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Tavistock town centre.jpg
Tavistock town centre
Grid reference: SX480740
Location: 50°33’0"N, 4°8’19"W
Population: 11,018  (2001)
Post town: Tavistock
Postcode: PL19
Dialling code: 01822
Local Government
Council: West Devon
Torridge and West Devon

Tavistock is a stannary town in western Devon, nestled in a Dartmoor valley. It is a charming, thriving market town, considered the capital of Dartmoor. The town stands on the River Tavy, from which its name derives, and runs with rocks and rapids from north-east to south-west through the town. The heart of the town stands all on the north side of the river, the newer residential areas up the hills to its south.

The Russell family as Earls and later Dukes of Bedford owned Tavistock from the Dissolution of the Monasteries until the twentieth century. The Bedford Hotel, on the Plymouth Road opposite Bedford Square, was formerly the local residence of the Dukes of Bedford and of their local agent. Tavistock’s most famous son is Sir Francis Drake,[1] believed to have been born at Crowndale, a farm outside the town.

Tavistock serves as the principal town for a wide area, with many small outlying villages and farms. It is popular with holiday-makers, many exploring Dartmoor and the Tamar Valley. It is also a popular commuter town for those working in Plymouth and a sizeable population of retired folk drawn by its rural tranquillity and scenery and convenience.

The Town

Tavistock traces its history back at least to 961 AD, when Tavistock Abbey was founded. Today’s Tavistock stands as the town was rebuilt in the first half of the nineteenth century by Francis Russell, 7th Duke of Bedford, from the profits of the nearby Devon Great Consols mines. The result is a beautiful town built of local granite, incorporating parts of the remaining Abbey walls and with grand buildings matching their crenulated style.

Bedford Square close to the river forms the town’s showpiece, where the town hall, magistrates’ court and police station stand in austere grandeur in front of the famous Pannier Market, and standing at right angles a massive mediæval arch from the old Abbey, which now houses the Tavistock Museum. The parish church, St Eustachius, stands opposite. Here Abbey Bridge, the town’s main bridge, crosses the River Tavy.

Tavistock's main shopping streets are Duke Street and its continuations at either side, West Street and Brook Street, which run from the north of Bedford Square.

Plymouth Road, running westward from the centre of Bedford Square, begins with the Bedford Hotel and beyond is populated with many bed and breakfasts establishments, as well as the town's bus station. Between Plymouth Road and the Tavy is the park, known locally as the Meadows, together with car parks. The Wharf, a theatre, cinema and culture centre, with a public swimming pool is at the edge of the Meadows.

Tavistock's industrial estate and major retail outlets are found further south along the Plymouth Road.

The Tavistock Canal, running parallel to the Tavy from the Bedford Hotel was built by the 7th Duke to bear material to Morwellham Quay on the Tamar, and now serves to generate hydroelectric power.

In 2005 Tavistock was voted 'Best Market Town' in England and in 2006 'Best Food Town',[2] largely on the strength of the many independent food shops and suppliers in the town and nearby, such as Crebers, a long-established family grocer and delicatessen in East Street and the cheese shop behind the Pannier market. In 2006 the town was in the news for having successfully cold-shouldered to closure the local branch of the world's leading 'burger chain'.

Whitchurch Down

Whitchurch Down is a part of Dartmoor. It lies above Tavistock, south of the Tavy. Much of Tavistock's twentieth century residential areas, including its most exclusive areas, were built on the lower slopes of the Down. At the top of Down Road, Tavistock ends suddenly with the Moor, a golf course occupying the top of the hill, giving way to open pasture grazed by sheep and Dartmoor ponies.

The Pannier Market

In 1105 Tavistock received a royal charter from King Henry I granting the right to hold a market each Friday, which market has survived without a break for 900 years. When the Abbey was dissolved in 1539, the town and market charter passed to Lord John Russell, 1st Earl of Bedford.

Today the Pannier Market is open from Tuesday to Saturday all year. The main hall, between Bedford Square, Duke Street and the Tavy, was built for the market by the Francis Russell, 7th Duke of Bedford. Around the hall are several shops.

The Market offers a great variety of stalls, from local produce, crafted wares, clothing, antiques and collectables. The market often hosts specialised events, such as craft fairs and antique fairs.

A Farmers' Market takes place in Bedford Square each fortnight and has been voted Best Farmer's Market in the South West.[3]


Parish church

The Church of Saint Eustachius (Eustace) is named after the Roman centurion who became a Christian. Only one other church in Britain bears the same dedication. The first Church of St Eustachius was built in 1265 but later demolished and nothing of it survives. A new church was built by Abbot Robert Champeaux and dedicated in 1318, though few remains of that building survive in the current structure.

The current church results from rebuilding work carried out in the fifteenth century, at which time the Clothworkers' Aisle was added. The Clothworkers' Aisle was funded by a bequest from Constance Coffyn, the widow of three wealthy wool merchants of Tavistock, and was completed in 1447. This is an indication of the growing importance of the textile industry to the local economy.

The church is in the perpendicular gothic style. The nave and the chancel each has two aisles, and in addition is the outer south aisle. It has a tall tower supported on four open arches, one of which was reputedly added to accommodate the 19th century tinners. Within the tower are monuments to the Glanville and Bourchier families, besides some fine stained glass, one window being the work of William Morris and another of Charles Eamer Kempe. One roof boss shows 'the Tinners' Hares', three hares joined at and sharing three ears between them.

The font is octagonal and dates from the 15th century.[4]

The clock in the tower was bought and installed by public subscription and a generous donation from the Duke of Bedford, and although it is within the structure of the church, it is the property of the Town Council. Its chimes have a melody for each day from Monday to Saturday: Auld Lang Syne, The Minstrel Boy, The Bluebells of Scotland, Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones, The Church's One Foundation and for Saturday, Home Sweet Home. Two faces of the clock are illuminated at night and the other two are blackened stone with gold figures.

  • Church of England:
    • St Eustachius (see above) [1]
    • The Abbey Chapel
    • St Paul's
    • St Andrew's, Whitchurch [2]
  • Roman Catholic:
    • Our Lady of the Assumption, Callington Road- built at the expense of the Duke of Bedford in 1867 for the benefit of miners, it is an ambitious building in the neo-Transitional style and the tall spire is conspicuous from the high ground surrounding the town.[5] It was sold and converted into a Roman Catholic church only in 1951, having fallen into disuse after the Second World War.
  • Methodist Church:
    • Tavistock Methodist Church [3]
    • Whitchurch Methodist Church, Russell Street [4]
  • Tavistock Community Church
  • United Reformed Church
  • The Salvation Army Tavistock Corps
  • Russian Orthodox: The Chapel of Icon of the Mother of God 'Unexpected Joy'


The biggest event in the town's calendar is the annual Tavistock Goose Fair (known locally as "Goosey Fair") which has been held since 1116. It occurs on the second Wednesday of October, and takes over much of the town for several days either side, drawing crowds which far outnumber the resident population.

Traditionally, the Fair was an opportunity for locals to buy their Christmas goose, allowing plenty of time to fatten the bird before Christmas came; nowadays, along with a multitude of street vendors selling a vast range of wares, there are all the rides and games associated with funfairs.[6]

There is an annual 2-day Food Festival in September[7] and a Carnival with a 2-day Balloon Fiesta each August bank holiday weekend. In May there is an annual music Festival "Tavistock Music & Arts Festival", and full details are available from their website [5].


Mediæval history

The area around Tavistock, where the River Tavy runs wide and shallow allowing it to be easily crossed, and near the secure high ground of Dartmoor, was inhabited long before the historical record. The surrounding area is littered with archaeological remains from the Bronze and Iron Ages and it is believed a hamlet existed on the site of the present town long before the town's official history began, with the founding of the Abbey.

The abbey of Saint Mary and Saint Rumon was founded in 961 by Orgar, Earl of Devon. After destruction by Danish raiders in 997 it was restored, and among its famous abbots was Aldred, who crowned Harold II and William I, and died Archbishop of York.

In 1105 King Henry I granted the Abbey a royal charter to run a weekly "Pannier Market" (so called after the baskets used to carry goods) on a Friday, which still takes place today. In 1116 a three-day fair was also granted to mark the feast of Saint Rumon, another tradition that is still maintained in the shape of the annual "Goosey" fair on the 2nd Wednesday in October.

Tavistock Parish Church

By 1185 Tavistock had achieved borough status and in 1295 became a parliamentary borough, sending two members to parliament. The abbey church was rebuilt in 1285. In 1305, with the growing importance of the area as one of Europe's richest sources of tin, Tavistock was one of the four stannary towns appointed by charter of Edward I, where tin was stamped and weighed and monthly courts were held for the regulation of mining affairs.

The greater part of the abbey was rebuilt in 1457-58. The Abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539 and its lands granted to Lord John Russell, who became Earl of Bedford. The abbey ruins may still be seen in the town, parts though serving modern purposes.

Early modern history

In 1552 two fairs on 23 April and 28 November were granted by Edward VI to the Earl of Bedford, then lord of the manor.

In the 17th century great quantities of cloth were sold at the Friday market and four fairs were held at the feasts of Saint Michael, Epiphany, Saint Mark, and the Decollation of John the Baptist. The charter of Charles II instituted a Tuesday market, fairs on the Thursday after Whitsunday and at the feast of Saint Swithin.

Tavistock is tied from late mediæval times with the Russells, the family name of the Earls of Bedford and since 1694, the Dukes of Bedford. This is clearly seen from the history of the town. The second title of the Duke of Bedford is the Marquess of Tavistock, taken as the courtesy title of the eldest son and heir to the dukedom, and illustrates the importance of this Devon town, its hinterland and the minerals beneath it to the family's fortunes.

Francis Drake

Drake's statue on the Plymouth Road

Around 1540 (some sources state 1542 as the exact year), Francis Drake was born at Crowndale Farm, just to the west of what is now Tavistock College. The building still stands.

Drake became a prominent figure of his age. After a trading expedition to Africa and the Americas the Spaniards agreed to trade but then turned their guns on the Englishmen, and experience which set Drake at implacable enmity with Spain. Drake was to lead many expediations against Spain, her American possession and against Spanish shipping during Queen Elizabeth's long war with Spain. He thrived as a privateer and naval commander.

Drake was the first Englishman to circumnavigate the world, in the Golden Hind, giving his name to the Drake Passage between South America and the Antarctic. He Drake was a champion of Queen Elizabeth I, and one of the English commanders in the famously decisive victory against the Spanish Armada in 1588. Drake is more important to the men of Plymouth too for his part in constructing Drake's Leat, a long open granite watercourse bringing clean fresh water from the high moor into the town of Plymouth, and for developing Devonport as a naval station.

A statue of Drake stands on a roundabout on the Plymouth Road. (A copy stands on Plymouth Hoe.)[8]

Drake later made his home at Buckland Abbey, some 8 miles away, now a National Trust property, which serves also as a museum to Drake.[9]

Civil War

In the English Civil War starting 1642, the town was at first held by the Parliamentarians (Francis Russell, the 4th Earl of Bedford was a leading figure in the parliamentarian movement), before later hosting King Charles I and his Royalist troops in 1643 after the defeat of the Parliamentary forces at Braddock Down. King Charles II, who had spent much time in Tavistock, was said to observe, whenever the weather was mentioned at court "If it is raining anywhere in my Kingdom, it will be raining in Tavistock".


Mines of copper, manganese, lead, silver and tin were previously in the neighbourhood and the town played host to a considerable trade of cattle and corn, and industries in brewing and iron-founding.

By the 17th century, tin was on the wane and the town relied more heavily on the cloth trade. Under the stewardship of the Russells the town remained prosperous, surviving the plague in 1625 (though 52 townspeople died).

The woollen industry decayed at Tavistock and was attributed by the inhabitants in 1641 to the dread of the Turks at sea and of Popish Plots at home.

Later modern history

By 1800, cloth was heading the same way as tin had done a century earlier, but copper was starting to be seriously mined in the area, to such an extent that by 1817 the Tavistock Canal had been dug (most of the labour being done by French prisoners of war from the Napoleonic Wars,[10] to carry copper to Morwellham Quay on the River Tamar, where it could be loaded into sailing ships weighing up to 200 tonnes. In 1822 the old fairs were abolished in favour of six fairs on the second Wednesday in May, July, September, October, November and December.

In the mid-nineteenth century, with nearby Devon Great Consols mine at Blanchdown one of the biggest copper mining operations in the world, Tavistock was booming again, reputedly earning the 7th Duke of Bedford alone over £2,000,000. A statue in copper of the 7th Duke stands in Guildhall Square. The Duke built a 50,000 gallon reservoir to supply the town in 1845, as well as a hundred miners' houses at the southern end of town, between 1845 and 1855. There is a strong, recognisable vernacular "Bedford style" of design, exemplified most strikingly in Tavistock's Town Hall and "Bedford Cottages" ubiquitous across Tavistock and much of the local area to the north and west, where the Bedfords had their estate and summer "cottage" at Endsleigh House and Gardens (since 2005, Alex Polizzi's Hotel Endsleigh).

Tavistock was deprived of one member of Parliament in 1867 and finally disenfranchised in 1885.

The railway came to the town in 1859, with the town being connected to the Great Western Railway and the London and South Western Railway. At around this time the centre of town was substantially and ruthlessly remodelled by the 7th Duke of Bedford, including the construction of the current Town Hall and Pannier Market buildings, and the widening of the Abbey Bridge, first built in 1764, and a new Drake Road ramped up northwards from Bedford Square to the LSWR station. Tavistock (North) Railway Station opened to much acclaim and fanfare in 1890.[11] The population had peaked at around 9,000. By 1901 the population had halved, recorded as 4,728. In 1968, following the Beeching Report Tavistock Station closed its doors, and in 1999 English Heritage listed the building as Grade II.

Kelly College, a co-educational public school to the north-east of the town, was founded by Admiral Benedictus Marwood Kelly, and opened in 1877 for the education of his descendants and the orphan sons of naval officers, and shows a combination of the Bedford and High Victorian styles of building.

20th and 21st centuries

Bedford Square and the Town Hall
Town Hall

In 1911, the Bedford influence on the town came to an end after over 450 years, when the family sold most of their holdings in the area to meet death duties. The Bedford name can still be seen in many place names around the town. The Town Council is the owner of much former Bedford property from around this time, making it one of the richest parish councils in England.

In 1933 the long-disused canal was put to use providing hydroelectric power for the area.[12]


  1. Turner, Michael (2005). In Drake's Wake - The Early Voyages. Paul Mould Publishing. ISBN 978-1904959212. 
  2. Harrison, Peter (2005-10-12). "No need to shop around in Tavistock". Western Morning News. http://www.tavistockforward.org.uk/nc%20ewwmnbid.htm. 
  3. "Tavistock Farmers Market website". http://www.tavistockfarmersmarket.com/. Retrieved 2007-06-28. 
  4. Pevsner, N. (1952) South Devon. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books; pp. 275-77
  5. Pevsner, N. (1952) South Devon. Harmondsworth: Penguin; p. 277
  6. "Goose Fair". Tavistock Town Council website. Tavistock Town Council. http://www.tavistock.gov.uk/tavistock/goose_fair.htm. Retrieved 2007-06-28. 
  7. "Tavistock Food Festival website". http://www.tavistockfoodfestival.co.uk/. Retrieved 2007-09-12. 
  8. "Drake's Statue". Encyclopaedia of Plymouth History. http://www.plymouthdata.info/Memorial-Drake%20Statue.htm. Retrieved 2007-06-28. 
  9. "Buckland Abbey". National Trust website. National Trust. http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-vh/w-visits/w-findaplace/w-bucklandabbey.htm. Retrieved 2007-06-28. 
  10. Devon County Council: Local Studies
  11. Fryer, S. (1997) The Building of the Plymouth, Devonport & South Western Junction Railway. ISBN 0952992205; 9780952992202
  12. Greeves, Tom (April 2003). "The Tavistock Canal - A Review" (PDF). Tamar Valley Service. http://www.tamarvalley.org.uk/pdf/TAVICANAL.pdf. Retrieved 30 May 2007. 

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