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A Book of the West/Volume 1/14



Ashburton manors—The Ashburn—The cloth-workers—The tucking-mills—County families sprung from the woollen trade— Introduction of machinery—John Dunning—Created Baron Ashburton—Wood-carving in Ashburton—The Oldham owl—Screen destroyed—Ilsington—The Pomeroys—Holne—Dean Prior and Herrick—Abbey of Buckfast—A foundation of S. Petrock—Staverton Church—Screens in Devon—Dr. Blackall's Drive—Holne Chase—Bovey Tracey—William de Tracy—Chudleigh.

A PLEASANT, sleepy, country town, hardly able to maintain its old-world dignity against the ruffling, modern, manufacturing Buckfastleigh. A pleasant centre, whence delightful excursions may be made, and with an old-world aroma about it, as though preserved in pot-pourri.

It has a beautiful church. Ashburton consisted of a royal and an episcopal manor, each with its several municipal officers. A stream divided the manors. Ashburton is the tun on the Ashburn. Ash is but another form of Exe, from usk, water. It owed its growth and prosperity to the wool trade. The proximity to Dartmoor, an unrivalled run for sheep, and the water of the stream to turn the mills, gave to Ashburton a great significance as a centre of cloth manufacture. Added to which it was a stannary town.

The old chapel of S. Laurence in the town, now converted into a grammar school, belonged to the guild of the cloth-workers, and their seal became the arms of the borough: On a mount vert, a chapel with spire, in dexter chief the sun tin splendour, in inister a crescent moon, in dexter base a teasel, in sinister a saltire. The teasel and sun and moon were emblematical of the chief staples of the place; the woollen trade and the mining interests.

The old fulling-mills were locally termed tucking-mills, and the extent to which cloth-working was carried on in South Devon is shown by the prevalence of the surname Tucker.[1]

The process of manufacture given by Westcote, in 1630, is as follows:—

"First, the gentleman farmer, or husbandman, sends his wool to the market, which is bought either by the comber or spinster, and they, the next week, bring it hither again in yarn, which the weaver buys, and the market following brings that hither again in cloth, when it is sold, either to the clothier, who sends it to London, or to the merchant, who, after it hath passed the fuller's mill, and sometimes the dyer's vat, transports it. The large quantities whereof cannot be well guessed, but best known to the custom-book, whereunto it yields no small commodity, and this is continued all the year through."

The clothier was a man of some means, that bought the yarn or abb in the Tuesday's market from Cornish and Tavistock spinners, who kept this branch of the trade pretty much to themselves. The worsted was spun into "tops"—and the name Toop is common now in the neighbourhood. Tops, the combed wool so called by poor cottagers, was made by them into chains to form the warp or framework of the fabric.

One day a week the serge-maker assumed a long apron and met his weavers, the poor folk of the neighbourhood, who frequently hired their looms from him, paying him a shilling quarterly. He served out to them the proper proportions of abb and worsted, with a certain quantity of glue to size the chain before tying it to the loom. This they took home with them, and wove at leisure, returning it the following week and receiving the price of their labour.

These serges were then fulled at the borough tucking-mill. This was supplied with a water-wheel that gave motion to the tree or spindle, whose teeth communicated it to the stampers, which were made to rise and fall. The stampers or pestles worked in troughs in which was laid the stuff that was intended to be fulled. The cloth had already been saturated in various unsavoury liquids to prepare it for the stampers. For raising the nap after dying the dipsacus, or common teasel, was extensively grown. The heads were fixed round the circumference of a large, broad wheel which was made to revolve, and the cloth was held against it.

The cloths were then ready.

It is evident that no large capital was needed in this mode of doing business; the clothier had no operatives to look after, and only a small portion of his time was occupied in his business. A day set apart to "tend" his weavers, and an hour in the yarn market on Tuesdays was about all that was regularly required of him. Yet the business done was large, and he expended his capital in purchasing land, in enclosing commons, and in starting tanneries, above all in acting as banker to the neighbourhood.

It is really surprising to see how many of the notable heraldic families of Devon rose from being clothiers. But then the serges of the West were in request not in England only, but also abroad. Westcote says:—

"The stuff of serges or perpetuanos is now in great use and request with us, wherewith the market at Exeter is abundantly furnished of all sorts and prices; the number will hardly be credited. Tiverton hath also such a store in kersies as wiil not be believed. Crediton yields many of the finest sorts of kersies. Totnes and some places near it hath had besides these a sort of coarse cloth, which they call narrow-pin-whites, not elsewhere made. Barnstaple and Torrington furnish us with bays, single and double frizados. At Tavistock there is a good market. Ottery St. Mary hath mixed kersies; Cullompton, kersey stockings."

The introduction of worsted spinning-frames in the North of England early in the present century revolutionised the trade, and in 18 17 Mr. Caunter started the first worsted spinning-frames in Ashburton, charging 10d. a pound for spinning. For a while he held the monopoly. But the Dart was now called into requisition at Buckfast, and on the site and out of the materials of the abbey a spinning factory was established.

"The next great change," says Mr. Amery, "was brought about by the fact that all the weaving was carried on in the houses of the poor. Perhaps in a social point of view it was a good thing, as the mother was always occupied at home, and had her eye on the family; but to the manufacturer it was bad, as the materials entrusted by him to the weaver were open to great peculations, for weavers could always supply themselves with yarn or abb sufficient to provide their families with stockings, and joiners could purchase the best glue at half price in the little shops, where it had been bartered for small goods. So great was the loss of yarn, worsted, and glue, and so various were the means taken to make up the short weight by the use of oil, water, etc., that a remedy was sought and found in the expedient of erecting large factories, fitted with the newest spring looms; here the weavers came and worked, and nothing was allowed to be carried off the premises."

More wool is now worked up by the aid of the power-looms and combing machines at Ashburton and Buckfastleigh than in the old prosperous times.

Ashburton's most distinguished son was John Dunning, first Baron Ashburton. He belonged to a respectable family, originally seated in Walkhampton parish, which, though not bearing an armorial coat, was yet above the class of yeomen. His father, John Dunning, settled as an attorney at Ashburton, where the future Lord Ashburton was born in 1731.[2] John Dunning the elder had as one of his clients Sir Thomas Clarke, Master of


the Rolls, who owned a good deal of property about Ashburton. A legal instrument drawn up by the young Dunning when only nineteen, and sent to Sir Thomas, struck the Master of the Rolls as being so well done that he undertook the charge of fitting him for a career at the bar; and under this patron's auspices young Dunning, in the twenty-first year of his age, entered the Middle Temple in 1752.

It was whilst keeping his terms that Dunning made acquaintance with Home Tooke, who addressed to him in 1778 his Letter on the English Particle, which was later expanded into The Diversions of Parley. After four years of study Dunning was called to the bar, and for five weary years after that his prospects remained in a most unpromising condition. He was a very ugly man, stunted in growth, his limbs misshapen, and his features mean. Home Tooke used to tell a story illustrative of his personal appearance. On one occasion Thurlow wished to see him privately, and going to the coffee-house he frequented, asked the waiter if Mr. Dunning were there. The waiter, who was new to the place, said he did not know him. "Not know him!" exclaimed Thurlow with his usual volley of oaths. "Go into the room upstairs, and if you see a gentleman like the knave of clubs, call him down." The waiter departed, and returned with Dunning.

On one occasion he was retained in an assault case, and his object was to disprove the identity of the person named by an old woman as the aggressor. Abandoning his usual overbearing demeanour

towards witnesses, he commenced his cross-examination thus, mildly:—

"Pray, my good woman, what sized man was he?"

"Short and stumpy, sir; almost as small as your honour."

"Humph! What sort of a nose had he?"

"Well now, what I should ca' a snubby nose, like your own, sir, only not quite so cocked up like."

"Humph! His eyes?"

"He 'd gotten a bit o' a cast in 'em, sir, like your honour's squint."

"Go down, woman. That will do."

Presently affairs took a turn. Dunning worked his way into notice by adopting violent radical or democratical views, and became the friend of the notorious Wilkes, who also had a squint, and he acted as junior counsel in the famous prosecution of the publishers of No. 45 of the North Briton, which contained strictures on the speech from the throne, at the close of the session of 1763. It was in this case that Dunning firmly established his reputation as a close and subtle reasoner, and he could ever calculate on being employed by his party. From this date no member of the bar obtained a larger number of briefs. I have already told, in my Old Country Life, a story illustrative of the way in which he managed the defence of a man on trial for murder. In 1766 he won the recordership of Bristol, he was appointed Solicitor-General in 1767, and in the general election of 1768 he was elected member for Calne.

"Among the new accessions to the House of Commons at this juncture," writes Lord Mahon, "by far the most eminent in ability was John Dunning. . . . He was a man both of quick parts and strong passions; in his politics a zealous Whig. As an orator, none ever laboured under greater disadvantages of voice and manner; but these disadvantages were most successfully retrieved by his wondrous powers of reasoning, his keen invective, and his ready wit. At the trial of the Duchess of Kingston for bigamy, when he appeared as counsel against her Grace, Hannah More, who was present, thus describes him: 'His manner is insufferably bad, coughing and spitting at every word, but his sense and expression pointed to the last degree. He made her Grace shed bitter tears.'" The mode in which he used his hands was absurd as it was peculiar. He drew them whilst speaking up close together to the height of his breast, where he rested his wrists, and kept up a continual paddling with his outspread palms, moving them with a rapidity corresponding to the motion of his tongue. It was said that he looked on such occasions like a flat fish hung up in a fishmonger's shop, the body rigid, but the fins in front vibrating up and down unceasingly.

In 1769 Dunning bought the manors of Spitchwick and Widecombe. "Manors in Devonshire!" exclaimed Jack Lee. "A pity, Dunning, you should have them there, and should bring no manners with you to Westminster."

In 1770 he resigned his position as Solicitor-General, and resumed his old position outside the bar, but with a professional income estimated at the then unprecedented sum of £ 10,000 per annum.

He was now on the Opposition benches in the House. In the hot debates on the American War, Dunning steadfastly advocated a policy of conciliation. An instance of Dunning's sharpness of repartee was afforded when Chatham moved an address to the Crown in favour of this policy. The motion was upheld by Lords Shelburne, Camden, and Rockingham, and they were supported by the vote of the Duke of Cumberland. His Royal Highness was one day complimenting Dr. Price on a pamphlet he had written in favour of the Americans. "I sat up reading it last night," said he, "till it had almost blinded me." "On the rest of the nation, your Royal Highness," said Dunning, who stood by, "the pamphlet has had the opposite effect. It has opened their eyes."

John Dunning was nearly fifty years old when he married. His choice was Elizabeth Baring, daughter of John Baring, of Larkbeare, one of the many woollen merchants then flourishing in Exeter, and sister of the founders of the great house of Baring Brothers. He was married to her in 1780.

His honeymoon must have been short, for exactly one week after his marriage Dunning brought forward in Committee of the House of Commons his famous motion, "That it is the opinion of this Committee that the influence of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished." After a fierce debate he succeeded in carrying his motion by a majority of eighteen.

On the 15th March, 1782, a motion of want of confidence, though negatived by a majority of nine, proved fatal to the Administration, and the Premier resigned. Then, after twelve years passed in "the cold shade of opposition," the Whigs were again in power; and one of the first steps taken by the Marquess of Rockingham, who now became Prime Minister, was to reward John Dunning with a coronet. His patent of nobility bore date April 8th, 1782, and thus the misshapen but clever son of the little Ashburton attorney became the first Baron Ashburton. None when in opposition had denounced more vigorously, and with greater display of righteous indignation, the bestowal of pensions on a large scale; but no sooner had he passed out of the Opposition into place than he exacted for himself the enormous pension of .£4000 per annum, a sum to him quite unnecessary, as he had amassed a huge fortune.

By this time, however, his health had begun to fail, and he died on August 18th, 1783, of paralysis, leaving a son, Richard Barre Dunning, to succeed him in the title, and to inherit a fortune of £180,000. The second Lord Ashburton married a daughter of William Cunninghame, of Lambshaw, and through her became allied with the Cranstoun family, to whom a large portion of his ample possessions passed at his death without issue in 1823.

Ashburton, in the Tudor period, seems to have possessed a school of wood-carving. The Church-wardens' Book shows that much work was done in the church between 1515 and 1525. An Exeter man named John Mayne was then employed in wood-carving, but there were Ashburton workmen as well. There was then erected a very fine screen. The rood-loft was removed in 1539, but not the screen itself till last century, when portions of it became the property of private persons, and others were laid as foundations to the galleries.

The side chapels seem also to have been screened in; and there was one Thomas Prideaux who was a liberal contributor to the beautification of the church. In one of the side chapels was a rich, canopied altar-piece with wings. When the chantries and chapels were destroyed, this was carried away by the son, Robert Prideaux, and employed for the decoration of his room. The central piece of the triptych has been lost, but the wings and the canopy remain. Some of the wood-carving of Henry the Seventh's reign in and about Ashburton is of the very finest quality, quite unsurpassed in its style. Work by apparently the same hand may be seen at Fulford in the hall.

In Ashburton stands a quaint slated house-front with the pips on cards cut in slate ornamenting the front. The old ring to which the bull was attached for baiting still remains where was the ancient bull-ring of the town. Ashburton was, as already said, originally composed of two manors—one royal, the other episcopal—and each had its portreeve. The King's Bridge united them, and the river divided one from the other. This was a relic of pre-Saxon times, when the chief of the land and the ecclesiastical
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chief had their separate establishments. At a later period Ashburton passed wholly into the hands of the Bishop of Exeter. Bishop Oldham, 1504-1519, was a benefactor to the church, and gave it a lectern with an owl, his symbol, supporting the desk. This owl was sold to Bigbury, along with the handsome pulpit. Holne pulpit is very similar to that formerly in Ashburton.

The church of Ashburton has been renovated, and is now very stately and beautiful. It is to be regretted that the architect, the late Mr. Street, was superior to restoring the screen from the fragments that remained, and instead evolved one out of his inner consciousness, quite out of character with the church, and entirely different in feeling from the work common throughout the neighbourhood, which is exquisite in beauty of design and in detail. But such is the way with architects. The Arlers of Gmiind designed Milan Cathedral, but were not allowed to complete it; it was given to sixteen different Italian architects to meddle with and to muddle it; the result is that the exterior is a bit of miserable frippery in marble. Happily the original design for the interior was not interfered with.

But something incomparably worse may be seen near Ashburton, in the interior of Bickington.

Ilsington Church retains a few poppy-head benches of rich work, unique in the county.

In Ilsington is Ingsdon, once the seat of the Pomeroy family, but no relics of the ancient house remain. According to tradition, the Pomeroy ancestor was jester to Robert the Magnificent, father of William the Conqueror. He was a dwarf, full of comical movements as well as of quips and quirks. As he came in with the dessert he was called Pomme-roy, the Apple King. His son became a faithful servant of William, and was rewarded by him with large manors in Devon and Somersetshire. A junior branch was settled at Ingsdon. The tradition is of course groundless, as the family derived from a place Pomeraye in Normandy, near Bayeux. It probably originated with a family tendency to jest, and to a certain grotesqueness of appearance. It is told by Miss Strickland in her History of the Queens of England. But the odd circumstance about it is that there are Pomeroys now in and about Ashburton of humble degree—the children, the plague of the schoolmaster and mistresses, as they are born humourists, and withal have such a droll appearance and expression as to inevitably provoke mirth.

Holne Church has a good painted screen, and the parsonage is the house in which Charles Kingsley was born. The view of the winding of the Dart from the parsonage garden is beautiful.

Dean Prior was long the place to which poor Robert Herrick was banished. He did not love it, nor did he relish the rude ways of his parishioners. It is to be feared he did not labour very hard to better them. He was buried here in the churchyard in 1674. Here also was laid his servant "Prue," recorded in his poems. Her burial is entered in the register as that of "Prudence Balden, an olde maid," and Herrick's trust that the violet might blossom on her grave is perhaps not unfulfilled, although her grassy mound is not now known.

The Abbey of Buckfast is within an easy walk, and should on all accounts be visited. It is the earliest foundation in Devon, going back to long before the Conquest, in fact no documents exist to show when it was founded. "Mr. Brooking Rowe has suggested that Buckfast Abbey probably existed before the coming of the Northmen; that would be before A.D. 787. It may be so, but, at least, it must be grouped with Bodmin and Glastonbury Abbey as one of a trio of monastic churches which had property in Devon before King Edgar's time, and is probably, with the exception of Exeter, the only monastery before that time existing in the county. Its extreme antiquity may be inferred from the fact that Buckfast itself was never assessed." That is, at the taking of Domesday.

Now I have an idea concerning it. Two of its churches were Harford and South Brent, and both are dedicated to S. Petrock. We find S. Petrock again, further down the Dart, at its mouth. Where we find a Celtic dedication, there we may be pretty certain that either the saint founded the church, or that it was given to him, not necessarily in his lifetime.

In Celtic monasteries, when a grant was made, it was not made to the community, but to the saint personally, who was supposed never to die, and all the lands and churches granted became his personal property. Now, as we find two of the churches belonging to this venerable abbey bearing S. Petrock's name, I think it quite possible that the original abbey may have been, like that of Padstow, a foundation of S. Petrock. When, however, the abbey was re-endowed and recast, and occupied by monks belonging to the Latin orders, S. Petrock would be ignored at Buckfast, and the only indication left of his having once owned the whole territory of Buckfast would be the lingering on of his name in some of the churches that belonged to that same territory.

I am not sure that we have not hard by traces of other Celtic saints, S. Wulvella in Gulwell, a Holywell at Ashburton, and her brother S. Paul of Leon at Staverton, though now supplanted by Paul the Apostle.

Buckfast Abbey, after having been given over to the wreckers, has been purchased by French Benedictines, expelled from France in 1882, and they are carefully rebuilding the abbey on its old lines, following all the details as turned up among the ruins. The foundations of the church have been uncovered, and show that it was of great size. It was pulled down in 1806, and the materials employed in the construction of a factory.

Staverton Church is deserving a visit because of its superb screen, that has been most carefully restored. It exhibits a screen complete in all its parts, a thing very rare. Most of these lack what was their crowning glory, the upper member. Indeed there is but one completely intact in the county—Atherington, if we except the stone screen at Exeter.

There are other screens in the neighbourhood; that of Buckland has on it some unexplained paintings.

The Celt was never a builder. His churches were rude to the last degree of rudeness. But what he delighted in was wattle-work, interlacing osiers into the most intricate and beautiful and varied designs. We may conjecture that our Celtic forefathers did not concern themselves much about the stonework of their churches, and concentrated all their efforts on a screen dividing chancel from nave, which with platting and interweaving they made into a miracle of loveliness. And this direction given to decoration hung on in Devon and Cornwall, and resulted in the glorious screens. For them, to contain them, the shells were built. Everything was sacrificed to them, and when they are swept away what remains is nakedness, disproportion, and desolation.

Of the excursions in the neighbourhood of Ashburton to scenes of loveliness I will say but little. Yet let me recommend one of singular beauty—it is called Dr. Blackall's Drive. The Tavistock road is taken till the Dart is passed at New Bridge, then after a steep ascent the highway is abandoned before Pound Gate is reached, and a turf drive runs above the Dart commanding its gorge, the Holne coppice, and Benjie Tor, and the high road is rejoined between Bell Tor and Sharp Tor. This excursion may be combined with a drive through Holne Chase, if taken on a day when the latter is open to the public.

Holne Chase, however, should be seen from both sides of the Dart, as the aspects are very different on the two sides.

Hembury and Holne Chase camps are both fine, and deserve investigation. They commanded and defended the entrance to the moor from this side. Widecombe has been spoken of under the head of Moreton.

Bovey should be visited, with its fine church and screen and painted and gilt stone pulpit, and with the Bovey Heathfield potteries.

Bovey was one of the manors of the De Tracy who was a principal hand in the murder of Thomas a Becket, and it is to this ambitious and turbulent prelate that the church is dedicated. The story goes that William de Tracy built the church at Bovey as penance for his part in the murder; but the church constructed by him was burnt about 1300, and was rebuilt in the Perpendicular style. The story was diligently propagated that De Tracy died on his way to the Holy Land, in a frenzy, tearing his flesh off his bones with his teeth and nails, and shrieking, "Mercy, Thomas, mercy!" But, as a matter of fact, no judgment of God fell on the murderers. Within four years after the murder, De Tracy was justiciary of Normandy. The present Lord Wemyss and Lord Sudeley are his lineal descendants. The pedigree, contrary to all received opinions on the subject of "judgments" on sacrilege, exhibits the very singular instance of an estate descending for upwards of seven hundred years in the male line of the same family. Fitzurse, another of the murderers, went to Ireland, and became the ancestor of the McMahon family.

There are some curious pictures on the Bovey screen which are supposed to have reference to the story of Becket and his quarrels with the king.

Chudleigh is at some distance, but it is worth a visit, partly because of the good screen in the church, but mainly because of the very pretty ravine through which the Kate (Cad, fall) tumbles. The rock here is of limestone, a fine and beautiful marble, and in its face is a cavern supposed to be haunted by the Pixies, with a stalagmite floor that was broken up by Dr. Buckland in 1825, and the soil beneath it examined in the slip-shod, happy-go-lucky style usual with explorers of that period. It deserves to be reinvestigated systematically.

Note.—Books and articles on Ash burton:—
Worthy (C), Ashburton and its Neighbourhood. Ashburton, 1875.
Amery (P. F. S.), Articles already noticed in the Transactions of the Devonshire Association, 1876 and 1896.

  1. For what follows on the woollen trade I am greatly indebted to a paper by Mr. P. F. S. Amery in the Transactions of the Devonshire Association, 1879.
  2. For a memoir of John Dunning, see that by Mr. R. Dymond, in the Transactions of the Devonshire Association, 1876.