By Dawn Robinson-Walsh, author of Secret Bude, Bude Through Time and Bude:The Postcard Collection (all still available locally):
Re-reading the popular (and still available) Rennie Bere and Brian Dudley Stamp book, The Book of Bude and Stratton, I am reminded of how much history there is to Stratton, a place of great note long before Bude grew to be an attractive seaside town. John Leland called it a “prettye towne” as far back as 1600.
The town is mentioned in Alfred the Great’s will (pre-Domesday) and was later given its own Hundred (sub-division of a county, with its own court) which covered Kilk, Marhamchurch, Jacobstow, Poughill, Week, Launcells and Morwenstow and more.
It was also home to the renowned gentle giant of a man, Anthony Payne, born in the town in 1612. He grew to be 7ft 4 tall and weighted 32 stone, so he was hard to miss. Alas, when he died in 1691, his coffin was too large to go down the stairs, so a hole had to be cut in the floor to carry him out that way. The big question is how the coffin ever got up the stairs before Payne was placed in it, or perhaps it was made in his cottage?
The Anglican church, St Andrew’s, was dominant, both literally and figuratively, and is still important in the town, looking benignly down at the community from its literal high ground position.
Locals also enjoyed an array of ale-houses and other businesses in Stratton’s heyday. Bere and Stamp note that by the late 18th century, there were more than twelve inns/drinking spots: Ackland Arms, Bay Tree Inn, Bideford Inn, Butchers Arms, Commercial Inn, the Cornish Inn and many more. Of course, The King’s Arms and The Tree (where the Court Leet was held) are still flourishing.
Jubilee Square had its own building, Church House, which brewed and sold beer to raise funds for the church. It was also used to house itinerant people from travelling fairs, and even the dancing bear they would tend to bring with them! There was a cattle market, and the area on Bude-side became known for its garlic which was cultivated as a cure for animal diseases. Now, it’s more likely to go into lush wild garlic pesto.
For miscreants, a jail once existed near the churchyard but it was later moved to the old market place. You can see the door of the ‘Clink’ in the church porch. By 1863, there was also a police station. Now you would have to travel to Bude for a police station (and that was only very recently re-opened).
A cottage hospital was added in 1866, almshouses in 1910, and a (rather less popular addition) poor house (workhouse) in 1856, so it was a bustling, even at times thriving, community. In 1870, Stratton had, according to this website, a post office, a banking office, an endowed school, a Wesleyan chapel, and a weekly market on a Tuesday.
There is a sad tale in the Bere and Stamp book of a sailor who, according to Canon Maskell in 1872, enquired about getting a doctor in Bude. The answer was along the lines of when the gentry (sea-bathing visitors) were in Bude in summer, a doctor was summoned from Stratton, but in winter, no doctor was available for the locals, so one simply died a “natural death”.
The Imperial Gazeteer tells us that in 1863, there were 254 births registered in Stratton, of which 16 were illegitimate. As for deaths, there were 179, with 43 sadly those of children aged 5 and under, and there were only 6 deaths listed for those aged over 85. However, back in 1758, Elizabeth Cornish (from the Welsh Cornige) was baptised. Later a widow, she astonishingly lived to be over 113 years of age. However, her father, John Veal (Weale), seemingly lived to over 114 years so perhaps had good genes, although he attributed it to never drinking spirits, seldom eating meat, and getting up before 6am whatever the time of year.
For many people, however, life was much shorter, and it was hard. Little wonder that Stratton was where the Blanchminster charity started (though originally known as Norden’s Charity, and later, Stratton Town and Churchlands Charity). The charity was a great help to distressed mariners and wounded soldiers, but also in the far past, to leper houses.
The parish records are interesting, especially pertaining to deaths and coroners’ reports, which clearly demonstrate how precarious life in old Stratton (and Bude) could be.
In 1807, for example, a 17-year-old apprentice, Edward, absconded to Plymouth. He was said to be only 4ft 10 ins tall and there was a price on his head. There is also a fascinating removal order appeal, whereby two parents, four young children and an unbaptised baby were removed from Penryn area and sent to Stratton. In Stratton, at the Cornwall Quarter Sessions, they were returned from whence they came and the overseers of the poor were charged 8 pounds costs for sending the problem back to where it started. It is not clear what the family did to deserve its removal.
The deaths mentioned include the celebrated Reverend Stephen Hawker. On the day of his funeral (11th July, 1845), family and “a multitude of lamenting friends” followed his coffin, and all the shops in town were closed.
Others met stickier ends, such as the 76 year old ‘spinster’ who fell over a step and died a week later, and the veterinary surgeon also died after an unexpected accident. Called to attend a bullock in neighbouring Poundstock parish, he was travelling by horseback when he collided with a cart near Hele, and met his demise.
Better known, perhaps, was the death of James Maynard (9th March, 1877). He was coxswain of the Bude lifeboat, and died when the Elizabeth Moore Garden went to the rescue of the schooner Elizabeth Scown. James left behind a considerable family of a wife and 9 children (plus one on the way) so the public were asked to assist with donations for the lost lifeboatman’s family.
If we check out the coroner’s reports, more interesting items come to light. In 1843, a thunder storm raged. An unnamed lad driving a team of donkeys was killed when lightning struck the spade he was carrying over his shoulder.
“His clothes were literally torn in ribbons, and his laced half boots presented the same appearance: the body was almost naked when discovered.”
How sad that he was unnamed.
Unlike the 8-year-old son of the harbourmaster, John Goman, who got into a boat in Bude, fell overboard and drowned. Horrible ends for both boys but one merited a name and the other appears not to have.
If you are interested in Stratton, you might be tempted to try the Town Trail. The website link to the tourist information service also offers a wonderful summary of the town.
Photos all from the collection of the late Ray Boyd who kindly permitted their use on our website.