A Topographical Dictionary of England


 Samuel Lewis (1831)

Transcript copyright Mel Lockie (Sep 2016)


TOTNESS, a borough and parish and market-town, having separate jurisdiction, though locally in the hundred of Coleridge, county of DEVON, 24 miles (S.S.W.) from Exeter, and 196 (W. S. W.) from London, containing, according to the last census, 3128 inhabitants, since increased to nearly 4000. It is variously denominated in ancient records: in Domesday-book it is called Totneis. Camden speaks of its having been once named Totonese; and Risdon alludes to it under the name of Toutaness, by contraction Totnes, or Totness. The latter author accedes to the opinion of Leland, who imagines the name to be a modernization of Dodonesse, signifying a rocky town, its situation rendering this supposition probable. The antiquity of the place is attested by Yenerable Bede, who describes it as the station where the British troops assembled under Ambrosius and Pendragon, prior to their successful attack upon, the tyrant Vortigern. The manor of Great Totness, having been a royal demesne in the time of the Confessor, was bestowed by William I. upon Judhel, one of his nobles, who took the title of "de Totneis," and erected the castle at the north-western extremity of the town. It is probable that Totness was fortified at a very early period, having (according to Risdon) undergone alteration under the Romans, Saxons, Danes, and Normans. Of the present town, which is divided into the Higher, Middle, and Lower quarters, the Middle quarter was included within the ancient boundary wall, in which were three gateways, viz., the East, West, and North. At the time of the Norman survey, Totness was rated when Exeter was rated, and, if there was any expedition by land or water, Totness, Barnstaple, and Lidford, paid as much as Exeter; in that record it is described as containing ninety-five burgesses within the borough, and fifteen without. During the civil war of the seventeenth century, this town became the temporary station of General Goring: Fairfax subsequently halted here, on his way to and from the town of Dartmouth.

Totness is a very respectable town; it is neat and clean, contains many good shops and substantial private residences, and occupies a situation of much beauty and salubrity, on the western bank of the river Dart, over which is a handsome bridge of three arches, completed in 1828, at an expense of about £12,000. It consists chiefly of one long street, rising gradually in a westerly direction from the foot of the bridge, till it reaches a considerable elevation near the site of the castle; this street is crossed midway by the East gateway belonging to the old fortifications; and many of the fronts of the houses beyond are supported by pillars, affording a spacious covered way for foot passengers: the inhabitants are well supplied with water. The general aspect of the town, from the bridge, is picturesque, the church tower appearing on the right of the ascent, and the ivied ruins of the castle crowning the summit, of the hill. The surrounding country, particularly as seen from the castle and the hills, is extremely fine; and the course of the Dart between Totness and its influx into the channel is through variegated and interesting scenery. Owing to the improvement of the roads, the town is fast increasing, many new houses being now in progress of erection on the Plymouth and other roads. There are several libraries, a small theatre, and an assembly-room; and races are held annually in July, or August, on a good course. This town has been noted for its serge manufacture, and there is still some weaving carried on, but the trade is on the decline. The Dart is navigable to the bridge, above which, at a short distance, is a salmon weir, that fish being caught in great quantities; the town is also plentifully supplied with other kinds of fish. During spring tides, vessels of one hundred tons' burden can come up to the quay, a convenience which much facilitates the commercial intercourse with London and Plymouth. Cider is the chief article of exportation: coal, grain, and culm (the last chiefly used for the buming of lime, which abounds in the neighbourhood) are the principal imports. Several boats proceed daily to Dartmouth. Below the weir are corn and fulling mills, the latter being employed by the manufacturers of the town, &c. A customary market is held on Saturday, and there is a great cattle market on the first Tuesday in every month. Fairs for cattle are held on the 12th of May and the 28th of October.

The burgesses obtained a charter of privileges from King John, which was confirmed by Edward I., in whose reign, it is understood, Totness first sent members to parliament: the burgesses obtained the right of electing their mayor in the reign of John. Queen Elizabeth, in the 27th of her reign, granted a charter, whereby the government of the town is entrusted to three magistrates, viz., the mayor, recorder, and a justice: there are fourteen masters and counsellors, or aldermen (of which body the mayor is one), and twenty burgesses, elected from those resident in the borough, and called the " Twenty men," whose duty it is to superintend the letting of lands, &c. A majority of the twenty burgesses must be present at all corporate meetings on their own business; but this is not required at the election of the mayor, or a master and counsellor, on which occasion a majority of the masters and counsellors must be present. There are also a town clerk, portreeve, two Serjeants at mace, and eight constables (the serjeants being two), and the remaining constables chosen, not under the charter, but at the annual court leet, held by the corporation, for the manor of Great Totness. The mayor is chosen on the 21st of September, when two out of fourteen masters are nominated, and the election decided by the resident burgesses. The burgesses are elected by a majority of aldermen; the heirs of Sir Richard Edgecumbe, to which family the manor belonged prior to its being purchased by the corporation, are entitled to the right of one burgess-ship for ever, by a reservatory clause in the deed of conveyance; but this is not claimed. The magistrates of the corporation hold quarter sessions for all but capital offences arising within the borough; a court of requests was formerly held, but it is now in disuse. There are a guildhall and chamber, and a town prison. The corporation claim many privileges, such as freedom from quayage and wharfage throughout the kingdom, except the port of London, and exemption from serving on juries, except in the borough, for all inhabitants of the borough and parish, whether members of the corporation or not. This borough sends two representatives to parliament, who are elected by the masters and burgesses at large, the mayor being the returning officer.

The living is a discharged vicarage, in the archdeaconry of Totness, and diocese of Exeter, rated in the king's books at £12. 8. 9., endowed with £1400 parliamentary grant, and in the patronage of the Crown. The church, dedicated to St. Mary, is a curious old edifice, in the later style of English architecture, erected in the fifteenth century. The tower is handsome, and surmounted by octagonal pinnacles of lighter-coloured material than the remainder of the building, which is composed of a red stone strongly resembling brick. In the church are, an elegant stone screen; a curious stone pulpit, enriched with tracery; a handsome altar-piece; and a library, in which are many old and valuable books. Three hundred and fifty free sittings have recently been added, towards which the Incorporated Society for the building and enlargement of churches and chapels contributed £250. There are places of worship for Independents, Wesleyan Methodists, and Unitarians. The grammar school was founded in 1554, and endowed, in 1658, with lands now worth £70 a year, by Sir John Maynard, trustee of Elizeeus Hele, Esq., who left considerable property for charitable purposes. The schoolmaster is appointed by the corporation, who have the right of presenting two boys for gratuitous education and an unlimited number of day scholars are admitted, at the annual charge of £8. 8. The old schoolroom is used for a charity school on Dr. Bell's plan, the schoolmaster renting a house, in which he is allowed to accommodate twelve boarders. The charity school is endowed with lands, of which the proceeds amount to about £40 per annum, but is chiefly supported by voluntary contributions. Between sixty and seventy children are educated, of whom about thirty are annually clothed. Here is also a National school. Among the numerous charitable donations, some are for re-establishing decayed tradesmen in business, and others for apprenticing children. There is an old almshouse, occupied by about twenty people, supposed to be an enlargement of a foundation by Mr. Norris, who bequeathed £250 for its erection, in 1635; his donation was intended for two persons, and the corporation make a weekly allowance to two poor widows, but they do not reside in the almshouse. Here was formerly a lazar-house, the lands appertaining to which now yield an income of about £15, which is applied to the repairs of the church, &c.; there are still some remains of the building. Of Totness castle little remains, except the embattled walls of a circular keep, occupying the summit of a lofty mound at the western extremity of the town, and commanding a delightful prospect, in which the windings of the Dart are prominently conspicuous: near them is the ruin of a gateway, through which the ancient town was entered on the north. Several religious foundations are mentioned as formerly existing at or near Totness, the principal of which was endowed, in the time of the Conqueror, by Judhel de Totneis; it was of the Benedictine order, dedicated to St. Mary, and formed an appendage to an abbey at Angiers: the site is occupied by a dwelling-house, called " the Priory." Here are some remains of an ancient chapel. Leland mentions a Roman Fosse-way, commencing in this vicinity. Dr. Philip Furneaux, a learned nonconformist divine; Benjamin Kennicott, a learned biblical critic; and Edward Lye, a celebrated lexicographer, were natives of Totness.