Tavistock, Part 1

by Gethin Thomas July. 25, 2021 225 views

This post is about Earls, Abbeys, Henry VIII knocking down buildings in a hissy fit, people digging deep holes to find valuable tin in the ground and Dukes, well one Duke in particular.

Tavistock is a market town in Devon just north of Plymouth at the foot of Dartmoor. It sits astride the Tavi river. It is a Stannary Town.

A stannary was an organisation established under stannary law in the English counties of Cornwall and Devon to manage the collection of tin coinage, which was the duty payable on the metal tin smelted from the ore cassiterite mined in the region. In Cornwall the duty was passed to the Duchy of Cornwall; in Devon to the Crown.

King Edward I's 1305 Stannary Charter established Tavistock, Ashburton and Chagford as Devon's stannary towns, with a monopoly on all tin mining in Devon, a right to representation in the Stannary Parliament and a right to the jurisdiction of the Stannary Courts. Plympton became the fourth Devon stannary town in 1328 after a powerful lobby persuaded the Sheriff of Devon that it was nearer the sea and therefore had better access for merchants. The Devon stannary towns are all on the fringes of Dartmoor, which is the granite upland which bore the tin.

Granite is a running theme in many of these photos. Castellations are another running theme.

The centre of Tavistock is a wonder of granite. The place is weighed down by it. It's going nowhere in an earthquake. Bring it on.

Although come to think of it there are some bits that look a bit earthquakey. But apparently they have more to do with the wives of Henry VIII, or changing them on a regular basis to be exact. No one said no to Henry, not even the Pope. Well, actually he did say no, so Henry knocked all his stuff over, just like when you lose the argument with your other half and storm out of the room sweeping assorted vases and porcelain Yorkshire Terriers off the dresser, on to the floor, and slamming the door, just to make a point.

Tavistock Abbey was founded in 961. To give a little sense as to how long ago that was the Romans only left 560 years before that.

In 961 Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor elected his 6-year-old son Otto II as heir apparent and co-ruler at the Imperial Diet in Worms.

That is the first notable event that comes up for the year 961, so obviously I had to put that in. If the Emperor was eating worms on his new diet, maybe that affected his judgement? I mean that's just what any of the subjugated oppressed masses need isn't it, an absolute monarch with the power of life and death who is only six years old. You can just imagine it can't you, "sweets, I want sweets, cart loads of them and I mean now. "

Anyway I'm drifting slightly, albeit for some context. So we end up with a large granite abbey and loads of sundry other outbuildings all hand carved out of granite. It was founded by Ordgar. No that isn't a typo.

Ordgar (died 971) was Ealdorman of Devon in England. He was a great West Country landowner and apparently a close advisor of his son-in-law Edgar the Peaceful, king of England (the other Edgars were always picking fights). His daughter Ælfthryth was King Edgar's third wife and was mother of King Æthelred the Unready (c.968 – 1016). Ordgar was created an ealdorman by King Edgar in 964.

So Ordgar founds the great abbey of Tavistock and ten years later he dies, his last words were "thank you God, thank you very much, that is the thanks I get", probably. There is a big argument about where he was buried so we'll leave Ordgar there because the last thing I want to do is bring you fake news.

Anyway, Henry VIII comes along 575 years later, loses his temper, and there being no National Trust or any other organisations set up to preserve ancient buildings at that point, he smashed them all up. He did cash in all the valuables first, he might have been angry but he wasn't stupid. So this is why there are various granite ruins scattered about the town centre.

This ruin is at the entrance to the car park of the Bedford Hotel. It is not the best advert for bed and breakfast I have to admit, but at least you don't need air con. As the old realtor typo joke goes, "There is a widow in every room affording great prospects". Widows without glass in them in this case. I would also suggest that the house plants could probably do with pruning.

This tower is actually called Betsy Grimbal's Tower supposedly named after an unfortunate young woman who was thrown from it's walls by a jealous monk. And there was me thinking jealousy was one of the seven deadly sins. I suppose it was deadly in this case but not in the way intended. We also don't know who this nameless monk (obviously some sort of cover up involved) was jealous of. Was he jealous of another monk having his wicked way with Betsy or jealous of Betsy having her way with another monk. It is after all where we get the term monkey business. It is sadly all lost in the mists of time, and the local tourist board, where they thought this all up at a focus group last month, on Zoom of course.

The remains of this arch below are in the churchyard. This is all that is left of the Abbey Cloisters. The cloisters adjoined the Abbey Church of 1318 which decayed after the dissolution of the monasteries and was eventually demolished by 1700.

This is the sole remaining arch. Whoever was supposed to collect up all the bits and tidy up, after all the building smashing had finished, obviously got as far as this arch and went home early, it was probably a Friday. By Monday, I reckon he had got a better offer and, only being paid a groat and a half a year, thought I'll go off to Plymouth instead and campaign for a minimum wage.

This is probably as good a point as any to mention politics. Back then, when the Industrial Revolution was only a glint in a miner's eye, Devon and Cornwall were some of the most densely populated areas of Britain.

The Cornish rotten and pocket boroughs were one of the most striking anomalies of the Unreformed House of Commons in the Parliament of the United Kingdom before the Reform Act of 1832. Immediately before the Act Cornwall had twenty boroughs, each electing two members of parliament, as well as its two knights of the shire, a total of 42 members, far in excess of the number to which its wealth, population or other importance would seem to entitle it. Until 1821 there was yet another borough which sent two men to parliament, giving Cornwall only one fewer member in the House of Commons than the whole of Scotland.

Most of these were rotten boroughs, a term meaning communities which had decreased in size and importance since the Middle Ages and were too small to justify separate representation. The rest were pocket boroughs, in which a "patron" owned enough of the tenements which carried a vote that he was able to choose both members.

During the Industrial Revolution there was a massive population redistribution from the South West to the Midlands and Northern England. This was part of the problem when it came to representation as the Parliamentary constituencies were still in the South West where the population had dwindled and not in the north where it had boomed.

Over the road from the ruined cloisters is The Bedford Hotel.

Tavistock is tied from late medieval times with the Russells, the family name of the Earls of Bedford and since 1694, the Dukes of Bedford. This is clearly seen from the history of the town. The second title of the Duke of Bedford is the Marquess of Tavistock, taken as the courtesy title of the eldest son and heir to the dukedom, and illustrates the importance of this Devon town, its hinterland and the minerals beneath it to the family's fortunes.

For hundreds of years, Tavistock wielded immense wealth and influence. Between 1700 and the early 1900s, west Devon and Cornwall provided most of the world’s tin and copper. Dartmoor is still marked by the many mining excavations that have taken place there.

In the 1800s the Dukes of Bedford invested in redeveloping areas of the town centre. They erected new public buildings and cottages for industrial workers to help accommodate the booming population.

In the mid-19th century, with nearby Devon Great Consols mine at Blanchdown one of the biggest copper mining operations in the world, Tavistock was booming again, reputedly earning the 7th Duke of Bedford alone over £2,000,000.

There is a strong, recognisable vernacular "Bedford style" of design, exemplified most strikingly in Tavistock's Town Hall and "Bedford Cottages" ubiquitous across Tavistock . The Bedford Hotel taking its name from the Duke of Bedford who appointed no less an architect than Jeffry Wyatt who was also responsible for the transformation of Windsor Castle in 1824. The inn, as it was at the time, was first noted in 1719. Its transformation by Wyatt into The Bedford Hotel was completed in 1822, and a ballroom was added in 1830. The building contains elements of the original abbey buildings.

Plenty of castellations.

A statue in copper of the 7th Duke stands in Guildhall Square. The Duke built a 50,000 imperial gallon (230 m³) reservoir to supply the town in 1845, as well as a hundred miners' houses at the southern end of town, between 1845 and 1855.

Perpendicular Gothic architecture was the third and final style of English Gothic architecture developed in the Kingdom of England during the Late Middle Ages, typified by large windows, four-centred arches, straight vertical and horizontal lines in the tracery, and regular arch-topped rectangular panelling. Perpendicular was the prevailing style of Late Gothic architecture in England from the 14th century to the 17th century. Perpendicular was unique to the country: no equivalent arose in Continental Europe or elsewhere in the British Isles. Of all the Gothic architectural styles, Perpendicular was the first to experience a second wave of popularity from the 18th century on in Gothic Revival architecture.

So what we have in Tavistock is in fact Gothic Revival, and the standout feature of most of Tavistock is the castellations.

Castellations - defensive or decorative parapets with regularly spaced notches; battlements.

Almost every building of the mid 19th century in Tavistock is marked by this feature.

This is the Misericord, below, now known as The Abbey Chapel. It was the former infirmary dining hall of Tavistock Abbey.

The Town Hall , below, was designed by Edward Rundle, architect to the 7th Duke of Bedford. It was opened on the 2nd February 1864 with a Grand Ball which went on until 4 a.m. as reported by the Tavistock Gazette of the day.

The building at the time also housed a Savings Bank, Parish Council offices and a Market Keeper's residence. It was built over the site of Mathew Street, Lower Brook Street and Lower Market Street.

Constructed of local stone in the Late Perpendicular Gothic style, it boasts a stunning main hall measuring 64 x 42, with panelled walls and a superb maple floor, along with other historic and interesting rooms including the Mayor's Parlour.

Now it is time to insert my anecdote. Nothing to do with Tavistock but it is one of my best anecdotes so I will insert it here. Sorry! If you hate anecdotes please scroll down now to the next picture.

First I have to set the scene. Many years ago I worked in a gallery and picture framers. It was in a big city with a University and there was a lot of student accommodation near the gallery. Over the road was a student house and a young woman who lived there, occasionally brought small art works over to frame. They were usually only a few inches across and she chose quite plain simple frames for them.

One day she came in and said her grandfather was outside in the car, I could see him through the door. She asked if she could run back and forth with frame samples to show him, no problem I said. For some reason he was not able to come in the shop. This went on for about half an hour whereupon she left about seven small pictures for framing. She asked if it was OK to pay by cheque when they were ready, and I said yes, but as it was over the cheque limit I would need a cheque guarantee card. She said that would be a problem as her grandfather did not live locally but would be paying and she would be collecting. As a compromise I said if she wanted to leave the cheque and wait for it to clear she could then collect the pictures. She was to return in about six weeks time as she was going home at the end of term.

Sure enough in six weeks she was back and handed me her grandfathers cheque. I only glanced at it briefly as I was not concerned about security because we were waiting for it to clear. As I glanced at it I saw the bank name Coutts and Co. This is a very exclusive bank in London and their most important customer is the Queen. When I saw it I thought to myself how pretentious, and I rang it up and placed it in the till. After she had gone, out of curiosity, I took it back out as I had not seen one up close before and then I noticed the signature, just one word, a place in Scotland. The printed name in full was "The Duke of ....."

Now you can see why I thought it appropriate to insert my anecdote here. This Duke, since deceased, was quite a significant Duke, even in the list of Dukes.

Later in the doctor's waiting room I was flipping through a glossy magazine which had a feature on the top ten biggest landowners in Britain. At the top was The Queen, closely followed by my Duke in position number two. He appeared to own quite a lot of Scotland, 217,000 acres (87,000 hectares) to be precise, and I was waiting for his cheque to clear. The Duke had 10 other Lordly titles, two stately homes, a castle and a palace. That's why he must have needed so many pictures.

When I told my boss, he was very proud of me and he photo-copied the cheque as a souvenir, before depositing it in the bank, he said you can't be too careful.

So, back to the Duke of Bedford. When I saw all the grand buildings in Tavistock and read that he had built 100 cottages for his miners I wondered what his own house must look like. So here it is. Well, just under half of it. More than half of it was demolished in 1950.

This was once the main Post Office as you can tell from the overkill in mail boxes at the front. Not just double fronted but two of them. Today it is a supermarket with a small Post Office counter.

The mail boxes are some of the Covid Priority boxes for mailing test samples. It means they have guaranteed collections including Saturday and Sunday. The mail also receives special handling.

This is the river Tavi and the riverside walk, again lined with castellations. The Tavi is a tributary of the river Tamar which forms most of the border between Devon and Cornwall.

Back in Tavistock's main square is the Town Hall with castellations.

A look back to the side view of the Bedford Hotel, with castellations and lots and lots of chimneys. Every chimney would have indicated a maid carrying buckets of coal.

Through the Gothic portico at the Town Hall, into the main square.

Here is the museum selling books and maps. This map gives an indication of the number of mines surrounding the town. The small black shapes are the engine houses, a distinctive structure erected over the past 200 years to house the water pumping engines or winding engines serving the mines below.

This is a remaining engine house in nearby Cornwall.

This well camouflaged artwork below is The Tree by Rosie Fierek. I only just spotted it because it was hidden in the shadows. In fact when I was photographing it a local couple stopped to express surprise that it was there as they walk past every week and had never noticed it. They thanked me for drawing it to their attention. I will leave the explanation to the detail shown below.

The fruits of the tree represent aspects of the town and this poor quality close up below is only included as a clue to Tavistock Part 3 as this aspect will form the core of the third part.

A few market stalls were scattered around the square, but Tavistock's world famous Pannier Market will have to wait for another visit. Situated at the very heart of the historic town is the ancient Pannier Market. The Market was granted its Royal Charter in 1105 and has survived without a break for over 900 years. The intense heat and the fact that it is in a covered hall where I would have to wear a mask, precluded photographing it on this visit.

Join the conversation
There are 6 comments , add yours!
Colin Massey 2 months, 1 week ago

One of my fav towns to visit, love the indoor market..  I have certainly learnt some very interesting history that I never would of known , enjoyed reading your blog Gethin and great photos

2 months, 1 week ago Edited
Gethin Thomas Replied to Colin Massey 2 months, 1 week ago

I'm looking forward to the indoor market next time I go.

2 months, 1 week ago Edited
David Nurse 2 months, 2 weeks ago

Nice job, I really enjoyed reading that. Shame the dukes cheque didn't bounce you would have to have to made a "house call".

Loved the last words of  Ordgar,  "thank you God, thank you very much, that is the thanks I get", could just as easily been from the circus of Cleese, Chapman and the crew.

I'm still chuckling now.

2 months, 2 weeks ago Edited
Gethin Thomas Replied to David Nurse 2 months, 2 weeks ago

Thanks David, it is always a risk with humour, that people might not get it or even the cultural references.grinning

2 months, 2 weeks ago Edited
John Durham 2 months, 3 weeks ago

Wonderful tour. Loved #6 - great relief and texture.

2 months, 3 weeks ago Edited
Camellia Staab 2 months, 3 weeks ago

I see someone is back in the groove...funny comments and opinions. I sure don't know where to start as far a responses, because I too have tons of opinion and comments for each of your "remarks". So...I've decided to keep my mouth shut and just say........another great post!😉😊

2 months, 3 weeks ago Edited
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