The Plague at North Bovey

Devon & Cornwall Notes and Queries vol. VI, (January 1910 to October 1911), pp.197-200.


W.H. Thornton

Prepared by Michael Steer

Epidemics of bubonic plague are very dramatic events. They cause massive demographic crises during which the number of deaths far exceeds the number of births in a population. Fortunately, modern geographers, demographers and human biologists are able to study these crises because in several Western and Southern European countries registers of baptisms, burials and marriages were kept by local parish priests. England is especially fortunate in having many of these parish registers survive from 1538 (during the reign of Henry VIII), but there are even earlier examples of registers for some of the cities in Northern Italy, Florence and Pisa for example. Violent epidemic outbreaks of bubonic plague had important impacts on many aspects of everyday life. They affected trade; they caused the break-up of families; and they created a climate of fear, when would the plague return again? The article, from a copy of a rare and much sought-after journal can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. Google has sponsored the digitisation of books from several libraries. These books, on which copyright has expired, are available for free educational and research use, both as individual books and as full collections to aid researchers.

Note 189. THE PLAGUE AT NORTH BOVEY. - We have all heard of the ravages caused by the plague in London in the year 1665, when, according to Hume, 90,000 people perished. But it was not until I had been informed of a local tradition, which induced me to inquire, that I became aware how frequently our county of Devon has suffered from outbreaks of bubonic plague.

I know nothing of the history of this fell malady in ancient days, but it was the veritable curse of medieval Europe, and England was frequently devastated. Dirt, insufficient nourishment, and insanitary conditions of life were all, no doubt, the foster-mothers who prepared the soil for its reception, but its seeds were imported from Asia, where it is always in evidence.

It is said that in 1345 nearly half of the population of England died of the plague, but I will confine my attention in this paper to Devonshire, and content myself with a hasty summary of such information as I possess of the history of the county in relation to this matter. I do not know to what period to assign the sad story of North Bovey, which it is my present purpose to perpetuate. That that story is true in substance and in fact it is scarcely possible to doubt, but I have never been informed either of the date of the tragedy or the names of the sufferers.

The tradition exists, but, as is so often the case, it is blurred, indistinct and nebulous, and yet, if it be not true, it is a lie much adorned with particular circumstance, and a little reflection will easily lead us to believe that the story is probable, and that in old rural England such horrors as it describes must have frequently occurred.

I learn from Polwhele that in the year 1237 a great plague, followed by a great flood, devastated the city of Exeter, and that about that time a lazar house was erected near the Church of St. Mary Magdalene for the accommodation of such infected sick people as were a terror to the city.

The same historian states that Devonshire suffered severely from the plague in the successive years 1624, 1626, 1628 and 1646.

Mr. Windeatt informs us that in 1590 the death-roll at Totnes was 270, of whom all but 33 died of the plague. In 1646 the same little town suffered from a second visitation of the dreadful malady, which again caused a loss of 276 lives. It is also supposed that at this period the deaths were so numerous that many people were buried whose deaths were not registered.

During this second epidemic the inhabitants fled, terror-stricken, in large numbers from the town, and the grass grew in the streets.

Bridge Town was not attacked, so a barrier was built up on the bridge to prevent the infection from spreading, and the necessary supplies for the inhabitants of the town were placed on the bridge, and the money paid for them was deposited in a bowl of vinegar to disinfect it.

Mr. Windeatt is disposed to attribute the first attack in 1590 to the visit paid to the town by Miss Margery Wyche, of Dartmouth, who was the first person to die that year in Totnes of the plague.

The second attack Mr. Windeatt is inclined to attribute to the occupation of the town by the royal army under Lord Goring in October, 1645, or to the entry of Sir Thomas Fairfax in January, 1646.

In 1646 the plague raged at Tiverton, through which town the Parliamentary forces advanced to Totnes after fighting a successful cavalry engagement on Bovey Tracey Heathfield. Tiverton and its neighbourhood at this time, according to Polwhele, lost some thousands of its population.

Twenty years earlier, in 1626, the plague was very bad at Ashburton. It came from Plymouth (as usual, from a seaport), and spread along the London road through Ivybridge, Ashburton, and on to Okehampton. In Ashburton 464 people died of the complaint. The worst month was May, when 88 deaths are recorded in the registers of this small town.

In 1646 Barnstaple and Bideford suffered severely. The latter named place had been infected during the month of June, 1646, when a Spanish ship landed bales of wool on the wharf of Bideford. Some children played on these sacks of wool. They were named Hugh, John, Codwell and Christopher Ravening, and they all quickly sickened and died. Then the plague seized the town - the Mayor fled, followed by the majority of the townspeople; 228 deaths are registered, but many deaths were not recorded. The malady lingered long in the neighbourhood, and it raged in Barnstaple.

I may mention, by way of illustration, that there stands, or used to stand, in a marsh near Tawstock, a tomb which contains the bodies of John, Joseph, Thomas and Richard Ley. Across the stone was the following inscription : — "To the memory of our four sweet sons, John, Richard, Thomas and Joseph, who were taken from us prematurely altogether by Divine Providence, and are here interred the 17th day of August, 1646. In hac spe acquiescunt parentes msestissimi. Joseph et Agnes Ley."

It may well be that the North Bovey tradition refers to the visitation of 1626, when the plague ran along the main road from Plymouth by Ashburton and then turned to Okehampton. I do not know, for many particulars are wanting, but it is a fact that I have been informed (concerning a house called "Puddaven" which stands just off the main road from Moreton Hampstead to Tavistock, facing Beetor Cross, at the junction of Long Lane with the old turnpike road) that, at some time or another, the inhabitants were plague smitten, and their neighbours were afraid to approach them. By the gate into the main road, and at a distance of 200 yards from the house, was a flat slab of granite, of irregular but somewhat circular shape, and upon that stone every evening people placed provisions and retired. In the morning of each succeeding day these supplies were found wanting, as they had been removed during the night. On the fifth morning the food was still on the stone untouched, and the neighbours knew that the last survivor of the doomed family at Puddaven was dead.

Some of the boldest then approached the house and shouted to the inmates, but on receiving no response, they set fire to the thatch and burned the house down with all that it contained.

The stone on which food had been placed was afterwards built into a wall in a field adjoining the gate, and I have been told that it can still be identified.

When I first knew the place an old stone cross was standing in the marsh in front of the house, which by that time had been rebuilt. That cross is now on the fence at the junction of the roads above mentioned. It had been removed by a farmer and was serving as a gate-post, but was rescued by the members of the Teign Naturalists' Field Club and set up on the fence, at no great distance from its original position, in memory of my incumbency of the parish of North Bovey and my long connection with the club.

It may possibly relate to the tragedy here recorded, but I incline to the opinion that it formed one of a long series of crosses which indicated the trackway to Tavistock before the road was cut. Half a mile beyond it is another cross, now embedded in a wall, and then came Nun's Cross, which is still standing; and beyond that again on Merripit Hill was a fourth, which has been broken up within the memory of old men.                 W. H. Thornton.