Bideford in 1835
BIDEFORD, a port, borough, and market-town, on both sides of the river Torridge near its confluence with the Taw, in the hundred of Shebbear, in the county of Devon, thirty-six miles N.W. by W. from Exeter, and 180 W. by S. from London. The parish extends over the borough and manor, and contains about 4,510 English statute acres, and is bounded on the north by Northam, N. E. by Westleigh, S. E. by Weare Gifford, S. by Littleham, and W. by Abbotsham.
Bideford, sometimes, but erroneously, spelt Biddeford, derives its name from its local position, being situated near an ancient ford, by the ford. We have no authentic account of it till the Conquest, when it was bestowed on Richard de Grandavilla, or rather de Granville, a Norman nobleman, by William the First. There is an ancient .charter granted by Sir Richard de Granville as lord of the manor, to which unfortunately there is no date ; but it appears from Prince, and from the names of the witnesses to the charter, that this Sir Richard de Granville lived in the thirteenth century, and that in the twenty-fourth year of the reign of King Edward the First he held one fee in Bytheford.
Camden mentions Bideford as a place of little consequence in his time, and Leland takes no further notice of it than to mention its bridge, which he calls a notable work, fairly walled on each side. In 1573, through the interest of Richard Granville, Esq., Queen Elizabeth granted it a charter, and made the town a free borough. This charter was enlarged and confirmed by King James the First, in the seventh and sixteenth years of his reign.
Although a borough, Bideford does not appear to have sent members to Parliament ; it got excused from the burden as a very great favour, through the interest at court of the Granville family. In 1750 the manor of Bideford was sold by some of the descendants of William Glanville, Earl of Bath, to John Cleveland, Esq., and is now the property of his grand nephew, Augustus Saltren Willett, Esq., who has lately taken the name of Cleveland.
The inhabitants of this place were not backward in the civil wars of Charles the First : two forts were erected, one on each side of the river Torridge, so as to command the river and the town; and another was built at Appledore (a small watering-place in neighbourhood, lately consolidated with Bideford), which effectually commands the entrance of the rivers Torridge and Taw. These forts, as well as the towns of Bideford and Barnstaple, surrendered to Colonel Digby, who commanded the forces of the Royalists, on the 2nd of September, 1643 : so desperate was the struggle which preceded the surrender, that Lord Clarendon in alluding to it says, that the swords of the Royalists were blunt with slaughter, and that they were overburdened with prisoners.
In 1680 this place was visited by the plague, which swept off a great number of its inhabitants. Also about this time three old women, whose only crimes were age and poverty, were accused by the then flourishing and comparatively enlightened inhabitants of Bideford of witchcraft and sorcery, and were actually executed at Exeter for those offences. So deluded were these poor wretches themselves, that on the scaffold, either in the hopes of escaping punishment, or being persecuted into a sort of madness, they positively confessed themselves guilty, and acknowledged the justness of their punishment. Till within a few years the lower classes of Devonshire had implicit faith in witchcraft, and this is the case, even to the present day, in many parts of Cornwall.
The governing charter is that of James the First, granted the 20th of December, in the sixteenth year of his reign. The government of the town is vested in a mayor, a recorder, seven aldermen, and ten capital burgesses, assisted by a town-clerk, a coroner, two sergeants at mace, sixteen constables, a beadle, a clerk of the market, a gaoler, and a town-crier. The mayor is elected on the 21st of September (St. Matthews Day) by the mayor for the time being, the aldermen, and the capital burgesses. He is appointed for one year and further until another alderman is declared and sworn mayor. He is a justice of the peace of the borough, and presides as chairman at the Quarter Sessions. He is also judge of the civil court of record and clerk of the market ; his salary is £20 per annum, but that never covers his expenses. The aldermen are elected in the same manner as the mayor; two of them sit as judges in the court of record. The recorder must be a discreet man, skilled in the laws of England, and has power to appoint a deputy. Neither have any salary. A court leet is held here twice a year, and a general session quarterly, and petty session every other Monday, and at other times when required. There is also a civil court, or court of record, where actions, real and personal, are tried to any amount. It is now become nearly useless, and is only opened four times a year. The magistrates have an exclusive jurisdiction, and their duties are exceedingly laborious. By the Hundred Roll, temp. Edward I it appears that formerly the lords of the manor of Bideford could inflict capital punishment.
The town principally consists of two large well-paved streets ; the houses in these streets are generally well built and clean, but the rest are narrow and dirty. There is a good supply of water, and the town is pretty well lighted. There is a handsome bridge across the Torridge, said to have been built by Theobald Grenville early in the fourteenth century, and endowed with certain lands for its repair (There is a tradition that this bridge was erected by subscriptions raised in Devonshire and Cornwall by Grandison, Bishop of Exeter, who granted indulgences to all who contributed to the work.) It consists of twenty-four arches, and is 677 feet in length. In 1638 it underwent a thorough repair. The annual revenue of this bridge, arising from the rent of lands given by several benefactors now unknown, and a stock of about £650, varies according to circumstances from between £300 to £400. In consequence of some abuses by the trustees of the bridge estates there was a decree in Chancery which ordered a new election of feoffees in 1608. The trustees are a corporation, and have a common seal : a hall was built for their use in 1758.
There is also a good quay, the dues of which are paid to the lord of the manor, who pays for the lighting of it. The bridge is lighted by the trustees. The church, dedicated to St. Mary, is rather a fine building, originally in the shape of a cross, but it has been considerably added to at different periods, and the uniformity of the building has not always been attended to. It contains a handsomely carved stone screen and several interesting monuments ; amongst others that of Mr. John Strange, and of three children of Mr. Henry Ravening, who died of the plague in 1646. Here was also buried an Indian, brought over by Sir Richard Grenville. He was baptized at Bideford by the name of Rawleigh, and is entered in the parish register as a natif of Wyngonditoia (Virginia.) The living is a rectory in the archdeaconry of Barnstaple and diocese of Exeter, of the annual net yearly value of £633 according to the Ecclesiastical Revenues Report, 1835. The present patron is Lewis William Buck, Esq.
Bideford was at a very early date of considerable importance as a commercial town. The weaving of silk was introduced in 1650, and after the revocation of the edict of Nantes in 1685 many French Protestants settled here, and established a manufacture of cotton and silk. Wool was also exported to Spain. Brice says that in 1759 forty or fifty ships were employed in fetching cod from Newfoundland, and that there was a great export of herrings. Since that time the Newfoundland fishery has gradually declined, and now not more than one or two ships are annually fitted out for that purpose. The foreign trade is at present very trifling.
The principal imports are timber from North America and the Baltic, coals from Bristol and Wales, and spices and tobacco from the West Indies. The exports are oak bark, which is shipped in great quantities to Scotland and Ireland, oats, malt, and sails, cordage, and articles of general supply to the fisheries of Newfoundland. Ship building is carried on to a great extent : there are nine or ten building yards, and several frigates were built here during the last war. There are also several potteries, principally for the manufacture of flower-pots. Anthracite, or culm, is found in the vicinity in sufficient quantity to be worked for economical purposes. One bed passes through the town, and there are two or three pits at the head of it. The same bed continues to the coast at Greenacliff, where it is worked for burning lime. The anthracite is accompanied by fossil plants.
In 1831 Bideford contained 997 houses and 4,846 inhabitants, of whom 2,169 were males, and 2,677 females ; 105 families were employed in agriculture, and 316 in trade, &c. There is a free grammar-school of very ancient date. It is not exactly known when it was endowed, but in 1689 Mrs. Susannah Stuckley gave the sum of £200 to be laid out in land, which is now let for £57 per annum. The salary of the master is £30 per annum, for which he teaches ten boys appointed by the corporation. There is a national school, which, according to the last report (1835), had 117 boys and 98 girls ; and also a charity-school for writing, reading, and arithmetic : the master has a salary of £10 per annum, paid by the trustees of the bridge estate. The Dissenters have a school here which contains 100, and the Methodists one with fifty scholars. An hospital was built in the old town for twelve poor families pursuant to the will of Mr. Henry Amory, who died in 1663. In 1810 Mrs. Margaret Newcommen left a considerable fund for poor Dissenters in this and the adjoining parishes, and Mr. John Strange founded four almshouses in 1646. The lands of the corporation are charged with the payment of £1 a year to the poor of the borough, and they usually add about £10 , which is laid out in fuel and clothing.
To the north-east of Bideford, near the mouth of the river Torridge, is a beach of pebbles about three miles in length, and of considerable depth and breadth : these stones have for many years been used for ballast and paving. The pebbles are generally round or oval, from six to eighteen inches in diameter, and curiously variegated with veins of different colours. On them grows the lichen marinus, or sea liverwort, more commonly known by the name of lavor, which is much esteemed as a pleasant and wholesome food. It is often packed in pots and sent to London. Opposite this part of the coast is Lundy Island, about five miles long and two broad : its chief inhabitants are rabbits and wild fowl. Although ten or eleven miles from the nearest land, it has several springs of fresh water. According to Risdon, it formerly had a castle on it, which was inhabited and fortified by William Moriscoe, a famous pirate, who, after being for many years the dread of the vicinity, was executed, with sixteen of his companions.
The celebrated Sir Richard de Granville, the friend of Sir Walter Raleigh, and the settler of Virginia, resided at Bideford for many years after his expedition. In 1591, when Vice-admiral of England, he sustained with his single ship the most glorious and unequal conflict recorded in naval history, against the whole fleet of the enemy, and after having repulsed them sixteen times, only yielded when all his powder was spent. He died of his wounds two days afterwards on board the Spanish admirals vessel. His own ship, reduced to a hulk, sunk before it could get into port. Bideford was the birth-place of the famous Dr. Shebbeare, who was sentenced to stand in the pillory in 1758 for his political writings. The sheriff, who allowed him as a favor to stand on the pillory with a servant in livery holding an umbrella over his head, was prosecuted for not properly enforcing the sentence.