By Elizabeth Hammett
Some prehistoric flints have been unearthed in the area, but Barnstaple's earliest recorded history starts in the reign of King Aethelstan (grandson of the more famous Alfred the Great). Barnstaple was sufficiently established at this time to be granted the right to mint coins and was an established burh. King Aethelstan died in 939, so the town was well established by the time William came from Normandy to conquer the country in 1066.
The Domesday Book tells us that there were 40 burgesses within the borough of Barnstaple and 9 outside the borough. It also states that 23 houses had been destroyed since the Conquest. It is possible that these houses were demolished to make way for the castle, the motte or mound of which is still a prominent part of the town.
In 1100 Judhel became the first Norman lord of Barnstaple to live here. He may have been responsible for replacing an earlier wooded structure with a stone-built castle, and it is probable that the walls and gates around the town were also strengthened or rebuilt at this time. There were four gates - the West or Water Gate at the river end of Cross Street, the East Gate at the Boutport Street end of Joy Street and the North and South Gates at each end of the High Street.
In the following centuries Barnstaple grew and its market and annual fair became established. A document of 1154 mentions the fair as an annual event and a document of 1274 tells of a market every Friday. The bridge is also first mentioned around this time. It has been called the ‘Long Bridge' since at least 1303.
In 1295 Walter de Barnstaple and Durand le Cordwainer became the first of Barnstaple's Members of Parliament. Until the parliamentary reforms of the 19th century Barnstaple continued to send two Members to Parliament. Simon de la Barre was the first recorded Mayor in 1301, but there were Mayors before him whose names we do not know. These were very busy years in the town, as in 1318 the Parish Church was re-consecrated, presumably following a substantial re-building, and another surviving structure, St Anne's Chapel, was also built around this time, although the porch was added about 1550. The wool trade and manufacture of woollen cloth were very important to Barnstaple's prosperity in this period.
By 1500 the Castle at Barnstaple was in ruins. Times were changing, the Wars of the Roses had ended with Henry VII established on the throne and the merchants and trade were growing in importance. In 1532 the town acquired its second Guildhall which would remain (in the High Street approximately where the gates at the entrance to the Parish Churchyard are now) until the present Guildhall replaced it in 1826.
In 1551 a quay was constructed to be followed in 1600 by the New Quay, dividing the old quay into the Great Quay and the Little Quay. By then two of the most successful of Barnstaple's Elizabethan merchants, Richard Dodderidge and John Delbridge were well-established. Much of their wealth came from privateering voyages and in December 1590 the Prudence, owned by Barnstaple merchants, returned to port with probably the greatest prize seen in the town including four chests of gold valued at £16,000. This was an enormous amount then and made some local businessmen the equivalent of todays millionaires.
The quay area then was very busy, not only with trading ships, but also ships carrying soldiers to Ireland and later emigrants to the new colonies in Virginia and Bermuda. In 1620 the Swan, a Barnstaple ship, carried 70 emigrants across the Atlantic. John Penrose was Mayor in that year and on his death in 1624 he left money for the building of Penrose Almshouses in Litchdon Street. By this time the making of pottery was an important local industry. Silver items were also made in the town and examples of Barnstaple spoons can be seen in the Guildhall.
This era of prosperity was to be abruptly interrupted when in 1642 the differences between King and Parliament resulted in Civil War. In common with most towns, Barnstaple's leading men were in favour of Parliament but the town was too important to be left alone and in September 1643 the Royalists took Barnstaple. In June 1644, when many of the Royalists garrison were withdrawn from the town, the remainder were overpowered and Barnstaple became Parliamentarian again. A few months later, in September 1644 the town again surrendered to the Royalists. Sir Allen Apsley became the governor of the town and he and the Royalist garrison became hated by the town's inhabitants for their behaviour. However, in the summer of 1645 the future Charles II (then the Prince of Wales) stayed at Barnstaple for a few weeks to escape the plague at Bristol. He stayed at the house of a wealthy widow, Grace Beaple and reports written by those with him show the town in a good light with no shortage of food. By then the war was going against the King and the Royalist defeat at the battle of Torrington in February 1646 made Parliament's victory certain. Sir Allen Apsley surrendered Barnstaple in April 1646. But there was plague in the town that year which must have dampened any joy felt by the inhabitants at getting rid of the Royalist garrison. In 1660, two years after the death of Oliver Cromwell, Charles II was invited back from exile abroad to become King, and Britain was a monarchy again.
John Gay, author of the Beggar's Opera and probably the most famous Barumite, was born in the town in June 1685. These were troubled times following the death in 1683 of Charles II and the accession of his Catholic brother, James II. In July 1685 the Duke of Monmouth was defeated at the battle of Sedgemoor and later that year James II fled the country and William and Mary became joint monarchs.
In December 1685 Barnstaple welcomed the refugee French Huguenots fleeing persecution in France. They worshipped in St Anne's Chapel which since the mid-sixteenth century had housed the town's Grammar School and would continue to do so until the early twentieth century. John Gay was educated here before joining the literary set in London and eventually making his fortune with The Beggar's Opera and its sequel. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.
The eighteenth century was a less troubled time. Queen Anne reigned from 1702 to 1714 and this is the Queen whose statue was given to the town by Robert Rolle and still stands on top of what subsequently became known as Queen Anne's Walk.
During the eighteenth century Barnstaple continued to grow and for the first time the Square was reclaimed from the existing marshland. In 1739 portraits were painted of members of Barnstaple Corporation and these still hang in the Guildhall. Also in the Guildhall can be seen the silver punchbowl presented to the corporation by the notorious Thomas Benson, MP for the town in 1747. In 1753 he fled the country after one of his schemes, an insurance fraud, was discovered.
In the second half of the century two coaching inns were established - the Golden Lion and the Fortescue, both conveniently situated for Litchdon Street, the main road to London until Taw Vale was constructed in the 1840s. In 1791 the town's first bank (the Barnstaple Bank) was established.
The early nineteenth century saw many improvements in the town and much new building. The first lace factory opened in 1822, the start of an industry which would be important to the town for the rest of the century. The first edition of the North Devon Journal Herald appeared on July 2nd 1842 and the following year the foundation stone of the North Devon Infirmary was laid. This would be the main hospital for North Devon until the present hospital was completed in 1978. In 1835 the Borough of Barnstaple was extended to include the previously separate boroughs of Newport and Pilton.
In 1837 Queen Victoria came to the throne and Barnstaple continued to grow throughout her long reign. In the following decade the North Gate was demolished and the Bluecoat school, which had been housed in rooms over the gate, was re-housed in a new building. Holy Trinity Church was built, Bridge Buildings were constructed, and Taw Vale Parade replaced Litchdon Street as the main road out of town. Victoria Road came into existence in 1853 and was used for the Cattle Fair until about 1890. In 1854 the railway came to town and the following year the Pannier Market and Butcher's Row were built.
Prince Albert died in 1861 and the following year the Albert Clock on the Square was erected in his memory. In August 1879 Rock Park, given to the town by its greatest benefactor, William Frederick Rock, was dedicated to the public. By this time both Brannam's Pottery and Shapland and Petter's cabinet works were well-established with outlets in London selling their products. In 1898 the Town Station was opened, replacing the earlier Quay Station, to serve Ilfracombe and Lynton. The building can still be seen, although trains to Lynton stopped running in 1935 and to Ilfracombe in 1970.
The town continued to grow throughout the following century, celebrating its Millennium in 1930. The old bus station (now the Riverfront Café) was built in 1922 and was in use until the bus station moved to its present site a few years ago. The Queen visited Barnstaple in 1956. The Long Bridge was widened in 1963 and the foundation stone of the Civic Centre laid in 1967. In 1977 the curved railway bridge from the Junction Station to the Town Station was demolished. In 1988 the new library and record office was opened on the site of the old Dornat's factory (which had previously been the site of the workhouse).
Exciting developments are planned for the future of Barnstaple, the first of which - the new downstream bridge, opened in Spring 2007.
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