Lower Venn – Its place in history

by Len Stephnes
Published December 2012

The ancient tything of Weston Peverell is rich in local history, and although many of its famous buildings like Montpelier, Belair, Prospect and Burleigh have disappeared they have been well documented. Gone too, are the two Venns without much documentation though part of the foundations of Lower Venn can still be seen so I will try to reveal some of its obscure past. First, where can you find this hidden landmark?

If you go for a stroll through Pounds Park, and on leaving it turn left into Venn Lane, a typical Devon lane which thankfully has been reasonably well preserved, you will see stones that commemorate the Stonehouse Leat and Banks 1593 and the boundaries of Plymouth and Devonport. On the right hand side you will find a slate-stone wall enclosure with a pillared entrance, which has been closed up. This could well have been the entrance to Venn Farm and there is a footpath around the comer, which would have separated the farm from Venn Cottage. There are allotments behind the enclosure, which has a locked iron gate for security.

The last inhabitants of Venn Lane as recorded in the Post Office Directory of 1933 were A Horton, a dairyman at Venn Farm and Margaret Taylor at Venn Cottage. A friend of mine, Ken Butcher, who has lived in Pennycross these past 81 years recalls the residents of Venn Lane and remembers taking dresses made by his mother, a dressmaker, to the ladies there. The property at that time belonged to the owners of Pounds House, Messrs. G. Shellabear and H Hurrell and was included in the conveyance of land to Plymouth Corporation on 31st July 1929 to form the newly constructed Central Park. At the time of its formal opening on 29th July 1931 only part of the Mawson plan for the park had been implemented due mainly to lack of funds. It was intended that the development of Lower Venn, Stonehouse Leat and Stonehouse Reservoir should be a wild garden with streams and lakes leading to boating pools in the old reservoir. Instead the area was neglected, the dairy farm and cottage subsequently demolished and the land converted to allotments under the “Dig for Victory” schemes during the war years. The lest and reservoir were later filled in after the war.

As I said at the beginning, the history of Venn is not well documented and is very sketchy. R N Worth provides some evidence, although questionable, that it was part of the manor of Weston and that its history goes back to the age of the Celts and the Saxons. There was in the valley below Torr a Saxon farm settlement which earlier may have been occupied by the Celts who built their homes in sheltered valley sites. History tells us that the Saxons took over from the Celts between 700 and 800 A D and set up a system of dividing the land into tythings, with groups of tythings called hundreds. (Hence later we refer to the Tything of Weston Peverell in the Roborough Hundred). Crispin Gill, in his “New History of Plymouth” states that Venn was originally in the manor of Mutley not Weston. He elaborates that in the Domesday Book of 1086 there were two manor houses in the manor of Modlei (Mutley) which were divided by a stream (the present Hyde Park Road and Weston Park Road ran through the heart of the two manors – the route was later known as Mutley Lane which was the highway to Pennycross and Honicknowle). The northern Mutley manor house and farms must have been just north of where St Gabdels church is now; the two smallholdings (villeins) Upper and Lower Venn were out in the corner of the manor. Venn means “rough ground” and at that time much of the area was open moorland, a continuation of Roborough Down. The manor became part of Weston Peverell when the manor ownership of Weston went to Hugh Peverell of Ermington in 1228.

Information about farm cottages at Venn during the medieval manor ownerships is obscure. However, when we come to Tudor times, a map, Spry’s Plot, presented with the Plymouth Water Bill in 1584 shows four cottages around Venn and Mutley. The Stonehouse Leat was built during this period and stones remain marking its course. As Ray Bush tells us in Part 3 of his book (Old Plymouth Society No: 6) the first marker stone was at Tor but a second where the lest ran down to the farms, is situated in Venn Lane south of Pounds House, inscribed Stonehouse Leat and Banks 1593, although Ray says it was not positioned there until 1851.

During the Stuart period and Civil War the manors of Weston Peverell and Venn were loyal to the King. A map and description of Plymouth and the fortifications at the siege of 1643 show the King’s forces (the enemy) encamped within a mile or two from Plymouth’s fortresses at Pennycomequick and the Maudlyn (situated where Plymouth High School for Girls is now) and the Royalist headquarters were at Widey. Central Park was then a vast pastureland with the farms at Mutley and Venn providing the Royalist troops with food. It is recorded that seventeen days after the Sabbath Day Fight, attempts to break the defences at Maudlyn and Pennycomequick failed and Prince Maurice’s troops withdrew across the open countryside driving all the sheep and cattle before them, so presumably Venn was left deserted.
Again it is from ancient maps that we find the existence of the farm at Venn. Although Benjamin Donne’s Survey and Map of Devon in 1765 is not of sufficient scale to give a clear picture of the farmland it does show the houses of Pounds and Tor which had farm cottages. From the Gardner Survey of 1784 detailing Plymouth and its hinterland (six inches to the mile) we can ascertain the farmlands in the area of Central Park; Pounds and Venn Lane are clearly shown. But it is from the Pennycross records originally kept in St Pancras Church and subsequently removed to the Record Office, that we can glean some references to Venn, the Poor Accounts Book for 1764-1765 show the rates levied on the landowners of Venn. During the threatened invasion of England by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1803 a return listing the property owners of stock to be defended would have included Venn Farm. In the 1811 census Venn was one of thirty-four inhabited houses in the tything of Weston Peverell. It was part of the estate which comprised Pounds and Higher Venn all of which was put up for sale, it was advertised in the Plymouth and Plymouth Dock Weekly Journal of 13th June 1822, (There is a copy on film in the Plymouth Reference Library). The purchaser was William Hodge who built the current Pounds House and gardens, but the farm and cottages at Venn were retained.
We find in Robert Groves “History of Pennycross” that in 1842 Venn cottage was occupied by Samuel Hoare one of the constables appointed to Weston Peverell under Sir Robert Peel’s Act. He appears to have done his job well for on one occasion he was compensated for damages done by fire to his property this was thought to have been done by gypsies whom he had annoyed in the “zealous discharge of his duty”.

Venn and Venn farm were now appearing in the Directories, first in Devon’s under the tything of Weston Peverell, or Pennycross, but in 1896 as the boundary stones in Venn Lane show they became part of Plymouth. Kelly’s Devon Directory of 1866 shows Thomas Widdicombe, Farmer at Venn and in Whites 1890 Directory there are William Bartlett, Dairyman, Venn and William Birch, Farmer, Venn Farm. Dairy farming appears to have carried on there up to the 1930’s, when, as I said at the beginning, the area was transferred to Plymouth City for incorporation into Central Park.

What is left of Venn is now in the custody of the Plymouth City Council and let us hope that the area will be preserved with the stone tablets and walls kept in good condition. Perhaps a plaque marking the site of Venn Farm and cottage could also be added. What I fear however, is that the men who are often seen in the area surveying with their theodolites are signs that the property developers have their greedy designs on building luxurious houses on the allotments facing Peverell Park Road and that would be a shame.

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