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Torrington, Great (St. Michael)

TORRINGTON, GREAT (St. Michael), an incorporated market-town and parish, and the head of a union, in the hundred of Fremington. Great Torrington and N. divisions of Devon, 34 miles (N. W.) from Exeter, and 202 (W. by S.) from London; containing 3419 inhabitants. The name of this place is derived from its situation on the river Torridge; and its antiquity as a market-town is evident from various old records, in which it occurs under the appellation of Cheping-Toriton. At a very early period it gave the title of Baron to its lords, who had the power of life and death throughout the lordship. In 1340, Richard de Merton, in whose possession it then was, erected a castle here, of which the chapel was remaining about the close of the last century. In 1484, Bishop Courtenay was tried at the sessions here, on a charge of treason against Richard III.; and in 1590, the countysessions were held at this place, on the appearance at Exeter of the plague, which malady afterwards extended to Torrington. During the civil war, Colonel Digby, who had fortified himself here, was attacked in 1643, by a party of the parliamentary forces (strengthened by the garrisons of Barnstaple and Bideford), whom he defeated and put to flight. In 1646, the royalists, under Lords Hopton and Capel, and Sir John Digby, having taken possession of and fortified the town, were besieged by some troops under Sir Thomas Fairfax, who, after a severe contest, drove them from their post, and obtained a victory which put an end to the power of the royalists in this part of the country, and which was celebrated by a thanksgiving sermon preached in the market-place by the noted Hugh Peters. Fairfax, however, was frustrated in his intention of prolonging his stay here, by the accidental explosion of eighty barrels of gunpowder deposited in the church, by which the south-west angle of that building was destroyed, and 200 prisoners who were confined in it, together with the soldiers on guard, perished. In 1724, the place suffered from an accidental fire, by which about eighty houses were destroyed, and the records of the corporation burnt.

The town occupies a singularly bold and picturesque situation on the summit and declivity of a lofty cliff, washed at its base by the river Torridge, over which is a bridge connecting this parish with that of Little Torrington. It is lighted with gas, and consists of several good houses surrounding the market-place, and of two streets respectively on the ridge and the declivity of the cliff, with gardens sloping towards the river; the banks of the stream are crowned with finely-varied scenery, and in its winding course, a little above the town, it passes beneath some of the richest hanging woods in the kingdom. The woollen-trade, which was formerly considerable, is now confined to the manufacture of a few serges, blankets, and some coarse woollencloths. The principal business at present is the making of kid, chamois, beaver, and other gloves, for the London and foreign markets. The beaver gloves are the same as those called Woodstock, and the preparation of the leather affords employment to a large number of men; great quantities of gloves are also sewn by commission, and in the trade altogether 3000 girls in the town and neighbourhood are engaged. There are two tan-yards, and on the river is a corn-mill. A canal constructed by the late Lord Rolle, at a cost of more than £40,000, extends from the town to the sea-lock near Bideford, and runs in a direction nearly parallel with the river, which at that place becomes navigable for sloops. The market, held by prescription, is on Saturday; and on the third Saturday in March is one of the largest cattle-markets in the west of England: there is a smaller cattle-market in November, and fairs are held on May 4th, July 5th, and October 10th. An act was passed in 1842, for the erection of a market-house, and for regulating the market.

Charters of incorporation were granted to the inhabitants by Philip and Mary in 1554, by James I. in 1617, and by James II. in 1686. The corporation now consists of a mayor, four aldermen, and twelve councillors, under the act 5th and 6th of William IV., cap. 76; the mayor and late mayor are justices of the peace, and hold a court of petty-sessions every three weeks. The county magistrates have prettysessions for the division every Saturday. The powers of the county debt-court of Torrington, established in 1847, extend over the registration-district of Torrington. The place sent representatives to thirteen parliaments in the reigns of Edward I. and succeeding sovereigns, but the inhabitants were released on their own petition. They enjoy the right of pasturage on a large common, granted to the occupiers of ancient messuages by William Fitz-Robert, lord of the manor of Great Torrington: of this tract, fifty acres were inclosed a few years since for cultivation by the poor. The town-hall is a neat modern edifice of brick ornamented with stone, supported on arches affording a covered area underneath. There is a small prison.

The living is a perpetual curacy, valued in the king's books at £20; net income, £162; patrons and appropriators, the Dean and Canons of Christ-Church, Oxford. The church, owing to its partial destruction by gunpowder in 1646, was rebuilt in 1651; and the present structure, which in the interior is of the Tuscan order, includes such portions of the original edifice as escaped destruction. In 1831, a south transept was erected at an expense of £130 on the site of the old steeple, and a western tower surmounted by a spire was built at a cost of £1600, of which £700 were defrayed by the feoffees of the town lands, and the remainder by a rate. There are places of worship for Baptists, Independents, and Wesleyans. The Blue school, in Wellstreet, was established in 1709, by Denys Rolle, Esq., who endowed it with a messuage and with £200 in money, which sum was increased by the Rolle family to £950. An almshouse for eight persons, since increased to twelve, was founded and endowed in 1604 by John Huddle. The poor-law union comprises 23 parishes, and contains a population of 18,188. On the restoration of Charles II., General Monk, among other honours, was made Earl of Torrington: at present the place gives the title of Viscount to the family of Byng.

Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of England, by Samuel Lewis, seventh edition, published 1858.