Widecombe History Group Talk on Old Ashburton


"Old Ashburton - by Wendy Major"

Wendy Major of Ashburton gave a most interesting illustrated talk on Old Ashburton. Wendy who has always lived at Ashburton has collected a fascinating collection of about 1000 photographs of Ashburton and the surrounding area. She has turned them into slides and she showed us over 100 of them.

The first showed the old market hall which was demolished in1848, and was from a painting given to Ashburton by the late John Sawdye. The painting with two others is now hanging in St Lawrence Chapel.and is the view looking up North Street. Another was shown at the end of the presentation, looking at the rear of the building from North Street. Underneath was the Pannier Market and upstairs was the meeting room. 1852 saw the building of the present Town Hall. Ashburton is steeped in history. The surrounding area having been occupied by early man, Bronze Age, Neolithic and even earlier. Evidence of this was shown by a fine collection of flint arrowheads, scrapers, knives, axes, sling shot and spindle whorls. These were collected by Stanley Gill and the late Mrs William Whitley of Welstor, her husband had the ten commandments carved on Buckland Beacon by Mr Dan Toaner. It is impossible to describe every photograph but I will mention some of the family names of the people shown, their shops, houses and occupations, businesses and industries.

Ashburton was one of the four ‘Stannary Towns’ set up c1285 around Dartmoor where tin and copper were ‘assayed’. This checked the quality and quantity of the metal produced by the miners and tin streamers of the area. Mining is always a very interesting subject and around Ashburton there were several such mines. Owlacombe, Druid, Queen of the Dart, Whiddon are such places and when an old photograph is found, it causes much interest. Such were pictures of Owlacombe Mine, buildings, miners, equipment, trolleys, sheds and the interior of those sheds, showing so much detail from just over 100 years ago. One can not help but wonder how much interesting material has been destroyed, photographs and documents in particular, that could throw so much more light on this fascinating subject. When there is a death in the family it is so easy to have one big ‘bonfire’ and dispose of ‘all this rubbish that Mother or Father have collected’ when a word with a local historian or group, could safeguard this irreplaceable evidence and material for future generations to read, admire, and learn from. In Ashburton there were 14 coalyards, including the one for the gasometer where the coal was burnt to produce the gas and the byproduct ‘coke’ was then distributed around the town. Umber was dug up in the area and then burnt to produce colouring for paint and brown paper and exported around the world. Ashburton Marble was quarried, top quality and used for buildings, fireplaces, memorials and ornamentation. Four quarries once worked, now opperated as one, by Glendinnings, who quarries for stone, hardcore for roads, producing concrete and concrete blocks, slabs and ornamental stone. Early haulage contractors, Lewis Rugg was mentioned, and the coal merchants had their delivery horses and wagons and then later lorries. A photograph was shown c1910 of a family of roadmenders who cracked stone and filled in all the wheel ruts and pot holes in the roads and lanes around the town.

Looking at more of Ashburton’s early history we find that in 810 A.D. the first Portreeve was appointed in Ashburton, the beginning of local government. He ran the town with the aid of the two Courts, ‘The Court Leat’ which was the landowners and ‘The Court Barron’ made up of shopkeepers and trades people, and to this day these offices continue. The annual ‘Ale Tasting and Bread Weighing’ ceremonies still take place, to prove that the ale on sale in town is good and the loaves are of the correct wieght. Ashburton, like all towns years ago, was a self sufficient community. The old song - the butcher, baker and candlestick maker - applied here, like so many other places. There were butchers who would kill and supply all the local needs, bakers who got their flour from the local miller, chemists who would also ‘pull teeth’, wool merchants, spinners and weavers, brush makers, drapers, hostelries, inns, ironmongers, saddler, tannery where the skins were washed in the river then cured and hung in the upstairs rooms that had wooden slatted walls that could be opened by a winding system to let the air in to dry the skins, all the everyday needs of the community were catered for and no doubt if there was a need someone would come up with the product required, even a horsedrawn fire engine, gas street lighting, some houses had gas lighting but most used lamp oil, one photograph showed a horsedrawn lamp oil delivery cart. The ever industrious blacksmith who could make most things from metal, the doctor or medicine man who could ‘cure all ills’, the carpenter whose skill could make, coffins to gates, cupboards to carts, chairs and carriages with the aid of the wheelwright. There was the barber who also sold snuff and tobacco. Ashburton has always been a market town, having at least four large livestock markets a year providing an outlet for the farm stock from around the area. Livestock from Woodland, Landscove and Ashburton and Buckfastleigh as well as stock from up on the moors were brought to the markets held in North Street for years. In 1913 the present market site was bought, near to the then Asburton Railway Station, the railway opened in 1872 and closed in 1962. The Dart Valley Railway then ran it for 9 years but it was finally closed in 1971 when the A38 road was built along the railway track. This new market meant that stock could be sent by rail away from the area thus presenting a far larger market potential. The earlier street markets meant that fences were errected to keep the stock apart from the pedestrians,on the pavement, and there are still some holes in the pavement of North Street where these poles and rails were situated, let us hope they will always stay there as a reminder of years gone by and activities now part of history. The architecture of the buildings of Ashburton has to be seen to be believed, the old ‘Card House’ with its slates on the walls carved with hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades, the Town Hall, the bridges, shop fronts, the old conduit/bullring, where the bulls were tethered at those old markets now re-errected halfway up North Street, Cleder Place dedicated to the twinning of Ashburton with Cleder in France, Saint Lawrence Chapple, the old Grammer School, the pubs like The Golden Lion which was a coaching hotel and is now flats, several of the rest are still pubs but several are no longer in existence. The community at Great Bridge, on the left towards Buckland was very self sufficient, totally immersed in the woollen trade. The fleeces were washed in the river at Great Bridge and in those cottages the whole process of washing, carding, spinning, weaving took place there, producing blankets, and surge for hard wearing clothes, Berry’s Mill of Buckfastleigh supplied the looms, this was real cottage industry.

The Cooperative Society had four shops in town, butcher, grocer and baker , sweet and tobacco shop and drapers. Hamlyn, Mann, Cubbitt, Marshall, Distin, Barnes, Langler, Brendon the list of Ashburton family names is large and the range of businesses is vast, this collection of photographs will go a long way to assure that they are not forgotten.

There were pictures of working gangs threshing corn from the ricks, a mobile sawbench, roadmakers, miners, schools, the staff at Kenwin with the housemaid and her dust pan and brush, the nanny with the children, the gardeners with their tools and the cook with her rolling pin and pastry board. Photographs also of the surrounding area like the one showing Buckland when the bridge was washed away in 1938 and a temporary pedestrian bridge was placed over the river. Photographs of the 1891 blizzard and 1947 severe winter. Barnes in 1891 had the first motor vehicle. The Ashburton and Buckfastleigh Cottage Hospital featured and the early carnivals that helped raise funds for the hospital. Ashburton recreation ground bought by public subscription for the children to have somewhere safe to play. The old golf course on Welstor Common c1910, complete with a small shed. The small field at the end of the by-pass and the Vicarage Lawn held garden parties to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Coronation, Ashburton was decorated with dozens of fir trees for that occasion. That site was used for other important occasions, circuses and fairs. The mile stones around Ashburton were shown, these marked the limit for Napoleonic Prisoners of War to walk, from the centre of town, and a headstone of a 23 year old French Officer that died while held in Ashburton at that time.

This slide show brought back wonderful memories to some that attended, it opened the eyes of some that have only recently moved into the district, most of all it brought home to all of us the importance of saving any photographs, documents, literature, books or memorabilia that may come to hand, for the benefit of recording the past, and enlightening future generations of the life of our ancestors, and a way of life that we shall never see again and an oportunity to realise what our district was like all those years ago.

A wonderful poster that Wendy had given to her by John Cubbitt read:-

"Notice To Shop Assistants. Store must be open promptly at 6 a.m. until 9 p.m. all the year round. The store must be swept, counters base shelves and show cases dusted, lamps trimmed, filled,and chimneys cleaned, pens made, doors and windows opened. A pail of water and a scuttle of coal must be brought in by each clerk before breakfast, if there is time to do so and tend customers that call. Any employee that is in the habit of smoking Spanish Cigars, getting shaved at the barbers shop, going to dances, or other such capers in the community will surely give his employer reason to be suspicious of his integrity and all round honesty. Each employee must pay not less than one guinee per year to the church and attend Sunday School every Sunday. Men will be given one evening a week for courting purposes, and two if they go to prayer meetings later, after 14 hours work spare time should be devoted to the reading good literature. dated 1854."

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