Peter Christie, a retired geography teacher who has been Mayor of Bideford four times, gave us a comprehensive talk about the history of this important north Devon town. Bideford’s importance waxed and waned over the centuries. The town sits astride the River Torridge and its two halves are linked by a thirteenth century bridge which is managed by the Bridge Trust, of which Peter is a trustee. The bridge has 24 arches of varying sizes, as they were paid for by different parishes. After its first settlement in the 7th century, Bideford was at the centre of numerous skirmishes between the Saxons and the Danes. In 1066 Matilda, the wife of William the Conqueror, owned it but never visited. Twenty years later details of the land holdings are shown in the Domesday Book.
It was at this time that the Grenville family owned it and held it until the eighteenth century. Elizabeth I granted the town a Charter in 1573. Richard Grenville helped Sir Walter Raleigh to set up a colony, Roanoke, in North America. Grenville returned home with one of the first native Americans, who was baptised and named Raleigh but lived for only 18 months; his baptism and burial are recorded in the local registers. Bideford was important for its wool trade where the sheep, as in London, were allowed to be driven across the bridge. Other trades at this time were fishing and wine.
Bideford was Puritan in the Civil War period. Skirmishes with other local towns still continued and one in 1643 with Torrington was a disaster. In 1681 three witches from Bideford were hanged in Exeter, the last to be executed in England for witchcraft. Trade continued to expand, coal was traded from South Wales as was limestone; rock salt was brought from Cheshire, and Bideford pottery was much sought after. John Davy built large houses which impressed the author and resident Daniel Defoe. Bideford was now becoming a shipping town as one can tell from street names such as Rope Walk. However, the growth of Bristol saw Bideford’s importance decline.
In the nineteenth century Bideford became an emigration port to the USA and provided ships for the Royal Navy, however it gradually lost its port status and 1886 really saw the end of its shipbuilding. Barnstaple was used by many as the port to register ships, making it for a time the largest port in North Devon. (Bideford later had its port status reinstated by Winston Churchill.) In other areas Carnegie gave money towards a new library in 1906. Charles Kingsley had been a resident and a statue of him was erected, also in 1906. The bridge was widened in 1864 and 1874.The arrival of the railway in 1855 brought tourism to the area. In the Second World War minesweepers were built and it became a centre for evacuees; four trains brought 3500 evacuees in 1941. Westward Ho! beach was used by the Americans to prepare for the D Day landings. In 1968 two arches of the bridge collapsed, and a second bridge was built. The ship yard at Appledore took over the mantle as North Devon’s shipbuilding centre.
Bideford will, no doubt, continue to go its own way with more interesting stories to tell in the future.