A Topographical Dictionary of England
Samuel Lewis (1831)
Transcript copyright Mel Lockie (Sep 2016)
BIDEFORD, a sea-port and parish and market-town (incorporated), having separate jurisdiction, locally in the hundred of Shebbear, county of DEVON, 39 miles (N. W. by W.) from Exeter, and 201 (W. by S.) from London, containing 4053 inhabitants. This place, called also Bytheford, of which its modern appellation is a variation, derives its name from being situated near an ancient ford on the river Torridge. It was a town of some importance in the time of the Saxons: in early records it is styled a borough, and in the reigns of Edward I. and II. returned members to parliament; but the burgesses having pleaded inability to supply the usual pecuniary allowance to their representatives, this distinction was withdrawn. In 1871, Richard de Grenville, to whose ancestor Bideford was granted in the reign of William Rufus, obtained for it a market and a fair; and, in 1574, Queen Elizabeth incorporated the inhabitants, and made the town a free borough. From that time it rapidly increased as a place of trade, and the expeditions of Sir Walter Raleigh to Virginia, and of Sir Richard Grenville to Carolina, established the basis of its foreign commerce. During the civil war in the reign of Charles I., two small forts were erected on the banks of the river, and a third at Appledore, which were garrisoned in the interest of the parliament, until they were taken for the king by Col. Digby, after the battle of Torrington, September 2nd, 1643, who soon after entered this town, which had been evacuated by the parliamentary troops. From this period till the beginning of the eighteenth century, Bideford was in its highest prosperity. The weaving of silk was introduced in 1650, and, after the revocation of the edict of Nantes, in 1685, many French Protestants settled in the town, and established the manufacture of silk and cotton; a great quantity of wool was imported from Spain, and, in 1699, its trade with Newfoundland was inferior only to that of London and Exeter: from 1700 to 1755, the imports of tobacco exceeded those of every port, except London. The town is situated on the river Torridge, which in spring tides rises to the height of eighteen feet above the level of high water mark: the greater part is built on the acclivity of its western bank, and is connected with that on the eastern side by a noble stone bridge of twenty-four arches, of sufficient span to allow free passage for vessels of sixty tons burden. The bridge was erected in the early part of the fourteenth century, by a subscription raised in the counties of Devon and Cornwall, under the auspices of Grandison, Bishop of Exeter, who, being influenced by a dream of Gornard, the parish priest, granted indulgences to all who should contribute to the work: an estate, called the Bridge estate, for keeping it in repair, is vested in trustees, who are a body corporate, and have a common seal. The town consists principally of two spacious streets, well paved and lighted; the houses are in general indifferently built, many of them being of timber and brick, plastered over, though there are some of more respectable appearance: the inhabitants are amply supplied with water. Its vicinity to Appledore renders Bideford a place of resort for company frequenting that watering-place: there are assembly rooms on the quay. The port, including within its jurisdiction the harbours of Clovelly and Hartland, and a convenient station for wind-bound vessels, carries on a considerable colonial and coasting trade: the exports are sails, cordage, and articles of general supply to the fisheries of Newfoundland, oak-bark to Ireland, apples to Scotland, earthenware to Wales, and corn and flour to Bristol; the imports are timber from America and the Baltic, and coal from Bristol and Wales. The river, in spring tides, is navigable for vessels of three hundred tons' burden, as far as the bridge, two miles and a half above which it is connected, by means of a sealock, with the Torrington canal. The quay, one thousand two hundred feet in length, and of proportionate breadth, has been greatly improved by the corporation; it is very convenient for loading and unloading, and is accessible to ships of considerable burden. The number of vessels belonging to the port, according to the return of 1828, is ninety-nine, averaging a burden of ninety tons, the majority of which are employed in the coasting trade: there are also one hundred and sixty licensed boats engaged in the fishery. Ship-building is extensively carried on: during the late war, several frigates were launched at this port, and there are eight or ten dock-yards, in which smaller vessels are built. The principal articles of manufacture are ropes, sails, and common earthenware; there are also several tanyards, and a small lace-manufactory. The market days are, Tuesday for grain, and Saturday for provisions: fairs are1 held on February 14th, July 18th, and November' 13th. The government, by charter of incorporation granted in the 16th of Elizabeth, and confirmed and extended in the 7th of James I., is vested in a-mayor, recorder, seven aldermen, and ten burgesses, assisted by a town clerk, two Serjeants at mace, and subordinate officers. The mayor (who is chosen by the corporation on the 21st of September), the recorder, and one of the aldermen (who is annually elected for that purpose), are justices of the peace; a chief constable, and twelve petty constables, are appointed annually by the mayor. The corporation hold a court of general session quarterly, a court of petty session monthly, and a court of record every third week, for the recovery of debts to any amount. The town hall, erected in 1698, is a neat and commodious building; underneath are two prisons, one for malefactors, and the other for debtors: a handsome hall was erected in 1758, for the trustees of the Bridge estate, with a school-room adjoining.
The living is a rectory, in the archdeaconry of Barnstaple, and diocese of Exeter, rated in the king's books at £27. 7. 6., and in the patronage of Lewis William Buck, Esq. The church, dedicated to St. Mary, is a spacious cruciform structure, in the early style of English architecture; within are a handsome stone-screen, a Norman font, and some interesting: monuments. There are places of worship for Baptists, Independents, and Wesleyan Methodists. The free grammar school is of remote foundation: it was rebuilt in 1657, and, in 1689, was endowed by Mrs. Susannah Stucley, with an estate of £200 value; a good house was purchased for the master with money arising from the sale of timber on the estate: there are at present only three boys on the foundation, who are nominated by the corporation. A charity school for reading, writing, and arithmetic, is supported by the trustees of the Bridge estate; and a National school, in which one hundred and fifty boys, and one hundred and fifty girls are taught, besides other schools for the children of dissenters, are supported by subscription. Almshouses in Maiden-street, for seven poor families, were erected in 1646, by Mr. John Strange, alderman of Bideford and an hospital in the Old town, for twelve poor families, was built pursuant to the Avill of Mr. Henry Amory, who died in 1663. In 1810, Mrs. Margaret Newcommen left a considerable fund for poor dissenters in this and the neighbouring parishes. Mines of culm and black mineral paint are found in the vicinity. Sir Richard Grenville, who was a native of this town, distinguished himself in 1591, in an action fought near the island of Flores, with a Spanish fleet, consisting of fifty-three sail, and ten thousand men, having only his own ship, and one hundred and eighty men; notwithstanding this inferiority of force, he gallantly repulsed the enemy fifteen times, destroyed four of their ships, and upwards of one thousand men, nor did he surrender till he had spent all his ammunition, .and then only on honourable terms. Thomas Stucley, an eccentric character, the supposed original of Sterne's Captain Shandy; Dr. John Shebbeare, a noted political writer, born in 1709; the Rev. Zachary Mudge, a learned divine, and master of the grammar school; were also natives of this place. Hervey, author of the "Meditations," was curate here from 1738 till 1742.