Ritual Britain: April shines in annual July contest: Marianne Macdonald reports on a 152-year-old church tradition still flourishing in a small Devon market town

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THE CHURCH is not generally noted for championing beauty contests, let alone organising them. But God has ordained it otherwise in the unreconstructed market town of Holsworthy, Devon.

For 152 years it has held the equivalent of a Christian beauty competition to select the winner of the annual interest on a legacy given in 1841 by the Rev Thomas Meyrick.

With the admirable motive of promoting peace on earth and goodwill among men he decreed that the sum of three pounds and 10 shillings (pounds 3.50) be given to a young unmarried woman 'generally esteemed by the young as the most deserving and the most handsome and most noted for her quietness and attendance at church'.

While it seems unlikely that this slightly bizarre bequest had the effect its donor hoped - '(That) this well- meant example lead rulers to see and know that subjects are better directed and led by harmless amusement, and by judicious reward, than by the fear of punishment' - the town has celebrated it with relish ever since.

Pictures are still extant of pretty maids going back to 1908, when Rosie Bassett, looking pale and severe in a straw hat and pinafore, was photographed on the steps of Holsworthy parish church; and the town is littered with former title-holders, who can be found today serving in the National Westminster bank or working as assistants in the card shop or shoe shop next door.

In the early days, the main problem for the selection committee, consisting of the rector and two churchwardens, was to decide which Betty or Phyllis or Elsie should have the honour. But the popularity of religion has waned, and the church elders have recently been going through a lean patch. This year they were lucky to have three candidates to choose from, and unkind locals point out that the lack of contenders has meant that some pretty maids have been anything but.

Nevertheless, the event is taken extremely seriously by the church, although it now attempts to play down the question of looks to emphasise the godly qualities required. The last rector is known to have considered his choice of one pretty maid over a more deserving candidate the biggest mistake of his career.

Nor has the tradition been free of accusations of nepotism. But most importantly the choice, once made, must be kept secret until St Peter's Day when the pretty maid of the year reveals her identity by emerging from the door of the parish church on the stroke of noon.

Yesterday, April Faulkner, 17, was the chosen one. She denied she was nervous but, waiting in the belfry, looked as tense and tearful as a young bride. So did her parents, who held hands amid a crowd of dignitaries that included the rector, Father Michael Reynolds, and town crier, Roger Dunstan.

As the bells were about to strike they prayed for her soul and then, amid the joyous tolling, April stepped out to meet the applause.

(Photograph omitted)