views updated Jun 08 2018

Devon was the third largest of the old counties. Having two sea-coasts, it was orientated in different directions. The northern shore along the Bristol channel runs from east of Lynton to south of Hartland Point: the south shore, along the English channel, runs from east of Seaton, via Exmouth and Torbay, to the Tamar, west of Plymouth. The southern parts are drained by the Tamar, the Dart, the Exe, the Culm, the Otter, and the Axe; the north eastern parts by the Torridge and the Taw, flowing into Barnstaple Bay. The boundary with Cornwall in the west is the Tamar, while the eastern boundary with Somerset is largely the line of hills forming the watershed of the Exe and the Otter. Dartmoor in the south, Exmoor in the north, and the Blackdowns in the east are the highest points, but much of the county is hilly, with deep valleys.

The name first appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 851 as Defensascir, which appears to be derived from the Dumnonii, the Celtic tribe inhabiting the area. In Roman times, Exeter (Isca Dumnoniorum) was an important base and port. The Fosse Way ran through what is now the south-east of the shire, meeting the Roman road from Dorchester to Exeter.

In post-Roman times, the British kingdom of Dumnonia embraced both Devon and Cornwall: it survived, perhaps in shrunken form, at least until the early 8th cent., since Aldhelm in 705 addressed a letter to its king, Geraint. The eastern part of the region had fallen to the Saxons after Cenwalh's victory at Penselwood in 658 and much of the western part by the end of the century. It then formed part of the kingdom of Wessex. Ine established a bishopric for the area at Sherborne in 705, moved to Crediton in 909, and to Exeter itself in 1050. With exposed coast-lines and many creeks, the area was vulnerable to Danish raids and suffered heavily in the 870s and again in 1003, when the monastery at Exeter was destroyed. By the 11th cent. it had taken shape as a shire. In the Domesday survey of 1086 Exeter was by far the largest town and the only other boroughs mentioned were Totnes, Barnstaple, and Lydford. By the 12th cent. the building of the present cathedral had begun and Exeter was large enough to have problems of water supply.

Though Exeter was the county town and of national importance, it did not dominate in so large a shire as other county towns did. Consequently, Devon developed as a county of seaports—Barnstaple, Bideford, Brixham—and of market towns of largely local significance, Okehampton, Tavistock, Tiverton, Torrington, Newton Abbot, Honiton, and Ashburton. Until the growth of the cloth industry in the later Middle Ages, it was wholly dependent upon agriculture and fishing, with a little mining. Plymouth developed as a naval base as vessels grew larger and its superb harbour was more needed, replacing Plympton. Charles II built the citadel and William III established the royal dockyard in 1692. Celia Fiennes, who visited the county in 1699, found the hills hard going: ‘rarely can you see houses unless you are just descending to them, they always are placed in holes, as it were … the lanes full of stones and dirt for the most part.’ She was amazed at the bustle of activity in the serge trade at Exeter and for 20 miles round, and at Plymouth left good descriptions of the new dockyard and the first Eddystone lighthouse. Twenty years later, another visitor, Defoe, was ecstatic, finding the shire ‘so full of great towns, and those towns so full of people so universally employed in trade and manufactures, that not only it cannot be equalled in England, but perhaps not in Europe’.

The reputation of the county was for unintelligible speech, turbulence, and independence. In 1549 there was a formidable rising on behalf of the old religion and Exeter was threatened. Later, protestant dissent made much progress. During the Civil War there was heavy fighting. Exeter was held for the king but Plymouth, a fiercely puritan town, resisted throughout the war and proved a thorn in the royalists' side. The county gave some support in 1685 to Monmouth, who landed at Lyme, and more in 1688 to William of Orange, who came ashore at Brixham in November. There were few great families, though the Edgecumbes owned Mount Edgecumbe at Plymouth, the Courtenays held Powderham near Exeter, and the Russells gained influence after their acquisition of the estates of Tavistock abbey at the dissolution of the monasteries. The great size of the county made electioneering difficult and was an incentive to avoid contests: in the 100 years from the Glorious Revolution to 1790, there was only one by-election contest, in 1712.

Improvements in roads and the coming of the railway made Devon less inaccessible: Brunel's lines reached Exeter in 1844 and Plymouth in 1848. Exeter grew from 17,000 in 1801 to 47,000 by the end of the century but was surpassed by Plymouth, 16,000 in 1801 and more than 100,000 in 1901. Even more remarkable was the growth of the resorts as the habit of seaside holidays caught on. Ilfracombe, on the north coast, rose from a small town in 1801 to well over 8,000 by 1901: Torquay, a hamlet of only 800 at the beginning of the century, was a town of 33,000 by 1901, and the new borough of Torbay had a population of 124,000 in 2002 against 111,000 in Exeter. Distance from London has given the county some protection, though both Exeter and Plymouth suffered badly from bombing during the Second World War. After the Banham commission report on local government in 1994 Devon retained its county status, with Plymouth and Torbay as unitary authorities.

J. A. Cannon


views updated May 29 2018

Devon County in sw England, bounded by the English Channel (s) and the Bristol Channel (n); the county town is Exeter. There are Bronze and Iron Age remains. During the Middle Ages, tin mining was a major industry. Devon is a hilly region that includes Dartmoor and Exmoor. The principal rivers are the Ex, Tamar, Dart and Teign. Cattle farming is important. Industries: tourism, fishing, dairy products, cider, textiles. Area: 6711sq km (2591sq mi). Pop. (2001 est.) 1,097,900.