Throughout the eighteenth century bishops of Exeter were concerned with the provision of education in their diocese. In 1744 Nicholas Clagett made a detailed enquiry into the availability of schooling, asking whether his parishes contained a public or charity school, the number of children taught therein, what care was taken to instruct them in the doctrines of the Church of England, and whether they were brought to Church. In 1779 a more limited enquiry was made, asking whether there were any public or other schools in each parish. Arthur Warne has questioned the usefulness of the visitations as a source for the study of educational provision in the eighteenth century. The tendency of many clergy to focus on the specific queries regarding charity and public schools makes it difficult to assess the total number of educational establishments in the diocese of Exeter at any given point. The returns are often vague, and do not always identify the existence of schools other than those specified in the Bishop's queries. Thus the visitations almost certainly underestimate the provision of education in eighteenth century Devon, in particular the likelihood that children were instructed at home or in small 'dame' schools.124 In addition to these drawbacks, the phrasing of the questions in both 1744 and 1779 made no allowance for the education of children from one parish at a school in a neighbouring town or village.
There were few places of any size in Devon that did not have some form of schooling by the mid-eighteenth century. By 1700 there were around fifty schools in the county, a figure that had increased to above 180 by the end of the century.125 While any quantitative information drawn from the visitation articles is of limited value the more detailed returns of some clergy are of importance in understanding the range of educational provision within the county of Devon. Moreover, some basic data can be obtained to provide a general picture of the minimum level of schooling offered during the second half of the eighteenth century. While the clergy often felt obliged to comment only on the more significant educational establishments in their parish, others made reference to less formal arrangements. In 1744 a total of 153 (35.7%) incumbents mention some form of schooling in their parishes, compared with 276 (64.3%) who made no reference. In 1779 the number of clergy who indicated that there was some form of educational provision had risen to 179 (41.7%), against 250 (58.3%) who did not. Therefore, by the final two decades of the eighteenth century at least 40% of Devon parishes contained a school of some sort or another. A closer examination of the returns from both years suggests that these figures almost certainly underestimate the degree of schooling available. The figures also conceal the range of educational provision.126
There were nineteen endowed grammar schools in Devon during the eighteenth century, the masters of which were invariably members of the clergy.127 These were usually mentioned in the returns for the relevant parish, although the issues associated with the specific wording of the queries are highlighted by the 1744 return for Tavistock. In response to the enquiry about schools the vicar William Browne simply replied that 'We have no Charity School in our parish', making no reference to the presence of a grammar school in the town.128 However, most grammar schools were thought fit to mention. For example, that at Okehampton was mentioned in 1744 as being endowed with the annual sum of £6 'which has not lately been paid, because in Dispute'. The number of children taught was 18, and they received daily instruction in the principles of the Christian religion. By 1779 additional reference was made to the existence of two charity schools in the town.
The substantial increase in the provision of education witnessed during the eighteenth century owed much to the Charity School movement.129 The introduction of Charity Schools was encouraged by the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge (SPCK), through the coordination of the movement and through supplying books and giving advice. However, the foundation of the schools depended upon the support of local patrons and clergy who were sought to encourage the laity to contribute funds and to supply tuition, books and clothing for the children.130 In Devon, the movement achieved much early progress, and by 1724 25 towns and villages had established Charity schools.131 Although the early impetus began to fade after this, schools were established at a further 15 locations by the end of the century. The more detailed queries issued by Nicholas Clagett in 1744 yielded the most information, and tell us much about the priorities of the Charity School movement in Devon. About 50 boys and girls were taught at the school in Brixham, 20 of them free of charge. They were instructed not just in reading, writing and the principles of religion, but also in the art of navigation. In the small parish of Trusham in the deanery of Kenn ten children were taught through an endowment of five pounds a year, although one of the benefactors being 'much reduc'd placeth & displaceth one & the other according to his own interest or humour, paying little or no regard to ye design of the benefaction specified in the original deed'. The long-term success of the Charity Schools could be compromised by financial difficulties. Samuel Ley, rector of Dolton, reported in 1744 that the 'Subscriptions to a Charity School formerly sett up by myself & encouragd by my Patrons' were 'now sunk'. Lack of income had forced the number of boys taught at the charity school in Great Torrington to be reduced from 30 to 24.
That the visitation returns under-represent the number of schools of all types in Devon during the eighteenth century is indicated by the dismissive way in which some clergy referred to the smaller establishments in their parishes. At Holsworthy in 1779 Owen Meyrick commented that 'There is no school, except a common one for reading & writing'. Similar replies were made in the same year by the incumbents of Pinhoe and Ugborough. However, a number of incumbents did make more detailed replies, particularly in response to the 1744 queries. For example, while Mary Tavy did not contain a school as such, the children were instructed by their parents or 'where the Parents are Incapable by two or three women'. At Loxhore children were taught to read by the wife of the parish clerk, who refused to send them to church or to be catechised. In the small parish of Yarnscombe in the deanery of Barnstaple nine children were taught the catechism and to read by a poor widow. Three or four of these were instructed at the expense of the incumbent William Palmer. Not all attempts to educate the local children were welcomed by the parish clergy. At Venn Ottery it was noted that,
here is lately come into the parish a person who some say, pretends to be a Quaker and I am affraid has but little regard to the dutys of Xtianity himself, and He teaches children to read and write but very likely and I am told he takes but little care to instruct them in the Dutys of our holy Religion.In order to understand the full extent of educational provision in eighteenth century Devon, it is useful to think in broader terms than suggested by the focus of the visitation queries on the parish. The questions asked by Clagett and Ross did not require the clergy to make an overall assessment of the level of education received by the children of their parish. However, there is occasional evidence that the absence of a school in one place did not necessarily mean that children were not sent to be educated in a neighbouring village. In 1744 George Paddon of Chawleigh reported the presence of one 'reading and writing School' and one 'English reading school'. Twenty children were instructed at the first, and a further eighty at the second. In the neighbouring parishes of Eggesford and Cheldon the respective incumbents both reported that while there was no school in their own parishes, the poor children were sent to Chawleigh at the expense of Coulson Fellows esquire.
It is likely that similar situations existed elsewhere in the county, although in some cases it is necessary to relate the visitation returns to other sources. Evidence from the five contiguous parishes of Bow, Zeal Monachorum, Clannaborough, Lapford and Down St Mary is suggestive. The 1744 returns show that the parish of Bow was served by a free school with a small endowment for the instruction of ten poor boys in reading, writing and casting accounts. The schoolmaster reportedly instructed them carefully in the church catechism and brought them to church regularly. The tiny neighbouring parish of Clannaborough had no school, and the few residing children were instructed in religion by the incumbent, John Freke. In Lapford a few children were taught to read and instructed in the catechism by the parish clerk. At Down St Mary the only schooling noted was a woman who instructed three or four children, while at Zeal no provision was noted. However, a series of documents dating from 1740 suggest that the school at Bow was serving all five parishes.132 In February an application was made for John Rowdon to be granted a licence to teach 'English, Writing and Arithmetick in the Parish of Bow', and was signed by the churchwardens and rector of Bow, as well as the rectors of Lapford and Clannaborough. The reason for the appointment as stated in a letter dated 10 May 1740 was that Henry Blighe, the previous master, had removed to Silverton. On the occasion of his removal Blighe obtained a letter attesting to his good behaviour and competency during his time at Bow. As well as being signed by the rector and wardens of Bow, the letter also contains the signatures of the rectors of Clannaborough, Down St Mary and Zeal Monachorum. The fact that several neighbouring clergy subscribed documents relating to the free school at Bow indicates that the school was serving several local parishes.