The Little Book of Devon

The Little Book of Devon

by John Van der Kiste


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A compendium of fascinating information about Devon past and present, this book contains a plethora of entertaining facts about the county's famous and occasionally infamous men and women, its towns and countryside, history, natural history, literary, artistic and sporting achievements, agriculture, transport, industry, and royal visits. A reference book and a quirky guide, this can be dipped in to time and time again to reveal something new about the people, the heritage, the secrets, and the enduring fascination of the county. A remarkably engaging little book, this is essential reading for visitors and locals alike.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780752461670
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 01/01/2012
Series: Little Book Of Series
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

John Van der Kiste has written more than 30 books, including royal and historical biographies, local history, true crime, music, and a novel. He has also written articles and reviewed books for national and local journals and was a consultant for the BBC TV documentary The King, the Kaiser and the Tsar.

Read an Excerpt

The Little Book of Devon

By John Van der Kiste

The History Press

Copyright © 2013 John Van der Kiste
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7509-5394-8




William the Conqueror

William I came to Exeter in or around March 1068. The city had been the home of Gytha, mother of King Harold who had been defeated and killed at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, and the people rebelled against William, not only because of their allegiance to her, but also because the Normans were demanding high taxes to which they objected. When the king and his army arrived at the city gates they found their way barred, and they laid siege to it for eighteen days until the citizens gave in and agreed to make peace. The king conceded, and allowed Gytha to go into peaceful exile. As part of the settlement he built Rougemont Castle, so named because of the hill of red earth on which it stood. Exeter and Okehampton, also the site of a castle, were left in charge of his henchman Baldwin de Redvers, whom he appointed Sheriff of Devon.

Catherine of Aragon

As far as historical records show, Princess Catherine of Aragon was the next member of royalty to visit Devon. In October 1501 she sailed from Spain to England to become the bride of Arthur, Prince of Wales, the eldest son of King Henry VII. She landed at the Barbican, and in the words of one effusive contemporary scribe, 'had she been the saviour of the world, she could not have had a more enthusiastic welcome.' She went to St Andrew's Church to give thanks for the safe ending of a stormy and unpleasant voyage, then stayed in a local merchant's house before going to London for her wedding in November. Prince Arthur had always been sickly and he died in April 1502 of what was referred to as the 'sweating sickness'. She remained in England as a widow, and a few weeks after the new Prince of Wales ascended the throne as King Henry VIII, they were married. Her one surviving daughter later became Queen Mary ('Bloody Mary'), but after she repeatedly failed to give the king a living son and heir, Henry divorced Catherine and she died in 1536.

Princess Henrietta Anne

Henrietta Anne, youngest daughter of King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria, was the only child of a reigning English sovereign ever born in Devon. In the summer of 1644, during the Civil War, the queen had been in Oxford, but parliamentary forces were building up in the area and it was thought advisable for her to seek safety elsewhere, especially as she was expecting a child. In May she reached Exeter and stayed at Bedford House, where the princess was born on 16 June. In order to avoid capture, the queen left the city two weeks later for France, leaving the child in the care of a lady-in-waiting, Lady Dalkeith. The princess was baptised in Exeter Cathedral on 21 July. King Charles arrived in the city later that week, and the city fathers made large gifts of money to him, the Prince of Wales and various royal officials as an expression of loyalty. A grateful king knighted the mayor, Hugh Crocker.

Charles II

During the reign of King Charles II, the Royal Citadel at Plymouth was built. Unlike most of the West Country, Plymouth had been strongly pro-Cromwell during the Civil War, but their disillusion with the Commonwealth set in after Cromwell's death and an acute shortage of money which resulted in the seamen not being paid. However, the restoration of the monarchy was seen as a possible return to better times for the town. This coincided with disputes between Holland and France, and in 1665 it was decided to construct a fortress on Plymouth Hoe for defence purposes. The king's main reason for building the Citadel was ostensibly because he recognised the strategic importance of Plymouth as a coastal town when it came to war on England's enemies, though it was believed for some years that he had been angered by the town's unfriendly attitude towards his father and therefore sought some kind of revenge, or at least wished to 'overawe' the town as well as his foes across the Channel, although there is no firm evidence to support this view.

The king paid at least one visit to the area during its construction. Above the gateway in Hoe Road is the royal coat of arms supported by a lion and a unicorn, and the date 1670, with a tablet inscribed, 'Carolus Secundus Dei Gratiae Magnae Britanniae Franciae at Hiberniae Rex' (British sovereigns did not formally relinquish the style of King of France until the Act of Union in 1801). It had always been intended that a statue of the king would be placed there, but there is some doubt as to whether such a work of art was ever completed.

William III

During the 'Glorious Revolution', William, Prince of Orange, landed at Brixham on 5 November 1688, an invasion which culminated in he and his wife Mary replacing her unpopular father, King James II, on the throne. On their first night there, some of his soldiers found billets in the local cottages, though he himself made do with a mattress on the floor of a fisherman's hut. After spending a night at Paignton, they entered Exeter on their march towards London on 9 November. Four weeks later James abdicated, throwing the Great Seal into the Thames as he fled into exile, and William and Mary became joint sovereigns in his place.

George III and his family

Since the reign of King George III, every British sovereign has visited Devon at least once, though in some cases not necessarily after they ascended to the throne. George III, Queen Charlotte and their eldest daughters, Princesses Charlotte, the Princess Royal Augusta, and Elizabeth, came to Plymouth in the summer of 1789. They stayed at Saltram House, and during their few days in the area they visited the town's new theatre in George Street, named the Theatre Royal in the king's honour. He also visited a new dock which was then under construction, the Citadel and the Victualling Office. The most spectacular event of their visit was a review of the fleet and a mock naval battle in the Sound, with about a hundred ships taking part.

Three years earlier, in March 1786, Prince William Henry, the king's third son, who had joined the Royal Navy, was initiated as a Freemason at the Prince George Inn, Vauxhall Street, and later that year he was given the Freedom of Plymouth. After naval service in the Americas he returned to the town, and lodged for a while at a merchant's house. In 1788 his two elder brothers, George, Prince of Wales, later King George IV, and Frederick, Duke of York, came down to see him, paying duty visits to the Citadel, the dockyard, and Mount Edgcumbe, when not sampling the best high life that the town had to offer, or as contemporaries eloquently said, 'painting the town red'.

In 1789 Prince William was persuaded to threaten to stand for election to parliament as member for Totnes, as a protest against the delay in his father giving him a title. Had he tried to persist, an election of the king's son would probably have been invalid, but he duly got his title, that of Duke of Clarence. Although he never visited Devon during his short reign, the Royal William Victualling Yard, Stonehouse, which was named in his honour, was completed in 1835. The gateway was later surmounted by a large statue of the king.

Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria paid several visits to Devon. She was only a baby of seven months in December 1819 when she and her parents, the Duke and Duchess of Kent, came to stay at Woolbrook Glen, Sidmouth, arriving in a snowstorm on Christmas Day. The duke, like most of his family, was inclined to be a spendthrift; Sidmouth was far away from his creditors, and it would be a very inexpensive place to live. The previously hale and hearty duke, who often boasted that he would outlive all his brothers, went walking along the cliffs during a storm the next month, before returning to the house and sitting by the fire without changing his soaking wet boots; he caught a severe chill which turned into pneumonia and died on 23 January 1820, aged fifty-two. The house has since become the Royal Glen Hotel, and a plaque on the wall refers to the family's visit which ended in such sadness.

In July 1833, as fourteen-year-old heiress to the throne, Victoria and the Duchess of Kent stopped at Plymouth on a cruise along the south coast, and Princess Square was later named in her honour.

In August 1843 the queen, Prince Albert and their court took the royal yacht Victoria and Albert on its maiden voyage while paying a visit to King Louis-Philippe of France. On their way they enjoyed a cruise along the south coast of England, and put in at Plymouth Sound. They received deputations from the Corporations of Plymouth and Devonport on board, and Prince Albert was invested with the office of Lord High Steward. Later that day they visited the dockyard, from where carriages took them for a drive at a foot's pace all over the Three Towns. The streets were so packed, the press reported, that 'it would have been possible to walk upon their heads', and the noise was described as quite deafening.

In August 1846 the queen and the prince took a cruise along the south coast of Devon and Cornwall. Although it was an exceptionally wet summer, she was magnanimous enough to write in glowing terms of the enchanting coastline, particularly at Babbacombe and Dartmouth; 'Notwithstanding the rain, this place is lovely, with its wooded rocks and church and castle at the entrance.'

King Edward VII

Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, was a frequent visitor to Plymouth. In July 1860 he sailed from Plymouth Sound to Canada and the United States, where he was to undertake a tour lasting four months, returning home via Plymouth again in November.

In November 1865 he and the Princess of Wales anchored on the royal yacht Osborne at Barnpool in torrential rain, visited the Royal Agricultural Show at Pennycomequick, and the Tamar Bridge, and attended a ball in the mess at Royal William Yard.

In August 1874 he returned to open the new Guildhall and municipal buildings. The Guildhall's row of stained-glass double windows (destroyed in the blitz in 1941) recorded famous passages in Plymouth's history, the last representing the opening ceremony itself, with the heir to the throne resplendent in frock coat and top hat.

On 18 October 1877 he visited Dartmouth where he personally entered and saw his sons, Princes Albert Victor and George (later King George V) as naval cadets beginning their service on HMS Britannia.

On 7 March 1902, five months before their coronation, King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra came to lay the foundation stone for the Dartmouth Royal Naval College, and then to Devonport Dockyard to launch the battleship HMS Queen, and to lay the keel-plate of King Edward VII, to be launched in 1903.

Victoria, Princess Royal

In August 1887 the Princess Royal, Crown Princess Frederick William of Germany, visited Flete, near Modbury. She was so impressed with the house that when she came to build Friedrichshof, her own home in Germany, after the death of her husband, Emperor Frederick III, she requested the architect to model it particularly on Flete, and sent him to England so he could inspect the property and make notes on its main features.

Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh

Prince Alfred, Queen Victoria's second son, Admiral of the Royal Navy and former Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, was appointed Commander-in-Chief at Devonport for a period of office lasting almost three years, from August 1890 to June 1893. His official residence while in the town was Admiralty House, later Hamoaze House. During his time there, he was often seen at naval functions and ceremonies, including one of unveiling the Armada memorial on 21 October 1890. An enthusiastic if not necessarily very proficient amateur self-taught violinist (some of the family and household considered his skills somewhat overrated), he joined the Plymouth Orchestral Society, played in concerts at the Guildhall, and secured for Plymouth a visit and two concerts from the Royal Orchestral Society, of which he was President. His appointment came to an end on 3 June 1893, the day he was promoted to Admiral of the Fleet.

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth

Since 1900 there have been many royal visits to Devon, so mention of three of the most important here must suffice. In July 1939 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth and their daughters, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, sailing on HM Yacht Victoria and Albert, visited Dartmouth Naval College, where Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark was a naval cadet. The prince accompanied them and his uncle, Lord Louis Mountbatten, dined with them on board, and the following day came back on board with them for tea. Mountbatten noticed that he 'was a great success with children'. Eight years later, in November 1947, Elizabeth, her father's heir to the throne, and Philip were married.

In March 1941 the king and queen came to Plymouth for a tour of the dockyard and an inspection of the civil defence and voluntary services in Guildhall Square. When a warden told the queen that the people of the city were 'keeping their chins up', she replied that 'It is only by keeping our chins up, as we are doing, that we shall win the war.' A little over three hours after they left, an alert was sounded, and a sustained campaign of bombing the city, the blitz, began in earnest. (See p. 150)

On 2 August 1945 King George VI came to Plymouth to greet President Harry Truman of the USA when the latter broke his journey home from Berlin where he had been attending the Potsdam conference at the end of the Second World War. They met aboard HMS Renown, moored in Plymouth Sound. Several thousand eager Plymouthians turned out to welcome him, but the route had been changed at the last moment, and even the police were unaware of the exact plan. For a few hours, it appeared that the president was more closely guarded than the king. Only a few selected representatives from the press were allowed within close range of Truman, and there was general disappointment that he saw very little if anything of the blitzed city centre.


'We steamed past the various places on the beautiful coast of Devonshire which we had passed three years ago – Seaton, Sidmouth, off which we stopped for ten minutes, Axmouth, Teignmouth, &c.; - till we came to Babbicombe, a small bay, where we remained an hour. It is a beautiful spot, which before we had only passed at a distance. Red cliffs and rocks with wooded hills like Italy, and reminding one of a ballet or play where nymphs are to appear – such rocks and grottos, with the deepest sea, on which there was not a ripple ... We proceeded on our course again at half past one o'clock, and saw Torquay very plainly, which is very fine. The sea looked so stormy and the weather became so thick that it was thought best to give up Plymouth (for the third time), and to put into that beautiful Dartmouth, and we accordingly did so, in pouring rain, the deck swimming with water, and all of us with umbrellas ... Notwithstanding the rain, this place is lovely, with its wooded rocks and church and castle at the entrance. It puts me much in mind of the beautiful Rhine, and its fine ruined castles, and the Lurlei.'

Queen Victoria, on board HM Yacht Victoria and Albert, Dartmouth, 20 August 1846 (Leaves from the Life of Our Journal in the Highlands, etc., 1868)

'At about 4 we approached Plymouth Harbour. It is a magnificent place and the breakwater is wonderful indeed ... we arrived at Plymouth at 5. It is a beautiful town and we were very well received.'

Princess Victoria of Kent, later queen, in her journal, 2. August 1833 (The Girlhood of Queen Victoria, Vol. I, 1912). Earlier in the same paragraph, she recorded that she had been sick for half an hour, but she evidently made a rapid recovery as the next sentence refers to her consumption of a hot mutton chop. The sea air must have been bracing.

'The country is quite lovely and the house very fine, half new and half old, done with great taste and skill and refinement, all beautifully finished ... The situation of the house is charming. Membland is just as attractive in its way, of course, not nearly so important in size or style, but so comfortable and in such good taste.'

Victoria, Princess Royal, Crown Princess of Prussia, in a letter to Queen Victoria, 28 August 1887, on Membland and the surrounding countryside (Beloved and Darling Child, ed. Agatha Ramm, 1990)

'Well here I am in my house which is not ready, & I don't know when it will be, & staying in an hotel by myself, comfortable no doubt as far as hostelries go but more like a commercial traveller than a Commander in Chief.'

Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, in a letter to Prince Louis of Battenberg, 2 October 1890, from the Devonport Royal Hotel, where he had to stay until Admiralty House was ready for him and his family (Dearest Affie, John Van der Kiste, 1984)

Just got back more dead than alive from a 6 hr tour of visits on the Duchy property which included tenants, farms, tin mine & God knows what!! But I started my sordid day at 6.00 a.m. when I had to step out of the train at Newton Abbot & look happy & pleased with a loyal 'reception'! Gud! [sic] But it was some strain sweetheart and the same thing happened at another little town called Ashburton....'

Edward, Prince of Wales, to Freda Dudley Ward, 10 June 1919, from the Duchy Hotel, Princetown (Letters from a Prince, ed. Rupert Godfrey, 1998). The Prince of Wales is also Duke of Cornwall, part of which comprises properties on Dartmoor, and the future King Edward VIII was evidently a reluctant visitor.

'Devonport never came up to the enchantment of Malta with its southern sun and mysterious eastern atmosphere; but there was the sea ... and there was also that beautiful county of Devonshire, so enchanting with its hills and dales, its rivers and forests, its steep roads and high hedges, beautiful gardens and, in places, quite southern vegetation.'

Princess Marie of Edinburgh, later Queen of Roumania, who lived at Admiralty House, Devonport, for several years of her childhood while her father Prince Alfred was Commander-in-Chief (The Story of my Life, Vol. I, 1934)


Excerpted from The Little Book of Devon by John Van der Kiste. Copyright © 2013 John Van der Kiste. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. Royalty & Politics,
2. Artists, Architects, Musicians & Actors,
3. Literature & Learning,
4. Crime & Punishment,
5. Countryside & Environment,
6. Transport,
7. Food & Drink,
8. Industry & Population,
9. War, Religion & Folklore,
10. Devon Explorers & Eccentrics,
11. Sporting Devon,
12. A Final Jaunt Around the County,

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