Great Torrington has a fascinating and colourful history. It is particularly famous for the Battle of Torrington in 1646 when, in the English Civil War, the Parliamentarians under Sir Thomas Fairfax, swept into the town and defeated Lord Hopton and his men marking the end of Royalist resistance in the West Country.
Today, Torrington is still an exciting, colourful place to live, work or visit. This vibrant community is still encircled on three sides by common land, given to the town in the 12th century. In the 21st century, however, it is championed by TV celebrities rather than soldiers. Recently, during filming in Torrington for the popular BBC series “Down to Earth”, Pauline Quirke and Warren Clarke paused to pose for the camera and comment what a charming place the town was. No wonder Great Torrington has been voted North Devon’s ‘Most Welcoming Community’.
The Commons cover some 365 acres and have over twenty miles of public rights of way, administered by a body called ‘The Commons Conservators’. Unspoilt by progress, the landscape has remained relatively unchanged over the years, boasting a variety of interesting habitats and a rich variety of flora and fauna, which are easy to explore.
Torrington Heritage Museum is a small, friendly museum, which now has a new home at 14 South Street, just by the Pannier Market in the centre of town. It is run entirely by volunteers and entrance is free. The museum has some fascinating exhibits and aims to reflect the diverse history of this ancient market town.
The Torrington Cavaliers, an organisation of volunteers are renowned for their initiatives in providing one of Torrington’s major attractions - their spectacular bonfires. On August 26th 2005, the torching of a half-scale replica of Nelson’s Trafalgar flagship HMS Victory. Thousands of spectators are expected to converge on the town for this event.
Torrington enjoys lively twinning links with the French town of Roscoff in Northern Brittany.
Great Torrington, the town on the River Torridge, is built upon a prominent North Devon hill overlooking the Torridge valley. This impressive situation was undoubtedly valued for its strategic importance during the Middle Ages, and possibly as far back as what are believed to be Saxon origins.
The earliest indication of Great Torrington's importance appears in 1086 when it merited an entry in the Devonshire Domesday Survey. The Normans were certainly in Exeter at this time, but it is not known when, or in what form, they constructed a castle or fortifications in Torrington. What is known, however, is that such as were built were destroyed in 1228 by order of the King.
The site at the top of Castle Hill must have afforded an excellent strategic position and uninterrupted views over the valleys to the high ground in the distance around Torrington and it was here that Richard de Merton built a castle and keep in the 14th century. The purpose and history of this castle are unknown. The next 300 years must have been relatively peaceful for the fortifications receive no mention. Nor do they feature in accounts of the Civil War in the 17th century, and thus it could be reasonably assumed that they had fallen into disrepair to the extent of offering no military advantage.
Probably Great Torrington's greatest claim to fame is its role in determining the irrevocable demise of Royalist power in England.
The English Civil War first reached Torrington in 1643, the skirmish, an unsuccessful attack upon the Royalist troops based at Torrington under Colonel Digby.
The second engagement, however, known as ‘The Battle of Torrington’, on February 16th 1646, was of such importance as to mark the end of Royalist resistance in the Westcountry and led to the eventual defeat and execution of King Charles I. The anniversary of this cold winter's night and bloody battle is remembered in February each year with a spectacular torch-lit procession when the town turns out in 17th century costume and re-enacts the proclamation of the victorious Sir Thomas Fairfax.
The Parliamentarians, under Fairfax, succeeded in taking the town from Lord Hopton’s men. Not realising that Hopton had chosen to use the church as a powder store, Fairfax imprisoned some two hundred Royalists within the building. Unfortunately, no sooner was this accomplished, than a huge explosion caused the death of all the prisoners and the near total destruction of the church along with many of the town's historical records.
The church was rebuilt in 1651 and is today the Parish Church of St Michael and All Angels. Though there are some significant changes in appearance resulting from repairs and rebuilding during the intervening years, the large cobbled "mound" outside the church door, where the remains of the prisoners' bodies are said to be buried, still remains today.
Great Torrington is becoming well recognised as an important heritage centre for the history of the 17th century. Many people in the town love to dress in 17th century costume and besides the battle anniversary celebrations, there are other Sealed Knot re-enactments; the annual Cavalier Week, the Royalist Revels Fayre and traditional Mayfair. The town also has a Civil War Trail and a fascinating new visitor attraction 'Torrington 1646' (awarded Devon Family Attraction of the Year 2001). It gives the visitor a wonderful insight into the 17th century by bringing history to life.
Post 17th Century
There are many reminders of Great Torrington's past still remaining. The last surviving part of the castle, the chapel, became Torrington's school in 1780; it is today the site of the Community Centre. The bowling green at Castle Hill is said to be the site of the original castle keep, although the castellated walls together with the arrow slits, seen at this point, were constructed for the town by one Lord Rolle in about 1846, he also built Town Mills in similarly flamboyant style (by New Bridge on the A386).
The site of the Rolle Canal Company’s stores was leased to Messrs Robert Sandford and Son, and there in 1874 began the Torridge Vale Butter factory, later to become the much expanded, highly mechanised Milk Marketing Board, Dairy Crest plant. The closure in 1993 left the structure of the plant remaining to dominate this part of the town and a huge deficit in employment opportunities!
One industry to stand the test of time is glove making. It developed amid a thriving wool industry in the 17th century, replacing it as the town's major employer in the 19th century with both factory and outworkers totalling in excess of 600 employees for one factory alone in the 1880s. Although far fewer people are involved, nevertheless the craft is still carried on today, the Victorian glove factory, Vaughan Tapscott Ltd, apparently built deliberately in the style of a Methodist church, can easily be seen on Whites Lane, although it is no longer active.
The demise of the canal was undoubtedly the result of developing roads and railways. In 1880, the same North Devon Company opened the 3 feet gauge Marland Light Railway reaching Torrington by way of a wooden viaduct over the Torridge. This was replaced in 1925 by the surviving steel and concrete viaduct which may be crossed on foot or cycle today, as part of the Tarka Trail travelling south from Torrington.
The stretch of canal between Town Mills and Taddiport was filled in and became a toll road - today a fine walk by the river, renowned for many years for its salmon and trout fishing, with the Toll House (no longer collecting!) at the Taddiport end. The Torrington to Bideford rail track was finally lifted in the nineteen eighties and is now surfaced for cycling as part of the Tarka Trail.
William Vaughan, a wealthy and influential glove maker who was mayor on several occasions as well as being a JP and a County Councillor was a great benefactor to the town and, among other things was instrumental in bringing the Cottage Hospital into existence. He built Sydney House in 1887, by far the largest house in Great Torrington on the site that is now the entrance to South Street Car Park, where he lived with his family until his death in 1903.
During the First World War, Sydney House was used as a Red Cross Hospital for wounded soldiers, eventually accommodating up to 100 such patients. In 1919, Devon County Council leased the house for use as an open-air home for delicate children suffering from primary tuberculosis, asthma, chronic bronchitis and other debilitating ailments from all over the county. At the outbreak of The Second World War the home also took in ailing evacuees, especially from the south London area.
On the night of Thursday 19th February 1942, there were 59 children and 8 staff resident in Sydney House. At 19:35, just after lights out, a fire broke out in the linen room, on the top floor, where the dormitories for all the boys and the younger children were also situated. The fire spread very rapidly and quickly became uncontrollable. The house was abandoned but 5 boys were missing from the roll call. Firemen fought throughout the night in freezing conditions to try and find the boys, helped by many other courageous individuals. Three were brought out but could not be revived. The other two were found dead in the rubble the following morning. This tragic event is reflected by a commemorative stone on the site of the building and the creation of a new Secret Memorial Garden in the Castle hill grounds.
From South Street car park, observers can clearly see two long, thin fields on the opposite side of the river valley, the elevated position providing a perfect vantage point. These two strips or ‘straps’ are remaining examples of medieval land culture, once the norm in England, now very rarely seen.
The two strips are part of what were originally seven small fields preserved for cultivation by the lepers whose hospital was located in Taddiport circa 1300 AD.
Over 500 years later, the Tithe Map of 1838 illustrates clearly that the seven strips were still in use.
Now only the end two remain but a programme of works to rebuild the traditional Devon banks and the hedgerows have returned the Leper Strips to their former glory. Using local rural craftsmen to restore the land to its condition when the strips were first created in medieval times, a fascinating piece of history has been preserved as part of the Great Torrington Town Lands Charity's permanent endowment.