Widecombe History Group Talk on the Houses and Cottages of the Bedford Estate


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The Houses and Cottages of the Bedford Estate, Tavistock by Dr. John Goodridge

The estate was formed on the 4th July 1539 being a gift from King Henry VIII to Duke John Russell, it being the property of The Tavistock Abbey which was dissolved in 974 AD.

The era discussed in this talk was from 1839-1861 when Duke Francis the 7th Duke of Bedford held the estate.

Tavistock may seem a small development deep in the Devon countryside but it has been held by the Russell family for about a thousand years til 1961.

The estate struggled through the Victorian era due to various circumstances and the inability to keep ahead of all the alterations being experienced during that time, mostly economical which affected the estate. Worldwide and national problems also added to the complications. The fact that people had to live under extreme conditions, poverty and squalor and the associated health and social problems were explained.

Events abroad added to the problems. The economy suffered, the lack of food, work, trade and labour all took its toll on the estate and its workforce.

When John the 6th Duke inherited the estate in 1802 (the father of Francis) the estate was £200,000 in debt, by 1839 when he died, the debt had risen to £551,000.

Duke John had married twice and had several children. 3 sons from the first union, Francis, William and John who became Lord John Russell of historical fame. From the second marriage he had 10 children, 7 sons and 3 daughters. To provide for all these a large debt was produced, and he was a prolific spender in elaborate buildings, the Bedford Hotel is an example, and much more. Houses on the Plymouth Road another big scheme. Endsleigh Cottage, really a large country house and garden £70,000 - £80,000 and Wolburn Abbey the hub of the Bedford family ‘empire’ another expense.

Christopher Haedy a brilliant architect was employed as estate agent, a very shrewd man and did much to enhance the estate. Francis also employed him to help tackle the debt problem.

Tavistock was in a very small part of a massive estate in Devon that extended to some 19,500 acres and yielded £13,500 annual rent. Tavistock amounted to 14,500 acres, Launceston 2,800 acres. The estates extended all over Britain including 118 acres in central London where Charring Cross is today.

Haedy decided that to raise sufficient funds to clear the debt which was in total the equivilent to five and half years rent, a more efficient use had to be made of the estates assets. Bigger farms were created to be more efficient and better tenants were employed who could pay higher rents and farm the land more efficiently, this resulted in the need for better housing. One such farm is Kilworthy, no longer in the Bedford Estate, which by arrangement with the present tenant can be visited at certain times. This was once damaged by fire, the walls of the house were slated to keep out the rain, a result of poor design. The buildings there are well worth a visit, a chance to see the exceptionally fine range of farm buildings. The whole estate was overseen from Bedford House in London and the remoteness of Tavistock could be the reason for overspending there.

The Bedford Archives extend to ‘a great mountain’ of archived material and is only slowly being examined and explored.

The conditions that people lived in can be explained by, for example, in 1842 the large number of people living in one house which led to disease due to squalor.

By 1844/5 the conditions were getting worse, disease, justice and disorder increased.

1844 copper mining within the estate at The Devon Consort Mine was producing 17.5% copper from one lode. This was of a fantastic quality, and the £1 shares invested in the company increased in value to £800 within twelve months, these shares reaped £71 dividend in one year. This mine attracted men willing to work in the mine from all over the westcountry. Where could they live?

There was a great need for cottages and some of the money from the mine was paid to the Tavistock Estate so they suddenly had lots of money. Could they afford to build new houses? If the mine closed all this extra revenue would cease and the cottages become redundant. Several cottages were built, some like The Wheal Josie Cottages in 1861- 1867, quite shoddedly as they were not intended to last long. After all these years they have now been refurbished and are quite sought after.

Tavistock more than doubled its population from 3,500 in 1801 to 8,000 in 1851.

In 1832 Tavistock had more than 8 people on average living in each house.

A network of poor laws and enquiries showed the squalor in which so many working people lived. A commission was set up and in 1844/5 confirmed that things were getting worse.

At one time there were 1,129 families living in 400 single room cottages and many had no ‘privy’ at all, it is hard to understand that less than 200 years ago the standard of living was so bad when we look at the conditions today.

In one part of Tavistock there was 1 privy shared by 130 families. In 1846 it is recorded that a man and his wife, their 6 children and 4 lodgers shared one 11ft x 9ft room, in another 10 people lived sharing two beds.

Mr Haedy once wrote to the Duke - ‘there is so much to do Your Grace in your Devonshire Estate, so much to see to, and so much to improve’.

One farmer George Witheridge paid £190 for 96 acres and a very small house in which 3 bedrooms were made by temporary partitions, after 11 years he had a new farm house built for him at a cost £138. This did not help the estate debt as it would have taken years of rent to pay for this expense.

The Government set up "The Society for the Improvement of the Conditions of the Labouring Classes" and as this came with the patronage of Prince Albert, The Archbishop of Canterbury, and Prime Minister John Russell MP. These three important institutions Royalty, The Church and Parliament, meant that notice and action had to be taken and the community started working together to make improvements.

This created the situation of the Prime Minister making laws that affected amongst many other noteable landowners, including his own elder brother the Duke of Bedford.

Christmas 1842 saw Haedy dismissed from his post due to the building of a property estimated at £1500 but having already cost £3200 and still not completed

Theopolis Jones, a builder and manufacturer of bricks took over the estate management. Jones is buried at Tavistock but his grave is almost unnoticed today, a shame for such a man who had so much to do with the future of Tavistock.

He produced buildings using bricks that are still visable in the houses of Tavistock today, they cost £1.7s 0d a thousand to produce at that time.

A number of plans were drawn up for workers cottages and they finally agreed

in 1842 to a new style of cottage, they were constructed with two rooms downstairs, a kitchen/living room, scullery/wash house and two bedrooms upstairs at the cost of £128 each. They are now listed as grade II properties!

In 1849, it was agreed to build cottages without shared porches. 64 cottages were built with their own privies, gardens, drying places for clothes and ashpits at the cost of £89.19s.3d each and rented at £3.18s 0d p.a.

The debt problems of the estate still continued however.

The potato blight affected the crops around Tavistock and this caused extra problems with the farms. The rents received for these farms did not cover the costs entailed to maintain the estate.

These cottages are still good to look at today. Cottages nearer the mines were built in 1852 so the miners were nearer their work. The cottages were often built in blocks of four with 2 bedrooms, one for the parents and one for the children. In 1892 some cottages cost £82 to build and rented at £5. 4s. 0d per annum.

1859 saw 24 houses, 6 blocks of 4 rented at £4. 16s. 0d p.a.

Morwellham became very important as an outward port and service area for copper and lime and was used for the importing of timber & coal.

The houses built by Theopolis Jones were in total 284. Jones died 1858. His work is still considered by many as the foundation of the real Tavistock.

Some cottages were built too far from the source of employment and this created problems for the estate.

At Gulworthy in 1852, 81 people signed a petition to the Duke saying that to walk to Tavistock to church was too far particularly after a weeks hard work, so he built a church and school there. The church cost just over £100.

Sometimes it is recorded that 14 or more people were living in a cottage at any one time. Some of these must have slept and worked in shifts.

Some of these cottages sell now for about £200,000.

The lease on the mine in 1856 ran out and an extension to the lease was requested. In 1857 the lease was extended and special terms were agreed which in fact cleared the debt. The Duke considered that this was his finest achievement. He died in 1859.

This was a talk by a person who really knew his subject and should be recommended to any group looking for an inspired speaker.

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