North Devon in 1823

In the second of the series connected with our North Devon Journal Archive our Chairman delves into the goings on in 1823. Barum Athena

Last time I wrote about how the Sherborne Mercury reported news from North Devon in 1822. This week I will go on to 1823 – the year before the first appearance of the Journal. At this date communications were poor and only odd pieces of information travelled from North Devon to Sherborne – but what did get printed is fascinating.

In 1822 Barnstaple was said to be developing fast, the following year Bideford and Torrington seemed set to catch up when in March it was reported that a meeting had been held in Bideford to decide on the route for a new road to Torrington. A course along the Western side of the River Torridge was decided and built – so that the road we travel along today owes its genesis to a meeting some 180 years ago. The road which had been completed by 1827 presumably improved the economy of both towns – but not enough to prevent 28 ‘mechanics’ and labourers leaving Bideford in the Lavinia to emigrate to Prince Edward Isle in Canada.

Bideford [BDPF-0003a]
Bideford [BDPF-0003a]
In Barnstaple the only development noted this year was that ‘A society is about to be established at the improving town of Barnstaple for the discussion of philosophical and literary subjects’. This, the forerunner of today’s North Devon Athenaeum, was to be a real force for change over two centuries – both in cultural and social terms.

That it needed to be altered perhaps is shown by the extensive coverage given to the Exeter Female Penitentiary. This had been established several years before to provide a home for prostitutes who wished to quit their way of life. A partner society wasn’t founded in North Devon until several decades later but it seems clear that some local girls were sent to the Exeter home where they were trained to be domestic servants. It should be noted that the local branch survived until at least the 1930s.

A happier note was sounded in February by the Mayor of South Molton who was reported to have bought a large amount of coal which he was reselling at low prices to the town’s poor. Evidently the Winter of 1823 was extremely cold and the Mayor had decided on this act of practical and no doubt well-received charity. By July of that year the Mercury could note that the local herring fishery ‘has become so productive that forty were sold for a shilling in Barnstaple market, for several days last week successively.’

As with 1822, however, not everyone was so public minded and the Mercury carried the usual reports of crime. Henry Williams, a Barnstaple shoemaker, was caught in South Molton tying to avoid arrest after stabbing his shopmate Edward Herapath. No outcome of this is noted though Edward appears to have survived.

In June a gang of female shoplifters was caught after joint action by the magistrates of Bideford, Barnstaple, Torrington and South Molton. The gang members had distracted the attention of shopkeepers and then secreted goods under long cloaks ‘which they invariably wore on these shoplifting excursions.’

Great Torrington Church [DVPF-023]
Great Torrington Church [DVPF-023]
Four months later two of the gang Jane Blackmore and Elizabeth Tout of St.Giles near Torrington were tried. Jane had been caught stealing muslin from John Hundall and R.Willis in Barnstaple and Elizabeth had stolen cotton from Mr.Brassington again of Barnstaple. For these thefts Elizabeth was gaoled for 6 months and Jane was transported to Australia for 7 years – harsh punishments in a harsh age. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, to read that a newly established post coach service that was calling at Barnstaple and Bideford was to carry an armed guard!

These small news items are just small scarps from our history but what an intriguing light they throw on the lives and times of our ancestors some 7 or 8 generations ago.

Peter Christie

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