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MARKET TOWNS OF DEVON (from SDUK Penny Cyclopedia)

Barnstaple in 1835

BARNSTAPLE, a borough, market and sea-port town of North Devon, in the hundred of Braunston. It is situated on the eastern bank of the river Taw, in a broad and fertile valley, bounded by a semi-circular range of hills; 172 miles W. by S. of London, and 38 N.W. of Exeter. Risdon, who writes the name ‘Barstaple,’ says it signifies a ‘town of merchandise next the river’s mouth,’ being derived from the British bar, the mouth of a river, and the Saxon staple, a market town.

The town is very ancient, and must have existed previously to the reign of King Athelstan, who is said to have built a castle here, and to have erected the town into a borough. It is certain, that at the time of Domesday Survey, there were forty burgesses within the walls, and nine without, and the inhabitants were exempted from serving on any expedition, or from paying any taxes except when Exeter and Totness did so.

In the petition of the town of Barnstaple, in the 18th of Edward III, the townspeople declared that, among other privileges granted them by the charter of Athelstan (which they had unfortunately lost), they had ever since that time enjoyed the right of sending two burgesses to parliament. After three inquests, it was finally declared that there was no proof of this supposed charter. King John had previously confirmed to them the privileges of which they were actually possessed in the time of his great-grandfather, and the charter of King John was afterwards confirmed by Edward IV.

In Leland’s time, and even in that of Risdon, there were remains of a castle, the origin of which was assigned by some to King Athelstan, and by others to Joel of Totness, to whom the manor of Barnstaple was granted by the Conqueror. This Joel founded, either in the reign of the Conqueror or that of his successor, a priory for Cluniac monks, dedicated to St. Mary Magdalen, which was at first made dependent on the priory of St. Martin de Campis at Paris ; but afterwards (probably in the reign of Henry VI) became independent, and so continued until the Dissolution, when its gross revenue amounted to £129, 13 shillings and 3 pence, and its net income to £123, 6 shillings and 9 pence. The community appears to have consisted of thirteen members.

Henry VIII granted the site to William Lord Howard and Margaret, his wife ; and it passed through various hands until it came by purchase to the family of Incledon, which at present holds it. The barony of Barnstaple itself has several times reverted to the crown since the original grant to Joel of Totness. Queen Mary I granted the property to Thomas Marrow, Esq., whose son sold it to the ancestor of Sir Arthur Chichester, the present proprietor.

It does not appear when the market at Barnstaple was first granted. The town was first incorporated in the reign of Henry I, and has returned representatives to parliament ever since the 23d of Edward I. The corporation consists of a mayor, two bailiffs, two aldermen, twenty-two common-councilmen, a recorder, high steward and other officers. The petty sessions are holden in this town. The charter under which the town is at present governed was granted by Mary I, and confirmed by James I.

Barnstaple is a neat and generally well-built town, and may be regarded as the metropolis of North Devon. A large number of respectable families have been induced by the pleasantness of its situation and the comparative cheapness off provisions to settle there. Barnstaple has of late years greatly increased, and is still increasing, in importance. Many new houses have been built, and are now building, particularly in the suburbs on the London road, named Newport.

Barnstaple contributed, as a sea-port, three ships against the Spanish Armada, but it has long since declined from its former maritime importance. The river spreads to considerable breadth, but it is shallow, and accumulations of mud and sand have blocked up the harbour to all but small vessels. A fine quay stretches along the river side to a great length, and is terminated at one end by a handsome piazza, over the centre of which is placed a statue of Queen Anne.

The river is crossed by an ancient stone bridge, of sixteen arches, which has recently been widened in a very ingenious manner by iron work on each side, supporting foot-paths and a railway. The town has long had a theatre, and a new one has just been completed. It has also frequent assemblies, which are numerously and fashionably attended.

The church, dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul, is a spacious old building, with a handsome spire. It contained several chantries before the Reformation. The living is a discharged vicarage, rated in the king’s books at £15, 8 shillings and 9 pence. Four chapels are mentioned by Leland ; two of them no longer exist ; one of the two remaining is used as a warehouse, and the other as a grammar-school.

In consequence of the increasing disadvantages of its harbour, much of the trade of Barnstaple has been transferred to Bideford. Nevertheless, it still enjoys the advantage of being the port for an extensive and improving inland district, and carries on a steady trade. The roads in this part of the country have been greatly improved within these few years ; and in consequence of the establishment of several coaches, the communications to various parts of the country have been greatly facilitated.

Three lace manufactories have of late years been established in the town ; to which circumstance the population returns of 1831 chiefly attribute the increase (of 1,761 persons) which had taken place since 1821. There are also establishments for the manufacture of baizes, shalloons, tammies, hose, pottery, and fishing-nets, which afford employment to a considerable number of persons.

The borough, the limits of which are co-extensive with the parish, contained, in 1831, 1,081 inhabited and 58 uninhabited houses, of which 607 were £10 houses. The population at the same period was 6,840 persons, of whom 3,801 were females ; 63 of the males above twenty years of age were engaged in agriculture, and 951 in manufactures, handicraft, or retail trade.

A grammar-school was kept in very early times by one of the priests of the chantry of St. Nicholas, in the parish church of Barnstaple. The present grammar-school was founded by Richard Ferris, who died in 1649: he endowed it with a rent-charge of £10 per annum. Since that time it has only received an addition of £4 per annum, being the interest of £100 given by the Rev. John Wright in 1760. The master is appointed by the corporation, who have the privilege of nominating two boys on the foundation. Bishop Jewel and the poet Gay were educated at this school.

About the year 1710 a charity-school for teaching English was founded, in which from forty to fifty boys, and twenty girls, are clothed and educated. Its income arises from the rent of lands purchased, with sundry benefactions, and producing £110 per annum, the interest of £470 stock, and annual collections to the amount of £20 or £30.

There is also a national school, on Dr. Bell’s system, for 100 children, founded in 1813, and supported by donations and subscriptions. There are almshouses on three different foundations, which together provide for twenty-eight poor persons. An infirmary, called the ‘North Devon Infirmary,’ was erected seven or eight years since. There are also a Mechanics' Institute and a Horticultural Society.

The market, which is held on Friday, is the great market of North Devon : it has generally an abundant and cheap supply of provisions, and a large quantity of corn is sold. The fairs are on the Friday before April 21, 19th of September, and the second Friday in December : the last for cattle.