Devon is England’s third largest county, with the longest road network of any county in England and approx 2,600 square miles (7,000 square km) of land. Like its neighbour Cornwall, Devon has both north- and south-facing coastlines, with the major rivers, the Dart, Exe, Plym, Tamar, Otter, and Teign flowing south into the English Channel and the Taw and Torridge flowing to the north into the Bristol Channel. The South West Coastal Path covers 90 miles along the north coast and 115 miles along the south coast. The Jurassic Coast is a World Heritage Site along the south Devon coast, stretching from Orcombe Point near Exmouth in East Devon into east Dorset and Old Harry Rocks near Swanage, a distance of 95 miles (153 km). Dartmoor and Exmoor are National Parks, with the large granite mass of Dartmoor covering 368 square miles (954 square km) of central Devon, whilst Exmoor’s predominantly red sandstone (265 square miles or 686 square km) is in the northeast of the county. With its neighbour, Cornwall, West Devon is part of the Mining Landscape World Heritage Site. Historically, Devon’s two cities are Exeter, the administrative centre for most of Devon, and Plymouth which, like Torbay, is a unitary authority.
During the Roman occupation Devon was inhabited by the Celtic Dumnonii, the “Deep Valley Dwellers”, with the major Roman base at Isca Dumnoniorum (Exeter). The Dumnonii flourished for nearly five hundred years until the early 680s, when the Anglo-Saxons drove the Celts west, over the Tamar. The Saxon name of Dyfneint later evolved into Devon. William the Conqueror divided Devon’s farmland amongst his Norman barons and their descendants became established Devon families. Devon mostly favoured Parliament during the English Civil War and following the Monmouth Rebellion in 1685, Judge Jefferies held a “Bloody Assize” at Exeter. In 1688 the Prince of Orange (later William III) began the “Glorious Revolution” by landing at Brixham and marching via Exeter to London.
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Although predominantly a farming area, the Domesday Survey of 1086 recorded 99 mills and 13 fisheries. Wool and tin production flourished from the 12th-18th centuries, as did quarrying of granite, slate, marble, red sandstone and Beer stone. William Cookworthy’s discovery of kaolin (china clay) in 1746 established an industry which continues today.
Brixham had one of the largest fishing fleets in England from the nineteenth century up to the start of the First World War, when more than 200 vessels were based at Brixham, but from 1918 the industry declined.
Tin, copper, lead, gold and silver were mined, with tin taken to be weighed and stamped in one of the four Stannary towns of Ashburton, Chagford, Plympton or Tavistock. Stannary Courts regulated mining affairs and anyone breaking a stannary law could find himself imprisoned in Lydford Castle. Lydford Law became synonymous with ‘unfair justice’. The Tavistock poet William Browne wrote: “I oft have heard of Lydford Law, How in the morn they hang and draw, And sit in judgment after.” Walkers on Dartmoor can still stumble upon spoil heaps, ruined blowing houses, wheel pits, leats and mortar stones, hidden by heather and gorse.
Plymouth was originally named Sutton and grew up around a sheltered harbour and barbican. It has had a naval base since the reign of Edward I. In 1588 Drake sailed from Sutton Harbour to help defeat the Spanish Armada. A stone dock was begun along the east bank of the River Tamar in 1690, and completed in 1698. The settlement which grew up around the dockyard was first known as Dock, later as Plymouth Dock and in 1824 it was renamed Devonport, all of these situated in the parish of Stoke Damerel. During 18th-19th centuries, Stoke Damerel was one of the largest parishes in the country. 73 adult males signed the Protestation returns in 1642; by 1801 the population was 23,747 and in 1871, 49,449 inhabitants (10,903 families) lived in 4,269 houses. Added to nearby Plymouth parishes of Charles, St Andrew and East Stonehouse, that’s 135,000 souls. Search Stoke Damerel if you have lost a Devon ancestor! In 1801 Devon’s population was 343,001, in 1901, 662,196. It is now over total a million. The “three towns” of Plymouth, Devonport and East Stonehouse merged in 1914 to create the Borough of Plymouth. In 1928, the Borough was granted City status by Royal Charter. In 1967, subsequent expansion led to the incorporation of Plympton and Plymstock into the city, together with other outlying suburbs. Many of Plymouth’s homes, municipal buildings and churches were damaged during the second World War. The Bomb Book, Reference 1555 is held in the Archives and shows where the bombs fell in the Plymouth area, but it does not contain information on damage within the Dockyards. Images are available for 59 air raids which occurred between 1940 and 1944. The majority of church records survived and are held in the Archives. Plymouth City Centre was rebuilt in the mid C20th following the Plan for Plymouth and new housing estates created to the north and west of the city Plymouth Group Meetings