North Devon Exodus


Arthur Dark

North Devon Exodus Database of Surnames

It is a striking fact that W. G. Hoskins's justly famed book on Devon, published in 1954 as part of a comprehensive survey of the then existing state of knowledge about the local history of the English counties, does not contain a single indexed reference on the theme of emigration. (1) It had to wait for the work of the maritime historians Basil Greenhill and his wife Ann Giffard to first make us aware of the extent, significance and duration of emigration to Canada from North Devon between about 1818 and 1868. In their book Westcountrymen in Prince Edward's Isle they examined records of departure between 1830 and 1841 and estimated that about 2,250 people emigrated to North America from North Devon in that period and another 3000 between 1842 and 1855. (2) These are recorded movements only. All told they estimated that the actual figure for the latter period may be as high as 7000. (3) It is very important to see these figures in perspective. A total figure of between say 9,000 and 10,000 for the entire period 1830 to 1855 appears derisory when seen in a national context. But when seen against the background of a very sparsely populated region in which the population of the two biggest towns in 1851, Barnstaple and Bideford, was 8,667 and 5,775 respectively it takes on a very different perspective.

The loss of income to a local economy represented by such a movement of population would cause dismay today. But although there were a few who saw the migration in this light most contemporary commentators appear to have seen it as a means of drawing off what they regarded as an essentially surplus population. There is not the slightest doubt that poverty and unemployment was dire as a result of the economic depression that followed the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815. The national government, local Boards of Guardians, individuals and emigration societies of various kinds saw it as a charitable duty to give grants and assistance to the poor to start a new life in the colonies and thereby reduce the surplus population. At the same time the emigrants were helping the development of the empty lands of colonies like Canada. There is no doubt either that the poor were desperate to take advantage of the opportunities. The North Devon journal of 1831 reported, "such is the prevailing rage for emigration, that a female who had given birth to a child but three days before, would not be persuaded by the most urgent entreaties....to remain behind for another season". (4)

Family history and the emigration

For family historians the implications are clear. Anyone investigating the history of rural families in North Devon, especially those at labouring or husbandman level, but not excluding the smaller yeoman farmers, can expect to find members of the main or collateral lines who have emigrated to Canada. Indeed, if a family member simply disappears between one census and the next this is probably one of the most likely lines of enquiry to pursue. That superb website www.genuki.org.uk has a network of volunteer "parish clerks" who look up parish register entries for individual named parishes on behalf of enquirers. Those parish clerks who are attached to North Devon parishes freely testify to the great number of enquiries they receive from Canadians anxious to find their English ancestors.

These Canadian connections can be extremely complex and extensive. Examination of the Dark family of Parkham and of other families to which it was related revealed 40 closely related individuals in Parkham, Woolsery, Alwington, Instow and Westleigh, of whom no less than 24 emigrated to Ontario; 18 of whom were born in North Devon and 5 in Cornwall. (5) There is not the slightest doubt that similar results could be replicated by many other North Devon families.

The Elliott family provides a typical example of how extensive these Canadian connections could become. (6) Agnes Dark of Parkham married John Elliott, a farmer of Lopthorne in Morwenstow (Cornwall) at Parkham in 1821. John and Agnes Elliott, his widowed mother Catherine, two younger brothers Henry (bap. 1809) and James (bap.1806) and sister Harriett (bap.1811) later moved to Bucks in Parkham where John was listed in 1829 as occupying the mill. Henry, after learning the trade of miller at Bucks, sailed for Port Hope, Ontario, on the 4th May 1831, in the Bollina and after arriving in Canada married another Devonshire emigrant, Mary Oke of Bradworthy, by whom he had seven children. John and Agnes Elliott emigrated to Port Hope probably between 1831 and 1834. Harriet Elliott married William Braund at Woolsery in 1836 and later emigrated to Port Hope taking their first two children, Keziah and William Henry with them. James Elliott married Sarah Penney in Woolsery in 1836 and they too emigrated to Port Hope, where they had 8 children. At some, probably early point, Catherine, the widow, joined the rest of her family in Canada. Following Harriet Braund's death on the 22nd October 1891 the Port Hope Weekly Guide reported that no less than 26 individuals called Elliott attended her funeral, all of them related.

All these families appear to have prospered in Canada. Henry Elliott, who became the very prosperous owner of a large mill in Hampton, Ontario, a Justice of the Peace and treasurer of his local council. (7) He died at Hampton on the 20th March 1905 aged 95 years, 9 months. William Braund "the first saltwater sailor to settle in Port Hope," became the owner and operator of the 122 ton schooner Sarah which sailed Lake Ontario. (8) John and James Elliott became farmers.

One of the most striking features of the emigration is that many of the migrants departed not from the Atlantic ports of Plymouth and Bristol but from Appledore and Bideford. When, in 1831, the Apollo, Calypso and Bacchus, bound for New York, St. Andrews and Montreal left from Bideford some 5000 people were reported as lining the Quay and Long Bridge to wave farewell. (9) For farewell it was.

Except for the well-off very few who sailed would ever return to their native land. One such who did return was Louisa Elizabeth Loggin first child of the Rev. William Loggin, the Perpetual Curate of Woolsery (West) and his second wife, Mary Marshall. Louisa had married John Nantes of Bideford who became a minor official in the colonial administration of Prince Edward Island (Registrar). (10) John and Louisa sailed for Charlottetown in 1831 but in 1832 Louisa returned to England alone on board the Sappho, her two children Frederick William Nantes and Clara Nantes having both died on the Island. Her third child, Adelaide Constantia, was baptised at Woolsery on October 1st 1832, but in the following year Louisa Elizabeth also died and was buried at Woolsery on the 16th April 1833. John Nantes later remarried but himself died on Prince Edward Island in 1847, aged 36, leaving Adelaide Constantia orphaned and in the care of her Nantes in-laws in England

For the less well-off the most their relations might expect was the very rare letter, written in a crabbed hand or perhaps laboriously dictated to someone else and with a long list of friends and kinsmen in neighbouring villages to whom it was to be carried. Such letters were semi-public documents read aloud to groups of relations and fellow villagers and included news about neighbours as well as near relations. Later in the century stiffly posed studio photographs were exchanged; the sitters in mothballed Sunday best that bore no relationship to the workaday clothes normally worn. Many of the photographs that were sent to Canada bore the address of Puddicombe's studio in Bideford; a studio that was still active in the forties of the twentieth century.

The Bideford ships made the round trip about two or three times during the summer season with the average sailing time to Quebec lasting about 42 days. The return journey, when the ships had the prevailing south-westerly winds behind them, was always much quicker. Thomas Chanter's brig Sappho made the easterly crossing from Nova Scotia to Bideford in 1833 in an astonishing 12 days.

Those emigrants like the Elliotts, who pushed on from Quebec into English speaking Ontario (Upper Canada) faced a still formidable journey of over 300 miles measured in days rather than hours. When Henry Elliott arrived at Prince Edward Island on the 5th June 1831 he had to wait 10 days before Bollina sailed on to Quebec, taking a further ten or twelve days to get there. He then made his way by river and land to Kingston, at the eastern end of Lake Ontario, where he took a lake steamer to Port Hope. Even at Port Hope there was then no landing stage and the final leg of his epic journey was in a locally owned boat (Red Rover). An important incentive for pushing on to Ontario was that farmers there could, at that stage, be granted freehold Crown land; whereas in Prince Edward Island farms were rented from large and often absentee landowners. Once there they still faced enormous difficulties. They might have to clear virgin land of the ever present Canadian forest, build their own house from the felled timber and then cultivate the land before they could bring in an income.

One thing that they were probably well prepared to cope with was loneliness, as Ann Giffard pointed out. She quotes the Rev. Richard Warner, writing in 1800, "I departed from Bideford and took the Kilkhampton road. Fortunately it happened to be a market day at the former place otherwise I must inevitably have been lost again in the abominable and intricate roads of North Devon. From those who were going to attend this weekly day of public barter, who frequently ride eighteen or twenty miles for that purpose, I obtained directions through a country wild, desolate, and unpicturesque to Kilkhampton; without a single object to interest or amuse for the distance of two or three and twenty miles." (11)

Non-conformist emigrants

A substantially high proportion of the emigrants were nonconformists, particularly Bible Christians; the movement founded by James Thorne and William O'Bryan at Lake Farm in Shebbear parish in 1815 and whose heartland lay in north-west Devon and north-east Cornwall. (12) In 1831 there were sufficient numbers of Bible Christians in Canada for the movement to send two preachers to minister to them. The Rev. Francis Metherall was sent to Prince Edward Island and the Rev. John Glass to Ontario. The early censuses for Prince Edward Island and Ontario confirm that large numbers of Bible Christians were living in places like Port Hope and Charlottetown and that they had originated from Devon and Cornwall. John and Agnes Elliott were Bible Christians and both are buried in the half-acre burial plot John sold to his denomination in Hope Township, Ontario. John's brother James had a son, Joshua, who became a Bible Christian minister. This high proportion of non-conformists probably simply reflects their local strength at the time and may have no greater significance. At the beginning of the twentieth century the Bible Christian movement became wholly absorbed within mainstream Methodism.

The Troika. Ship-building, the timber trade and emigration

The dynamic behind the emigrant trade of Bideford and Appledore was provided by the interacting needs of timber importing and ship-building. Without ship-building and timber importing the emigrant trade of North Devon might never have developed. Each of the 3 different economic activities could not have thrived without the other two.

North Devon had, of course, long established maritime connections with North America. They began late in the sixteenth century with the Newfoundland cod fisheries and in the eighteenth century Barnstaple, Bideford and Appledore all prospered on the tobacco trade with Maryland and Virginia. By the beginning of the nineteenth century that trade was dead, following the end of the American War of Independence, but a completely new trade began with Canada based on the longstanding ship-building tradition of the Torridge estuary. Between 1800 and 1809 alone no less than 107 merchant ships and 7 warships were built along the banks of the Torridge.

Many people living today will find it difficult to envisage this scale of industrialisation when they look at the Torridge estuary today. What they need to appreciate is that given any sheltered creek providing access to deep water (such as that at Cleave, below Bideford, for example), a plentiful supply of timber and a handful of skilled shipwrights using hand tools, ships could be and were built from scratch in the open air, without any of the superstructure needed today. Consequently, when ship-building ceased there was rarely any physical evidence left behind to remind future generations of what had been done

In 1806 Napoleon declared a blockade against Britain in the Berlin Decree, closing all French controlled ports to British ships and declaring British goods liable to seizure. In the following year Russia, Prussia and Denmark joined the blockade under the terms of the Treaty of Tilsit. This effectively closed the Baltic Sea to British shipping and cut off Britain's main source of imported timber. Potentially, this could have been disastrous at a time when every ship was built of wood. The alternative source of supply was Canada and it was this that was now exploited by the ship-owners and ship-builders of the Torridge estuary.

Ships built in Prince Edward Island by North Devon shipwrights sailed to Appledore and Bideford with their holds filled with Canadian timber. The holds were emptied, final fitting out was done in the Bideford and Appledore shipyards and the ships then returned to Canada with the same holds filled with emigrants, who were landed in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Quebec and sometimes, New York. Without the emigrants the return journey would have been problematic since the colonies rapidly achieved self-sufficiency and did not require continuous supply. In any case most imported goods could be obtained more cheaply from the U.S.A. The necessity to fill the holds with emigrants for the return journey had the further effect of keeping fares low. For about a generation these activities were the backbone of the economies of both Bideford and Appledore.

The very first ship to sail to Prince Edward Island and return with a cargo of timber from the Island was the Four Friends, owner and master, William Ramsay, whose return was registered at the Bideford Custom House (at the bottom of Bridgeland Street) on the 31st October 1812. The cargo was probably destined for Thomas Burnard, a prosperous local ship owner and timber merchant who lived at Orchard Hill and was twice mayor of Bideford. In 1818 Thomas Burnard's ship the Peter and Sarah took the first gang of North Devon shipwrights, under the direction of William Ellis, to Prince Edward Island to begin ship-building there.

The names of three local merchants are particularly associated with this trade, William Yeo (1813-1872) of Appledore, whose lifetime more or less coincides with the heyday of the trade, Thomas Burnard Chanter (1797-1874) who was the nephew of Thomas Burnard, and Richard Heard of Bideford. William Yeo's father, James (1788-1868), had settled in Prince Edward Island where he had a shipyard at Richmond Bay and where his son, James junior, built a mansion called Green Park at Campbell Creek. William Yeo's mansion in Appledore (Richmond House) built in 1850, was named after Richmond Bay, as was Richmond Dock (1856) his shipyard in Appledore. When he died in 1872 his timber and ship-building enterprises died with him. Chanter owned a fleet of sailing vessels, some of which were built for him in Prince Edward Island and erected a signal tower at Appledore from which to obtain advance notice of his vessels crossing Bideford Bar. This tower, visible from Bideford and later known in its derelict state as Chanter's Folly, was built in 1841 and demolished in 1952.

Richard Heard was originally a builder and auctioneer in Bideford but in the 1830's entered the timber and emigrant trade. His son William acted as his father's agent in Prince Edward Island, settled there permanently and, amongst other enterprises, opened a shop in Charlottetown. In 1849 Richard Heard had three barques regularly sailing for North America, the Devonia (950 tons burthen), Secret (600 tons burthen) and Civility (450 tons burthen) and was advertising Quebec and St. John's Yellow and Red Pine, White Lake Oak and birch logs of very excellent quality for sale at his timber yard in Bideford. (13) He later added a fourth ship to his fleet (14) and in his advertising made the claim that no accident had occurred to his ships "over the last twenty years."

He charged between £3 fifteen shillings and £4 seven shillings and sixpence for the voyage. The different fares may relate to port of disembarkation rather than any distinction between cabin and steerage class. Most passengers, if not all, would have travelled steerage which means that families and unaccompanied passengers would simply have bedded down, cheek by jowl, in the emptied timber holds. If they were lucky the ship-owner might erect temporary two-tier bunks for his passengers. They would have been given a basic ration of food and water which they would partly prepare themselves. If necessary the able-bodied men assisted with things like manning the pumps when the crew were hard-pressed. The food allowance for Quebec was 3 and a half lbs. of bread, 1 lb. flour, 1 and a half lbs. oatmeal, 1 and a half lbs. rice, 1 and a half lbs. peas, 1 and a quarter lbs. beef, 1 lb. pork, 2 lbs. potatoes, 2 oz. tea, 1lb. sugar, 2 oz. salt, half oz. mustard, quarter oz. pepper, I gill vinegar, and 3 quarts of water daily. There is some evidence that passengers on these ships arrived in better condition in Canada than those from ports like Bristol. Ann Giffard puts this down to the fact that the captains and crews were all local men united by common ties, including blood relationships, to the passengers they were carrying. Richard Heard's advertising claimed that "every accommodation possible will be given to the passengers, and no expense spared to make them comfortable during the voyage." Conditions on board were undoubtedly rough, but as Ann Giffard points out, not one whit harder than agricultural labourers normally experienced at this time. (15)

Emigration from other Devonshire ports

The character of the emigration from Bideford and the other emigrant ports of Dartmouth, Exeter and Teignmouth was always different from that from Plymouth which was vastly bigger than all the others combined. The differences are admirably summarised by Brayshay: "the impact within the county of assisted passage schemes of various kinds was largely confined to Plymouth, but it should nonetheless be emphasised that, for much of the century, and particularly in the mid-Victorian period, privately-financed emigration was an important feature of the lesser ports in Devon. Although the numbers were comparatively insignificant in national terms, the outflow from Devon's small ports represents a special kind of emigration. In marked contrast to those departing via the large United Kingdom ports, the passengers were almost entirely local in origin. Moreover, they were rarely drawn from the truly impoverished classes. On the contrary, they were able to afford the higher fares and thereby benefit from the better standard of accommodation provided on the less-crowded, locally owned vessels ... While Plymouth shared in the large-scale national pattern of emigration, other ports were involved in a more intensely local. and much less regular, participation in the emigrant trade."(16) By the "truly impoverished classes" Brayshay mainly means the pauper inmates of union workhouses travelling on assisted passages. The numbers of people from North Devon emigrating from Plymouth, or indeed Bristol, are unknown; although Brayshay believes that people from Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and Dorset predominated in the group classed in the official Plymouth figures as originating from England and Wales.

Decline of the emigrant trade

North Devon's emigrant trade with North America died as the timber and ship-building industry died. Even without the death of William Yeo in 1872, which was disastrous for Appledore, the factors making for decline were already in operation. When Britain turned away from the Baltic to North America for its timber supplies the bankers and financiers investing their capital in the new trade needed to know that in the future their investment would be protected. The government responded by erecting tariff barriers protecting the new trade from any future Baltic competition. But these tariffs were slowly removed and finally abolished in 1860 so that Baltic timber became competitive once again. In any case, by 1870 the age of wooden ships was rapidly coming to an end, to be replaced by iron, steam-driven ships.

The arrival of the railway at Bideford (East-the-Water) in 1855 signalled the era of cheap rail transport and made it easier for would-be emigrants to leave via Bristol or Plymouth. Thus the North Devon Journal reported in 1857: "It is said, that within the last week little short of 200 persons have passed up the North Devon Railway en route for the emigration ports - those for the North American colonies proceeding to Plymouth." (17) Even earlier it was always relatively easy to sail from Bideford to Bristol. Richard Heard had a steamer, the Water Witch, as well as sailing vessels, making regular weekly passages from Bideford to Bristol. In 1849 his ships Civility and Secret were sailing between Bideford and Canada and his barque Devonia was sailing between Bristol and New York. In his advertising at that time he was actually offering free passages to Bristol from Bideford for those passengers wishing to sail in Devonia. (18)

Inevitably, the emigration choked itself off by creating local shortages of labour. As early as 1853 the Bideford Journal reported : "in the parishes of Holsworthy, Buckland Brewer, Yarnscombe, and throughout all those districts where emigration has thinned the local population labourers are not to be had for money. Everywhere we hear of wages being advanced and the labour market never before looked up so well."(19) For some people, at least, this must have removed the incentive to leave.

Further Questions?

There is still an enormous amount to be found out about the nineteenth century Exodus from North Devon to Canada. (20) Potentially, family historians have a distinctive contribution to make to our understanding of what it meant for the people of North Devon at this time. There were undoubtedly individual triumphs and disasters in Canada and big holes left behind in the close social fabric characteristic of North Devon in the nineteenth century. We need to know about those individual stories and round up the few remaining photographs, letters and diaries. Above all we need to ask questions. Where in Canada (or the U.S.A.) did they mainly settle? Were particular North Devon villages associated with particular places or was family membership the crucial factor in determining to what part of Canada they went? Were some parishes more affected by emigration than others? Who were the earliest pioneers? How much of a claim did the immigrants make upon public and private purses? Did the Bible Christian movement have a role in motivating and helping to organise parties of immigrants or was it all a matter of copycat initiative? All these are questions which family historians are capable of answering; especially if they are prepared to pool their knowledge from both sides of the Atlantic.


(1) A New Survey of England, Devon, W.G. Hoskins, Collins, 1954.

(2) Westcountrymen in Prince Edward's Isle, Basil Greenhill and Ann Giffard, Toronto 1967. Their estimates of emigration were based upon detailed study of ships, shipowners and shipping movements between Bideford and Canada and reports of the numbers of emigrants carried by the ships involved appearing in newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic. As emigration became more commonplace these reports of numbers diminished. They are convinced that much of the emigration from North Devon was never officially recorded.

(3) Official statistics relating to emigration in the nineteenth century are notoriously unreliable. A later study (The Emigration Trade in Nineteenth-Century Devon) by Mark Brayshay in The New Maritime History of Devon, Vol.2, 1994, using the General Reports of the Colonial Land and Emigration Commission, puts emigration from Bideford between 1840 and 1856 at 2,274, of whom 2,080 went to Canada, 363 to Prince Edward Island and 284 to the U.S. This cannot be the complete picture because emigrant ships from Bideford sailed to North America both before 1840 and after 1856 but it does confirm the order of importance of the 3 destinations

(4) North Devon Journal, 14th April 1831.

(5) The family history of the Darks of Parkham is available on CD ROM from the author: arthur[at]dark.fslife.co[dot]uk or phone 01895 639168.

(6) I am indebted to Mrs. Janet Few of the Braund Society for her help with the Braund/Elliott connections.

(7) See Elliott's Mills, Hampton 1840-1936, J.H.Elliott, The Canadian Statesman, January 1937. Dr. Jabez H. Elliott was Henry Elliott's grandson and his article contains much biographical information about his grandfather.

(8) Kingston Daily News, March 22nd 1858. Capt. William Braund died Port Hope 2nd January 1890. See his obituary in Port Hope Weekly Guide.

(9) North Devon Journal, 14th April 1831, previously cited.

(10) Information supplied by the late Mrs. Edna Gould using The Royal Gazette and Islander Newspaper as the main sources and found in the Genealogy Room, Heritage Foundation, 2 Kent Road, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada.

(11) Towards Quebec, Ann Giffard, H.M.S.O., 1981, p.3.

(12) See James Thorne and the Bible Christians, Dr. David Shorney, Devon Family Historian, Nov. 2001, p.12.

(13) See advertisement in the North Devon Journal, 22nd February 1849.

(14) White's Directory, 1850.

(15) Towards Quebec, previously cited. Ann Giffard's book contains two contemporary accounts of the Quebec crossing and represents a much more balanced assessment of the hardships and dangers that faced would-be emigrants than is often encountered.

(16) Brayshay, previously cited, p.108.

(17) North Devon Journal, 16th April 1857.

(18) North Devon Journal, April 1849.

(19) North Devon Journal, 31st March 1853.

(20) Amanda Beavan (See Tracing Your Ancestors in the Public Record Office, sixth edition, 2002, P.R.O., p.162) suggests that there may be parish lists of emigrants, giving their occupations and destinations in MH 12 at the The National Archives. These are not indexed and are to be found amongst much other Poor Law material.

Note: The list of names and addresses of the 300 who responded to the search by the Devonshire Association in 1901 for firsthand information on the experiences of nineteenth century emigrants from Devon, also await examination. See Presidential Address of Sir Robert Lethbridge, Transactions of the Devonshire Association, Vol. xxxiii (Vol. III), Exeter, Jul.-Aug. 1901, pp.36-37 and list of names and addresses in Appendix 68-76.