[Description(s) from The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland (1868)]
"BARNSTAPLE, a parish, borough, seaport, and market town, in the hundred of Braunton, in the county of Devon, 39 miles to the N.W. of Exeter, and 192 miles from London by road, or 233 by railway. It is a station on the North Devon railway, which passes through Exeter. It is seated near the northern extremity of the county, in a beautiful district on the north bank of the river Taw, 6 miles from the coast of the fine bay of Barnstaple, into which that river falls. It is a place of considerable antiquity, and is said to have been a borough and an important trading place in the Saxon age. Whether King Athelstan did really erect a fortress here, and grant a charter under which the town sent two representatives to parliament, remains uncertain. At the Conquest the manor was given to Joel, of Totnes, who probably founded or rebuilt a castle here. By him was also founded a Cluniac monastery, the value of which at the Dissolution was £130. The trade of the town was considerable in the reign of Henry I., at which time it was first incorporated. It is not known when it was constituted a market town. In 1588 three vessels were equipped here to join the fleet against the Armada. In the civil war of the 17th century the town, which adhered to the parliament, was the scene of several contests and was finally taken by Fairfax, in 1646.
Barnstaple is a pleasant, well-built, and thriving town, and has of late years been much extended and improved by throwing back the old shop fronts in the High-street, and removing the vegetable market, which was formerly held in the open High-street. The streets are regular, well-paved, and lighted with gas. There is a quay, a quarter of a mile in length, forming a fine promenade along the east bank of the Taw, which is here broad and winding. A fine old bridge of 16 arches crosses the river, supposed to have been erected in the 12th century. A footway has been added on each side of the bridge, which contributes to its handsome appearance. Several bequests have been left in trust for its repair.
The manufactures of baize and coarse woollens was formerly the staple trade of the town; but it has, in modern times, fallen off, though there is still one large woollen factory at Rawleigh, which gives employment to a large number of the inhabitants. The chief manufactures at present carried on are those of pottery and lace. There are, besides, several extensive woolstaplers, malting-houses, an extensive shipbuilding establishment, bonding warehouses, paper mills, a foundry, and several tan-yards. The general trade of the place is extensive and prosperous.
The town contains the guildhall and market-house, a large, handsome edifice, situate in High-street, where the quarter and petty sessions are held, and the county court sits monthly; also a fruit and vegetable market, recently erected at the back of the guildhall, between High-street and Boutport-street, a theatre, assembly rooms, and spacious music hall, an infirmary and dispensary, a prison, a custom-house, and the Union poorhouse, capable of accommodating 300 inmates.
The railway station is a neat stone edifice, situated just without the town, on the road to Bideford. A literary and scientific institution was established in 1845; and the harmonic society holds its meetings at the guildhall. The harbour admits only small vessel having a bar and a great accumulation of sand. It is a bonding port, with an increasing foreign trade, and many respectable merchants import goods from distant parts. The principal articles of export are corn, bark, wool, leather, pottery, &c.; and of import, timber, coal, fruit, &c. Ilfracombe is a subport to Barnstaple.
The government of the borough under the Reform Act is vested in a mayor, 6 aldermen, and 18 councillors, under the style of the " mayor, aldermen, and burgesses of the borough and parish of Barnstaple;" the term of office for aldermen is six years, and for councillors three years, the mayor being annually chosen from the town council. The limits of the borough, which is divided into two wards, north and south, extend beyond those of the parish and comprise part of the parishes of Pilton and Bishop's Tawton, including the important southern suburb of Newport. It has returned two members to parliament since the reign of Edward I. The borough revenue is about. £1,380; and its population, according to the census of 1861, 10,738, against 11,371, in 1851, showing a decrease of 633 in the decennial period, while the number of in habited houses has risen from 2,116 to 2,187, which would seem to show a great improvement in the social condition of the inhabitants. Barnstaple is the head of an extensive excise district, the seat of an archdeaconry in the diocese of Exeter, of a County Court district, and a Poor-law Union. It is also the headquarters of the North Devon militia, and a polling-place for the comity elections.
There are three churches. The ancient parish church is an antique Gothic structure, situated nearly in the centre of the town, and dedicated to SS. Peter and Paul. The church itself has no pretensions to architectural beauty, but is very commodious, and contains a handsome stained glass window over the communion table, inserted in 1854 and a parochial library, which is kept in a room over the vestry. The living is a vicarage* in the diocese of Exeter, of the annual value of £245, in the patronage of Lord Wharncliffe. Of the two new churches, one is dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene; it was erected in 1847 by public subscription, with a curacy of the value of £150, in the alternate gift of the crown and the Bishop of Exeter. The other is dedicated to the Holy Trinity, and has a fine tower 133 feet high, with a curacy of the value of £120, in the gift of the Rev. C. Haggard. There are chapels belonging to the Baptists, Independents, and Wesleyan Methodists. New chapels have also been recently built for the Roman Catholics and Bible Christians.
The charitable endowments of Barnstaple amount to the annual sum of £630. They comprise the following institutions:- A free grammar school, founded it 1649, by Richard Ferris, and subsequently further endowed by John Wright. Among its pupils have been the Poet Gay, Bishop Jewel, Judge Dodderidge, and Dr. Musgrave. The school-house is of considerable antiquity, having once been the chantry to the ancient monastery; its present master is the Rev. George Johnston, B.D., of Christ's College, Cambridge. A free school, called the Blue Coat schools, established in 1710 for educating and clothing 50 boys and 30 girls which has a revenue of £120, has been recently rebuilt by subscription, with residence for the master and mistress. There are also National and infant schools; a large almshouse, with a chapel, endowed by John Penrose for 40 men and women, and having an income of £228; and other alms houses founded by Horwood, in 1658, and by Paige, in 1553. Salem Almshouse, built in 1834, by Charles Roberts, is designed for 24 poor men and women. The North Devon Infirmary, erected in 1824, is supported by subscription. There are no vestiges of the monastery; but an ancient building on the quay is supposed to have been a chantry house.
Three weekly newspapers are published at Barnstaple, the North Devon Journal, which is published on Thursday, and is considered the leading organ of this district; the North Devon Advertiser, and the Barnstaple and Bideford Times.
Tuesday and Friday are the market days for the sale of corn, provisions, &c. A fish market is held daily, and a large cattle market once a month. Fairs are held in April, September, and December. The September fair is the most important, and lasts three days. It is famed for the sale of the North Devon cattle, and commences on the first Wednesday after the 19th September. Races take place occasionally in the vicinity, although there is no regular Barnstaple race-course."