A Topographical Dictionary of England


 Samuel Lewis (1831)

Transcript copyright Mel Lockie (Sep 2016)


BARNSTAPLE, a port, boroug, market-town, and parish, having separate jurisdiction, locally in the hundred of Braunton, county of DEVON, 38 miles (N.  W.) from Exeter, 8 (N.  E.) from Bideford, and 193 (W. by S.) from London, containing 5079 inhabitants. This place, a Saxon burgh in the reign of Athelstan, was formerly a port of considerable trade, and a principal depôt for wool, from which circumstance it seems to have derived its name. In 1588, it fitted out three ships for the fleet of Elizabeth, to repel the Spanish Armada; and during the civil war in the reign of Charles I. it was distinguished for its adherence to the cause of the parliament, and was the scene of frequent conflicts, being alternately in the possession of each party, till its final surrender to General Fairfax, in 1646, when it was again taken possession of by Sir Thomas Fairfax. In 1606, it suffered considerably from a great flood, which inundated the town, and did much damage to the property of the inhabitants. Barnstaple is pleasantly situated in a fertile vale, sheltered by a semicircular range of hills, on the eastern bank of the river Taw, over which there is a fine stone bridge of sixteen arches. The town consists of several spacious and well-paved streets, containing many handsome houses, and is plentifully supplied with excellent water, brought by pipes from the distance of half a mile. The air is salubrious, and a walk, extending about a quarter of a mile along the winding bank of the river, which here expands into a fine bay, forms an agreeable promenade, at the end of which is a handsome piazza of the Doric order, surmounted by a statue of Queen Anne. A theatre is occasionally opened, and there are assembly and billiard rooms. The trade of the port consists principally in the importation of deals from North America and the Baltic, lime from Wales, and coal, culm, and other commodities from Bristol; and in the exportation of corn, oak timber, and bark, in which, according to the return made to parliament in 1828, forty-two vessels, averaging fifty-two tons' burden, were employed. The quay, upon which stands the custom-house, is commodious and extensive; but, from the accumulation of sand, by which the navigation of the river is obstructed, it is not accessible to vessels of more than one hundred tons' burden. Within the last few years Barastaple has obtained the privilege of bonding wine, spirits, and other articles of colonial produce. Manufactories for serge and inferior broad cloth have recently been established; there are others for patent lace, affording employment to about eight hundred persons; and in the vicinity are six tan-yards, a paper-mill, and an iron-foundry; a great quantity of earthenware, bricks, and tiles, is also made here. Limestone abounds in the neighbourhood, and lead-ore has been discovered. The market is on Friday; and there are great markets on the Friday before the 21st of April, and the second Friday in December; a cattle market, for which this place is celebrated, is also held monthly. A fair, for horses, cattle, and sheep, commences on September 19th, and continues three days.

The government, by charter of Edward I., subsequently confirmed and extended by Edward IV., Mary, and James I., is vested in a mayor, high steward, recorder, and deputy recorder, a senior and a junior alderman, and twenty-two common council-men, assisted by a town clerk, two Serjeants at mace, and subordinate officers. The mayor is elected by a majority of the corporation, annually on the Monday after the festival of St. Faith, and sworn into office in October: on retiring from office he becomes senior alderman, and the following year junior alderman. The mayor, deputy recorder (who must be a barrister of three years' standing), and the two aldermen, are justices of the peace, and hold a court of session quarterly for the borough, with power to imprison and transport; and a court or record is held, every alternate Monday, for the recovery of debts to any amount. The guildhall is a spacious handsome building, erected by the corporation in 1812; the lower part is appropriated to the use of the market. A new prison, containing twenty cells, has recently been erected upon the improved plan. The freedom of the borough is inherited by birth, or acquired by servitude. The elective franchise was granted in the reign of Edward I., since which time Barnstaple has continued to return two members to parliament: the right of election is vested in the free burgesses generally, in number about six hundred, of whom about one-third are resident: the mayor is. the returning officer. The living is a discharged vicarage, in the archdeaconry of Barnstaple, and diocese of Exeter, rated in the king's books at £15. 8. 9., and in the patronage of Lord Wharncliffe. The church, dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul, is a spacious ancient structure, with a spire. There are places of worship for Particular Baptists, Independents, and Wesleyan Methodists. The free grammar school was founded and endowed, in 1649, by R. Ferris, Esq., and a small annuity was added, in 1760, by the Rev. John Wright: the management is vested in the corporation, who appoint the master. The school-house is an ancient building, which formerly belonged to a Cluniac monastery, .founded here by Johel de Totnes, soon after the Conquest. John Jewel, Bishop of Salisbury; Thomas Harding, the Jesuit professor at Louvain; and the poet Gay, who was born in the neighbourhood; were educated at this school. A charity school, for clothing and educating fifty boys and twenty girls, was founded in 1710, and is supported by the rent of lands purchased with several benefactions. The National school, in which one hundred and fifty children are instructed, was founded in 1813, and is supported by subscription; and there is also a school for twenty girls, who are taught reading, sewing, and knitting. Litchdon almshouse, an ancient building, consisting of a centre and two wings, in one of which is a chapel, was founded in 1624, and endowed with a considerable estate, by John Penrose, Esq., for forty aged persons of either sex: it is under the direction of two trustees, and the mayor nominates to the first vacancy that occurs during his office. Horwood's almshouses, for sixteen poor people, founded in 1658, and Paige's almshouses, founded in 1553, and enlarged in 1656, are both endowed by their respective founders. The North Devon infirmary, a lofty modern building south-east of the town, was erected under the patronage of Lord Fortescue, and is supported by subscription. On the quay there is an ancient building, now appended to the custom-house, said to have been a chantry chapel, dedicated to St. Anne.