A Glimpse of 1830s Plymouth

by Mike Brown (Dartmoor Press)
Published December 2012

Being the principal hub of trade and commerce in West Devon, the large Estates roundabouts had a lot of dealings with Plymouth businesses and residents, and their records are potentially fruitful sources of information on the latter. One such Estate was that owned by Maristow, which held a huge chunk of Western Dartmoor, as far south as Bickleigh and Tamerton, and still today has extensive holdings in this area. The meticulous records kept by George Giles, Maristow Manor Steward & Land Agent for nearly fifty years from 1810 to 1859 contain a wealth of information on a diverse range of subjects.

Within the following notes I have selected just a few extracts from his letter books, in order to illustrate the type of background data which they provide about some Plymothians. I have confined the extracts to the 1830s, but his surviving letters span the period from 1827 to 1859. It should also be stated that those researching particular businesses, or families, would not necessarily need to pore through the entire collection of letters in order to discover whether they might contain anything that interests them. Which is just as well. For the seven volumes of letter books run to around 300 pages each! Fortunately, all but the earliest one has a personal name index in the front. However, it should also be emphasised that a lot of potentially useful data is contained in letters written to the Lords of the Manor, members of the Lopes family who were largely absent landlords, living in London in their capacity as MPs. References to others mentioned in such letters do not, of course, appear in the indexes. The letter books are held in the PWDRO, under Acc874 (where an index provides the covering dates of each volume).

Some letters provide the merest clue, which might set researchers off in a new direction in their quest for further information. I am citing this an as opening example, for it illustrates the point made above. The clue is contained in a letter written to the Lord of the Manor himself, so could very easily be overlooked – 

[20/4/1837] Sir Ralph Lopes
I have to acquaint you with the death of John Goss the Carpenters Mother, who died on the 16th instant, by which death… Huckentor.. hela on her life by the widow Leaman, fell into your hands…

It is also such an obtuse clue that much more research is required before one can fully appreciate its value. Huckentor is in Walkhampton. However, Elizabeth Goss nee Leaman was actually baptised in Widecombe [5/11/1754], and was buried in Buckland Monachorum [23/4/1837]. The burial entry records that she died in Plymouth. Which in turn leads to further investigations that establish that she was the mother of John Goss, the Plymouth carpenter of this name.

Most letters, of course, provide much more direct information, having been written to the principals concerned. Some of them provide very precise particulars about the types of products supplied by some traders, as these two examples illustrate –

[25/3/1834] Messrs Nicholls, Timber Merchants. Coxside
I have now to request you will get ready sawn out, the undermentioned 20 inch Plank of the best Yellow American Pine, against Saturday next, when Mr Pomery’s wagon will call for it, to take it to Huckworthy Mill … [exact dimensions of planks follow ] … The Waggon will be going to Plymouth on purpose for this Timber, therefore I hope it will be ready.. Send me a Bill with the Timber.

[10/5/1836] Messrs A&J Nichols, Timber Merchants, Coxside
I have to request you will prepare another Threshing floor of good sound American Birch full two inches thick – the Boards to be 10 feet in length and the extreme breadth of the floor is 21 feet – including two Drift boards … This is for Gratton farm at Meavy.

As an aside, Huckworthy Mill, mentioned in the first letter, was later [23/6/1842] leased to John French, miller, and John Bartlett, gent, both of St Budeaux.

Other letters do not reveal anything about the precise nature of the principal businesses of the persons concerned, but indicate their wider interests

[23/4/1830] James Brodrick Esq, Coxside,
Sir Masseh Lopes is willing to grant a Set for Mining on Fillet’ Down…

In other letters spelt James Broadrick, it appears that his ventures at Fillace Down Mine (also known as Walkhampton Consols) were largely unsuccessful, for in 1833 the sett was leased to other parties. So, too, were the ventures of another Plymothian, who had taken a china clay sett on Walkhampton Commons in 1835 

[24/7/1839] George Stone Baron Esq, Solicitor, Plymouth
There not having for a considerable time past been any working carried on … with the sett granted… to you for searching for china clay… [it is] … consideredforfeited…

One Plymouth businessman and entrepreneur, however, did enjoy some success with his Dartmoor speculations. John Boswarva, a Plymouth accountant, held a third stake in Wheal Franco Mine, Buckland Monachorum, from 1829 onwards. However, he is only mentioned in passing in the letter books, for all communications connected with this enterprise were addressed to John Paull, the only miner of the three principals, who was also the mine captain during this period.

Some traders were guilty of shoddy workmanship

[26/3/1833] Mr Drew, Builders &c, Bedford St, Plymouth
I am sorry to hear by a complaint brought by Mrs Baxter’s Man that the Shutes you fixed round the Eaves of her House at Tamerton leak very badly .. I must desire you will speedily investigate the cause and remedy it.

This was in fact quite a mild rebuke by Giles who. in a letter to another builder, condemned his work as “an everlasting disgrace to your profession”, stating that the roof which he had (supposedly) repaired “leaked like a sieve”. On another occasion, however, Giles took a different view, mildly observing that a huge hole which had been torn out of the side of a house when a wall collapsed, and which had then been left unattended, way merely “an inconvenience to the family”!

On the subject of properties, the Maristow Estate regularly used the services of two Plymouth surveyors in the 1830s, and letters sent to them reveal something of the nature of the work they undertook. One of these was a Mr Adams (his first name nowhere stated) 

[30/6/1835] Mr Adams, Surveyor &c, York St, Plymouth

The Estate at Parktown in Walkhampton is fallen to Sir Ralph Lopes… you are requested… to inspect and estimate the Dilapidations of Hedges and Gates, and tc Survey the Premises…
Coincidentally, the trustee of Parktown at the time was himself a Plymouth resident. Or, more correctly, he resided in a parish which has now been swallowed up by the Plymouth conurbation –
[29/8/1835] J H Peeke, Whitsun, Tamerton Folios I have at length received Mr Adams’s report… [itemised bill follows, total £56 0s 4d]…

Arguments about this property, between George Giles and J.H. Peeke, continued for the next three years
The other Plymouth surveyor was John Grossman who also undertook other duties, as indicated in the following letter, which also refers to a property it Tamerton –

[6/10/1837] John Grossman, Auctioneer &c William St, Plymouth
John Pearse … for the last three years has rented a House… in Buckland Town… He is t shoemaker-he … [was] … five quarters Rent it arrear at Michaelmas day last. Yesterday by t dexterous contrivance he emptied the House… and lodged the contents of the same it a house in Seven Star Lane… Tamerton Foliott where I this day, about noon, distrained thi Articles stated on the inclosed list… The day for sale… maybe the afternoon of Wednesday nex or any part of Thursday .. I hope you will be able to attend on one of these days… in the meantime… disperse hand bills, announcing the sale…

Because of the regular contact with some businesses and traders, sometimes spanning two or three decades, it is possible to keep track of their movements through a study of the letters, during a period when many of them changed premises with amazing frequency. Within eighteen months or so John Grossman, principally a surveyor by profession had moved to 7 Chapel Street. It was to this address that Giles wrote to him on 30/4/1839 inviting him to submit tenders for mapping the parishes of Meavy, Sheepstor, Walkhampton, Tamerton Foliot, and Bickleigh, for the Tithe Commutation Survey. He was still at this address two months later 

[8/6/1839] Mr Grossman, Land Surveyor &c, 7 Chapel St, Plymouth

Northworthy in Walkhampton is fell into hand .. I have to request you will… take a survey of it … there are three fields or closes called Keagles Borough… adjoining to Northworthy… These you will also Survey and report upon.

But no sooner had he become established at his new office (or house? – I do not know the exact status of his properties) than he was on the move again! As this letter, again on the subject of Tithes, indicates 

[14/1/1841] John Grossman, Surveyor &c, Gibbon St, Plymouth

The Walkhampton apportionments in several instances will require a little correction, or rather division…

A letter of the following year [30/3/1842] on an entirely different matter reveals his address at this time to have been 28 Gibbon Street.

Others, however, seem to have disappeared without trace. On 6/4/1832, one Christopher Bulley paid a £6 deposit on a lot of ash trees in Badpark Wood, the receipt of which sum is recorded in the Stewards’ Accounts. However, nearly 18 months later the felled timber had still not been collected –

[3/9/1833] Christopher Bulley, Coachmaker, Knackershole

…the Ash Timber you purchased last year in Badpark Wood … still lies in the adjoining field… unless the £1515s still due thereon… be not paid [sic] at my Office on or before Friday 13th instant, I shall immediately advertize the same Timber for Sale by Public Auction…

I found no entry in the credit columns of the
contemporary Stewards’ Accounts to suggest that Bulley
ever paid for, or collected, his timber.

Whilst some disappeared, for reasons which may now never be known, others were moving into Plymouth or its outskirts to take advantage of the trading opportunities and to expand their businesses. The Gulletts of Plympton will be known to many, the monumental masons who set up yards in various locations on the fringes of the city centre at about this period. Another who moved from the Plympton Ridgeway was millwright John Underhill. His move from those premises can be dated fairly accurately from the letter books –

[3/6/1 833] Mr Underhill, Millwright, Ridgeway 

I wish you would… ride out and examine the Water Wheel and Main Cog of the Phoenix Mill at Horrabndge, and report to me what you think is necessary to be done…

[20/9/1833] John Underhill, Millwright, Marsh Mills

… the Job at the Phoenix … Sir Ralph wishes you will act as Surveyor or Inspector of the operations and will take care that every part of the work is done as it should be.

Mentioning mills leads nicely into a consideration
of water, and the following letter – 

[28/11/1837] Mr Hicks, Water Works Office, Devonport
I beg leave to remind you of the years Rent and amount of Dilapidations due from the Devonport Water Company to Sir Ralph Lopes for the Cottage at Lowery Stent, an account of which I sent you on 6th October last.

Rather oddly, perhaps, this is one of only four letters written to the Company over a period of some thirty years. The dilapidations (£2 15s 2d) and rent arrears (£1 Is) had arisen because the Company had decided not to renew its lease on a cottage and plot of land at Lowery. This they had been permitted to build and enclose in 1807, and the following year their first entry appears in the Manor Rentals, under their original name of Plymouth Dock Water Company – 

[29/9/1808] Rent of a Cottage and a Plot of ground
lately built and Inclosed from Lowery Steant,
granted to them for 30 years from Michaelmas
1807 – £1 1s

Unlike some arrears that George Giles had to chase up, the account was settled within two days. Today the little cottage is in a rather more “dilapidated” state than that in which it was left in 1837! Barely a vestige of it remains, situated on the north side of the Yennadon Cross to Burrator road, just past the giant threshing barn of Higher Lowery.

But an interesting reminder of those pre-Burrator Reservoir days still survives. Devonport Water Company leatmen continued to occupy the cottage after 1837 (paying their rent direct to Maristow), and the headstone to one of them, ex-miner John Giles [d 19/5/1871 ] stands in Walkhampton Churchyard. This records that he “for 37 years served as Leatman under the Devonport Water Company, by whom he was highly respected for his ability and perseverance in the discharge of his duties”.

Back with the letters, there are, of course, so many other topics of interest covered by them, far too many to relate in these few notes. But I thought I would close with the following extract, which is a nice illustration of what would today be called Giles’ “laid back” style. In one of his typical multi-punctuated sentences, there is not the merest hint of drama in this report of a major disaster. Instead, in a matter-of-fact way, Giles casually relays a message to the Lord of the Manor that one of his properties at Roborough had just been entirely destroyed! – 

[22/5/1833] Sir Ralph Lopes

The old Thatched house in the Lane below the Village, called Brown’s Tenement, rented of you by James Towl, in a part of which he lives with his family, and a part he underlet to a Shoemaker by the name of Williams, was entirely consumed by fire, which originated, it seems, from the hollowness of the Chimney walls, in that part occupied by Williams, whose wife was in the Act of baking at the time.

These necessarily brief notes have hardly done justice to the wealth of information which George Giles’ letter books contain. For, aside from letters addressed to, or referring to, other businesses, there are references to all types of people. The entire spectrum of the local populace is covered, from letters about poachers arrested by the Plymouth constables (residents of the city arrested in the woods in Bickleigh and Tamerton &c), to letters directed to Lord Morley of Saltram (regarding the railway sidings &c at Marsh Mills). The whole, once extracted and collated together, provides an interesting glimpse of Plymouth life in the 1830s (and beyond, into the late 1850s).

Get Involved

You can join the Old Plymouth Society today! Help support the society today by signing up to an annual membership.