Stoke Gabriel – a little history

Neil Millward

Given its unique waterside setting and the highly unusual variety of its underlying geology there should be no surprise that Stoke Gabriel has a rich and interesting history. As is commonly the case, there is precious little evidence to go on until late medieval times and there is no single scholastic work to draw upon. But from various sources we can adduce the following.

The earliest enduring evidence of settlement in the parish is a group of low stone banks and ditches on a limestone outcrop at Beastley (or Basely) Common to the east of Lower Well farmhousea . This dates from the 2nd century AD and is the remains of a British farmstead, probably housing an extended family. Registered as an Ancient Monument, the settlement site was subject to an archaeological investigation between 1958 and 1960 . The site is well chosen, with commanding views all round and a permanent spring nearby. Pottery shards indicate that the residents had contact with the fringes of the Roman occupation in the more substantially occupied areas of Devon to the north-east, the nearest known substantial Roman settlement being at Ipplepen, some seven miles to the north.

Traces of two other settlements of this perioed have also been found within the parish. One was on the small hill to the east of Stoke Gabriel House, the evidence for which is a midden (rubbish pit), excavated in 1959, containing pottery sherds similar to the ones found at Lower Well Farm . The second is the recent identification of an iron age settlement elsewhere in the parish using geo-physical imaging.

Together, these three sites suggest that the parish had several permanent settlements before and during the Roman occupation and that the most favourable areas had been cleared for agriculture. Fast forward a moment to 1086, the year of the Doomsday survey, and we see that the area of Devon covered by woodland (including wood pasture) was a mere four per cent of the total . It is hardly likely that between the end of the Roman occupation and the Norman conquest vast areas of woodland were cleared in Stoke Gabriel parish by the remaining native British or, later, the Anglo Saxons in their two centuries of occupation before the Normans arrived. More likely, a good portion of the parish was already pasture or cultivated land, enough to support a population of perhaps a hundred during the period of the Roman occupation. But since their modest buildings would have been made of timber, mostly coppice wood, they have left little or no trace . It is likely therefore that much of the patchwork of field boundaries that we see today, formed by hedge banks, many of them stone-faced, has ancient origins and are an important heritage feature.

South Devon was the last area of the county to be brought under Saxon control in the early eighth century . There is no surviving evidence of a Saxon church within the parish but if there was one it would almost certainly have been of timber and near the site of the present building and we can assume there was a settlement around it as well as minor outlying settlements in the parish. But there are visible remains of an early medieval chapel at Waddeton, possibly contemporaneous with the remains of a manor house. By this time there would surely have been a more substantial community in the parish as a whole, based on farming, fishing and quarrying, large enough to create the earliest stone church of which the late Norman tower survives b. From this period we have two other pieces of notable heritage. At the southern end of the parish, near Waddeton Quarries, there are the remains of early medieval fish trapsc, the result of a gift of land and fishing rights to the Canons of Torre Abbey by Lady Isabella de Wadetone. The quarries themselvesd have an important history, reputedly the source of the Permian red sandstone used for the tower of St Mary’s Church, Totnes, in the 15th century . At first sight this seems implausible since the current exposed faces of the disused quarries are all of earlier Devonian limestone. However, there are other sites within Stoke Gabriel parish (Hoyle Copsee and Lemburyf) where pockets of the later red sandstone existed and were exploited for building stone, some of it for the parish church.

More outstanding is the Mill Pool, contained by a stone-faced rubble damg and supporting a two-wheeled tidal corn mill for many centuries. There was a tide mill in Dartmouth (on the site of the current Foss Street) before 1243 and, given the more favourable site and much larger catchment area at Stoke Gabriel, it is highly likely that the dam and its double wheeled mill at Stoke were built at around the same time or even earlier . The dam and Mill Pool were never owned by the Duchy of Cornwall, which has owned the foreshore and fundus outside the dam since 1337, according to the head of the Duchy legal department . The Mill Pool dam is thus an important part of the parish’s early heritage and the corn mill on it would have supported a substantial area of farmland and much of the parish’s dependant population.

Although the Norman conquest and its aftermath led to the spread of substantial stone buildings where timber construction had been universal before, perhaps a greater change in the parish was in the pattern of land holding. The Saxons had established in England a pattern of villages with extensively cultivated “infield” and communally-held pasture and open fields, the “outfield”. The Norman feudal system also included strip farming in areas suitable for arable crops. Place names and early maps, including the 1840 tithe map, suggest that there were several areas of medieval strip farming in the parish: either side of Paignton Road from Rydon to the parish boundary before Whitehill Farmh: Waddeton Road, on the stretch between Great Tree and White Rocki; on the north side of the stream valley east of Portbridgej; and on the east side of Waddeton Road, from Four Cross to Higher Well Farmk . During this period the Crown and the Church owned or controlled most of the land area, the former by gifts to loyal henchmen and the latter in the form of the manor of Paignton within the see of Exeter. The Waddetonl and Sandridgem estates have survived from this early medieval period, although not intact, but the bulk of the parish came within the manor of Paignton, controlled by the Bishop of Exeter before the dissolution of the monasteries and afterwards by the Earls of Pembroke.

As we have seen, most of the parish was under agriculture, not ancient woodland, from early times and the mix between arable, pasture and orchard probably changed little over many hundreds of years, being the consequence of the most appropriate use of the different types of land. The construction of the tide mills was an important innovation that would support arable farming and a modest increase in population, but there were few technological innovations with a great impact on farming practices until the 18th century. A small exception was the introduction of the purposeful flooding of meadows by the building of temporary dams or water gates. This brought fresh silt to the “water meadows” and an early crop of lush grass for grazing or hay. The derelict stone pillars of such constructions can be seen at Portbridge, both downstream and upstream of Pords Bridgen itself. These probably date from two different periods, the earliest being Tudor, the latter being built in the 1600s.

Besides those mentioned above, plus the Church House Innp (16th century, probably on an earlier site, possibly of a Church House, or communal building for social events outside the church premises) and including the Church, greatly restored in the 15th century, there are few surviving buildings in the parish until we come to the 17th century, most of the earlier dwellings being of timber or cob construction and less durable than stone. A row of cob and thatch cottages, probably of 16th or 17th century origin, was demolished as recently as the 1960s to make way for Mill Hill Courtq. The adjacent Laurel Cottager is the sole survivor of this group and is listed by English Heritage as 17th century. Other surviving individual dwellings of that period include Sleess, Mill Houset, King’s Cottageu, Wayside Cottagev and Yardew (all listed Grade II). There is also a group of five dwellings at Port Bridge, all dating to the 17th century and all formerly thatched, of which only Middle Welly is listed . Of course, at this time there will have been many dwellings of earlier construction that have not survived and some that have survived to this day that have not been listed.

The nine listed buildings from the 18th century (see Appendix 1) are mostly of rubble stone (largely Devonian limestone quarried locally), but the grander ones include dressed limestone ashlar: Stoke Housez on Paignton Road ¬and Stoke Gabriel HouseA on Duncannon
Lane, originally called Maizonet and reputedly built for a mistress of King George III. The village was clearly prospering and by the end of the 18th century the parish had over 500 inhabitants. The 1801 Census (the first comprehensive one since the Doomsday Book) recorded the population of the parish as 531, distributed among 96 families in 90 dwellings. Some 38% were recorded as employed in agriculture, considerably fewer than the average for Devon parishes, reflecting the variety of economic opportunities afforded by the parish’s geology and its waterside location. Indeed, analysis of the 1815 census of property values for each household shows that Stoke Gabriel was the 81st most wealthy of the 475 parishes in Devon, putting it in the top 17%.

By the early 19th century prosperity had risen with the help of an improvement in the parish’s roads. The turnpike road from Galmpton to Berry Pomeroy (via Waddeton Road, Lembury Road, Aish and Parliament Hill) would have improved the earlier parish-maintained road, probably based on an even earlier droveway . (Sadly the Turnpike Trust records are lost so we cannot date its construction, but the 1840 tithe map confirms that this route was a turnpike, as do the granite milestones along itB, C, D.) The existing Pords Bridge (listed Grade II) was part of the turnpike improvements and incorporates a date stone of an earlier stone bridge of 1719, which itself probably replaced earlier timber bridges. Paignton Road was also a main highway to a substantial market for agricultural and horticultural produce, Paignton having a population of over 1500 in 1801. The foot ferry (abandoned after WW II) from Ashprington PointE to DuncannonF also provided a route through the parish for produce from further afield in the South Hams.

From 1801 to 1831 the parish population grew by 35% to 718. A few years later Parliament introduced the Tithe Commutation Act, forcing landowners to make their tenants pay them in cash rather than produce or services. This led to the surveying and recording of every single plot of land in the country and a systematic record of its acreage, ownership, name and usage. Three copies of the map of Stoke Gabriel parish were produced and the parish copy, in excellent condition, was recently removed from the Old School RoomG and deposited at the Devon Heritage Centre, where it is available for inspection, in person and online . From this we have a detailed picture of land use in Stoke Gabriel parish in 1840, from which Table 1 has been drawn.

Land use Percentage of total land area
Arable 43.8
Pasture 26.1
Meadow 2.0
Orchard 5.3
House and garden 1.2
Firs and furze 2.5
Quarry and waste 3.2
Road 1.8
Timber and wood 5.8
River and beach 9.1

While comparable present-day figures are not available, it seems likely that the pattern of mixed farming that occupied the great majority of the parish in 1840 was much as it is today, although with some important differences. Arable was possibly more prevalent in 1840 than now, largely because nearly half of the arable land was devoted to growing oats to feed horses, the main form of transport . Pasture and meadow were largely for dairy cattle, rather than beef, the last dairy farm (at Lower WellH) having closed in 2016. Most of the substantial area of orchard in 1840 was close to the farms, providing cider for local consumption, and has gradually been used for housing in modern times or incorporated into larger pasture fields. Surprisingly, all the areas of road were under the control of the church and administered by the parish priest as head of the parochial church council, but actually maintained by a local subcontractor. This individual was also responsible for maintaining the river and the beach, presumably licensing the netting of salmon and trout which was such an important part-time occupation in those days, but was brought to an end in 2015 .

There were very few owner occupiers of land or houses in 1840: only 22 plots were owner occupied, but the land they owned accounted for around a quarter of the land in the parish. Evidently there was a handful of owner-occupied farms with substantial acreage, plus a dozen or so houses with modest gardens. The great majority of the land – and tenanted houses – belonged to the big estates such as Waddeton Courtl and Sandridgem and was tenanted to local farmers and their labourers (Table 2). Today these estates are much less prominent in the pattern of land ownership and there are a handful of modest farms plus hundreds of small owner-occupied and tenanted houses with very little land attached to them.

Table 2 Land ownership and type of occupant, 1840

Type of occupant Percentage
of land area Percentage of plots
Owner occupiers 19 22
Tenants 81 78

Acres Plots
Parish total 2605 799
Largest private owners:
Henry Studdy 641 187
John Jackson 345 137
Lord Cranstoun 250 42
Dymond Churchward 168 56
John Churchward 131 43
Sarah Douglas 103 29
Sir Robert Newman 94 17
William Colston 90 27
Richard Adams 89 31

The Church: Rev. Belfield, lessee, glebe land, of which: 337 46
River 140 1
Beach 96 1
Road 44 15
Agricultural land 61 29

The 1840 tithe map data also record details of properties that illuminate the picture of economic life in the parish in the mid 19th century. For example, there were three corn mills: two “sea mills” on the Mill Pool dam and Byter Mill on the stream feeding the Mill Pool. Wheat was the third most important cereal crop after oats and barley and was thus ground locally, mostly for local consumption. Only in the 20th century did these mills cease production, the availability of flour from industrialised mills having increased with the advent of nearby railways in Paignton and Totnes and through the gradual improvement of road transport.

The 19th century also saw a proliferation of quarrying in the parish, although there had been much activity on a smaller scale in earlier centuries. The bedrock underlying the parish is roughly a quarter Devonian limestone . Occurring in large outcrops at the western end of the Berry Head Formation, it has been a prime source of building stone and lime rubble that could be burnt for quicklime, used for soil improvement and for lime mortar and other building applications. Hoyle Copsee and LidstoneJ are perhaps the biggest examples. The building of the railways precipitated the gradual decline of quarrying and the introduction of bricks and Welsh slate as common building materials in the parish.

Besides quarrying for stone there was also small-scale mining for iron ore in the parish. This occurred in a field to the east of Aish Road called “Mine field” in modern timesK. Within living memory the mine was closed when there was a collapse while the three miners were having their lunch break. The field was also known for being occasionally scoured for iron ore nuggets.

The census data in Table 3 show the parish population in the 19th century surging in the period of peace after the Napoleonic Wars, followed by a dramatic drop in the 1860s as agriculture became increasingly mechanised and the drift to the industrial centres elsewhere took hold. The building of the railways prompted a massive expansion of the nearby coastal towns, but not Stoke Gabriel. It was only the improvements in the road system and the start of the motoring age that made the village more accessible – and the nearby towns more reachable for parishioners by bus and private car. Thus the modern expansion of the village and its outlying hamlets only began in the 1920s, with the number of households nearly doubling between 1921 and 1951 and doubling again by 1991. Most of the expansion was near the village centre and consisted of local authority built rented houses (mostly sold off in the 1980s) or owner-occupied houses built by private developers on former orchards or pasture, as many of the street names testify.

Table 3. Census population estimates, 1801 – 2011, Stoke Gabriel Parish
year Total residents 10-year increase % % male Houses occupied Absent
1801 531
1811 571
1821 638
1831 718
1841 691 48 150
1851 718 47 146
1861 622 48 142
1871 684 146
1881 642 48 135
1891 638 47 132
1901 585 136
1911 591 51 142
1921 570 46 144
1931 699 47 184
1951 867 46 266
1961 967 47 340
1971 1223 44 475 20
1981 1207
1991 1258 50 535*
2001 1205 49
2011 1254 49
*Of which 49% were owned outright, 38% being bought, 5% local authority rented; 37% consisted solely of pensioners, 26% had a single occupant; 16% with no car, 35% with 2 or more cars.

Table 3 illustrates starkly the impact of the First World War on the gender distribution of the parish, the proportion of males falling from 51 to 46 per cent between 1911 and 1921. The village war memorial records 18 men as having died as a result of the war. A recent exhibition of photographic and other materials in the church, mounted for the centenary of the Armistice, illustrated the local impact of the conflict.

The same memorial records seven deaths resulting from WW II, but in this conflict there was a much more intimate contact with the machinery of war itself. Stoke Gabriel became an involuntary host to the massive build-up of naval power in preparation for the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Some 500 vessels were amassed on the River Dart, many of them constructed in situ. SlipwaysL and anti-aircraft and searchlight basesM are still to be seen on the margins of the river. The big estate houses were requisitioned for wartime purposes. Sandridge Park was being used as an evacuee hostel in late 1941 and a cadet training centre for 120 boys in mid 1942. In late 1943 a camp of Nissen huts was constructed to house 800 men of the US Advanced Amphibious Battalion; it included galley and messing facilities, a hospital, gasoline storage and a signal tower. As elsewhere along the tidal Dart, there are many mature trees here with soldiers’ initials and dates. Older men in the village still remember finding live small-arms ammunition near the foreshore for many years after the end of the war. After the D-Day exodus the camp was turned into a prisoner-of-war camp, but by the end of 1948 this use had ceased and the buildings and materials sold at auction.

Between 1951 and 1971 over 200 private houses were built in the outskirts of the village, not to accommodate a growth in the number or size of local families but mostly to meet the demands of incomers. Stoke Gabriel became a desirable village for retired people from elsewhere in the country and for families and individuals who worked in Torbay, elsewhere in the South Hams and in Exeter and Plymouth. This trend has continued to the present day, alongside an increasing tendency for houses to be purchased as second homes, either for the occasional use of their owners or for letting for holiday makers or longer-term tenants, often looking for a home to buy. More recently, the advent of the internet has ushered in a sizeable number of people working at home – a trend accentuated by the 2020 coronavirus epidemic.

The distinctiveness of Stoke Gabriel

The parish consists mostly of picturesque farmland with its western boundary formed by the River Dart.

Notable landscape features include:
• The views of the river from the QuayH and the publicly accessible foreshore.
• The views of the nearly three miles of foreshore from the river – mostly pasture fields and mixed deciduous woodland, including rare “ria oaks” upstream of Mill Point.
• The extensive network of field boundaries, some of Saxon or earlier origin, constructed as stone-faced banks using local Devonian limestone or as double-faced, mortared walls, again usually of local limestone and of later construction.
• Several distinctive stone stiles at the entrance to footpaths from the public road consisting of a single, thin, vertical limestone slab with limestone steps and side pillars. Examples are at Paignton RoadN at the outer end of “the narrows”, Hoyle LaneP and at the Galmpton end of Stoke Gabriel RoadQ.
• Several large boulders of red Permian sandstone, the harder remains of the stratum that once overlaid the whole area and gave many fields their distinctive red/orange soil colour. One such boulder lies at the upper entrance to Higher Well FarmR, another inside the entrance to Waddeton Barton farmyardS. Many older walls, especially at Waddeton, contain smaller dressed stones of this materialT.
• The remains of the fortified Romano-British farmstead on the hilltop east of Lower Well Farma.
• The Mill Pool damg, probably of late Norman construction, which encloses the eastern portion of the creek and originally provided the base for a two-wheeled corn mill.
• Over a dozen abandoned limestone quarries, many with the remains of lime kilns.
• Hoyle CopseD, a complete example of a limestone quarry with its intact lime kiln, adjacent coppice wood for fuel and paddock for the ponies that transported the stone and timber. Owned and maintained by the Parish Council and open to the public.
• The ancient yew tree in the churchyardb.
• The Parish OrchardU, next to the churchyard, one of the last of many cider orchards in the parish and now the venue for the revived annual Wassail.
• A complete lack of high voltage electricity pylons.

Notable buildings and constructions include, in rough historical order:
• The parish church of St Mary and St Gabriel with its Norman towerb, mostly 15th century nave and isles and restored medieval rood screen. The building and its history are well documented at
• The 16th century Church House Innm and the cobbled Church Walk.
• A scattering of remaining thatched cottages at Aish, Waddeton and in the village centre.
• Sandridge ParkV, one of three villas in Britain designed by John Nash in the Vernacular Italianate style and built in 1805 for Lord Ashburton. See R Yallop, “Villa rustica, villa suburbana: Vernacular Italianate architecture in Britain, 1800-1860”, Oxford University doctoral thesis, 2017. The house contains many original features and has been immaculately restored by the current owners.
• Pords BridgeW, an early 19th century turnpike bridge of dressed limestone, together with three granite milestones along Lembury Road and Waddeton Road dating from the construction of the turnpike road in the late 18th or early 19th century.
• Substantial old stone farmhouse and outbuilding complexes at Aish HouseX, YardeY and Old Stoke FarmZ.

Famous historic characters born and brought up in Stoke Gabriel

John Davis (c. 1550 – 1605) was born in the Elizabethan house that stood on what is now Sandridge Barton. He became a notable explorer and navigator, commanding three trips in 1585-7 to Greenland and beyond in search of a north west passage to Asia. He brought attention to the rich fisheries of the Arctic region and discovered the Davis Strait, later named after him by Dutch whalers. In two ill-fated voyages to the south seas he discovered the Falkland Islands. He piloted several convoys of the East India Company in the spice trade and was killed by pirates near Singapore. His charting and log-keeping were used by later captains for centuries and his development of a more accurate and compact quadrant was adopted widely in Europe.

George Jackson Churchward (1857 – 1933) came from a long-established Stoke Gabriel family, long regarded as the village squires. After grammar school in Totnes he followed an early enthusiasm for the railway, being apprenticed first at the Newton Abbot works of the South Devon Railway and later at the Swindon works of the GWR. Here he rose from draughtsman to Chief Mechanical Engineer. From the. Early 1900s to the 1920s his 4-6-0 designs were judged superior to those of other railway companies in terms of speed and sure-footedness, a crucial characteristic on the steep gradients of the Westcountry routes. His designs remained influential until the end of the age of steam, notably through his successor at the GWR, Charles Collett.
Appendix 1. Listed Properties in Stoke Gabriel Parish, 2020

Property Date
Earthwork enclosures and field systems, 430m NE of Lower Well Farm C2
Church of St Mary and St Gabriel C13
Remains of Waddeton Manor House C16
Church House Inn C16
Slees C17
King’s Cottage C17
Mill House late C17
Laurel Cottage C17
Wayside Cottage including adjoining barn to North, Waddeton mid C17
Yarde C17
Middle Well, late C17
Stoke Gabriel House late C18
Stoke House early C18
Garden boundary wall ESE of The White House C18
Thatch Cottage, Aish late C18
Sage Cottage, Vicarage Road C18
Orchard Cottage, Waddeton early C18
Lodge Cottage, Waddeton C18
The Firs, Aish late C18
4, Church Walk C18
Tree Cottage, Waddeton C18
Pords Bridge early C19
The White House early C19
Gate pier and gate, 140m NNW of Waddeton Court mid C19
South Bank early C19
Rosemount early C19
Sandridge Boathouse mid C19
Sandridge Barton early C19
Waddeton Boat House mid C19
Cross Creek House early C19
Waddeton Court, C19
Chapel of St Michael, Waddeton C19
Sandridge Park early C19
Aish House early C19
K6 Telephone Kiosk, Church Lane C20
D-Day Landing Craft Maintenance Site on the River Dart, 560m S of Waddeton Court C20