Widecombe History Group Talk on Widecombe in the 17th Century


LIFE IN THE WIDECOMBE AREA IN AND AROUND THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BY FREDA WILKINSON

Freda made the following comments before she read from a paper that she wrote in 1969. She mentioned the Civil War years from 1642 to 1646. She said that Charles I became King in 1625 and he favoured a very ‘High’Church, his Protestant subjects feared that there was a Royal plot to restore the Catholic faith in England, and they feared that this could have led to the destruction to their liberties. Hence the creation of a ‘No Popery’ movement. 1642 saw support for Parliament and against the King, was quite dominant in Devon, but in 1643 the Royalists won a big battle in Cornwall and marched into Devon, north of the Moor, and the struggle continued. A battle was fought on Sourton Down, near Okehampton, in April 1643.

From Widecombe Parish Register of 1639, five marriages are recorded, Andrew Hannaford to Elizabeth Man, Richard Norrish to Jane Hamlyn, Ellis Smerdon to Mary Hamlyn, John Townsend to Marian Peach and William Hamlyn to Elizabeth Wallace and in 1645 Obadiah Beard married Ann Hamlyn.

Freda then began her very interesting and informative paper and it is with her kind permission that much of her paper is reproduced here. What an amazing amount of information Freda has collected together.

We in the 20th century can read documents passed down from people like Tommy Hamlyn, who built Lake Farm 300 years ago, and the family names mentioned are still here, so if he came back he would feel that he was still amongst friends.

The "Protestation against Popery" return of 1641, which all the male inhabitants over 18 were expected to sign list surnames that are still in the parish, two Beards (Henery & Obadiah), a large number of Frenchs, Hamlyns, Hannafords and Hexts, Nosworthys, Smerdons and Norrishs, and several Manns.

The great thunderstorm at Widecombe of 1638 was referred to by two accounts written by eyewitnesses at the time. A summery follows of what is written in Dymond’s "Things Old and New Concerning Widecombe-in-the-Moor", (1876).

" There was believed to be a congregation of 300 in the church on Sunday 21st October 1638. A strange darkness fell and increased till none there could read in any book. Then mighty thunder, like the report of many cannons. Then terrible strange lightening, and the darkness increased till people couldn’t see each other. Extraordinary lightening came into the church so flaming that the whole church was filled with fire and loathsome - smelling smoke, like brimstone. A great ball of fire came in at a window. The roof, in the lower part against the tower, rent and gaped wide open. Blast struck the north side of the tower, tore through the wall into the stairs, rebounded to the side of the stair wall against the Church, taking the greater part of the higher window with it, struck the north inside wall of the Church like a cannon ball, then up the aisle to the pulpit, scraping lime and sand off the wall, tore off the side of the desk and left the pulpit "as black and moist as if it had been newly wiped with ink". In its rebound it killed one man and mortally burnt another, then it broke the windows and carried them away and in another place went out through the wall into the chancel leaving a hole almost as high as a man, and killed another man and tore out the chancel door and the door durn".

The use of the dialect word ‘DURN’ for what is now known as the door-jamb was interesting.

Most of the congregation fell into their seats or onto their knees or upon each other, with a great cry of burning or scalding. Parson George Lyde, in the pulpit was unhurt, but his wife had her ruff and the linen next her body, and her body, burnt in a very pitiful manner.

Master Roger Hill (gentleman) sitting near the chancel, had his head smitten against the wall with such violence that he died that night, his son, on the same seat, was unhurt.

Robert Mead, warrener to Sir Richard Reynolds, (he probably lived at Warren House Pit, near the Dart, on Spitchwick Common), had his head cloven into three pieces, his brain thrown whole to the ground and the hair stuck to the pillar which was indented as though with cannon shot. Was it Robert Mead that the Devil was after as he was playing cards behind the pulpit?

Comments of the Great Storm of 1638 brought to mind how until about 50 years ago or so one of the monoliths (pillars) of Widecombe Church had a distinctive pink stain in/on it. As children we were always told that it was the stain of the blood from the brains of those killed at that time. Can it still be seen?

Some had their bodies burnt and not their clothes, some their stockings and legs burnt and scalded, and their outward buskins not one thread singed. A dog, running out of the chancel door, was whirled about and fell down stark dead.

The Lord of the Manor, sent his man David Barry to see what damage had been done, but by then it was dark. Next day Master Hill and Robert Mead were buried. Barry resolving to examine the damage in the tower, got the key from the Sexton, but the door being broken, tried to lift it off its hinges with an iron bar, finally he forced it open and upon reaching the bell room tolled all the bells to test them.

Amongst the bells which David Barry tolled, hangs one inscribed "Robert Hamlyn sonne of John Hamlyn Chittleford 1632 gathered of the young men and mayds fyftene pounds". Widecombe folk have always been proud of their peel of bells.

Poor Reverend Lyde, to whom his flock paid scant heed after the thunder bolt, was many times presented and fined by the Manor Court of Widecombe Town during his 38 years in incumbency here. i.e. in 1659 : "also they present that George Lyde, vicar of Widecombe hath suffered (ffower) gates to fall into disarray for want of repairing, between the Lordes Lands and the Glebe Lands of the said George. And also the walls of the Close of the said Glebe adjoining the Parsonage House, by reason of which default the pigges of the said George (continually) brake out into the said Lordes Land...... whereupon the said George Lyde commeth ..... for the emendment thereof and thereupon a way is given him to emend ...... payment of five shillings.

Later Vicars also suffered for contravening the customs of the Manor:- 1710 - for cutting "ffags" on the common - (without having common right): 1723 - for permitting the "Sentry" (santuary) gate to fall into disrepair: and in 1728, John Nosworthy is fined for taking a moorstone post from the common "and hath put it in the Sentry hedge belonging to ye Vickaridge and is to put it back, penalty of 10/-".

These Manor Courts, were where the commoners elected their Reeve, Poundkeeper, Foreman of the Jurors, etc. and held regular Court meetings that organised Beating the Bounds, Drifts or round-ups of stock on the Moor and maintain the Manor customs. Only one still exists and meets regularly, at Spitchwich Manor,

From 1659 to 1683 the Court Rolls of Widecombe Town Manor were signed and written by Richard Hill, Gent, the Steward. He was also the School Master at Widecombe at the time of the Great Thunderstorm and wrote an account in verse of that tragedy which can still be seen on four wooden tablets in the Church. He was the son of the Mr. Roger Hill, previously mentioned, who died in that thunderstorm.

Much information can be gained about Widecombe and its people that lived here during the 17th century, by examining copies of their Wills and inventories. The late Miss Mary Hamlyn of Dunstone, had allowed Freda to examine some Wills relating to the Hamlyn family, i.e. 1636 the inventorie of the Goods and Chattals of Christopher Hamlyn, Yeoman, mentions-

  • Imprimis his waring apparell £3
  • Item two kyne £5
  • Item six shepe and two lambs 24s
  • Item three brasse pans and a Chaffer 26s. 8d
  • Item a brasse pott 15s.
  • Item fyve pewter vessell and two candlesticks 6s
  • Item a barr of Iron and other iron work 10s
  • Item a bedstede with a bedd performed 50s
  • Item a roundtable and 3 chests 6s 8d
  • Item one other bedstede 4s
  • Item a cubbord and tablebord 6s. 8d
  • Item keyve and a halfe hodshed 10s
  • Item one muskett 10s
  • Item for things forgotten 10s

Sum total £16.19s.

(The "bedd performed" includes the mattress and bedclothes, "keyve" is a word still used for a wooden container or barrel).

Several other Wills were mentioned, i.e. In one there were 4 melche kine (milking cows) and one younge bullocke, value £12; 1 coulte (colt) £4. In 1639 Thomas Hamlyn left 20s to the Poor of the Parish and all his plowstuffe (implements) to his son and To the Church of Widecombe "One daies drawing of stones, which I have drawn and two hogsheads of lyme which I have also carried", this appears to have been his contribution to repairing the Church Tower damaged in the previous year.

In the Will of John Townsend 1657, he was named as a Clothier, the most important items in his Will were 2 Lombes (looms) which he donated to his eldest son and his cousin. Here was a Clothier or Weaver with two or more looms which he may have let out to cottagers, supplying them with the wool, paying them for weaving it and himself selling it in Ashburton or Newton Abbot. The woollen industry was very important locally.

Further details can be obtained from Freda concerning several other Wills including one dated 1656 of Joane Noseworthy which shows how carefully property had to be tied up in the days before the ‘Married Womans Property Act’ if the intended beneficiary was a woman. Unfortunately many Wills and Records of the County of Devon were destroyed in the blitz of W.W.II, thankfully some had been kept by families like the examples held by Miss Hamlyn.

At first sight these Wills seem to indicate very few personal possessions. James Hamlyn’s Will mentions money and land, he must also have possessed clothes but this was not mentioned. Most people of this period would have had enough land and common rights to be able to be self sufficient. There was also of course the benefit of the tin and woollen industries. A couple of records of people dying as a result of the tin industry are "Gabriel Aptor who was spoyled (mortally injured) in a tynne worke 1617, and in 1618 George Smerdon was killed in a tin work."

Every stream was made use of for washing tin ore, for power for working the stamps of the "knacking" or crushing mills, for working the bellows of the blowing houses where the tin was smelted, as well as for the tucking mills for the woollen trade, irrigation for the meadows and of course grinding corn. Oak coppices were cropped for tan bark and charcoal, people were employed cutting turf (peat), Stone Masons, Thatchers and Carpenters were hard at work using the local moor stone, wheaten reed and oak to create substantial and beautiful farmsteads, some handed down to us from the 17th century, like Lake, Bonehill, Torr, etc. Anyone with a few pack ponies would have had constant employment carrying tin, wool, coal, turf and even limestone. Several local farms have fields known as "kiln close", suggesting that limestone was carried up from Ashburton and Buckfastleigh and burnt after reaching the farm - quicklime would have burnt the horses backs on such a long journey. There were no roads suitable for wheels in those days.

In mid 20th Century burnt limestone was brought out here and put in small heaps around the field and covered with earth and it would heat up before being spread on the ground. Drop a lump of burnt limestone into a bucket of water and it would ‘boil’. The odd lump of white limestone can still be found in the fields today.

Limestone was burnt in kilns by putting a layer of fuel, then a layer of limestone and repeated to the top of the kiln. Coke was used down-country, but what was used on Dartmoor? Possibly it was wood and peat or ‘vags’ and beat!

An interesting point on hay-making, "Lady Day is the common time of haineing, i.e. let it rest without stuffs" (stock). We still use the word ‘haineing’ for laying up grass fields for hay, probably it derides from ‘haie’ meaning fence, the old common fields and meadows were ‘hayned’ up with temporary brush fences and hurdles.

It is likely that leeks and cabbages, carrots, peas and beans were grown in most cottage gardens, also marigolds, pansies, wallflowers, lavender and many other herbs for the pot and medicinal uses, such as sage and rosemary. Amongst the flowers would have stood the bee-butts which few good housewives would have been without. There was a professional herbalist in Widecombe at this time, judging from a Deed dated 1684.

Fitzherbert in his "Boke of Husbandry" 1523 describes the work a country housewife should do:

"First sweep thy house, dress up thy dishboard, and set all things in good order within they house: milk thy kine, suckle thy calves, sye up (strain) thy milk, take up thy children and array them, and provide for thy husband’s breakfast, dinner, supper, and for thy children and servants, and take thy part with them. Ordain corn and malt to the mill, to bake and brew withall when need is, and meete it to the mill (measure out what you send to the mill), and from the mill, and see that thou have thy measure again beside the tolle (the proportion the Miller kept as payment). Thou must make butter and cheese when thou mayest, serve thy swine both morning and evening, and give thy poleyn meat (feed your fowls) and when time of the year cometh, thou must take heed how thy hens, ducks and geese do lay, and to gather up their eggs, and when they wax broody, to settle them where no beasts, swine, nor vermin, hurt them. And thou must know that all whole footed fowls will (ducks) sit a month and all cloven-footed fowls will sit but three weeks. And when they have brought forth their birds, to see that they be well kept from the gleyd (kite), crows, fullymartes (polecats) and other vermin. And in the beginning of March, or a little time before, is time for a wife to make her garden, and to get as many good seeds and herbs as she can, and specially such as be good for the pot, and to eat, and as often as need shall require, it must be weeded."

In addition to this she was expected to spin and weave, make clothes and blankets, winnow the corn and help make hay, shear the corn and if her husband needed her help to fill the muck waine or dung cart and also ride to market to sell butter, cheese, milk, eggs, capons, hens, pigs and geese. She was, however, advised "sometimes thou shalt have so many things to do, that thou shalt not know well where is best to begin - so do that first that she will lose most by not doing".

Much laughter was created from this list of the duties of the farmers wife.

The farmer or husbandman of that time -

"He rises at four in the morning, feeds his cattle and mucks them out, he gets the tackle for the day ready and then has breakfast. From 7 a.m. till 2 or 3 o’clock in the afternoon he does his "journey" or days work with his oxen in the field. After stabling, feeding and grooming them, he has his dinner and then prepares their food for the next day (this would probably mean, threshing some sheaves to provide straw for the oxen and corn for the house, or possibly bruising a few oats or some furze). Then supper at six followed an evening by the fireside with the rest of the family, mending shoes or preparing rushes for rush lights or some other duty. He may pound his apples for cider or grind malt for beer. At 8 o’clock he takes his lantern to see the cattle once more, and then goes with all his household to rest".

Quiet spells of lonely toil were enlivened by neighbourly gatherings at sheep shearing, hay saving, harvest, and the gathering of livestock from the commons. There was a holiday atmosphere at such times and work goes lightly and happily with sky-larking amongst the young men and maidens. There was also wrestling, races, both on foot and ponyback, cock fighting, hunting, bowling and keels - a form of nine-pins, with the pins set square instead of diagonally. Music was a serious communal concern, bell-ringing, the choir, and the village orchestra led hymns and songs. Folk tales of the district were recounted by the fireside and handed down from generation to generation.

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