by Eric R. Delderfield, "The North Devon Story" (1952, rev. 1953)

CENTURIES ago, when many of the (present day) great ports of the country were undreamed of, Bideford Quay was the pivot around which tremendous activity revolved. What scenes have been witnessed there throughout the ages! A busy centre, it has ever kept pace witht the tempo of national affairs.

In 1585, Sir Richard Grenville returned from Roanoke, the island off the coast of Carolina. He brought with him probably the first North American to visit this country, but the native, who was baptised in Bideford Church one year, was buried there the next. There were the colonial expeditions, the fever of excitement when the Spanish Armada approached these Islands, and when five ships sailed from the quay to join Drake's fleet. When the Civil War broke out, most of the Bideford yeomen and traders supported Cromwell, but the fort of Appledore surrendered to the forces of the King in 1643. The town, however, was retaken by Fairfax a year later.

The Calendar of State Papers supplies many references to one of the most tragic sides of seafaring history - the "pressgangs". Thus we frequently read:

"Pressgang busy in Bideford and Barnstaple."
Bideford must have had its full share of pressgangs, for up until the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, the system was the terror of the inhabitants of any seafaring place. It was the practice for one or more officers from His Majesty's ships to go ashore with a company armed with cutlasses and cudgels, and search for all the usual haunts of seafarers. No-one was safe and all seamen between the ages of 18 and 55 were fair game, the only exceptions being apprentices of under two years' service, or fishermen. The impressed men were rarely taken without a fight, in which their women folk frequently joined, and many a bloody affray must have taken place on and around Bideford Quay. The system was at its worst during the long years of the Napoleonic Wars and it is interesting to note that not until 1835 was the term of compulsory service of the poor wretches secured by the pressgangs, remitted from a lifetime to five years. There was also another system in force, which explains the following item in the State Papers:
The commander went with a list of 200, most of them ran away.
Only 40 were taken from Barnstaple and Bideford.
Laws were passed by which English counties were compelled to furnish a quota of men according to an established scale. The sheriffs of the counties, and the mayors of the seaport towns, at first found the arrangement by no means a bad one. They were able to ship off their rogues, criminals, poachers, gipsies, etc., without difficulty, but after a time, when the rogues had grown wary, they found it difficult to make up the quotas. They had to offer bounties to induce men to come forward; bounties in some cases amounting to more than 70. It was said of the "most fithy creatures" who took advantage of the bounties that "they cost the King a guinea a pound." They came aboard coated with filth, crawling with parasites, "so truly wretched and unlike men" that the lieutenants must have been disgusted to receive them. Criminals sentenced at the sessions were offered the alternative of going to sea. The direct consequences were that our ships of war were frequently manned by criminals and petty thieves who stole from each other, and skulked their work, and deserted when they could. The lower gun-decks became the scene of nearly every vice and crime in the calendar. Theft aboard ship was punished with cruel severity, but these shore-going gentry robbed right and left, in gangs or singly, as though their fingers were indeed fish-hooks.

The overseas trade handled by the port was large even before Queen Elizabeth granted a Charter for trade with Virginia and Carolina, which had come about by the foresight, energy and daring of Devon men like Raleigh, Grenville, Drake and the Gilberts. This exchange brought such prosperity, that the year following the defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588), the town had a larger share of business with the North and the Overseas Plantations than any other port in England except London and Topsham (nr. Exeter), aposition it maintained for at least another 100 years. The imports of tobacco from Virginia and Maryland and wool from Ireland were considerable, and did not cease until about 1760.

There was a tremendous traffic in the Newfoundland cod trade, which started at the end of the 16th century, and went on until the end of the mid-18th century. The bulk of this trade was with the west country ports, and, again, Bideford had a very great share, for in 1700 no fewer than 28 Bideford vessels with a tonnage of 3860 were engaged in it, compared with Barnstaple's six ships.

Forty years afterwards, more tobacco was being imported at Bideford than anywhere else, and fifteen years later the town was thriving on the imports of Irish wool, half of which came through Bideford from where it was distributed for combing and spinning in villages over a wide area.

Subsequently, as ships became larger, they then used other ports, and the Bideford trade steadily declined. Even 70 years ago (based on 1952), there were a large number of vessels, many of only 60 or 80 tons, sailing from Appledore and Bideford to the northern coast of Spain.

In two places along the quay are tablets showing the extensions made in 1663 and 1692. In 1890, when it was being widened, it was found that some of the old mooring posts were Armada cannon! They are now on view in Victoria Park.

Also see
the Bideford Witches.
THANK YOU for visiting, and please mail me with your comments,
or return to Devon History Selection.

Return to top of page.