Hard times

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If you're researching a Devon family in the early years of the 19th century, it's always a good idea to look at both the 1851 census and the one for 1841. These were not good years for the economy of the County and events occurred on a wide scale which caused families to break up and move apart. These years were both an end and a beginning.

Never underestimate the impact of the coming of the railways into Devon. A few wealthy landowners were made even richer but many of their humble neighbours became far poorer as the old way of life, which had remained constant for centuries, began to disappear for ever. The old stage coaches used networks of small country roads, passing daily thorough dozens of small communities where horses could be changed, refreshments and accommodation procured, wheels repaired and passengers picked up and set down - the new railways had new routes, which bypassed those tiny places where, before, there had been sure means of earning a small but regular livelihood. Particularly damaging in Devon was the effect the railways had on the many cattle markets and fairs - these regular and well-attended events added greatly to the prosperity of country-dwellers who found themselves in a new sort of isolation as cattle and sheep markets were opened miles away, alongside the newly-built railway stations.


Eggesford Railway Station,

Eggesford Railway Station, built by the North Devon Railway in 1854

An adjacent cattle market was established here, taking 

trade away from  other markets in the area.


As we saw in Issue 33, in the hinterland of Devon, the Woollen Industry hung on well into the 20th Century, but even as the 19th century began, the writing was on the wall for a cottage industry which had been the basis of the County's economy for centuries. In Issue 15, we told of the great factory set up in Buckfastleigh which by 1850, was employing thousands of people who previously had lived and worked in the surrounding villages but now had to come into the town to find employment.

In South Molton, the manufactory of Hitchcock, Maunder and Hitchcock  at Higher Mole Mills was by no means so large as that in Buckfastleigh but it offered employment to some hundreds of workers and, in its turn, destroyed the local cottage industry regime - regular delivery of raw materials and  collection of finished work from outlying areas.

Prior to the coming of the railways, South Molton had been a busy coaching town and just as the wool factory gave employment to no fewer than 16 tailors in the town, wheelwrights, blacksmiths, curriers and inn keepers had all made good livings from the business the stages brought in on a daily basis. If you add to that the trade engendered by the frequent markets held in the town, you can see that South Molton was a busy and prosperous place whose population had more than doubled in the first forty years of the 19th century. The grandfather of the great painter, William Turner, came from South Molton and made a good living off the coach trade as a saddler. But when the  Devon and Somerset Railway opened their new line complete with a cattle market at nearby Molland, the ancient Borough received a blow from which it has not yet recovered.


An extract from the description of South Molton in White's Directory of Devon, published in 1850:

"South Molton is a municipal borough and well-built market town pleasantly situated on the bold western acclivity of the valley of the river Mole, 11 miles ESE of Barnstaple.

The principal streets are spacious and well-paved, and contain several good inns and neat public buildings, and many handsome and well-stocked shops."



When the Devon and Somerset Railway finally opened between Barnstaple and Taunton in 1873, the route included a station named South Molton but which was some way out of the town. Moreover, the line connected the town to Somerset and on through Bristol, to the Midlands and had the effect of further separating South Molton from the central part of the County of Devon, limiting its potential to grow and prosper.


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