AT the end of the nineteenth century Braunton had a population of over two thousand, composed mainly of natives and asprinkling of outsiders who had come to spend their last days inthis charming spot. They built new houses on the hillside and other sites which had views commanding the sea and the river. The village became the place of retirement of business men, civilservants, army and navy officers and men of letters.
Edward Capern, the Devonshire postman poet, settled in Braunton after his retirement from the Postal service. He was born at Tiverton in 1819 and as a young man went to Bideford as a rural postman. Day after day and year after year he walkedthe lovely lanes around Parkham and Buckland Brewer, at the same time composing songs and ballads inspired by the naturalbeauty of the woodland, countryside, river and sea. Capernsang about the Taw, the Torridge, the cliffs at Morte and manyscenes familiar to North Devonians. He won the hearts of statesmen, especially Lord Palmerston who obtained a government pension for him. Capern was an intimate friend of the poets Wordsworth and Walter Savage Landor.
On leaving Bideford he took up a situation under the Post Office in Birmingham, but on his retlrement in 1880 (1884?) he returned to North Devon and settled in Braunton. His home was in Wrafton Road, now Capern House.
Other members of the poet's home were his wife and two grandchildren, Ilfra and Archie, daughter and son of his sonGeorge. When a boy I occasionally visited the Capern home andremember the bushy grey bearded old gentleman talking about oneof his poems which we learnt at school. He made me recite it.
THE MILL, THE RILL AND THE BEE
Tell me what the mill doth say,
"Clitter, clatter," night and day,
Never idle, never still
"Clitter, clatter, clitter, clatter,"
What a worker is the mill !
Tell me what the rill doth say
As it trips along the way.
Sweet as skylark on the wing,
"Ripple, dipple" it doth sing
Never idle, never still,
What a worker is the rill !
"Dipple, dipple, Ripple dipple,"
What a worker is the rill !
Listen to the honey bee
As it dances merrily
To the little fairies' drum
Humming. drumming, humming. drum.
Never idle. never still Humming, drumming, hum it will.
Humming, drumming, humming drumming.
Humming, drumming. hum it will.
This was one of the first poems I learnt as a small boy, and when I think of it there is always a picture of the old poet before me.
The Caperns were kindly folk and made many friends in our village. Capern was a great admirer of Gladstone and during election times he was often seen having heated arguments with political opponents.
The postman poet died in 1894 and was given a State funeral with his coffin draped with the Union Jack.
His last resting place. in the churchyard at Heanton Hill. overlooks the scenes of his wanderings when he wrote Wayside Warbles. Sungleams and Shadows and Songs of the North Devon Countryside. In a niche in the headstone over his grave is fixed the handbell which he used when delivering his letters in the Bideford district. His tomb has the inscription :
EDWARD CAPERN the postman poet
Born at Tiverton. 2lst January. 1819
Died at Braunton. 4th June. 1894
O'lark like poet. carol on.
Lost in dim light. an unseen trill.
We in the heaven where you are gone
Find you no more, but feel you still.
The inscription to his wife, Jane, who died five weeks later, bears one of Capern's own verses:-
I'd be remembered for some word I'd said,
Some thought. immortal winged, will pass my breath
But more for one true, tender heated deed,
Since such sweet things the world doth surely need.
Another man of letters was James Mason, the novelist, literary critic and one time editor of the Girl's Own Paper and other publications. He came to Braunton in the 1890's from his native Scotland. His first home was Beacon Cottage and later he occupied Beacon House, which was built for him. The slender. bespectacled little man. with goatee beard, wearing a long cape and trilby hat, was a familiar figure in the village streets.
James Mason was very musical and I can still picture him conducting an orchestra and choir at a concert in the Methodist Chapel. He also took a leading part in forming a village debating society.
To the boys of the village Mr: Mason was a great friend. and should any of us be sick or kept indoors he would soon come along with magazines and a word of cheer.
A very well-known figure in Braunton was Mr. Samuel Prout. the son of Samuel Prout, the Victorian Water Colour Artist. whose pictures can be seen in many of the West Country galleries. Mr. Prout was a devout Churchman, not only on Sundays, but on all days of the week. The sick and the poor were his first care and day after day he could be seen visiting the homes of the bedridden folk carrying fruit and other delicacies to such as could not afford them.
Not only did he carry in his basket something to tempt the appetite of those whom he visited but he also had an auto-harp with which he would play sweet music in the sick room.Samuel Prout did not confine his Christian service and philanthrophy to his own village. On more than one occasion, on hearing of colliery disasters in South Wales, he packed his carpet bag and immediately set off to attend to the sufferers and bring comfort to bereaved women and children. He was a man greatly loved and the village was much poorer when he passed away.
There was one old lady I shall never forget. She was perhaps one of the poorest women in the village as regards worldly possessions. Every Saturday Aunt Sarah would go up to the Pay Table and get her parish pay of half a crown. She added to this by going to some of our homes to help in the house work, but being paralysed she could not do very much.
Dressed in a black gown, black bonnet and grey shawl, with umbrella in hand she set off on Sunday mornings to take charge of the little children in her Sunday School at the Wesleyan Chapel and the children looked for her coming. She was Aunt Sarah to them all. A reguIar attendant at all services, she always found her collection and a penny a week for her class money. Sarah Gribble's influence was great and her memory will live long.
Another friend of the children was a gentleman who was the head of a firm of Barnstaple solicitors, Mr. J. P. Ffinch. He lived at Tyspane, one of the finest houses in Braunton. Every morning he could be seen stepping briskly along the streets on his way to the railway station to catch the train to Barnstaple. He and his family were active members of St. Brannock's Church.
One Christmas Day, just after I had got up from our Christmas dinner, I went for a short walk up the street. When I got to the bottom of Heanton Street, I saw a long queue of boys and girls. Being inquisitive, I stood and looked and was immediately asked by Mr. Ffinch to join with the others. When all the boys and girls he could find were queued up he opened the door of Daddy Hame's shop and all of us passed in. Daddy Hames, the chemist, stocked sweets and oranges as well as pills and other cures and had already been informed of the likely Christmas Day invasion.
On the counter was a large pile of boxes of chocolates and a basket of oranges and we each left the shop with a box of chocolates and an orange but not before we had thanked the generous donor and wished him a Happy Christmas. I think he felt more than gratified when he saw the bright and smiling boys and girls on that Christmas Day.Like every other village we had quite a lot of notable characters whose doings and sayings kept us amused. There was an old spinster, Grace Horden, who lived at the top of Heanton Street. She was the last of an old established family of farmers and millers. Although Horden's Mill is a thing of the past, Horden's Bridge still continues to span the River Caen and link Chapel Street to South Street.
Grace was almost a recluse, living alone with her cats and poultry. She had a pet duck and often, when she went with her pitcher to fetch water from the Parish pump at Cross Tree, her duck was seen waddling behind her like a little dog.
I have a faint recollection of an interesting lady who lived at the Manor House, Knowle, during the 80's. Her name was Lucy Passmore. Before living at Knowle she was a French governess with the Riddell family at Spreacombe House. Lucy was a great horsewoman and often went with other riders from Spreacombe to meets of the local hunt.
The mare she rode could take the most difficult jumps and she would often lead the fields. On one occasion she was returning to Spreacombe via Barnstaple. In those days the road from Barnstaple to Braunton was a turnpike and a charge was made at the gate by the keeper for all horse drawn vehicles and horses. When she came to the gate it was shut. The keeper hearing the approach of a rider ran out and shouted, "Sixpence for a man and horse !"
In reply, Lucy whipped up her mare which jumped the gate and she, waving her hand, called out, "And nothing for a woman and her mare!" and galloped away towards home.
When she married a local worker, she came to reside at Knowle and to add to her income she conducted dancing classes in ballroom dancing. Many of the young lads and lasses from Braunton joined her classes on winter evenings and became proficient in tripping the light fantastic toe. Lucy had no piano nor orchestra, but music was provided by a barrel organ which ground out waltzes, polkas, quadrilles and other old time dances. The instrument was manipulated by a village lad who earned a few coppers and many arm aches. The barrel organ was much in evidence when visitors called at the house and with great pride Lucy demonstrated the wonderful potentialities of the only musical instrument in the village.
Lucy was, like many others of her time, a pipe smoker. She was often seen with a common clay between her teeth and her weekly grocery order always included a couple of ounces of Return's tobacco.
There was also a number of women who took up all the pavement when taking their walks. Their bustled dresses didn't give even a small child a chance to pass on the clean pavement.
Some of our people were full of humour and had a witty reply to suit all occasions. Mr. Alfred Drake, who like other families of that name in the village, traced his descent from the same family as the great Sir Francis, was a keen business man, a good churchman and one who was always ready to lower the pride of those inclined to boast or show superiority over others. He suffered a lot from gout, so at times was kept at home, but in order to keep himself acquainted with what was going on outside he would lean against the hatch door of his butcher's shop.
One day a farmer came along in his horse drawn spring trap and sitting by his side was a visitor. They had been to the marshes to fetch his two fat bullocks and these were driven along in front of the vehicle by dog " Shep." Just as they reached the butcher's shop the bullocks darted up an alleyway leading to the yard. The farmer shouted to the dog, " Get before them. Shep." The dog wagged its tail but didn't respond. The command was given again in the same way, but still with no response. Butcher Drake looked on with a twinkle in his eye. and at last shouted to the dog, "Gid avore 'em. Shep." The dog immediately ran up the alley and quickly chased the animals back to the street. Butcher looked up and said to the farmer. "That dug knaws Demshur, but not your new langwidge."
He told that story many times afterwards and always finished up with a good laugh. Under the old manorial rule one of the officers elected annually was the crier. The last of the criers was John Yeo Tucker. He had a boot and shoe shop and also did repairs. He was always spoken of as John Yeo. Not only was he crier but also a great entertainer and did much to keep things lively in the village. He organised comic concerts in the winter, took charge of many of the events at the Whitsun Revel and, dressed as a harlequin. or clown. would march through the village, bell in hand and advertise what he had organised.
I remember him caricaturing an old lady. Dressed in bodice and skirt, with a gaily coloured shawl over his shoulders and a hat trimmed in the latest style, accompanied by a friend, John Carpenter attired in frock coat and top hat, they drove around the village, much to the delight of the crowds of children following them and disgust of the lady caricatured. John Yeo was greatly feared because of his cries If there was any misconduct on the part of a villager he would take his bell and stand under Cross Tree, ringing furiously for a long time. When he had gathered a crowd he would cry with a piercing voice, "Last night, in a certain house not far from here, a certain gentleman was brought home in a drunken condition, etc., etc."
The nature of his cry left no doubt as to the identity of the gentleman in question. On another occasion he might cry about family quarrels between neighbours. All village scandal was publicised by the man with the bell, and he often finished off by saying, "Their effigies will be burned on the Beacon tonight at 8 o'clock. On one occasion he had words with the Vicar and the last word was his, for he published the affair at Cross Tree.
J. Y. T. was a wag and when an opportunity occurred he provided fun at the expense of the villagers. He attended most of the functions held in the village, and reported them to the local papers.
On one occasion he went to a public tea held in Chaloner's School. Sitting beside him was a well known lady. Miss Mary Ann G., who was always noticeable because of her innumerable undergarments. She always walked with the aid of an umbrella, no matter what the conditions of the weather.
J. Y.T. noticed that she was taking cake and cutrounds from the table and cleverly depositing them in her umbrella by her side. There and then he had a bright idea. When the tea was over he walked out beside Mary Ann and started a conversation. He kept by her side and was most polite and understanding. It was raining slightly when they came out.
Soon the rain came on harder. Turning to Mary Ann he said, "Oh ! Miss G., you must put up your umbrella. You'll get wet." She replied, " It's all right, Mr. Tucker, thank you. I've got my thick shawl and that will keep me dry. I always like my umbrella for walking." Soon the rain began to pelt down and J. Y. T. said "You must put up your umbrella, Miss G," and he quickly clutched the gamp and held it over her. Passers by saw a shower of eatables falling on poor Mary Ann while John Yeo walked off, much amused, to acquaint other villagers of this episode.
There was one old character among us whom we called Jack Shepherd. He lived with his father and practically all his life was a heavy drinker and clever poacher. The punishment for drunkenness at one time was the disgrace of having to sit on a seat, with both legs firmly locked in the stocks, at the entrance of the churchyard. Shepherd was the last man to suffer this punishment. My mother told me that she, with others, stood and laughed at him, sitting with his feet firmly fixed between wooden bars. Those stocks can be seen in the West Porch of the Church.
Jack Shepherd was a very ugly man, short, thick and almost gnome like. The village boys were all afraid of him because of his ferocious temper and probably for that reason we would call after him, " Shep! Shep! Shep! " the Devonshire call to a dog.
He would often give chase and should any boy by chance fall into his hands it meant a beating with a long stick he always carried. Shepherd was very astute and in many respects far sighted. He constantly came into conflict with the local gamekeeper and police, but usually wriggled out on the laughing side.
There are many stories concerning incidents in Shepherd's life, and they are not fictional. He partly earned his living by cultivating a strip of land in the Coombes which was adjoining the Warren where pheasants and partridges were reared for the Williams' estate. Every day Shepherd set his wires and traps and sometimes his catch was more feathery than furry. He was suspected by the gamekeeper who often lay waiting to catch him, but without successes. One day Jack went to one of his snares and there he beheld a fine pheasant quite still. At the same time he caught a glimpse of the keeper hidden behind a nearby fence. He looked at the pheasant and was heard to say, " Oh ! you little beauty 'owever did 'ee manidge to git caught like that ? Why baint yer veathers ruffled ? - they shudden be as smuthe as thet." He then took his spade and in a neighbouring field gathered up all the muck he could find. This he brought back and poured over the trapped bird and then quietly walked away. The keeper went off discomfited, avowing vengeance in the future and sought the aid of the police. Some time afterwards Sergeant Q. saw Shepherd coming down from the Coombes with a sack over his shoulder. He went up to the old poacher and said, " What's that in your bag ?" " What bizness is that a yours? " was the reply.
"I want to know, as I've had a complaint against you and am going to find out " said the sergeant. Shepherd gave him no satisfaction and walked off, but he knew what to expect in the future and must be prepared. The officer of the law was very persistent, so next day, armed with a search warrant he laid wait to execute it.
Shepherd came along quite unconcerned with sack over shoulder as usual. Suddenly out stepped the officer of the law and said, "Now, my man I've got you at last. Turn out that bag that you're carrying ?". "I baint gwen to do anything of the zort," said Shepherd.
"Well, if you won't do it, I will !" said the sergeant and he immediately grasped the sack and emptied it on the road. To his dismay the contents were nothing but horse manure which the old rascal had gathered in one of the fields. Shepherd looked at Sergeant Q. and with a chuckle said, " That's my property which I'm going to use on my garden. You'll plaise to pick up every bit and put it back in the bag," which he did, and quickly disappeared. Shepherd hurried to Abbot's Inn, just below and over a pot of ale told his cronies how he had outwitted both the keeper and the officer of the law. These adventures were soon the talk of the village.
One day, three bright lads who lived at the top of the village, Doctor Watts, Nimbo Symons and Jack Packwood, were playing in the street, when they saw Jack Shepherd come out of Abbot's Inn, carrying a quart bottle of beer in his hand.
Placing the bottle on a wall which separated Abbot's Hill from East Street, Shepherd proceeded to a nearby shed to fetch his garden tools. The three boys immediately gathered a supply of stones and from a safe distance began pelting the bottle. Just as John emerged from the shed Jack Packwood scored a bull's eye and the three lads were given chase. People of Church Street enjoyed the fun and Shepherd was heard to say "All right, Mr. Shotty, you've got in a gud one thair, but I'll make thee pay vor't when I catch thee !" Jack Packwood from that time bore the name of Shotty.
Time came when Shepherd was left to his own resources so he went to the Workhouse at Barnstaple. He was given the job of chopping and bundling firewood. These bundles were taken by donkey cart to various shops in the town.
One of my friends met him in the street and said, " Well, John ! What's your job now ? "
"Oh !" was the quick reply, "They've made me the voreman of the joiners."
The last time I saw him he was dressed in Workhouse garb, driving the workhouse donkey cart back after delivering his wares to the shops, but I guess his mind was back at Braunton Coombes, thinking of the hundreds of bunnies he had trapped in his snares.
Jack Shepherd was not the only poacher in the village who outwitted gamekeepers and police. I knew of one well known villager who had a haul of six pheasants in one night. Near the Rectory at Heanton was a small coppice and one of the trees over-hanging the road was a favourite roosting place for the birds. One night our friend set off with a sack in which was an old tin tray and a brown paper bag containing about a pound of home made gunpowder. He waited about for some time until he saw the keeper enter the Exeter Inn, nearby. He then quickly ran over to the spot where the pheasants were roosting. He placed the tray in a convenient spot under the tree, emptied the powder upon it and placed a piece of fuse leading to it.
He lit the fuse and soon there was a brilliant flash. Six stupefied birds fell on to the road and were soon despatched and thrown into the sack with the tray.
The poacher quickly ran off for home by some round about way over the fields. Some days later two of his friends had ' pheasant for dinner. Shiner Mock was a very clever rabbit trapper. He lived in Church Street and his favourite resorts were the "Black Horse" and the New Inn, where his voice could often be heard in song and especially in the chorus of a well known public house ballad of those days. "Lord Bedlam was."
Shiner earned his living as a pig killer and knacker. In those days a man with that occupation was kept busy, for most villagers kept their pigs and it was quite a common sight to see the pig killer at work in the back yard.
Shiner had a strip of land on the Downs where he cultivated vegetables and conveniently set his traps. He was a keen politician and his voice could often be heard, not only at election time but whenever an opportunity came to interrupt the Liberal speaker. During election times the committee rooms of both the parties were in Caen Street and the fronts of the houses were plastered with cartoons, slogans, photographs and other posters.
On election day crowds gathered outside the committee rooms and I remember on one occasion seeing Shiner come out of the Red Lion Inn. Crossing the road to the Liberal Committee Room he went up to a picture of Mr. Gladstone, had a good look and then said, "Oh ! you dere Grand ole man. Thee was born a Tory ! Thee was skuled a Tory and thee'll die a Tory." After he had delivered this oration he went back to the Red Lion to oil his tongue with another drink.
Shiner deplored any sign of progress and change in the habits and life of his fellow villagers. One night he came down to Cross Tree and was overheard to say : "I don't knaw what the world's coming to. As I cum down the strait I yerd more pianners than choppers." By choppers he meant the chopping knife used to chop the potatoes in the frying pan.
Perhaps the most familiar figure in our village in my boyhood days was dear old Doctor Lane, our only medical practitioner. Stephen Orson Lane was a little, bespectacled, white haired man. immaculately dressed in frock coat and top hat. He had a big practice, covering not only the village but the neighbouring parish of Georgeham and parts of Westdown and Heanton. He was kept busy morning. noon and night serving rich and poor alike and there were many of the latter class. Those were the days when men and women were old at the age of sixty. It was not uncommon to see men of that age so crippled with rheumatism that they had to walk with the aid of two sticks. Their wages as agricultural workers were so low that they were unable to save for old age or for sickness. They had to be supported by grown up sons and daughters and this assistance was augmented by parish pay of from 2 / 6 to 7 / 6 a week. These old people formed the majority of our doctor's patients and he did not neglect them, in many cases receiving no remuneration for his services.
Dr. Lane. in spite of his busy practice, found time to take his part in other activities of the village. He was a good Christian gentleman and one of the leading laymen of St. Brannock's Church. He was also a member of the School Board and ready to assist in fostering any progressive measure brought forward to assist the parishioners. He will never be forgotten in Braunton as his memorial is the picture of one of the saints in the stained glass window in the Parish Church.
Our village has always been noted for the longevity of many of its inhabitants. In the 1890s there were many men and women over 80 years of age and one old lady who lived in Heanton Street died in her l00th year.
One of my greatest pleasures as a small boy was to sit beside an old neighbour, Christopher Irwin, who died at the age of 100. In a corner outside his home was a large quartz stone, on which. when cushioned. he would sit in the sunshine watching the children at their play and telling them of the days when he was young.
His grandchildren. great grandchildren and great great grandchildren are with us to-day, and his stone seat is still in the corner.
THANK YOU for visiting, and please mail me with your comments,
or link to 'A Story of Braunton' Page
or link to Devon History Selection.
Return to top of page.