trustees on 27 December 1849, the day of her funeral, speaks for itself:
“The Trustees now present, having accompanied the mortal remains of the deceased lady to her tomb would not separate without acknowledging the hand of God in the event that has called them together. The would adore the Divine Goodness in raising up a character so distinguished for intelligent generosity, simplicity and uprightness and in having sustained and preserved so useful and endeared a life to the advanced age of eighty-two years.
As the foundress of the Point in View, she acted with and towards the Trustees in a manner most delicate and confiding, scrupulously avoiding the slightest interference and kindly and most ably acting in the fulfilment of their duties. They further accord that as a robust supporter of the Evangelical Institution and labours of the age, a generous friend of good men and Christian ministers and an unsolicitous promoter of Protestant and Catholic Christianity, she accomplished a large amount of good and acquired an exemplary and enduring reputation.
The Point in View sepulchre has today gathered to itself the last of the two exalted ladies for whom it was prepared.”