A History of Totnes
Totnes, resting in the valley of the River Dart at its highest crossing point on the tidal part of the river, is strategically placed for both commerce and defence.
A map of Totnes or even a quick glance at Google Earth reveals instant clues to the Saxon origin of the South Devon town of Totnes. Origin does not mean there was no settlement here before the Saxons, but the town is heavy with Saxon, Norman and medieval buildings and features to the extent that it is difficult to burrow beneath the archaeology in search of earlier occupation.
Pan out a little from the map and it becomes clear this is an obvious place to build a market town with up to six main road routes converging on the most geographically perfect place to cross the tidal part of the River Dart ten miles upstream from its exit into the sea at Dartmouth. Not that road routes have been so important to the town (with one exception) with the main highway for trade being the river. Water borne bulk transport was gradually replaced with the arrival of the railway in 1848 and roads refined connections with agricultural outposts to the town. Always a market town its fortunes have varied over the centuries.
One road through Totnes defines an ancient trackway that crosses the river near the bottom of the town and passes straight through the middle of the settlement to exit westwards cutting deeply into the hillside as it aims towards Plymouth and beyond. Known as Harpers Hill this is possibly a corruption of herepath, a Saxon word meaning military road. Bearing in mind this was the major highway from ancient times until the eighteenth century and has been frozen in history this road sets the scene for all road routes in and around the town before tarmac. Steep, narrow and loosely paved, this is clearly no place for wheeled vehicles, so pack animals were used to transport light goods. Lesser routes would probably have been little more than overgrown paths. In the town the road would also have been congested with two way traffic, remaining so until the 1950’s.
Historians can only speculate about what was here before. There is tantalising stone and flint evidence of human activity covering thousands of years, but did the Romans ever visit Totnes? There are no known records. Romans garrisoned Exeter which is well known and there are Roman forts around the west of Cornwall but insufficient local Roman archaeological finds to conclude that they settled in between in an organised way. Perhaps they found it sufficient and more convenient to trade with the local Celtic tribe, the Dumnonii, rather than trying to dominate them. Trading food and tin from Dartmoor almost certainly along with copper, the locals might have adopted some Roman ways.
There are rare finds from the Roman era but how much was Romano British and how much just Roman is uncertain. Just as uncertain is the date of the Saxon foundation of the town after the Romans. A small settlement is believed to have existed at Cherry Cross between the western bank of the river at St Peter’s Quay and south of the town that stands today. King Alfred (The Great) devised a strategy for defending what was left of his kingdom (Wessex) by establishing fortified strongholds where his people could find refuge in times of attack from the Vikings. These were called burhs (forts). There were four in Devon, the nearest being at Halwell. The strategy worked and from this springboard he stabilised his lost kingdom. He died in 899AD. Totnes replaced Halwell sometime after 950AD, possibly because of the strategic importance of the river, and coins were being minted soon after. Coins could only be minted in royal burhs, thus the town we know as Totnes became established as the burh – or borough - in place of Halwell. The name can be seen on some of these coins as Totanais. Tot, as lookout and nais or ness, a ‘nose’ of land.
Building the defences that define the original town might have been accomplished in a very short time by simply reinforcing the existing geography. The town perches on the top of a nose of land, possibly an ancient volcano core plug with the tip under the castle keep. It protrudes from the side of a much bigger hill dropping steeply down to the floodplain of the river as it curves round three sides of the town. Such is the integrity of these defences that they survive today stamped indelibly on the map with the steepness of the hill defending the town against tourists and before them, Vikings. Within this oval shape, property was divided into burgage plots or strips of land of uniform width branching out from either side of the road cutting through the centre like a line drawn on the back of a woodlouse: but they are not of uniform length. These plots ran to the edge of the defence line so the ones in the middle are longer than the ones at either end marked by the East and West gates. These plots also survive the ages although most have been broken up longitudinally into smaller properties over time.
A hundred years later these defences were rendered useless as the great Norman invasion brought meek surrender. Exeter resisted for a while and was badly mauled into defeat. Totnes avoided the pain and the new lord of the manor moved in unopposed in 1069. William Duke of Normandy rewarded one of his favourites, a Breton named Judhael, with the town and tasked him with fortifying it. Early defences and buildings would have been made of earth and wood then replaced gradually by stone. The current keep was built in the thirteenth century and extensively remodelled a hundred years later. Subsequent monarchs have bullied and cajoled incumbent owners to repair and maintain the castle, such compliance being carried out often grudgingly and no doubt to the minimum standard. Such minimalism seems to have preserved the castle in its original Norman form.
The chosen Norman site of the castle straddles the earlier Saxon defence defiantly stamping Norman authority on a potentially rebellious population and also has a direct line of sight as far down the river as its geography allows. Judhael introduced monks from Angers in France and founded the priory of St Mary’s. Monastic property extended well beyond the area occupied by the church and as the town expanded it overflowed into the land beyond the Saxon defences. All that is left of the priory is the building that later became known as the Guildhall some of which is believed to date back as far as 1088. The Domesday records show that Totnes supported 95 burgesses – heads of households - and a total population of around 500.
With changing monarchs and their followers falling in and out of favour, the town and castle have passed through various families, not all of them resident which might account for the patchy maintenance of the castle. By 1485 it ceased all pretence of being a force for defence and fell into disrepair for a long time. Meanwhile Totnes thrived as a market town and it ranked second in Devon behind Exeter. Exports of wool cloth, slates from local quarries, tin mined on Dartmoor and ship building drove wealth, and trade was further enhanced by the granting of charters by beneficent monarchs, notably King John in 1206 and later Edward VI and Elizabeth I.
Meanwhile the river, which at one time surrounded Totnes on three sides, was being reclaimed. As the swampy marshland and oyster beds retreated so the town expanded towards the river, spilling out from its confinement behind the town walls. Further defences were established to the south west to reinforce approaches from the river. These too can be seen in outline on maps and aerial photography reaching from the south wall curving towards the river.
Totnes boasted a leper hospital, called St Mary Magdalene, situated well outside the town to the south for isolation purposes. Founded at the end of the 12th century it had places for eight patients cared for by monks from the Priory of St Mary’s. It had a hall and its own chapel, dispelling myths that lepers were allowed to visit the parish church of St Mary’s via an adjoining path called Leechwell Lane. Lepers would not be permitted to roam outside the hospital for obvious reasons. Neither would they be allowed to bathe in the nearby Leechwells for the same reason. Sometime after the Reformation the hospital administration was taken over by the town corporation and it eventually fell out of use in the 1660s.
By the middle ages the town would have been an incredibly busy, noisy and messy place and the ancient track way through the town must have been inconvenient at the very least, not to say repugnant. So it is little surprise that traffic started to bypass the town to the south between the East and West gates as South Street developed. The existing split level gives little clue to how this bypass worked but such evidence that exists suggests that both high and low roads bordered the town wall externally. For example property owners (burgesses) paid a halfpenny a year to breach these defences which constituted their own property boundary for rear access from South Street as threat of invasion and the effectiveness of ancient Saxon walls became academic.
Until then, however, access to the town was strictly guarded and channelled through west, east and north gates. There is little evidence of a south gate but the north gate exists to this day as an arch bridging the road adjacent to the castle. This guarded the route to and from Dartmoor and the Ashburton/Buckfastleigh direction via Malt Mill. The west gate vanished over a century ago but crossed the street in the Narrows where South Street rejoins the High Street.
Hilly topography limits use of surrounding agricultural land almost exclusively to cattle and sheep as it is difficult to plough and harvest a steep incline, hence the growth of the wool cloth trade. Crops can be grown on hill tops as they flatten out slightly and in suitable valleys, but the major land use has been for animals. With markets for cattle in the Rotherfold; fish at the junction of High Street and North Street; vegetables; meat at the Shambles, roughly where the Civic Hall stands; and other goods, the roads within the town would have become filthy with animal and human waste, given the insanitary habits of the past. Blotting this mess up with straw the local authority would load the worst onto carts for fertilising the land. Later, dairy products would be added to the list of markets, sold under the Butterwalk with poultry sold on the other side of High Street.
Marshland was gradually drained for land and the river has narrowed considerably allowing it to be bridged by the early thirteenth century. In the sixteenth century the weir was constructed and a leat siphoned off water to power the many mills along the river valley. This marked the high tide of wealth in Totnes as the tin trade gradually retreated. Tin mining on Dartmoor began silting up the river with sand to the extent that at times ships could not reach the town. The weir also caused flooding problems initiating a long drawn out legal battle that dragged the corporation into expensive litigation. During the civil war Dartmouth was besieged by the Parliamentarians cutting off trade completely from Totnes. Wealthy merchants deserted. In 1719 the town council was declared insolvent and many of the properties it owned sold off on 2000 year leases.
Fortunes revived a little with the arrival of the railway but never to the heights of the 16th century. Brunel introduced his atmospheric railway to Totnes. The principle was that the engine was static and thus bigger and more efficient. It powered the railway via a tube between the lines with the engine creating a vacuum to draw a piston carried by the train along a slot in the tube sealed with greased leather. This innovative idea only failed for lack of modern materials and rats gnawed the seals to destruction. The pump house still stands beside the railway and the now derelict dairy bottling plant but was never used as trains were driven conventionally from then on.
The town owes its heritage of older buildings to 18th and nineteenth century poverty. People could ill-afford to knock them down and replace them. So, apart from some Victorian adjustments, the only new buildings that appeared were brought about by fire – or the old simply fell down. One such gap is the row that would otherwise occupy the front of St Mary’s church. This was the old Exchange built by Richard Lee in 1616. Victorians piously left the space open so the church could be viewed from the street. Some of the newer buildings can be identified looking unnaturally self conscious amongst the mature ones. Not least of these is the Civic Hall of obviously 1960s construction in the Market Square. This was brought about by a disastrous fire in 1955 that destroyed the old Market House and several adjacent buildings including, ironically, the old fire station.
Fire also destroyed the iconic East Gate Arch in September 1990 and several other buildings have suffered some very near misses. By contrast with such urban neglect the opposite side of the river was developed as the modern and wealthy suburb of Bridgetown by the Duke of Somerset in the 19th century. Large well appointed villas for the well to do contrasted with small terraced houses for workers, their joint spiritual needs served by the building of the large granite church of St John’s built in 1832. Industry thrived in Bridgetown for a while and the suburb has developed loosely into modern times as the dormitory for the town.
By the late 19th and most of the 20th centuries the main occupation of Totnes has been to service a relatively rural economy. Three major employers included Harris’s Bacon Factory where Morrisons Supermarket now stands, Reeves Timber Yard that imported rough sawn timber from the Baltic until the 1980s and a milk bottling plant situated conveniently beside the railway last owned by Dairy Crest which finally closed in 2008. River trade, including the timber yard, strung out along the Totnes side of the river necessitated a branch line from the railway running beside Borough Park and behind the Bacon Factory and across the now incredibly busy junction called The Plains at the bottom of the town. Gates controlled train access and the road was temporarily closed to allow horses to pull trucks loaded with goods back to the main line.
In 1926 Dr Leonard Elmhirst and his wealthy American wife Dorothy purchased the derelict Dartington Hall and started a world famous educational centre for the arts and agriculture. The college became renowned for ground breaking and experimental methods of education and may have laid the foundations of a progressive reputation that spilled over into Totnes itself. The college finally moved to Falmouth in 2010 making an impact on the town as big as the loss of the three main industries.
Totnes still has a main market in the Market Square on a Friday with a smaller Elizabethan Market on Tuesdays in the summer. The cattle market that once occupied the Rotherfold before moving further towards the edge of the town in Leechwell Street stopped around 1963 after one brief year having moved to a purpose built site on the industrial estate.
World War II boosted industry briefly, displacing the racecourse which had been in existence for around 200 years, and laying the foundations for this new industrial estate. American troops trained in the area and built pontoons for the D Day landings while further down the river a local firm built wooden hulled minesweepers. Unfortunately, being in line of attack for Plymouth, overflying German bombers dropped a small number of bombs on the town by way of a secondary target with bombs landing at the railway station and destroying houses in Priory Avenue. This is possibly the first time the town had been on the front line of any war. It had funded the fitting out of two ships for Drake’s fleet to see off the Spanish Armada in 1588 and had been reluctant hosts to both sides during the civil war, being careful to avoid choosing sides. Its reward for that was another visit by the plague brought by passing troops and the death of around 267 townspeople. A county wide military exercise took place in the mid nineteenth century attracting tourists to marvel at this spectacle. This possibly accounts for the huge amount of spent and un-discharged ammunition found in the area, though the finds seem to cover a wide span of history. Barracks Hill provides evidence of a strong garrison during the Napoleonic wars and the part of the river bank called Longmarsh is still known locally as the Ranges and was used as such through to the Second World War.
Since the 1960s, Totnes has developed a reputation as a haven for alternative and eco-friendly living, influenced perhaps by nearby Dartington Free School and College of Arts, now both defunct, and, more recently, the Schumacher College. It has retained a diversity of independent shops, including many stocking locally-produced food, and a thriving market. Some of the events, characters and organisations instrumental in Totnes' unique diversity can be seen on Noel Longhurst's Timeglider timeline. Readers with additional information about the history of alternative Totnes can email Dr. Longhurst and thus improve the timeline.
The Transition Town movement arrived in 2006, and founders of the movement established Transition Town Totnes in the first of a world wide web of settlements dedicated to a resilient lifestyle in response to the threat of economic and energy shocks. Eco-tourism is now developing and may be the beginning of another phase in the evolving history of Totnes.