A history of East-the-Water (part 2)

Becoming a town

From 1160 until 1295 it is said that every Grenville heir to the Manor of Bideford was a Richard, that, together with a lack of consistency in the spelling of their surname, makes things complicated to follow.

In the eighth year of king John (1207), another Richard Granville (d. 1217), the great-grandson of the Richard who built Neath Abbey, paid for Bidefordís inhabitants to be granted privileges on a par with those of Exeter. As owners of Bideford Manor, the Granvilles had a stake in the townís success and, two further generations on, in 1272, Richard de Grenvile, grandson of the aforementioned, established Bidefordís first town charter, a mark that it was already becoming a significant place.

A better way to cross

Legend has it that the site of the current Long Bridge was determined when a parish priest dreamt of a boulder rolling down to the shore to mark the spot, a boulder that was subsequently found. Within sections of the modern church such instances of divine guidance may still be witnessed, so perhaps this tale should be given a little more credence than is usual.

Whilst it may have been a local parish priest who first championed the idea of providing a bridge, the Grenville family, with their holdings astride the Torridge (and possibly lacking control over the ford), had a vested interest in seeing it constructed. Bartholomew de Grenvile (d. 1325) actively supported the plans, but, despite this, it took the intervention of a bishop to make it happen. The first Long Bridge, a wooden structure, was built in the late 13th C. and operated in parallel with the ford. A chapel stood at either end, from which funds were raised to maintain the bridge, and re-build it should the need arise. The eastern chapel was dedicated to St Anne (traditionally understood to be the mother of the Virgin Mary). Both chapels sold indulgences, a type of purchasable pardon that, despite having lost touch with its theological roots, had become a popular way to raise finance for large civic projects. A seal, dating from 1693, indicates that both the chapels were on the upstream side of the bridge.

Starting with the bridge constructed in 1474, the wooden bridge provided the template for all the later masonry bridges, and some of its timbers still remain entombed amidst the stonework. Some of the widest spans are at the eastern end, and later diagrams show that these were subsequently the most strongly buttressed. If one assumes that practical reasons drove the location of the wider spans, this suggests that, in the 15th C., the riverís main channel graced the eastern shore. The heavier buttressing may be for a similar reason, but would have been completed at a much later date.

Tradition maintains that the bridge suffered from instability until wool bales were used in its foundation. Some have seen in this a reference to financial input from the wool industry, but the use of wool (and similar fibrous materials) to stabalise soft ground was an ancient engineering technique. Pliny describes how the Greeks constructed the Temple of Artemis, in Ephasus, on soft ground to mitigate the effects of earthquakes, but, before doing so, stabalise the ground, using charcoal and fleeces. The technique has been used in more recent times on Victorian viaducts, and is still being used, e.g. for some Lake District paths.

New found lands

There is evidence that even before Columbus discovered the New World in 1492, West-country fishermen had been visiting its waters. It seems that they knew of the bountiful fishing grounds on the Grand Banks, the location of which they kept jealously as a trade secret. In 1497, to secure British interests in these fishing grounds, John Cabot claimed Newfoundland for the British crown, but it would be well over a hundred years before the area was finally settled with any permanence by Europeans.

Black Death and an early quay

In about August 1348 the Black Death, crossed from continental Europe to strike in Weymouth, Dorset. In November 1348 the contagion arrived amongst the maritime communities of the Taw-Torridge estuary, from whence it penetrated both up the coast and inland.  In the two years that followed, the pandemic robbed Devon of an estimated third of its population,

By the 14th C. the Granville heirs were more variably named. As the Black Death hit, we find Theobald Grenville, of Bediford, knight. At the beginning of the 15th C., John Grenvile, of Bideford, knight, then, toward the close of that century, Thomas Grenvill, of Bideford, knight (d. c. 1483) and his son, Thomas Greynfyld, esquire, later knight (d. 1513).This later Thomas is known to have owned a tenement in East-the-Water which appears to have had its own quay and dryhouse. His grand tomb may be found in St Mary's, where, in the early 16th C., he endowed a chantry. It has been suggested that Sentry Field was a gift intended to support it, with its modern name being a corruption of Chantry Field.

In the time of Henry VIII

In 1541 Henry VIIIís dissolution of the monasteries saw Buckland Abbey acquired by Sir Richard Greynfeld, who retained it for a mere 20 years before selling it on to Sir Francis Drake.

In 1542 Henry VIII's official antiquary, John Leland, visited the West-country. On visiting Bideford, he noted that in Barnstaple Street, East-the-Water, there was ďa praty quick [meaning lively] streate of Smithes and other occupiers for shipp crafte.Ē

On 19 July 1545 the English flagship Mary Rose sank in the Solent, carrying its Bideford-based captain, Roger Greynfelde (father of Sir Richard, the naval hero) to a watery grave.

A leader in ship-building

By 1549 the Granville family, besides changing the spelling of their name yet again, had established themselves in both manors of Bideford and Stowe, with branches of the family overseeing each. Richard Greynfelde (d 1549/50) clearly had a base in Bideford, as he left his mansion house in the town to his grandson Sir Richard Grenville (1542-1591).

The Exeter Records for 1565 demonstrate that Bidefordís shipyards could already produce a ship of 250 tons, making East-the-Water one of the most significant ship-building centers in the west.

Religious refugees

In 1572 simmering unrest in France between the ruling Roman Catholic elite and minority Calvinist Protestants (the Huguenots) came to a head in the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre. The assassination of several Huguenot leaders was followed by mob violence against the group. Many leading Huguenots were killed and a wave of Huguenot refugees fled France in search of more tolerant areas. Groups made their new home in Bideford, bringing with them expertise in textile work that enhanced an existing local trade.