Staverton is a village situated in the South Hams. It is 3 miles from Totnes and 7 miles from Torbay. It lies on the banks of the beautiful river Dart nestled in a valley.
The name Staverton , or Stouretona, means "the village by the stony ford." The ford, an ancient crossing many centuries older than the bridge, was situated by Town Mills, and provided a route from the village to Dartington.
However old the real history of Staverton parish may be , written records go back to the time of king Athelstan (925-940), who gave extensive lands to the monastery of St. Mary and St. Peter in Exeter, so that the income from the lands could support the work of the church. Falling on hard times however the monastery sold the manors. In 1050 Leofric became the Bishop of Exeter and regained all of the lands. Which had been given by Athelstan, and Staverton and Sparkwell returned to the churchs keeping. Later, in 1088, the Doomsday Book records the manor of Staverton as being worth £7 and Sparkwell as 15/- (shillings) a year.
Over the centuries, boundaries have moved and manors split.
By the 15th century, Sparkwell Manor consisted of Sparkwell, Beara and Blacker.
Barkingdon and Kingston
were separate manors. From Saxon times, the Wolston family was associated with
the area, originally with Sparkwell and later with Blackler and Beara. Their
name survives today in Wolston Green, a hamlet within the parish boundary.
Sparkwell and Kingston were later owned by the Barnhouse family, and passed via Agnes Barnhouse to her husband John Rowe. Barkington was owned by the Worths until the 17th century. The boundaries of the manors were not always as now, but where filed names were recorded, it is easy to trace the historical boundaries of ownership. Some are still referred to as they were a thousand years ago.
The manor of Staverton continued to provide income for the Chapter of Exeter. Changes to legal title were made in 1148 concerning the church at Staverton. The Chapter of Exeter was instructed to appoint an "upright man as Vicar and allow him sufficient maintenance."
Some hamlets became independent of the church and changed hands frequently. Tradition has it that Pridhamsleigh was lost as a gambling debt by the Gould family, forebears of Sabine Barring-Gould. However , the Church retained much of the land and this is reflected today with the Church Commissioners still owning substantial areas of the parish.
The River Dart forms one of the boundaries and appears to have caused some problems. For many years the riparian rights were leased by the Chapter in Exeter to Buckfast Abbey. The monks resented any use made of the river down-stream, lest it reduced their supply of salmon, and they would often resort to violence and intimidation of a most irreligious nature, which sometimes landed them in the Courts. The last such incident appears in the Court of the Star Chamber records, just before the Dissolution under Henry VIII. A mill, probably sited near the present bridge, was leased by the Abbot of Buckfast to one John Macy, and it appears that some of the monks had broken in and violently taken stock from the mill for no apparent reason.
Fact and legend are intertwined in the history of Staverton Church. It is said that in Saxon times, after St Paul de Leon landed at Penzance and built his church at St Pol, he sailed along the coast of Devon and Cornwall and then up the River Dart, until he reached the ford at Staverton. He felt that God had guided him to this place, and desired him to build a church. The site he chose was possibly near Wolston Green, and he gathered all the materials together ready to begin building. However, when he awoke the next morning the materials had disappeared. Patiently, he repeated his preparations but by the next morning the materials had again disappeared. When this happened for the third time, St Paul concluded that God was displeased with the site. He therefore chose the present location, which appears to have met with Divine approval, for a place of worship has remained there throughout the intervening ten centuries.
The church built by St Paul was the first of three churches on the site, and would have been a wattle, clay and wooden structure with a thatched roof. The second building was of stone, built in Norman style, and it was much smaller than the present one, the knave being only 16ft 12ft.
A fascinating anecdote is that the timbers from the roof of this Norman church have since been discovered as supporting timbers in the roof of a local farmhouse. It appears that the benefits of recycling are not after all, a discovery of the 20th Century!
It would seem however, that the parishioners did not look after their church too well, as in 1314 Bishop Stapeldon, on a visit to the parish noted several defects and ordered a new church to be built by the people of Staverton. The present building dates from that time, and tradition has it that the villages built such a large church to spite the censorious Bishop. The yew tree survived the rebuilding , and is now over a thousand years old.
A report dated around 1750 quotes the story that a family vault belonging to the Worths was opened in the order to drain it. An oak coffin was found, which must have been that of Simon Worth who died in 1669. When the workmen opened the coffin they found the body not only intact, but quite supple, as if buried only the day before. The body had not been embalmed and although the coffin was left open for several weeks the body did not decay. A surgeon opened the body and found all the organs intact. The vault used to fill with water in the winter, but dried out in the summer, and this coffin was held down with a stone.
In 1877, Staverton Church was "restore in true Victorian style. Sabine Barring Gould, who had a living near London at the time, was contacted as his ancestors were about to be entombed in concrete . He rushed down and removed their memorials to Lewtrenchard Church. The Gould family had lived at Pridhamsleigh (presumably until they lost it in the gambling debt), and Coombe, and were the founders of several Parish Charities. Their name survives today in Goulds, a house near Staverton Station.
The history of the bridges in the parish is not easy to trace and the dates when they were first built are not known. Their existence only comes to light when they were officially recorded for some reason. Before the 14th Century, people and packhorses had to cross the Dart at the ford. The first bridge in the parish was Austins bridge, originally 7 6 it was widened in 1809. Dart bridge was built in 1356, and Staverton bridge appears to have been rebuilt after the previous wooden structure, was in danger of collapse in 1413.
The Church decided to finance the rebuilding by issuing Indulgences, an apparently common means of raising finance for such projects in medieval times. Indulgences were sold to people so that they could spend less time in Purgatory, the equivalent of paying a fine instead of going to prison. The morality of this method might be suspect, but at least we now benefit from the superstition of those who had done some wrong and were paying their way out.
The present fine stone bridge features on the Parish Council Chairmans badge is believed to date from this time. Repairs and alterations have however, been carried out during the bridges long history.
Some colourful events appear to have taken place on the bridge over the years. In 1436, an enquiry resulted from a drunken brawl between a parish chaplain, Sir John Laa and John Gayne. They were returning home from dining out and they started to argue on the bridge. The former drew a knife in self defence and the latter fell on it and was killed. Normally, a priest who had killed a man would have lost his living, but the Bishops enquiry absolved Sir John of any guilt and he continued in office.
Twenty years later, other incidents took place involving John Murry, the Bailiff of Haytor Hundred, who should have been maintaining the peace, but instead appears to have behaved suspiciously like a highwayman, relieving travellers of horses, harnesses and baggage. It would have been an ideal place for waylaying and trapping victims.
The parish seems to have a long tradition of education, as early in the 19th Century, there were four small schools within its boundaries. The location of these is not known and it is likely that they were Dame Schools, the most common form of education prior to the 1870 Education Act. Reference is also made to teachers in the parish since the 17th Century.
Landscove School was built in 1855, and was originally designed for 50 children. It was enlarged in 1897. The school and school house was financed by Miss Champernowne, as was Landscove Church and vicarage.
Staverton School was built in 1875 at a cost of £900. It was designed to provide education for 70 children. During the five years from 1870, when education became compulsory, children were taught in the Court Room. The headmistress however, had to wait until 1878 for a house to be provided.
The earliest records of the slate quarries is 1338, when Penn slate was used by John Holland, a half brother of Richard II, for roofing Dartington Hall. However, they later fell into disuse. Their revival in the 19th Century had a major influence in the development of the parish. During this period , Penn slate was used for the roof of the Houses of Parliament. Sadly however, the only thing worth preserving from the quarries long history is the chimney on the road from Penn to Parkfield.
By 1845, when Penn Recca mine was opened and expanded over four hundred people lived over two miles from Staverton Church. It was therefore decided to build a second Church in the parish. The land chosen was near Thornecroft where the majority of the slate miners cottages were situated. At the time it was used for allotments and the field was called Landscore. This changed to Landscove when the church was dedicated in that name. There are therefore two ecclesiastical parishes within the civil parish of Staverton.
The land was given by the Dean and Chapter of Exeter, and the building was generously funded by Miss Champernowne a former owner of Dartington Hall. The cost of the building work is reputed to have been £3000. The architect, John Loughbrough Pearson also later designed Truro Cathedral. The vicarage, now Hill House, was also funded by Miss Champernowne, and date from around this time.
The slate quarries, which finally closed in 1908, also had an influence on the development on the roads of the parish. In the 19th Century, the road system was very different from now, and the main road from Ashburton to Totnes ran through Five Lanes , on through High Beara to Bumpston Cross, passing about six hundred yards from the adit at Lower Coombe making it easier for the transport of the slate to either town.
The South Devon Railway Company opened Totnes Station in 1847 and proper services appear to have begun in 1848. The line to Ashburton was opened on 1st May 1872.
The original Act of Parliament of 1845 for the Plymouth, Devonport and Exeter Railway, to join the Bristol and Exeter railway at Exeter, granted permission for a line passing through Buckfastleigh and Ashburton. (All new railway lines have to be passed by an Act of Parliament.) In the same year, a proposal was made for the Ashburton, Newton and South Devon Junction railway to run from Newton to Ashburton. (Newton Abbot was just "Newton" at this time.)
Also in 1845, a public meeting held in the Totnes Guildhall agreed that Totnes should be connected to Buckfastleigh and Ashburton. This did not become an Act until July 1848. The line was to be designed by Brunel and would have been broad gauge. On completion, it was to be operated by the South Devon Railway.
By the end of all these negotiations however, the country was in recession and all plans were shelved. But by 1862, it was decided that the area needed the railway to boost trade and the Buckfastleigh, Totnes and South Devon Railway Company Act was passed in 1864. In 1865 another Act extended the line to Ashburton. It was of course, broad gauge, converted to standard gauge in 1892.
The principal traffic was always freight, with passengers a poor second, mainly workman and children attending school in Totnes. Apart from the usual pick-up goods, the main traffic into Staverton was agricultural feeds, timber for the joinery, and over 20 wagons of coal a week. Outgoing traffic was cider from Whiteways at Stretchford and from Hills at Barkingdon and furniture from Staverton joinery.
Interestingly, until the end of the Century, the woollen mills of Buckfastleigh provided the railway with more traffic than Newton Abbot.
The branch was closed to all traffic on 10th September 1962, the last passenger train having run in 1958. The line had fallen victim, like so many others, to Dr. Beechings cuts. The Great Western Society restored the line and it was re-opened in 1968.
Like many rural settlements, the population of the parish has been in steady decline since the mid-19th Century. Population statistics are scanty prior to 1801, when the first Census was carried out. However, a report of around 1750 said that as many hogsheads of cider were made each year as there were men and women in the parish, and this was about 2,000 hogsheads.
The 1801 Census shows a population of 1053, 473 males and 580 females. The highest recorded population in the 19th Century was in 1851 with the total of 1152, 562 males and 590 females. This was when production in the slate quarries was at its peak, but a sharp fall occurred by 1861, with only 949 people in the parish. The Census report notes that this was due to the decline in employment in the slate quarries. The1881 report also comments that agriculture remained the main source of employment in the parish despite the relatively large numbers employed in the quarries.
From 1861 onwards, the population of Staverton has continued to fall slowly, the lowest figure being in 1971, with 551 people living in the parish. By 1981, this had increased to 627.
The fact that Staverton village alone at one time could support three public houses, bears testimony to a once larger population. In 1850, the Landlord of the Ring O Bells Inn, whose name survives in Ring O Bells hill was the aptly named Robert Beer! The other two pubs at the time were the Church House Inn (now the Sea Trout Inn) and the Union Inn. The exact location of the latter is not known but was possibly in the Sherwell Close area. In addition, there was also the Live and Let Live at Wolston Green which still exists today.
This has been only a brief glimpse at some of the more notable events and developments which have taken place over the centuries. It is hoped however, that it helps to put the parish into it's historical context and links us with the men and women who played their part in shaping the parish which we know today.