Buckfast. Report from the History Section

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Author(s): Simons. Robert and Smithers. Derek; Year published: 2017; Origin: Section Conference Reports; Pages: 
Topic(s): history; Location(s): Buckfast

The communities of Buckfast and Buckfastleigh are separated by a limestone hill, but are in effect the same place. The Saxon form of Buckfast is Bucfaeten or ‘stags fitness’. Buckfastleigh is in the Ley, or meadow, of Buckfast.

In 1018 the land was cleared and the first Abbey founded. Nearly 130 years later it was completely rebuilt by the Cistercian monks. The monks now living at the Abbey lead lives very similar to those of a thousand years ago, carrying out their religious duties along with farming and making pottery and tonic wine.

In prehistoric times Hembury Castle, the hillfort on the outskirts of Buckfastleigh, had a water-borne connection to the coast due to its proximity to the Dart. This suggests that it might have been a base for the storing and trading of minerals, especially tin. This theory is enhanced by the discovery of two Greek coins dating to the 4th century BC and 1st century BC near Holne, as well as a hoard of prehistoric iron currency bars found in Holne Chase.

The town is also well known for wool production, probably developed by monks at the Abbey. (Cistercian monks were well known wool traders). The Domesday Book recorded that there were 670 sheep but only 88 oxen and 29 pigs. The Industrial Revolution turned this cottage industry into a major trade and in 1838 there were reportedly 700 looms in the town. There were also corn and paper mills, and a tannery, supported by the rivers Dart and Mardle and the Dean burn, water being essential to the manufacturing of woollen and other products.

Richard Cabell was Squire of Buckfast in the 1600s. He had a passion for hunting and despite the respectable sounding name has been described as a ‘monstrously evil man’ When he passed away on 5 July 1677 he was laid to rest overlooking the Abbey in what is locally known as the sepulcher. Rumour has it that the internment of Squire Richard led to tales of wild animals roaming the moors. It is reported that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle based his book The Hound of the Baskervilles on these tales.

William Pengelly, the co-founder of the Devonshire Association, had strong links with Buckfastleigh. He made what was probably his first visit to the town in 1829, along with a Reverend Lyte, during which they went to the cave of Dean on the estate of Mr Yarde Buller. At the time he quoted that the caves in Buckfastleigh were the “metropolis of Devonshire caves”. On 22 April 1859 he again visited the town, looking at the cave which had the greatest reputation, Baker’s Pit. The mouth of the cave is in a limestone quarry on the hill where the parish church stands. Work initiated by William Pengelly and others led to the formation of the ‘Association of the William Pengelly Research Centre’ in December 1962. In June 1969 this became the ‘Pengelly Cave Studies Trust’ that we know today.

National Hunt Horse Racing (Buckfastleigh and South Brent Races) was started in 1883, the final meeting taking place in 1960. In its heyday the course hosted the elite of society and all who shared a passion for the Sport of Kings. Princess Margaret’s attendance in 1949 attracted a crowd of 22,000 of whom 19,200 paid! The beautiful course is fondly remembered; it imbued the spirit of the old town.

Following the Industrial Revolution there was an increase in accidents from the use of new machinery. This affected rural communities as well as the larger towns. After a public meeting on 28 August 1875 it was agreed that a local hospital would be built. The Western Morning News reported on 16 February 1876 that the hospital (Ashburton and Buckfastleigh Hospital) was opened but conditions were not good. The lighting was poor and in 1887, for example, Dr Adams had to delay the amputation of a patient’s arm until extra lanterns were found.

Derek Smithers and Robert Simons

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