HISTORY OF TAVISTOCK
Standing in the heart of an area of tremendous natural beauty, Tavistock today is a thriving market town – the largest in West Devon – with a population of around 14,000. Tavistock’s rich and varied history is clearly visible in the fabric and culture of the modern town, and continues to fascinate both locals and visitors.
Tavistock lies on the western edge of Dartmoor National Park, about 15 miles north of Plymouth. Its name is derived from the River Tavy, which flows through the town, and ‘stoc’ which is an Old English word for settlement. For over 900 years Tavistock was dominated by two wealthy and powerful institutions: the medieval Benedictine abbey and the Dukes of Bedford. Under the patronage of the abbey, which was founded in 974, Tavistock grew to become a market town, a significant producer of woollen cloth, a parliamentary borough and one of Devon’s three original stannary towns.
At the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539, Henry VIII transferred the abbey and most of its assets to John Russell, the first in a succession of Earls and Dukes of Bedford to own most of the town. In the 19th century Tavistock’s economy and society were transformed by the expansion of metal mining, mainly for copper, around the town and in the Tamar Valley. By 1817 the Tavistock Canal had been dug (most of the labour being performed 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 tonnes. The 6th and 7th Dukes used the revenues from copper mines on their land to redevelop the town centre, provide fine public buildings including the Guildhall and Pannier Market, and erect ‘model’ cottages for industrial workers.
Tavistock’s most famous son, Sir Francis Drake, was born around 1540 at Crowndale Farm on the outskirts of Tavistock to the west of Tavistock College. A Blue Plaque is mounted on the current farmhouse. The original farmhouse was dismantled and the stone transported for use in Lewtrenchard. He became a sailor and navigator, and the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe. He is probably most famous for defeating the Spanish Armada off the coast of Plymouth and, popular legend has it that on receiving word of the sightings of the Spanish fleet, Sir Francis Drake remarked that there was plenty of time to finish the game and defeat the Spanish. A bronze statue of Sir Francis Drake stands at the south western end of the A386 Plymouth Road. Cast in 1883 by Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm (1834-90), there is a replica on Plymouth Hoe. Drake later made his home at Buckland Abbey, about eight miles away towards Plymouth.
There is a lovely walk that takes you along Tavistock Canal from the centre of town to Crowndale. You can cycle from the Drake statue in Tavistock to the statue in Plymouth by following Drake's Trail.