A short history of Newton Abbot .............

Newton Abbot is a market town on the river Teign, with a population of 25000. It has a racecourse and 3 country parks, namely Stover, Decoy and Bradley. Part of Newton Abbot's heritage is the historic Cheese and Onion Fayre, originally held on the 5th to the 7th of November in honour of Saint Leonard, but now being held earlier in the year, at the beginning of September. During the Victorian era the town experienced very rapid growth as it became the home of the South Devon Railway locomotive works, which later became a major Steam Engine Shed and was retained to service British Railways diesel locomotives, but this has now closed and is now the site of an industrial estate.


Courtenay Street, showing St. Leonard's Tower

Newton Abbot Railway station is situated at the east end of Queen Street, and is served by both, local and long distance services.

The South Devon Railway reached Newton Abbot in 1846 and changed the town from just being a Market Town associated with the leather and wool trade, to become a base for industry. - As mentioned above, Newton Abbot Station was opened by the South Devon Railway Company on the 30th of December 1846, and this was followed by firstly a branch line to Torquay on the 18th of December 1848, and then a further line to Mortonhampstead on the 26th of June 1866, although the latter has since closed to passengers.

Isambard Kindom Brunel used the Teignmouth to Newton Abbot section to experiment with his atmospheric railway, unfortunately his experiments were a failure, but the remains of the buildings still survive.

In 1876 the Great Western Railway bought up the railways, and the repair and maintenance sheds were developed into a substantial works which employed over 600 people in the early days, but this grew to over 1000 persons by 1930. Extensive sidings were also built, creating a large marshalling yard.

The station was rebuilt to its current form in 1926, and a large clock was placed in the top dead centre of the building, this was a gift from the people of Newton Abbot. - Many other industries were set up near the station, engineering works, a timber yard and iron and brass foundries. During 1801 the town's population was 1623, but by 1901 it had increased to 12518. Terraced streets were built to house the workers, while attractively styled villas also sprung up around the town for the wealthier professionals and gentry who had retired to Newton Abbot.


Newton Abbot Railway Station

bradley manor

Bradley Manor

Delving further back into the history of Newton Abbot, traces of Neolithic people have been found at Berry's Wood Hill Fort near Bradley Manor. This is a contour Hill Fort which enclosed about 11 acres. - Milber Down Camp was built in the 1st century BC, and later it was occupied by the Romans, coins and roman pavements have been found there. There are remains of a Norman motte and bailey castle on Highweek Hill, this was most probably a lookout post to watch people coming up the Teign Estuary. A village grew up around this castle, which used to be known as Teignweek, but over the years became Highweek (village on high ground). On the low ground by the river Lemon rose another settlement which became part of Wolborough Manor.

In the mid-twelve hundreds the New Town of the Abbots (from Torre Abbey) was given the right to hold a weekly market on Wednesdays. By 1300 the two settlements were renamed, with the lower ground being named Newton Abbot, while the higher ground became Newton Bushel. On the strength of the market, Newton Abbot quickly became a thriving town and a good source of income to the Abbots.

Over the other side of the river, the Highweek side, another weekly market was created, and this one was held on Tuesdays. As the Bushel family were the land owners, this was named (as mentioned above) Newton Bushel. Over the next 200 years Newton Bushel ran annual fairs and the leather and wool trades started. Newton Bushel was also a convenient place for travellers to stay. - Torre Abbey was dissolved in 1539 and ownership was granted to John Gaverock, who built himself a new house at Forde.

The twin markets of Newton Abbot and Newton Bushel continued until 1633, when they amalgamated to a single Wednesday weekly market under the ownership of Bradley Manor. - By 1751 there was also a smaller Saturday market and a cattle fair on June the 24th, a cheese and onion fair during early September, and a cloth fair on the 6th of November. As the markets continued to expand, a new market was build in 1826. Unfortunately over the next 50 years these building became so dilapidated that a substantial new market was built in 1871. The new buildings included a pannier market, a corn exchange and a public hall called the Alexandria, which is now a cinema. - A great part of the river Lemon was also built over. Further enlargements took place in 1938, when a cattle market and a new corn exchange were built. So Newton Abbot has been a thriving market town for over 750 years.

One thing which hasn't been mentioned in detail up to now, is the wool and leather trade. - In medieval times Devon was an important sheep rearing county, with many towns having their own wool and cloth industries. Newton Abbot was no exception, it had its woollen mills, fullers, dyers, spinners, weavers and tailors. In particular, fell mongering (were wool is removed from the sheepskin) was well established in the town. In 1724 Daniel Defoe wrote that Newton Abbot had a thriving serge industry that sent good to Holland via Exeter. The annual cloth fair was Newton Abbot's busiest fair, and over the 19th century Vicary's Mills became an important employer in the town, employing over 400 men in the 1920s. However, by 1972 the business had declined to such a degree, that the works finally closed down. - Associated with the wool industry was the leather industry, as the hides left after the fell mongering process were made into leather. Tanner, boot and shoe makers, saddlers and glovers were all in business in Newton Abbot. As with the wool industry, business flourished for over 600 years until after the Second World War.

In 1583 Humprey Gilbert, a local adventurer, landed at St. Johns in Newfoundland and claimed the area as a British Colony. The fisheries quickly developed, and between 1600 and 1850 there was a steady trade between Newton Abbot and the cod fisheries of Newfoundland. Every year men from the town would gather at the Dartmouth Inn or the Newfoundland Inn in East Street in the hope of being hired for a season's work. In the autumn the dried cod would be stored in depots and sometimes used as payment. There were considerable economic spin-offs from this trade, fish hooks, knives, waterproof boots and ropes were all made in the town. Even today you can still find Newfoundland Way, St. John's Street and the Rope Walk as you wander though Newton Abbot.


One other industry worth a mention must be the ball clay workings of the Bovey Basin, situated just 2 miles NW of Newton Abbot. The basin took Thousands of years to fill from rivers which flowed out of Dartmoor, the sediment in the basin included clay which derived from rotted granite. The natural deposition has resulted in a clay which is purer and more refined than many others and has been used to make many things from Brick to porcelain. Bovey clay was being shipped from Teignmouth by 1700, and also used to make pipes around 1870. Bovey clay's incorporation in the Wedgewood Pottery Business made it a success. The clay was extracted by simply digging out the lumps on courses, similar to peat cutting. The bulky clay was then transported by pack horses.

Towards the 18th century the ball clay industry was steadily expanding, and a local landowner called James Templar built Stover Canal in 1792, which helped to ship the clay from Bovey to Newton Abbot and then by barge to Teignmouth. Coal, manure and agricultural produce waere also freighted along the canal. By 1820 the granite quarries at Hay Tor were being used to supply stone for major works like the London Bridge, and the canal was extended to cope with this. The industry fared well until 1858 when they lost out to the more economic Cornish coastal quarries. The Stover canal reverted back to shipping ball clay until the use of the canal as a means of transport finally stopped in 1939. The ball clay industry is now highly mechanized and continues to be successful, with road haulage taking most of the traffic.

Coming back to Newton Abbot itself, there are a few notable buildings worth a mention. The centre of the town features the ancient tower of St. Leonard. The tower is all that remains of the medieval chapel of St. Leonard, founded in 1220, and first referred to in 1350 in a document by the Bishop de Granddisson of Exeter, the main chapel being demolished in 1836. Adjacent to the tower is a plague marking the spot where the fist declaration of the newly arrived William III, Prince of Orange was read in 1688. It reads " the first declaration of William, Prince of Orange, the glorious defender of the protestant religion and the liberties of England, was read on this pedestal by the Rev John Raynall, Rector of this Parish, on November the 5th 1688. Although William arrived in Brixham on the 5th, he did not reach Newton Abbot until the 6th, when he stayed overnight at Forde House before going on to London to assume the English Throne.

Forde House is located in the southeast corner of the town and was built with an 'E' shaped floor plan in honour of Queen Elizabeth I, by Sir Richard Reynell in 1610. The grounds were originally quite extensive, and included the whole of the area still known as Decoy (so named because wildfowl were decoyed there to extend the house's larder), as well as a deer park.

King Charles I stayed at the house in 1625 for some days. In 1648 Forde House gave shelter to Oliver Cromwell and Colonel Fairfax while on their way to besiege royalist Dartmouth.


At the opposite end of Newton Abbot is Bradley Manor, which is now a National Trust property. This is a 15th century (1420) manor house in its own secluded woodland setting, with a notable great hall, emblazoned with the royal coat of arms of Elizabeth I. - In the woodland close to the manor house, visitors may find the 'Puritan Pit', a natural hollow where non-conformists held their secret meetings to avoid persecution from 1660 onwards. The pit is particularly associated with a dissenting minister called William Yeo, who took his duties very seriously after having been ejected from his living in 1662. After the Sunday service he would walk around the town with a constable to ensure that the Sabbath was being kept holy.


One of the most impressive buildings in the centre of Newton Abbot has got to be the Passmore Edwards Public Library, which was opened in 1904. - Originally the building, besides being a library also housed a science, art and technical school. John Passmore Edwards originally wanted a hospital built in memory of his dear mother, however, as the town already had a hospital, he decided on a public library. The building was designed by Silvanus Trevail, and is in a style of elaborate Renaissance with terracotta mouldings over the windows and doorways. John Passmore Edwards donated £2500 towards the building, while public subscription and the council paid for the rest of the building.

There are also several sets of Alms Houses in Newton Abbot. In 1538 John Gilbert of Compton Castle endowed "Gilbert's", which was a set of five houses in Exeter Road, to accommodate lepers. These houses apparently had sloping floors to assist the washing out. - Robert Hayman also set up a number of Houses for poor people in East Street. Although originally built in 1576, these were rebuilt in 1845, and can still be seen opposite the entrance of the old Newton Abbot Hospital. - The Mackrell's Alms Houses in Totnes Road were built in 1874. John Mackrell was a native of Newton Abbot, who made his fortune as a chemist in Barnstaple. - In 1640 the Reynell Alms Houses were built next to Torquay Road, to house four clergy widows who had been left poor and without a house of their own. - The original Newton Abbot Poor House was in East Street, and the cellar of the Devon Arms was used as the oakum picking room, were paupers would have the unpleasant job of untwisting old rope to provide oakum, which was used to seal the seams of wooden boats. - Newton Bushel had its own Poor House, not far from the present days 'Dyrons'. - In 1834 the 'Poor Law Act' required changes, so in 1839 a new Workhouse, which was used to house paupers from the surrounding area, was built in East Street. - Over the years the Workhouse became more of a Hospital for the sick, infirm and the aged poor. By 1890 there were nearly 400 inmates, and also reports of cruel treatment, so a new Infirmary was built. - During the wars some of the buildings were used as a military hospital, and by 1950 the Workhouse buildings were incorporated into old hospital (A new hospital to serve Newton Abbot was built on Jetty Marsh and opened in 2008).

Close to the Railway Station is Tucker's Maltings, which is the only traditional Malt house in Great Britain which is open to the public. The malt house, which offers guided tours to the visitors from the Barley to the Beer Discovery Centre, produces malt for over 30 breweries, and enough to brew 15 million pints of beer per annum. The Maltings also host a yearly Beer Festival lasting 3 days every April, when over 200 real ales are sampled. maltings

Like elsewhere, Newton Abbot has also produced its own famous people, and I will end this page by just mentioning two of them. The first is John Lethbridge, who it is said had 17 children, but that is hardly a reason to make him famous. The real reason is that John was the inventor of the first underwater diving machine in 1715, Apparently he carried out all his trials on the machine in his garden pond. - The diving machine was an oak cylinder which was supplied with compressed air from the surface. The six foot barrel had a glass section to see out, and two holes with oiled leather cuffs to extend arms through. During his first salvage operation using this diving machine, he recovered 25 chests of silver and 65 canons. - You will find a section on John Lethbridge's work in the Newton Abbot Town Museum.

Oliver Heaviside the physicist lived in Newton Abbot from 1897 to 1909. It may interest you to know that besides electricity, Oliver also studied the Morse code and languages like German and Danish. In 1868 he moved to Denmark and became a Telegrapher, where he progressed quickly in his profession. He returned to England in 1871 to take up a post in Newcastle upon Tyne in the office of the Great Northern Telegraph Company which dealt with overseas traffic.

Perhaps Heaviside has become more widely known due to the Andrew Lloyd Webber song 'Journey to the Heaviside Layer', which was featured in the musical 'Cats'.


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