The Eighteenth Century Inhabitants of Sampford Peverell, Devon

By The Sampford Peverell Society

Background: ownership

Although it has not been possible to establish its precise origins, it is known that Sampford Peverell was a Saxon settlement or 'vill' known as 'Sanforde', the name being derived from a 'sandy ford' that crossed a stream running through the village. Sanforde was mentioned in the Domesday Book, which tells us that the land had been seized by the King from its Saxon owner Beorthric and given to Roger de Bully, who was favoured by Queen Matilda (wife of William I). In the early part of the twelfth century, the Manor of Sanforde changed ownership again, this time being granted to two members of the Peverell family. The Peverells remained Lords of the Manor for nearly three hundred years, during which time they provided the village with a castle (now demolished), a Church (still very much in use) and were successful in elevating the status of the settlement to that of a borough. They also gave the 'Peverell' suffix to the place name.

When the last of the Peverell line died without issue, Sampford Peverell reverted to the Crown and was given by Henry IV to his half-brother John Beaufort in about 1400. A century later, his successor Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII, inherited the Manor. She was a generous benefactor and provided an aisle for the Church and a magnificent Rectory, both of which survive today. After her death, the Manor once again reverted to the Crown and this time it was sold to the Powlett family of Hinton St. George, Somerset. The Lordship remained with the Powlett family right through to the beginning of the nineteenth century, when it was sold off piecemeal.

Background: the economy

A Saxon charter, which refers to part of what is now Sampford Peverell, informs us that some of the outfields were under plough. A century later, the Domesday Book gives some more detail about the extent of arable land and that which was pasture and meadow. With both fertile soil for growing crops and rich pasture for grazing, the settlement was well placed to become an agricultural centre. To supplement the flow of water from natural springs, a watercourse was constructed to divert a channel from the River Lowman to the village pond. This not only enhanced irrigation of the land, but was also sufficient to power the mills. In time, the inhabitants were able to produce more than they needed to sustain themselves. Perhaps the first signs that the settlement was growing in size and prosperity came with the construction of the Castle and, in the thirteenth century, with the Parish Church and the granting of borough status. The latter enabled the Lord of the Manor to hold weekly markets and bi-annual fairs, which not only drew outsiders into the 'town' to trade, but also allowed him to levy taxes on the goods that were sold. Consequently, through the trade in agricultural goods, the Lord (who was not resident here) and his major tenants (who were) would have become wealthy. The vast majority of the inhabitants, however, would have toiled on the farms and lived out their lives just above the subsistence level.

Charitable support for the poor of the Parish in a structured way started 'beyond all time of memory' (Extracts from the 1820 Inquiry into Charities). This was achieved by conveying ten burgages in the town to Charity Lands, the trustees of which ('feoffees') became responsible for letting them out to tenants. Rents and 'fines' levied on the inhabitants of these dwellings provided a source of income which the feoffees distributed to those poor people, 'whom they should deem most to stand in need thereof'. There are no records remaining to tell us who set up this Charity: 'the length of time which devoureth all things had eaten out both the name and memory of the donor'. However, it would seem likely that the donor was one of the past Lords of the Manor, because nearly all of the land in the Parish and Borough had been in his ownership. Perhaps it was the pious benefactor Lady Margaret Beaufort: we may never know for sure.

A substantial part of England's economy in the Middle Ages depended on the production of woollen materials: initially kersey, and later serge. There was a thriving market for these goods on the continent and the South West of England was at the forefront of this trade (mostly exported via Exeter). Sampford Peverell was one of many villages in Mid-Devon that produced these materials, often then sold on to local wool-merchants based in Tiverton or Exeter.

At the end of the seventeenth century, we can surmise that Sampford Peverell was a self-sufficient, but not isolated, community. The village had a tannery, smith's shop, mills and several inns; it also held weekly markets and two fairs a year. It was on the road from Wellington to Tiverton, and would have frequently been host to drovers and other travellers. There was no school at this time, but there was both a Church and Church House, the latter probably used for holding meetings and celebrations. However, the relatively stable economy of this community was set to change from the beginning of the eighteenth century.

A full account of the findings of the Sampford Peverell Society on their community during the eighteenth century will be published later in the year.

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