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Barnstaple, Devon

Historical Description

Barnstaple, a town, a municipal borough, a bay, a parish, and a registration district in Devonshire. The town is a seaport, and the capital of North Devon. It stands on the right bank of the river Taw, about 6 miles from its mouth, on the G.W.R. and L. & S.W.R., 210 miles from London. There is a terminal station here of the Devon and Somerset branch of the Great Western system from Taunton. A loopline has been made from the terminal station in connection with the L. & S.W.R., which joins the latter at the Junction station. The G.W.R. has running powers over the L. & S.W.R. from the Junction station to Ilfracombe. Its site is a pleasant valley, bounded by a semicircular range of hills, to which the river forms a chord, and its environs abound in charming spots, and command brilliant views over land and sea. Two of the best views are from the road to Bideford, and from Coddon Hill, 623 feet high. The town was known to the ancient Britons as Tunge Abertawe—to the Saxons as Berdenestaple, and it is now popularly called Barum. It formed part of a domain of the Saxon kings, was for some time a residence of Athelstane, and received from him various liberties and rights. An ancient castle stood at it, built by Athelstane, and strengthened after the Conquest, but is now represented only by a mound. The town fitted out three ships, in 1588, for the fleet raised to repel the Spanish Armada, and it took part with the Parliamentarians in the time of Charles I., and underwent some sharp events in the wars which followed. Three monastic edifices were erected at it, a Cluniac monastery, an Augustinian friary, and an hospital to the Holy Trinity, but all are extinct.

The town is well aligned, and one of the most agreeable in the county. A bridge of 16 arches, supposed to have been built in the 13th century, spans the river, and was widened in 1834. Queen Anne's Walk, on the quay west of the bridge, is a colonnade upwards of 60 feet long, erected in the time of Queen Anne, and adorned with a statue of that monarch, used originally as an exchange, and reconstructed by the corporation in 1798. The Masonic Hall adjoins 100

Queen Anne's Walk. The North Walk, farther west, is a promenade by the side of the river planted with trees. thc market-place in High Street was enlarged, and a new and elegant town-hall erected, in 1855, at a cost of upwards of £8000. The corn-market is at the upper end, and a music hall is over it. The theatre, in Boutport Street, built in 1834, is small but very neat. The North Devon Infirmary, at the foot of Litchdon Street, is a fine massive edifice. A fish market was erected on the quay about 1873. There are also a custom-house, a dispensary, a workhouse, five suites of almshouses, a free grammar school, a Blue-coat school, a variety of day schools and benefactions, and a literary and scientific institution; and the North Devon Athenæum, park and sports ground, the gift of Mr Rock, a native of the town. The parish church, nearly in the centre of the town, is a spacious ancient structure, bearing many evidences of the hand of time, and has a curious timber spire, covered with lead, warped by the sun, and leaning to the south. Holy Trinity Church, at the south end of the town, has a tower 133 feet high, and was built in 1843. St Mary Magdalene Church is a plain structure erected in 1846. The Congregational chapel is a very fine building. The Wesleyan chapel was rebuilt in 1869, and is in the Decorated English style. The Roman Catholic chapel is an erection in very chaste style. There are three Baptist chapels and a chapel for Bible Christians. The Reformed Episcopal Church, erected in 1880, is a building in the Early Pointed style, and will seat 400 persons.

The town has a head post office, two railway stations, three banking offices, and publishes three weekly newspapers. A weekly market is held on Friday, and a fair on the Wednesday next preceding 20 Sept. in each year. The manufacture of woollens was formerly extensive, and is still carried on. Manufactures of bobbinet, paper, pottery, leather, and malt also exist. The chief commerce is in exports of grain, wool, oak-bark, leather, and earthenware, and in imports of coal, fruit, and foreign timber. The town is governed by a mayor, 6 aldermen, and 18 councillors, and is a seat of petty sessions. It returned two members to Parliament from the twenty-third year of King Edward I. (1294-95), until the passing of the Redistribution of Seats Act of 1885, when the borough was included in the county division. Its limits as a borough include all the parish of Barnstaple and parts of the parishes of Pilton and Bishops-Tawton. Area of the parish, 1360 acres; of the municipal borough, 1837 acres; population of the municipal borough, 13,058; of the civil parish, 11,441. Bishops Jewel and Gay were educated at the grammar school, and Dr Parsons, the author of "Japhet," was a native.

The bay expands north and south at the mouth of the Taw; has there a dangerous bar; measures 15 miles across the entrance, from Morte Point to Hartland Point; lies much exposed to westerly winds; and includes, on the south side, Clovelly roadstead, with from 4 to 8 fathoms water. The navigation up from it to Barnstaple is through a narrow channel, with never more than 12 feet of water. The parish, though not containing all the borough, extends beyond the town. Population of the ecclesiastical parish, 9967. The living is a vicarage in the diocese of Exeter; gross value, £285 with residence. Patron, the Earl of Wharncliffe. Holy Trinity is a perpetual curacy, St Mary Magdalene a vicarage; the former of the gross value of £167 with residence, in the patronage of the Bishop of Exeter; the latter of the gross value of £170, in the patronage of alternately the Crown and the Bishop of Exeter.

Newport is now a suburb, and included in the municipal borough, of Barnstaple. The Church of St John the Baptist is a structure of stone in the Gothic style. It was well restored in 1887, and there are 400 sittings. The living is a vicarage; net value, £220, in the gift of the Bishop of Exeter.

Barnstaple Parliamentary Division, or North-Western Devonshire, was formed under the Redistribution of Seats Act of 1885, and returns one member to the House of Commons. Population, 61,331. The division includes the following:-Braunton—Arlington, Ashford, Atherington, Berrynarbor, Bishopstawton (part of), Bittadon, Bratton Fleming, Braunton, Brendon, Challacombe, Combmartin, Countisbury, Down (East), Down (West), Fremington, Georgeham, Goodleigh, Heanton Punchardon, Highbray, Horwood, Ilfracombe, Instow, Kentisbury, Landkey, Linton, Loxhore, Martinhoe, Marwood, Mortehoe, Newton Tracey, Parracombe, Pilton (part of), Sherwill, Stoke Rivers, Swimbridge, Tawstoke, Trentishoe; Bideford—Abbotsham, Alwington, Buckland Brewer, Bulkworthy, Clovelly, East Putford, Hartland, Landcross, Littleham, Monkfield, Newton St Petrock, Northam, Parkham, Welcombe, Westleigh, Woolfardisworthy; Barnstaple, municipal borough; Bideford, municipal borough.

Transcribed from The Comprehensive Gazetteer of England & Wales, 1894-5


The following is a list of the administrative units in which this place was either wholly or partly included.

Ancient CountyDevon 
Ecclesiastical parishBarnstaple St. Peter and St. Paul 
Poor Law unionBarnstaple 

Any dates in this table should be used as a guide only.

Church Records

Findmypast, in association with the South West Heritage Trust, Parochial Church Council, and Devon Family History Society have the Baptisms, Banns, Marriages, and Burials online for Barnstaple

Directories & Gazetteers

We have transcribed the entry for Barnstaple from the following:


Online maps of Barnstaple are available from a number of sites:

Newspapers and Periodicals

The British Newspaper Archive have fully searchable digitised copies of the following newspapers covering Devon online:

Visitations Heraldic

The Visitation of the County of Devon in the year 1564, with additions from the earlier visitation of 1531, is online.

The Visitations of the County of Devon, comprising the Heralds' Visitations of 1531, 1564, & 1620, with additions by Lieutant-Colonel J.L. Vivian, published for the author by Henry S. Eland, Exeter 1895 is online.

DistrictNorth Devon
RegionSouth West
Postal districtEX31
Post TownBarnstaple