Visit Tavistock in Devon

Tavistock is a charming market town on the south west edge of Dartmoor. Famous as being the birthplace of Sir Francis Drake, this ancient stannary town derives its name from the River Tavy on which it lies, and “stock”.

“Stock” or “Stoke” would indicate that it became a prominent agricultural market, after the development of the Benedictine Abbey, founded in AD 961 by Ordgar, Earl of Devon. The abbey was destroyed by Viking raiders in AD 997, but was restored. Among the famous abbots was Aldred, who crowned both King Harold II and William I, dying as Archbishop of York.

The importance of this market town was recognized by the granting of a Market Charter to the monks by King Henry I in 1105. The charter as a Stannary Town was granted by King Edward I in 1305. In 2005 the town commemorated the two anniversaries, 900th and 700th with a programme of historical, musical and artistic events during the year.

The greater part of the abbey was rebuilt in 1457-8 and in 1552 two fairs were granted by King Edward VI to the Earl of Bedford, then Lord of the Manor. The town continued to thrive under the charge of the abbots as a centre for both religion and commerce until the Dissolution of the Monasteries brought about the demolition of the abbey in 1539. The ruins of the abbey can be seen in the centre of the town.

From this time on the dominant force in the area became the Russell family, Earls and later Dukes of Bedford. The town’s most famous son, Sir Francis Drake was born at Crowndale Farm, just to the west of the present Tavistock College. The statue of Drake on Hoe in Plymouth is a replica of the one on the roundabout at the west end of the town.

Drake made his home at Buckland Abbey, near Plymouth. The house is jointly owned and run by Plymouth City Council and the National Trust, as a museum dedicated to the memory of Drake.

Industrial history of Tavistock

Mining of copper, manganese, lead, silver and tin was previously carried out in the vicinity and the town played host to a considerable trade of cattle and corn, and industries in brewing and iron-founding. By the 17th century, tin was on the wane and the town relied more heavily on the cloth trade. Under the stewardship of the Russell family the town remained prosperous, surviving the Black Death in 1625 (though 52 townspeople died).

In the English Civil War starting 1642, the town was at first held by the Parliamentarians (Francis Russell, the 4th Earl of Bedford was a leading figure in the parliamentarian movement), before later hosting King Charles I and his Royalist troops in 1643 after the defeat of the Parliamentary forces at the Battle of Bradock Down.

The wool industry declined at Tavistock and was attributed by the inhabitants in 1641 to the dread of the Turks at sea and of Popish Plots at home.
In 1694, William Russell, 5th Earl of Bedford became the first Duke of Bedford.​

Modern history of Tavistock

By 1800, cloth was heading the same way as tin had done a century earlier, but copper was starting to be seriously mined in the area, to such an extent that by 1817 the Tavistock Canal had been dug (most of the labour being done by French prisoners of war from the Napoleonic Wars, to carry copper to Morwellham Quay on the River Tamar, where it could be loaded into sailing ships weighing up to 200 tons.

In 1822 the old fairs were abolished in favour of six fairs on the second Wednesday in May, July, September, October, November and December.

In the mid-nineteenth century, with nearby Devon Great Consols mine at Blanchdown one of the biggest copper mining operations in the world, Tavistock was booming again, reputedly earning the 7th Duke of Bedford alone over £2,000,000. A statue in copper of the 7th Duke stands in Guildhall Square.

The Duke built a 50,000 gallon reservoir to supply the town in 1845, as well as a hundred miners’ houses at the southern end of town, between 1845 and 1855. There is a strong, recognisable vernacular “Bedford style” of design, exemplified most strikingly in Tavistock’s Town Hall and the “Bedford Cottages” ubiquitous across Tavistock and much of the local area to the north and west, where the Bedfords had their estate and summer “cottage” at Endsleigh House and Gardens, which since 2005 is the Hotel Endsleigh run by Alex Polizzi.

Tavistock was deprived of one member of Parliament in 1867 and finally disenfranchised in 1885. The railway came to the town in 1859, with the town being connected to the Great Western Railway and the London and South Western Railway.

At around this time the centre of town was substantially and ruthlessly remodelled by the 7th Duke of Bedford, including the construction of the current Town Hall and Pannier Market buildings, and the widening of the Abbey Bridge, first built in 1764, and a new Drake Road ramped up northwards from Bedford Square to the LSWR station.

Tavistock North railway station opened to much acclaim and fanfare in 1890.

The population had peaked at around 9,000. By 1901 the population had halved, recorded as 4,728. In 1968, following the Beeching Report , Tavistock Station closed its doors, and in 1999 English Heritage listed the building as Grade II.

Kelly College, a co-educational public school, amalgamated with Mount House to form Mount Kelly Foundation, to the north-east of the town, was founded by Admiral Benedictus Marwood Kelly, and opened in 1877 for the education of his descendants and the orphan sons of naval officers, and is a pastiche of the Bedford and High Victorian styles of building.

We thoroughly recommend a visit to this lively and charming town which remains busy whatever the weather or time of year. This can be attributed to the efforts of John Warne, who as Mayor of Tavistock fought off efforts to have the centre of the town pedestrianised.