A history of East-the-Water (part 8)


As the old shipyard sites at East the Water closed down a substantial new quay wall was built extending from the Cross Park goods yard to the Long Bridge. 

By 1891 the Long Bridge was already familiar with spectators amassing on it to watch the annual Bideford regatta, but in that year they also assembled on the next day as well. This was for a Shamwickshire Regatta, featuring races such as one where ordinary ship’s boats were propelled by shovels. But this was probably not the first time what had started out being in the normal fashion was then parodied by people on the east.

Shamwickshire (or more properly Sham'ickshire) had entered the local vocabulary to describe a burlesque or mock version of the real thing. The term probably harks back to the days of limited parliamentary franchise, when the protest election of a mock mayor was a widespread practice (well known instances include the election of a Mayor of Barthelmas in Newbury, Berkshire, on St Annes Day, and the election of a Mayor of Garratt at Wandsworth, London). In Bideford, a similar tradition of disenfranchised people ridiculing local political life had developed in East-the-Water, in the form of a Shamwickshire Election, in which a mock 'mayor' and 'mayoress' (both male) were elected, amidst satirical speeches and general revelry. In most places that had them, the election celebrations were inclined to become drunken and unruly affairs. Bideford was no exception, for The North Devon Herald of 16 Nov 1893 carried a report on the recent taming of the election.

Shamwickshire became a local familiar name for East-the-Water, with those born here speaking of being a Shamwickshire boy or a Shamwickshire girl. This local identity is reflected in the name of East-the-Water football team, Shamwickshire Rovers, and the modern development Shamwickshire Close.

The bridge gains a bust

In 1893 East-the-Water gained another of its enduring landmarks. A bust of John Richard Pine-Coffin was erected by public subscription in the open space to the south of the Long Bridge. A distinguished military officer, a Deputy Lieutenant, a Justice of the Peace, Vice-Chairman of Bideford Board of Guardians, and also sometime President of Bideford Conservative Association, Pine-Coffin died in 1890, aged 48. The North Devon Journal reported that he had been 'an active politician and an energetic public servant' and that, for his funeral, 'nearly every shop in Bideford had either shutters up or blinds drawn.'

Local historian Peter Christie suggests that the origins of the Pine-Coffin bust had as much to do with the timing of his death and the local political situation, as to the attributes of the man himself. Somewhat earlier, in 1889, the death of the prominent North Devon Liberal Charles Willshire had been celebrated by erecting a memorial bust of him in Barnstaple Square. Bideford's Conservatives, presumably wishing to suggest that they had equally worthy men in their ranks, responded by marking the recent departure of one of their own in a similar manner.

The bust would have been very fresh-faced when John Oglander, writing from the Royal Castle Hotel, commented ‘The bridge seems to have a personality in Bideford and where you live depends on it. There are "East the bridge" and "West the bridge" folk.’ Such a perception seemed to persist well into the 20th century, but thankfully, with the rapid growth of Bideford, the bridge no longer provides quite such a clear demographic demarcation (unless you are in the rush-hour traffic trying to cross it).

At the turning of the century

With the beginning of the 21st Century seeing Bideford awash with new developments, it is interesting to reflect that the Book of Fair Devon published in 1900 stated that "The modern streets are wide, and the houses well built, especially those being constructed in the extensive building operations now going on. Nor has the enterprise of the builders stopped at the limits of the town. On the slopes of the hills around have been erected and there are now being built, villas and residences of more modest pretensions." The sportsman taking up residence in these new premises could expect to enjoy "fox-hunting, hare-hunting, shooting, fishing, and otter hunting."

Embellishing the sewers

In 1911 the catalogue of William MacFarlane & Co. of Glasgow featured a particularly elegant form of ironwork sewer vent, near identical specimens grace various parts of Bideford. MacFarlane & Co were leading producers of decorative ironwork and several of Bideford’s vents are now listed as ancient monuments. One may be seen in Torrington Street, near the bottom of Nuttaberry Hill and another almost opposite the Wooda Surgery in Barnstaple Street. Looking like a lamppost, but with four vents and a crown on top, each has an arrow that shows the direction of the underlying sewer’s flow.

Passing of the potteries

The potter James Redcliffe (or Redclift, 1833 or 34-) was also East-the Water based and at one time Henry Phillips' partner. Redcliffe's staff included Richard Branch and James Davis. In 1911 Phillips retired, selling the lease of the pottery, together with Prince its horse (at £1 per leg or £4 altogether) to Branch and Davis. Davis' ware was much more utilitarian. During the 1st World War Davis had only unskilled Belgian refugees for his workforce and the consequent loss of quality proved fatal to this Torrington Lane-based business. In 1916 a lack of demand for its product finally forced it to close and, with that, the last of Bideford’s large-scale traditional potteries was gone. The premises were demolished in 1920 and the clay-pit subsequently built over.

Remembering the ‘war to end all wars’

With the onset of war in 1914 the demand for cordite shot up, as did the demand for the acetone needed to make it. In 1915 the Office of Woods and Forests established a wood alcohol plant in Bideford,  which was then placed under the direct control of the Ministry of Munitions. At that time, a further factory was established, in the New Forest, Hampshire, by the UK specialists in acetone production, a company called Kynoch's Ltd. The name of Kynoch's foreshore might be linked to this company (though this remains to be established).

At the outset of the war acetone was produced from wood alcohol and that in turn by fermenting wood to destruction. But the short supply of such wood led to the development of a new process that could utilize a much more readily available crop - maize. Maize may not ever have been used in the Bideford factory, but today it is still widely grown on local farms, with most apparently used as animal feed. The rapid soil erosion associated with this crop may help explain why the Torridge shore seems to be muddier these days than it was in the past.

The war of 1914-18 cost so many lives that the people of Bideford determined that their fallen should have a fitting monument. A fund was raised by public subscription and the field containing Chudleigh Fort was purchased as a public open space, known as The Peace Park, the entire plot was intended to serve as one huge war memorial for Bideford. In 1921, above the Victorian ramparts and at the summit of the park, a more traditional monument was erected. In the form of a massive granite cross over 4 meters high, it could, until the park's fringe of Monterey Pines grew up, be seen from much of the town. Whilst Peace Park originally commemorated only the fallen of the First World War, after 1945 it served as a monument to those who fell in the Second as well, a brass plaque being added to the cross to reflect that fact.

Popular pursuits

There had once been a popular pony racing venue near Abbotsham, but, following its closure in the mid 1920s, the tidal sandbanks of East-the-Water were used for impromptu races. These were held as a prelude to the annual Bideford regatta.

Another feature of the 1920s was a revival of the annual Shamwickshire Election (held on the 9th Nov.)  The associated East-the-Water-centred festivities, with their rolling tar barrels, liberal consumption of alcohol, and drunken speeches, gave such offence to the Bideford town council that, by the mid 1930s, they were again suppressed.

Torridge becomes Tarka country

In 1924-5 the Long Bridge was widened and restored, but it was not long before another Torridge crossing was the focus of attention. In 1927 Henry Williamson published his most acclaimed book, Tarka the Otter. Williamson set Tarka’s birthplace as a holt beneath the Beam aqueduct, where the Rolle Canal crosses the Torridge near Great Torrington. Otters still frequent the Torridge and evidence of them has been found both on the East-the-Water shore and alongside the Salterns Stream.