Bideford (St. Mary)

BIDEFORD (St. Mary), a sea-port, incorporated market-town, and parish, having separate jurisdiction, and the head of a union, locally in the hundred of Shebbear, Great Torrington and N. divisions of Devon, 39 miles (N. W. by W.) from Exeter, and 201 (W. by S.) from London; containing 5211 inhabitants, of whom 4830 are in the town. This place, called also Bytheford, of which its modern appellative is a variation, derives its name from being situated near an ancient ford on the river Torridge. It was a town of some importance in the time of the Saxons: in early records it is styled a borough, and in the reigns of Edward I. and II. returned members to parliament; but the burgesses having pleaded inability to supply the usual pecuniary allowance to their representatives, this distinction was withdrawn. In 1271, Richard de Grenville, to whose ancestor Bideford had been granted in the reign of William Rufus, obtained for it a market and a fair; and, in 1573, Queen Elizabeth incorporated the inhabitants, and made the town a free borough. From that time it rapidly increased as a place of trade, and the expeditions of Sir Walter Raleigh to Virginia and of Sir Richard Grenville to Carolina, established the basis of its foreign commerce. During the civil war in the reign of Charles I., two small forts were erected on the banks of the river, and a third at Appledore, which was garrisoned for the parliament; they were taken for the king by Col. Digby, after the battle of Torrington, Sept. 2nd, 1643. Between this period and the beginning of the eighteenth century, Bideford was in its highest prosperity. The weaving of silk was introduced in 1650, and after the revocation of the edict of Nantes, in 1685, many French Protestants settled in the town, and established the manufacture of silk and cotton; a great quantity of wool was imported from Spain, and in 1699 its trade with Newfoundland was inferior only to that of London and Exeter. From 1700 to 1755, the imports of tobacco exceeded those of every port except London.

The town is situated on the river Torridge, which in spring tides rises to the height of twenty-two feet above the level of low-water mark. The greater part is built on the acclivity of the western bank of the river, and is connected with that on the eastern side by a noble stone bridge of twenty-four arches, of which some are of sufficient span to allow free passage for vessels of sixty tons' burthen. The bridge was erected in the early part of the fourteenth century, by a subscription raised in the counties of Devon and Cornwall, under the auspices of Grandison, Bishop of Exeter, who being influenced by a dream of Gornard, the parish priest, granted indulgences to all who should contribute to the work: a considerable estate in houses and lands, for keeping it in repair, is vested in trustees. The town consists of several streets, some of which are well paved and lighted; the houses are in general of respectable appearance, and the town is amply supplied with water. There are assembly and reading rooms on the quay; and from the salubrity of the air, the picturesque beauties of the surrounding scenery, and the improved facility of communication with Barnstaple and Torrington, owing to the new roads that have been made, Bideford has become a place of considerable resort.

The port, including within its jurisdiction Appledore and the harbours of Clovelly and Hartland, also a convenient station for wind-bound vessels, carries on a considerable colonial and coasting trade. The principal exports are sails, cordage, British manufactured goods, and articles of general supply, to the fisheries of Newfoundland and the British colonies in North America, oak-bark to Ireland, apples to Scotland, earthenware to Wales, and corn and flour to Bristol; the imports are timber from America and the Baltic, and limestone, coal, and culm, from Bristol and Wales. The river, in spring tides, is navigable for vessels of 300 tons' burthen, as far as the bridge, two miles and a half above which it is connected, by means of a sea-lock, with the Torrington canal. The quay, 1200 feet in length, and of proportionate breadth, has been greatly improved. Ship-building is extensively carried on: during the late war, several frigates were launched at this port, and there are eight or ten dockyards, in which smaller vessels are built. The principal articles of manufacture are cordage, sails, and common earthenware; there are also several tan-yards, and a small lace-manufactory. Culm and black mineral paint are found in the vicinity, and on the rectorial glebe; some old culm-mines have been lately re-opened, with every prospect of advantage. The market days are Tuesday and Saturday, and fairs are held on Feb. 14th, July 18th, and Nov. 13th. The inhabitants were originally incorporated by charter of the 16th of Elizabeth, confirmed and extended by another granted by James I.; the government is now vested in a mayor, four aldermen, and twelve councillors, of whom the mayor and late mayor are justices, and there are four other permanent magistrates appointed by the crown: the borough and parish are co-extensive. The recorder holds a court of quarter-sessions; petty-sessions are held monthly, and there is a court of record for the recovery of debts to any amount. The powers of the county debt-court of Bideford, established in 1847, extend over the registration-district of Bideford, and part of Barnstaple district. The town-hall, erected in 1698, is a neat and commodious building, having two prisons underneath, one for malefactors, the other for debtors; and a gaol and bridewell have been lately built on the eastern side of the river. A handsome hall called the Bridge Hall was erected in 1758, by the trustees of the Bridge estate, with a schoolroom adjoining.

The parish comprises 2758 acres, of which 287 are common or waste. The living is a rectory, valued in the king's books at £27. 7. 6., and in the patronage of Lewis William Buck, Esq.; the tithes have been commuted for £590, and the glebe consists of 48 acres. The church is a spacious cruciform structure in the early English style, containing a handsome stone screen, and some interesting monuments. There are places of worship for Baptists, Independents, and Wesleyans. The free grammar school, of remote foundation, was rebuilt in 1657, and in 1689 was endowed by Mrs. Susannah Stuckley with an estate of £200 value; a good house was purchased for the master with money arising from the sale of timber on the estate, which now lets for £56 per annum. A charity school is supported by the trustees of the Bridge estate, and by subscription; a building has likewise been erected for a national school. Almshouses in Maiden-street, for seven families, were erected in 1646, by John Strange, alderman of Bideford; and an hospital in the Old Town, for twelve families, was built pursuant to the will of Henry Amory, who died in 1663. The poor law union of Bideford comprises 18 parishes and places, and contains a population of 19,568. Sir Richard Grenville, who distinguished himself in 1591, in an action fought near the island of Flores, with a Spanish fleet; Thomas Stuckley, an eccentric character, the supposed original of Sterne's Captain Shandy; Dr. John Shebbeare, a noted political writer, born in 1709; and the Rev. Zachary Mudge, a learned divine, and master of the grammar school, were natives of Bideford. The Rev. James Hervey, author of the Meditations and other popular works, was curate of the place from 1738 till 1742.

Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of England, by Samuel Lewis, 7th edition, published in 1848.