History of Barnstaple
Barnstaple - A Short History of an Old Town.
By Elizabeth Hammett
Barnstaple’s early history is unknown, although a few prehistoric flints have been unearthed in the area. However by the reign of King Athelstan, Barnstaple was sufficiently well established to become one of four “Burhs”, and as such was granted the right to mint coins. The earliest coin discovered so far dates back to King Eadwig’s reign (955-959). At this time Barnstaple had already become an important centre of commerce and it is said that King Athelstan granted the town a charter, which gave the town folk the right to hold markets and a fair.
The arrival of the Normans in 1066 found a well-established and flourishing town. 1086 saw it included in William the Conquerer’s famous Domesday Book which states that there were 40 Burgesses within the Borough of Barnstaple and 9 outside, paying 40 shillings by weight to the King, and 20 Shillings by tale to the Bishop of Coutance.
It was not until the reign of Henry I that Barnstaple had its first Lord of the Manor, Judhael of Totnes. Prior to this the Borough had remained the property of the King such was its prosperity. It was Judhael who founded the Priory outside the town wall.
Medieval Barnstaple had become an important trading centre dealing in wool and woollen material, so much so that 2 burgesses were sent to represent the town in Parliament.
The Great Quay. Image from Explore North Devon.
The late 16th and early 17th centuries were periods of vast change. The Great Quay and Little Quay were built to accommodate the great increase in trade. Tobacco, wine and spices were imported and wool and pottery, along with a variety of other goods were exported. Barnstaple pottery has been found in archaeological excavations as far away as Maryland, USA. This era of prosperity was abruptly interrupted in 1642 by the Civil War during which the town changed hands four times. Evidence of the skirmishes can still be seen at the Penrose Almshouses in Litchdon Street where bullet holes are clearly visible in the door to the far left of the entrance gate.
John Gay. Image from Explore North Devon.
John Gay, author of the Beggar's Opera and probably the most famous Barumite, was born in the town in June 1685. In December that year 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 following centuries witnessed further changes in the town; Queen Anne’s Walk was created in 1708, land was drained for a new square in 1710 and in 1825 steam was used for the first time to power lace bobbins at the Derby Mill factory. In addition, a new Guildhall was built in 1826 and the railway arrived in the town in 1854.
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.
Barnstaple Town Station. Image from Explore North Devon.
The town continued to grow throughout the following century, celebrating its Millennium in 1930. The old bus station on the Strand (now a restaurant) was built in 1922 and was in use until the bus station moved to its present site in Queen Street 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).
The 21st century has already seen the opening of the new Taw Bridge in May 2007 which, together with the western bypass, is helping to relieve the traffic congestion in the town for which Barnstaple used to be notorious. Exciting plans are underway for the regeneration of parts of Barnstaple, which promise to enhance the local economy and enable Barnstaple to retain its place as the premier town of North Devon.
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