Widecombe-in-the-Moor History Group Talk June 2008: Incomers to Devon

Outside the Church House circa 1910

History Group Talk June 2008: Incomers to Devon

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This month’s talk was by Helen Harris. entitled Incomers to Devon” based on her recent book of the same name.   She began her talk by trying to gauge how many of the audience were Devon born and bred, who had Devonshire ancestors, and how many had moved into the district years ago and those who were more recent arrivals. There are four main reasons for immigration, she said:
a. The need to acquire land
b. Industrial pursuits
c. Employment
d. Retirement
Movement into a rural area was generally for the purchase of farms, and this was evident in the 1940s when after the war there was much building being done in the eastern counties with the result that people sold ground there and moved to the south west to buy land.The cities and larger towns were ‘invaded’ by industrialists looking to set up industries. This in turn resulted in many workers being encouraged to also move to the county to take up the jobs so created. During the last century more people came on holiday, liked what they saw along the south coast of Devon, and retired to this area. Most of the ‘incomers’ to Devon are from other parts of the British Isles. It has to be said, however, that in recent years there has been an influx of foreign citizens particularly to Plymouth, Exeter and Torbay.Two hundred years ago most people stayed in and around the area of their birth. In the twentieth century people began to travel more.
Helen also looked at four areas of Devon:
a. Bradworthy
b. Tiverton
c. Buckfastleigh
d. Torbay
Four different areas that attracted four different types of ‘immigrants’.

Bradworthy, in North Devon, getting its name from the Anglo-Saxon word Worthy, meaning settlement. Particularly in the 1940s people with limited money bought many small farms, ‘improved’ the land with the aid of grants, and adding lime to the soil. These farms produced milk, cattle, and sheep, the mixed farming of years gone by. The village gradually grew and with more houses being built the population has grown to over 1000 inhabitants;.

Tiverton is an entirely different proposition. In about 1815 a John Heathcott moved there from Leicester where he had been involved with the woollen industry. Wool was declining in popularity but he had devised machinery that could produce netting and lace. There was a large factory available for him to purchase and his new technique had a devastating effect on the cottage industry of lace making in Devon. He brought many of his staff from Loughborough to Tiverton, many walking all the way, 200 miles or more, on the promise of work. In the end 500 people moved to Devon as a result of his actions. He had a son, who died at a young age, and three daughters. One of his daughters married an Amery and hence the eathcott-Amery family evolved. Tiverton’s population grew from about 6500 in 1801 to 18600 by 2001. What an effect that had on the town as well as the surrounding area.

Buckfastleigh had a thriving woollen industry in 1830s, there were 700 looms working in the town. Weavers Cottages were plentiful, now many converted into quiet town mews. The Hamlyn family acquired the mills and developed wool combing, weaving and also fell-mongering, the treatment of skins and hides. This town has been well serviced by the A38 road, now easily joined to the M5 at Exeter. The improved communications has in recent years promoted light industry into the town, with easy access to Plymouth and Exeter. Commuters have moved into the town, and increased its population from about 1500 in 1801 to over 4000 now. The connection with the woollen trade is still evident, with a factory producing Axminster Carpets.

Torbay. Helen showed a copy of Donn’s Map of South Devon dated 1765. Very few buildings were evident at that time. Four main ‘villages’ are shown on themap. Tormohun(Torquay), Paignton, Brixham and Churston Ferrers. These villages are now one big Torbay Unitary Authority. In the early 1800s the total population was about 10,000, by 2001 it stood at 130,000. These seaside villages of the 19th century had a few quality houses, quiet and peaceful, but during this century they gradually became very popular. In the summer, bathing by the sea became quite the thing for the rich, and the area was also popular in the winter months, because of the milder climate near the south coast. The railway came to Newton Abbot in 1846 and by 1848 it had reached Torre. Engravings of that period show very few houses, by 1832 big houses had begun to appear, by 1860 big hotels were being built. Gradually many of the bigger houses also became hotels, and as the saying goes, the ‘rest is history’. Gradually people became aware that this was a good area in which to retire. Some still make the mistake of thinking that a place of a lovely fortnights holiday in the summer, makes it an ideal place to retire and so the property market takes off. It has to be realised that often where there is wealth in the best parts of town, it often hides poverty in the back streets, and this is evident still in the large townsand cities.

What has been the overall effect of all this migration? We have lost a certain amount of our local individuality. Our regional accents have been ‘watered down’. The true Devonshire accent and dialect in many places no longer exists. Even foreign languages are to be heard in the large towns, the wide variety of pronunciations, some influenced by the media, radio and television, do nothing to maintain our individuality. It is difficult and wrong to generalise. Some people have added greatly to our lifestyle, by moving here and participating in community life. Some have had a detrimental effect, driving up the price of houses so that many, locally born but low paid workers, are finding it hard, if not impossible, to remain in the place of their birth. Some areas become dead’ in the winter months as ‘holiday homes’ are left empty. Some couples that retire here, leaving their relations and lifetime friends in the towns and cities where they had lived and worked, find that when their partner dies, they are left alone and lonely in a ‘strange place’. There is no easy answer, but with the ever increasing movement of the population there will always be winners and losers. Where do you fit in?

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