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In 1747, Dean J Milles of Exeter decided to carry out a survey of all Devon parishes, covering every aspect of each in detail. He decided to rely on local clergy to complete the questionnaire that he had distributed. The response was, some replied promptly, some were slow, while others failed to reply at all. He got no answer from Witheridge, so he turned to an acquaintance of his in Exeter, a man who was both well known and respected, and on whom he could rely. This, of course, was William Chapple. Although he had left Witheridge, some years earlier, he agreed to do his best to answer the questions. Sometimes he has to admit that his memory had let him down, but his reply is all we have for a description of Witheridge in the 1750's.

The parish that he describes includes the outliers of Little Witheridge, Yeatheridge, and a block of land enclosed with Thelbridge, all of which was reallocated during the reorganisation of parish boundaries at the end of the nineteenth century. William Chapple estimates 80 to 100 dwellings in 'the town of Witheridge' itself, with 500 to 600 inhabitants. He reckons to add another 600 from outside the town, giving a total 1,100 to 1,200 people. He tells us that he himself kept the registers for some years, and estimated that 12 baptisms took place every year, with the same number of burials. He refers to the:

"Manor and Borough of Witheridge, the present Lord whereof is Coulston Fellowes of Eggesford Esq, in whose Court-leet here the Portreeve and other officers of the Borough are appointed and sworn."

He adds the manor of Witheridge-Cannington, in the possession of the Melhuish family.' The borough' he says:

"enjoys the common privileges of the Duchy of Lancaster, viz Exemption of Toll and Customs of Markets and Fairs etc-A Duchy Court is kept up here, besides the Manor and the Hundred Court." The church he describes as 'built with stone and covered with shingle, the walls roughcast, the battlements leaded'.

The sketch he includes is:

"Though done from memory pretty correct with respect to the proportion and all other circumstances (I have known it from a child). The tower is very big about in proportion to its height, which I think is about 70 feet, besides the spire, which with stem of the weathercock is at least 20, if not quite 30 feet. It is (as usual) at the west end of the church. The church at the east is lower and not battlemented, on the north sire whereof is a convenient vestry, the entrance whereof is opposite the chancel door. The church is handsomely decorated within, has an antique stone pulpit, with niches where are the crucifixion, the image of ye blessed virgin Mary Magdalene, St Peter and St Paul, but their heads were cut off by the Oliverian Reformers. It has two rows of pillars, an handsome font, and is pretty well sealed. A gothick screen separates it from ye chancel, which is much deformed by the high pews or closets lately erected there. It also wants an altarpiece. Fonts for holy water appear in 2 or 3 places and on the south side of the porch. A staircase to the rood loft between the church and chancel yet remains, but the rood loft itself (where an organ might conveniently be placed) is disfigured by the partition, which comes half way down from the roof. There is not a monument in the church, only plain gravestones. There are two or three coats of arms in one window, but I have forgotten what they are, probably they were done since the restoration, for the Saints Militant in ye civil wars appear to have made such havoc here that I can scarce think we have escaped them. I have forgot that there were some coats of arms painted in 1727.

On the spandals of the arches of the screen between the church and chancel, viz the Bishop of Exeter's arms, the Melhuishes (Patrons of the place), the Shebbeares (one of whose family was then Vicar), and the Shortrudges. Before that time the Stucley Arms were there, but then obliterated to make room for another."

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He goes on to say that

"here were anciently three chapels, dedicated to St Margaret, St Peter, and Paul, some traces of which still remain at Myll, Bradford, and West Yeo in this parish. The last mentioned was turned into an ox house, and since to a dwelling house, and other two are quite demolished, having nothing to perpetuate their names but the names of the fields adjoining where they stood, viz Chappel-Hill at Myl, and Chappel-Meadow at Bradford. These Chappels very probably occasioned the division of the parish in to 4 quarters now called the town quarter, the east quarter, the south quarter, and the west quarter. The church is situated in the town quarter, Bradford Chapel in the east, Myll Chappel in the south, and West Yeo in the west."

William Chapple had nothing to offer on the subjects of abbeys, almshouses, ancient stones, crosses, castles, etc. He had heard of Berry Castle but 'never saw it'. The only 'Gentleman's seat' that he remembers, is Bradford, now in the possession of the Shortrudges. To questions about recent improvements to the parish, he says:

"These have been chiefly in taking in and tilling the coarse moory and fursey grounds, of which large tities have been consumed to tillage within my memory. They first beat and burn (or Devonshire, as some call it) and then manure it with lime and dung."

He claims that there are no bridges or roads worth mentioning.

'Bullocks and sheep, and other things usual in a country fair or market' are sold at Witheridge market.

He has little to report on the landscape except to say that the hills are gentle and that:

"the town itself is flat and level, but has a very steep descent every way round except to the eastward. In the north and east there, are diverse coarse moors abounding with shirt furse and having some quagmires, the soil clay. The south and west parts are generally of a better kind of soil". As to value, "meadow ground round the town I have known let for £3 an acre, but in other parts 30 to 40 shillings may suffice. Moor from two pence to five pence or even less." Manuring is by 8 hogsheads of lime or 160 to 200 loads of dung to an acre. 'They chiefly sow wheat, barley, and oats, scarce any rye, though this is frequently sown in ye wet moor ground about 70 or 80 years ago'.

He says that a variety of apples were planted and that the best cider was made of the 'Tythe apples, being a mixture of sorts.' He suggests a parish annual cider production of at least 100 to 150 hogsheads, and that the quality was 'tolerably good', and 'rather rough than sweet'. He values it between 10s and 20s 'at the pounds mouth', according to the season. Questions were asked about trees and woodlands, and William is concerned at the shortage of timber trees in the parish, the majority being coppice. He complains that the statute which requires that at each coppice felling 12 young saplings per acre be left to grow up, is largely ignored, 'as in most other places in the county.' He urges greater penalties. Oak, he says is most common in coppices and old hedges. Elm does not thrive, ash is sometimes planted and there is much birch and willow. When asked about plants he refers to celandine with which "swallows are said to cure the blindness of their young."

He has nothing to say about wells, and has forgotten the names of the streams. The Dart "is ye only one to be called a river" and there is "the stone bridge at Drayford being in ye road from Exeter to South Molton", the river there is fordable in the summer. He recalls no floods. He praises the air in Witheridge, being sharp and dry, and says "people are in general pretty healthy here, and some live to a good age, a sign of an wholesome air." He can think of two or three people who lived to the age of 95 or 96."They were commonly esteemed robust and heretofore would often challenge their neighbours to a wrestling or football match, but they cannot afford so many days of diversion as heretofore, and their activity and liveliness is I think somewhat dimmed even since my remembrance."

He has nothing on history, except a remark that 'it seems to have been to much out of the route of Fairfax and his rebels to have had any remarkable share in these intestine broils.' This reference to the Civil War of the 1640s rather contradicts his description of the vandalised pulpit.

William Chapple ends his answers to the questionnaire with an apology for his shortcomings.

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Last Edited 03/07/2006    Copyright © 2000-2006 Witheridge

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