We know that people have been in the Georgeham area since Mesolithic times (8000 – 3000BC) because many flint artefacts have been found. Flint however doesn’t naturally occur in the area so either people went to fetch it or it was traded in. At the beginning of this period sea levels were much lower, marches stretched across to Wales with the river Severn running down the middle. A few artefacts have also been found which date from the Bronze Age. There are two standing stones; one at North Buckland lying prone as long as anyone can remember, has recently stood upright. These stones gave rise to the legend of the Pickwell Giant who stood up at Pickwell where one stone remains and he hurled one inland and another out to sea.
The Saxons reached here in the seventh century, probably by land route along the north of Exmoor. They were looking for land to farm by then and mostly settled in individual farmsteads, except in Braunton, a Saxon royal manor, where a village was created and the fertile Great Field farmed communally. We know little about the Saxons who first came here other that the various kingdoms fought amongst themselves. The dialect use of ‘us’ for ‘we’ suggests they may have been Mercian rather than West Saxon since this form is found in manuscripts from Mercia. In the end, Devon was part of the West Saxon kingdom.
Here they founded a settlement, called simply “Ham” at the head of a valley whose small stream flows down to Croyde. Where exactly? Well, they were Christians close to Braunton which had been a centre for Christianity well before the Saxons made it a minster and which King Edgar had bought back from Glastonbury Abbey. King Edgar liked settlements to at least have a chapel and according to Charles Croslegh, writing about Bradninch, these chapels were often on slightly higher ground so people could look up to them. This would suggest that the first settlement was down the hill from Georgeham church on the other side of the stream and above stream level. There was once a very old farm complex in this area opposite Foote Farm which in the 18th century was called Crowberry.
Of the Viking attacks in this area during the 9th century we know little. Though they had a base on Lundy and attacked the Taw estuary in 851.
By the end of the 10th century the Saxons had organised the area as part of the Braunton Hundred and into townships or vils which contained several holdings or tythings, later manors. At the beginning of the 14th century, the manors of Georgeham, Pickwell and Woolacombe formed one township whilst Croyde, east Lobb, Saunton and Bakewell Pyne formed another. Not much is known about the era at the end of the 10th century when England had Danish rulers under Canute. Canute kept the south-west in his own care whilst earldom existed elsewhere in Kent, Mercia and Northumberland. Possibly the name of the pre Conquest owner of Pickwell, one Ulf is traced of this period. Canute’s sister was married to a Dane called Ulf (not probably the same man) who was at one point regent of Denmark.
The Doomsday Book
By the 11th century nearly all the current farms, hamlets and villages in the parish existed. We learn from the Doomsday Book that they did not however all belong to the same person either before or after 1066.
William I gave Pickwell to Mowbray, Bishop of Countances as part of his huge holding, while Georgeham (known as Ham), Hole, Spreacombe and Saunton went to Theobald Fitz Berners (often referred to as Tetbald).
The final “Exchequer” version of the Doomsday Book was compiled from regional records in the case of Devon, the Exeter Doomsday Book. The scribe sometimes misread the “P” of the Exeter version as “W”. This occurred in the case of Pilton and also Pilland.
The name of Pickwell was rendered unrecognisable as Wedicheswelle and Pediccheswelle in the Exeter version respectively. The Pickwell entry was identified only after the manuscript in the Village Hall had been made.
Some photos of Georgeham Village Hall show a tall sign bearing a picture of a Saxon and his dog. This image represents Edmar/Etmar who held along with much other land the small Manors of Georgeham and Hole before the Norman Conquest.
From the 12th century we hear of people calling after the places where they lived. There were the ‘de Holes’, the ‘de Pidkervilles’, the ‘de Santons’ at Saunton and ‘Galfride de Ham’.
Between 1231 and 1252 we have the first reference of “Ham St George.Before that is was simply “Hamme” or “Ham” probably meaning “the settlement”. It is possible that a church dedicated to St. George had been founded here or that an existing church has been rededicated. St. George was a favoured Saint of the Crusaders. Perhaps one of the de St Aubin family had been to the Crusades as by the end of the 13th century, Georgeham, Hole and Pickwell manors were part of the lands of this family.
In 1261 during the lordship of the third Sir Mauger de St Aubin, Georgeham was separated from Braunton as a parish by “The consolidation of the vicarage of that chapel with the personage”
The tithes from then on were paid to the Rector or Georgeham, the first of whom Oliver de Tracy. He also claimed the tithes from Croyde but they had previously paid the Priory of St Mary Magdelene in Barnstaple. It was agreed to pay 40s per year in lieu of the tithes. In 1307 the then Rector Edmund de Knoyle tried again; he and 17 locals descended on Croyde, found the tithe goods and brought them up to Georgeham! This cost the Rector £10 in fine and the 17 men £10 in damages. However in 1311 all the tithes from the parish wee judged to belong to Georgeham although £5 was paid annually to the Priory until its dissolution.
The third Mauger de St Aubin was also for a time Constable of Lundy. He fought in the Welsh wars and must have been a person of considerable importance holding other lands along the North Devon coast. He must have been wealthy too as he sent 100 silver marks too the bishop. He is said to be the knight whose effigy is in Georgeham Church today.
Pick well, Georgeham, Hole and eventually North Buckland continued to be closely linked; the manors being split or combined by marriage and inheritance or occasionally by purchase until the the 20th century. Croyde and Putsborough at this period of time were never part of this grouping.
14th & 15th Centuries
In the beginning of the 14th century the area must have been quite prosperous. Sir Mauger died in 1294. His tomb was presumably placed in Georgeham church reasonably soon after his death, so the church must have been stone built by then. The high tower also dates from the 14th century.
According to the records of Bishop Grandisson, at the end of this century and the beginning of the next, private chapels were licensed in Croyde, Spreacombe, North Buckland, Hole and Pickwell. It not necessarily follow that these were new buildings. it is possible that some chapels existed before the parish was consolidated and St George’s became the parish church.
In 1332 the Devon Lay Subsidy also records Mauger and Walter atte Ford as well as some well known local names; Arnolf Fot (Foot) and Walter Brown.
We have no references on the plague affecting the village – perhaps it was lucky.
Meanwhile, the big holdings had begun to be split up and were increasingly farmed by tenants who paid rent rather than providing labour. In Henry III’s time Hole had been handed over to Gilbert de Hole. It had various owners until 1519 when it was bought by Sir Thomas Dennys.
Apparently a family farming at least ten acres could live securely. Less than that left farmers vulnerable to drought, rain and disease of both crops and cattle.
Everyone paid tithes, usually in kind to the church which also owned some farm land (Glebe).
We have little information about the area in the 15th Century. Life presumably went on as usual whilst the rest of the country experienced the Wars of the Roses. There must be information somewhere but the only information found is that in 1458 Georgeham paid 11d towards the cost of a bridge in Barnstaple.
There seems however to have been major changes to Georgeham church with the south aisle added at this time with a large window at each end. The window at the east end was subsequently blocked up when Pickwell chapel was created.
This century saw the wool trade out of Barnstaple at its height sporting good cloth.
Cattle or sheep were kept in small fields which meant that they didn’t need constant watching. Some farmers in North Devon had summer grazing rights on Exmoor.
Information gets better in the 16th century. In 1509 Henry VIII came to the throne and in 1538 parishes were required to keep registers. Those from Georgeham are complete and the earliest we have are are on paper but copied to parchment in 1597. Amongst other things they tell us that when plague reached the village Joan Hendon was the last person to die from it after 27 other others. In 1680 records from the area show Halley’s Comet was “visible to us here”.
A sad moment during this period was when “Creech, Walter John died 7th September 1883 aged 9 months”; the little son of the murdered policeman.
In 1569 Queen Elizabeth I was concerned about a possible Spanish invasion and lists were drawn up headed by the most important person in the parish of what had to be provided in terms of men and arms. In our case, John Newport from Pickwell headed the list. The poorest people had to contribute to 2 corselets, 2 pikes, 2 calibers and 2 murrains. The “able men” included 10 archers, 4 harquebusiers, 9 pikemen and 2 billmen.
One of Elizabeth’s first moves on becoming queen was to state her supremacy over all including ecclesiastical matters in this country.
We learn that in 1559 Elizabeth issued injunctions that all shrines and paintings in churches should be destroyed and that “Comely and honest pulpit” should be provided in every parish. All images, shrines, tabernacles, rood lofts and monuments of idolatry had to be removed or defaced and walls had to be whitewashed. The Ten Commandments was to be inscribed on the wall in a prominent place. Church bells and coloured glass windows be retained but on the understanding that they would be replaced eventually by play glass. Furthermore, church attendance was compulsory and absence could be viewed as treason.
This all sounds very draconian but Elizabeth was trying to achieve stability and uniformity across the country.
It seems therefore that it was at this time, the second half of the 16th century that the Rood loft in Georgeham church disappeared. The carving (now in the chancel) hidden behind the blocked-up door which once led to the Rood loft and the piscinas disguised as plaster – all to be found again during a restoration in 1876.
With the West Country providing many ships for war and exploration, some using Ilfracombe and Bideford, there was great demand of supplies of all sorts which gave a considerable boost to local agriculture.
It seems consequently that the parish became quite prosperous by the 17th century. The population continued to grow. In 1641 in the Protestation Returns where people were required to “vow and protest”, that they would follow the protestant religion, defend the king and preserve the union. From Georgeham 211 people signed, all men so there were probably more than 600 people in the parish.
Houses were also being built or rebuilt. Foote Farm dates from 1631 and Millies Cottage bears the date of 1678 which must have been a makeover as it had previously been the old church brewhouse.
The Civil War does not appear to have affected the parish, although men went from Braunton for training at Torrington. There was however a change of Rector both at the beginning and end of the Commonwealth.
In the 18th century, the church in Georgeham was “beutified” as they wrote proudly on the wall. We have little information about an earlier church being built but in 1967 half of a 13th century font was found in the churchyard, datable because it still had one of the staples enabling it to be locked. In the 1867 restoration some remains of a possible north aisle were found and fragments of an ancient tiled floor. A stone carving of two piscinas were also found and are now in the church. The stone effigy of Mauger de St Aubin was, according to Westcote in the 17th century, accompanied by one of his wife.
When the church was “beautified” in 1762 it was given a gallery, a “rich stucco ceiling”, box pews and a generally Georgian appearance with round-topped sash windows. By 1771 there was no sign of Sir Mauger’s wife’s effigy, and his own had been removed.
It is interesting that the five bells were cast for the church in 1748, another cast or recast in 1765, so the plans for the “beutification” must have been long standing.
The Church Terrier stated that in 1727 there were six bells. In 1748 the bells were cast in Gloucester. These bells carried the inscriptions they still have today. Three of them bear what look like copies of much earlier inscriptions:
In concord such they please as much
As we that cheer the listening ear
Let men agree as well as well
The other bells carry the names of their donors.
Information about the village increases vastly in the 18th century. From 1727 we have a “Terrier”, a list of church land, houses, barns and tithes, which gives us the names of the field and owners of neighboring ones. It makes interesting reading. Here is an abridged version of it:
A list of those houses, land and tithes which belong to the Rectory of Georgeham, made in 1727.
A house built of a roofed with stone, containing a hall with earth floor and wood panelled walls; a parlour with a woodden floor with wooden panelled walls; a small parlour with a wooden floor; dining room; kitchen with stone floor; dairy; pantry; three cellars; brew house; seven bedrooms, three with wall hangings, three with plain white walls; a study and a closet. The outhouses have stone and cob walls and are thatched. There are two barns, one near the house and a larger one in Croyde. There are two stables, a shippen, hay store and a dove house.
The glebe (church) lands are 33 acres and enclosed, namely;
the barn Close, about 3.5 acres bounded by the manor lands and Highways.
the Winnard Hill, 1.5 acres, bounded by lands of the Manor, of John Harris Esq. And the lands of Wright and Deane.
Five Acres, about 7.75 acres, bounded by the lands of John Harris Esq. , Wright and Hoblin.
the Pitis, 4 acres bounded by the lands of the Manor and of John Harris Esq.
Stone Park, 2 acres, half bounded by the lands of the Manor and of Deane.
Higher East Field, about 7 acres, half bounded by the Manor lands.
Lower East Field, about 6 acres, bounded by the lands of the Manor and of Wright and Deane.
the Bye Cross Meadow, about 2 acres, bounded by the lands of the Manor and of Chichester and Wood.
the Butt Close, about 33 acres, bounded by lands of the Manor and of Wright and Deane.
the Home Stall which consists of two little orchards, about .25 acre each, and two gardens, all bound by the lands of Wright.
There are 23 young ash and elm trees growing in the churchyard.
Monies paid out – £5 to poor clergyman’s widows of Newton Bushall; £1 to the Dean of Exeter; 2s 6d to the Lord of the Manor; 1s 6d to Mr Hoblin.
Monies received – 2d for an offering; 1s for a marriage; 6d for Churching; burials are free, but mortuary fees are paid.
Tithes are paid in kind of varying sorts, although the Manor mill pays 2s 4d and the other two mills pay 2s each. 1s is paid for a cottage, 6d for a calf, 1d for the milk of a cow, a farthing for the milk of a ewe, 1 d for a herb garden.
This document was signed by 24 parishioners including two churchwardens and two Overseers.
There were problems in 1746/7 when twenty people died from a “violent pleurotic plague”.
In 1755, Revd. Jeremiah Milles or Miles, Percentor and later Dean of Exeter Cathedral sent a questionnaire to all the parishes in the diocese. The one from Georgeham was completed by a schoolmaster from Barnstaple. It tells us that “Ham Town was in the middle of it (the parish); the villages of Putsborough, Croyde and Cross to the West, and Darracott to the East. … The church was in Mr Bucks Manor and in the middle of the parish. The Tower was 70 feet high and had 6 bells. … There was a gentleman’s seat at Pickwell owned by John Harris and a ruined chapel at Croyde. On St Georges Day there was the Ham Revel. About 100 Hogsheads of cider were produced from 30 acres of orchards. Cattle were black and “handsome all”.