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Alphington - a short history

Page updated 1st August 2017

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There is evidence of neolithic occupation of Alphington. What would have been a highly prized, well polished stone axe, was found at Waybrook Cottage. It indicates that there was trading taking place, as the flint is not local. In 1973, a bronze age ring ditch was excavated at Markham Lane, and two cremations found, along with shards of pottery.

It is probable that it was Saxons who settled on the Alphin Brook, at a point where ancient tracks from Salmon Pool crossed to Crediton and Moretonhampstead. After the Norman invasion, it became an Earl's land under the Crown, and Domesday refers to 'the King has a manor called Afinstone'. St Michael's and All Angels was established by the Normans, although only the font remains from this structure.

The Priory of St Mary de Marisco was established on a site in Marsh Green Road, close to the city incinerator. It was recorded as early as 1155 as an annexe of the Plympton Priory, to whom it paid rent between 1263 to 1273, and 1281 to 1384. By 1546, the land was in the possession of James Coffin, who was the owner of other lands in Alphington that he sold to the City Chamber during the time of the building of the canal. John Hooker, the first Chamberlain and chronicler of Exeter, purchased timber from Coffin's land, in 1562.

The Courtenays grab control

By 1100, Alphington was held by Baldwin the Sheriff as part of the Barony of Okehampton. In 1284 it passed to Hugh de Courtenay who sublet it to the Nevilles. Later, it came fully into the possession of Hugh de Neville who in turn left the parish to John Burgeys. Because he had no heir, Burgeys passed it on to Sir Hugh Seagrave, who then swapped it for Newenham Courcy with Sir Philip Courtenay who managed to hang on to it this time around. Phew! In the meantime, the people of Alphington just got on with growing and tending their crops, going to market and trying not to annoy the latest landlord.

The Courtenays were a powerful lot - they controlled Topsham, Alphington, Exe Island, Shilhay and most of the river between. They controlled Exeter's trade by blocking the port of Exeter, building the weir at Countess Wear, and charging exorbitant rates for using the quay at Topsham. They also owned most of the mills that were springing up on Exe Island, and prevented the people of Exeter from continuing their traditional practice of using river sand for building. Their weir ruined the fishing, as the salmon were prevented from swimming up the Exe. They probably weren't very nice to the folk of Alphington either.

Henry VIII, who seemed more interested in his many wives, brought about the demise of the Courtenays, when Henry Courtenay was accused of treason in 1538 and had most of his lands confiscated - oh, and he was also executed. However, this did not shake the grip of the Courtenays on Alphington, for a bit of jiggery pokery ensured that another branch of the family kept Powderham, and Alphington.

In 1550, Edward VI granted Exeter permission to remove the weir, but it was too late, the river had silted up. In 1563 they engaged John Trew, of Alphington to bypass the obstruction with a canal, part of which passes through Alphington. Land was purchased from Alphington landowners, such as Mr Coffyn who sold a marsh of 120 acres and 31½ perches, and other parcels running to the Alphinbrook. Trew constructed a canal that ran from close to Exeter quay for 2,850 metres to Countess Wear, It was only a metre deep, and suffered from silting, but it demonstrated that it was a sound idea. Trew lived at New Haven House, at Haven Banks, which is still part of Alphington.

The land in Alphington that was purchased was described:

"through old Exe (apparently) from old Exe to higher of middle sluices from thence to 25 feet below Trew's house from thence to Alphington brook ...from Alphington brook to Adelbury wood ...from Alphington boundary to lower pair of sluices ...at and between the sluices and twenty feet below ...from thence to the pyll." (Oliver)

The Civil War

Exeter was a divided city during the Civil War. It came out for Parliament at the start, but after a Royalist siege of 11 weeks in 1643, the city surrendered to the King's men. Country areas, such as Alphington were already more sympathetic to the King, so they were probably quite pleased by this turn of events. In September 1645, Bristol had fallen to a revitalised Parliamentary army, and by the 19th October, Tiverton Castle had fallen to Fairfax. By the 22nd he had reached Newton St Cyres, intending to march on to Alphington, but the lanes were narrow and very muddy, as it had been raining quite a lot. Instead of occupying the villages to the west of the Exe, Fairfax marched down to Topsham. After Powderham Castle surrendered to Fairfax in January 1646, Alphington was taken and made the head quarters for the army. Troops were garrisoned in Barley House, and in the many villages to the west of Exeter. It is said that Alphington Church was used as a stable, which was quite a common practice of both sides in the Civil War. The defenders in the city eventually surrendered in April 1646.

In 1658, during the Commonwealth, ten couples were married by the Right Worshipful John Quick, Esq, Justice of the Peace. These were the first civil marriages in Alphington.

In July 1760, what was an all too common event occurred when the Alphinbrook overflowed and destroyed 12 houses, barns, and fields of corn, to a value of £1,000. One of the last Devon bridges to be built by James Green was completed in 1843 at a cost of £250 - Green by this time was a resident of the village, having moved out of Exeter to economise, after he had been bankrupted. The bridge was widened in 1926. His bridge probably contributed to the worst flooding in recent memory, when on the 22nd October 1960, the Alphinbrook overflowed again, flooding Church Road. Alphinbrook is now culverted and a modern structure has replaced Green's bridge. All the lower parts of Alphington, along the Alphington Road as far as the Crawford Hotel were also flooded.

Justice in Alphington

During one of England's many wars with France, in 1779, some captured French prisoners of war were held at Alphington under a volunteer guard from Exeter:

"On the arrival of the prisoners at Alphington Cross, they were met by two companies of the Exeter Volunteers, who were on that day appointed to do duty over them, and conducted to their respective places of confinement, the county Bridewell and some houses on Alphington causeway. These volunteers having thus taken the charge of the prisoners, continued on duty during their stay (which was for some time) with such care that not one escaped; and for this, on the removal of the captives, his Majesty was pleased to signify his approbation by sending them his letter of thanks, which was read at the head of each company." (Jenkins)

Then in 1782, some Dutch privateers were also held in the village.

For the locals, justice was also hard - a house now known as the Gables, in Chudleigh Road, was built in 1730. During its early years, it was used as a prison for those sentenced to death, and due to be hanged at the Old Oak Tree on the Shillingford Road. The Gables had a tunnel that was also used as a wine cellar - the prisoners would be led through the tunnel to their execution, and their bodies brought back along Hangman's Lane, to be buried opposite the house, on the other side of the Chudleigh Road.

Horse Fair Revelries

Annual fairs were a popular event in towns and villages across Devon in former times, and Alphington had two. The first mention of a fair in Alphington dates from 1304. Later, the annual Cattle Fair was held on the first Wednesday after the 20th June, and the Horse Fair on the first Wednesday after Michaelmas. The Horse Fair was first established in 1632 and was the largest in Devon - gypsies would bring in their horses to sell, while their wives and daughters would tell fortunes to the local folk. There were 23 public or 'bush' houses opened during the fair to sell beer and cider to the local and visiting revellers. The Admiral Vernon Inn pub would cook as many as 60 geese, and huge joints of meat to feed the throng. The fair was held in a field on the road leading to Shillingford, but was moved to a site closer to the village,before it closed in 1870. Fairfield Road is named to remember the Cattle and Horse Fairs.

The first school was opened in 1812, followed by the Board School in 1878. It was enlarged in 1908, for 300 children. A modern school was opened in 1987 in Ide Lane. The old school site was originally the site of the Church House, a thatched, Tudor building, first mentioned 1499. It was used for manorial and parochial meetings and as the first Admiral Vernon Inn. It was burnt down in 1871.Charles Babbage, the inventor of the world's first programmable computer, the Difference Engine, was given his first education in Alphington. Another 19th Century celebrity, Charles Dickens rented Mile End Cottage for his parents in 1839.

At the end of the 19th Century, the Earl of Devon and the Gibbs family both owned substantial parts of the parish. Anthony Gibbs, the son of an Exeter surgeon established himself in Madrid, exporting fruit and wine to England, and selling Exeter woollen cloth in Spain. His youngest son William inherited the business and started importing into England, guano for use as a fertiliser. He made his fortune and built Tyntesfield in Bristol, now a National Trust property. The family sold much of his property in Alphington to his tenants.

The 20th Century

During the 20th Century, Alphington has been transformed from a sleepy village, bisected by the Plymouth Road into a busy and important part of Exeter. The Alphington electric tram line to the terminus at Stone Lane, now the Stone Lane Retail Park, was the last to be added to the network. The tender was accepted in April 1906, a full year after the main network was opened. When Exeter decided to get rid of the tram system in 1930, the Alphington branch was the first to go.

The two world wars could have been much worse. Thirty men failed to return in 1918, out of a population of 1,150, while an incendiary dropping on Midway Terrace with no loss of life, and 40 evacuees from Bristol and London, seem to be the only extent to which Hitler touched the village, although the locals would have been only too aware of the German bombers passing over to destroy Exeter on the eastern horizon. The one area that did suffer from the blitz was Marsh Barton, although not yet a trading estate. James Bell wrote of a raid in April 1942: "The raid did take place but it missed the town, hundreds of incendiaries landing on Exminster marshes. This has not received much publicity. Many of the Exeter Corporation Buses which were moved to Marsh Barton and roads near Alphington for safety were burnt out."

After a thousand years of independence, Alphington was incorporated into the City of Exeter in 1966. Now, the expansion of Marsh Barton and the moving of the Cattle and Livestock Market to Matford have rejuvenated the village. New housing estates have seen the population of 1,280 in 1931 grow to a present figure of 8,520. The link road to the A30 and M5 has relieved Chudleigh Road of much traffic and gone are the tailbacks at rush hour, all the way down Church Road, that once disturbed the peace of this very Devonian village.

Sources: An Alphington Album by Pauline Aplin and Jeane Gaskell, the History of Alphington by Professor W J Harte MA, the City Council Timetrail website, The Heathfield to Exeter Railway by Lawrence W Pomroy, tithe and Courtenay maps of Alphington, and other articles on this website. © 2006 David Cornforth

Map of Alphington Map showing some interesting places

Some Alphington Trivia

Alphington Crosse Alphington Cross was moved for road widening. Alphington Post Office The Post Office and Queen Street Carpets

Inns of Alphington

Admiral Vernon Inn - closed in 2006, it opened in the premises of the Bell Inn, according to census records, during 1881. The first Admiral Vernon was in the Church House which burnt down in 1871.

Bell Inn - situated on the Chudleigh Road, it was known as the Old Bell or Burgoynes in an 1849 conveyancing deed to Richard Loram. Described as a tenement, it was mortgaged and sublet through the early part of the 19th Century from the Courtenays. It was inhabited by William Loram, farmer and victualler, in 1870. Census records for 1881 and 1891, along with new a lease for the Admiral Vernon show the name change from the Bell Inn in late 1881.

Exeter Inn - there are two entries in Trewman's Exeter Flying Post, during 1873 and 1883, both related to fire. The second destroyed the inn. Location not known.

Red Lyon - this pub was next to the Vernons Head, on the site of the old school, according to a Courtenay map of 1762. There are other references to it in the Courtenay archives. I have never seen a directory listing for it. In the 1891 Census can be found the Red Lion Cottage, probably situated on the former site of the inn.

Bridge House Hotel - burnt down in 1936.

Crawford Hotel - was built as a house in 1825. It was substantially rebuilt in 1939 to convert it into a hotel. It is now a Coop.

Double Locks Hotel - Canal - constructed in 1701 when the canal was extended.

King William - appears in White's 1850.

New Inn - opened in 1872 on site of the first Post Office.

Alphington Green Alphington Green - the chemist's in Tozers Cottage and right, Pixies Cottage. St Michaels Church, Alphington St Michael's and All Angels Church A R Motors, Alphington A R Motors was Harry Webbs in 1930 The railway bridge, Alphington The railway bridge of the Teign Valley line crossed Church Road near the Sainbury's petrol station.

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