This fine and flourishing town, the largest in West Devon (population approximately 11,000), with its architecture of local stone, wide range of interesting and practical shops, market, riverside park, leisure centre and theatre, is excellent for visitors, both to see the town itself and as a base for exploring the surrounding beautiful countryside, the wild Dartmoor scenery, the many nearby pretty villages of Devon and Eastern Cornwall, and a variety of National Trust properties.
The area around Tavistock (formerly Tavistoke), where the River Tavy runs wide and shallow allowing it to be easily crossed, and near the secure high ground of Dartmoor, was inhabited long before the historical record. The surrounding area is littered with archaeological remains from the Bronze and Iron Ages and it is believed a hamlet existed on the site of the present town long before the town’s official history began, with the founding of the Abbey.
The abbey of Saint Mary and Saint Rumon was founded in 961 by Ordgar, Earl of Devon. After destruction by Danish raiders in 997 it was restored, and among its famous abbots was Aldred, who crowned Harold II and William I, and died Archbishop of York.
In 1105 a Royal Charter was granted by Henry I to the monks of Tavistock to run a weekly “Pannier Market” (so called after the baskets used to carry goods) on a Friday, which still takes place today. In 1116 a three-day fair was also granted to mark the feast of Saint Rumon, another tradition that is still maintained in the shape of the annual “Goosey” fair on the second Wednesday in October.
By 1185 Tavistock had achieved borough status and in 1295 became a parliamentary borough, sending two members to parliament. The abbey church was rebuilt in 1285. In 1305, with the growing importance of the area as one of Europe’s richest sources of tin, Tavistock was one of the four stannary towns appointed by charter of Edward I, where tin was stamped and weighed and monthly courts were held for the regulation of mining affairs.
The greater part of the abbey was rebuilt in 1457-58. In 1552 two fairs on 23 April and 28 November were granted by Edward VI to the Earl of Bedford, then lord of the manor.
In the 17th century great quantities of cloth were sold at the Friday market and four fairs were held at the feasts of Saint Michael, Epiphany, Saint Mark, and the Decollation of John the Baptist. The charter of Charles II instituted a Tuesday market, fairs on the Thursday after Whitsunday and at the feast of Saint Swithin. The town continued to prosper in the charge of the abbots, acquiring one of England’s first printing presses in 1525. Tavistock remained an important centre of both trade and religion until the Dissolution of the Monasteries—the abbey was demolished in 1539, leaving the ruins still to be seen around the centre of the town. From this time on, the dominant force in the town became the Russell family, Earls and later Dukes of Bedford, who took over much of the land following the Dissolution.
Tavistock is tied from late medieval times with the Russells, the family name of the Earls of Bedford and since 1694, the Dukes of Bedford. This is clearly seen from the history of the town. The second title of the Duke of Bedford is the Marquees of Tavistock, taken as the courtesy title of the eldest son and heir to the dukedom, and illustrates the importance of this Devon town, its hinterland and the minerals beneath it to the family’s fortunes. It is believed that the Russell family retains considerable interests in the locality. Most recently, Robin, the short-lived 14th Duke, as Marquees of Tavistock, was a frequent visitor to the town along with his wife, Henrietta. Andrew Russell is the 15th Duke of Bedford and Marquees of Tavistock.
It is this Russell family connection through the Bedford Estates which gives the name by ownership to Russell Square and Tavistock Square in London, famously home to the Tavistock Clinic, and the bus-bombing of 7 July 2005.
By 1800, cloth was heading the same way as tin had done a century earlier, but copper was starting to be seriously mined in the area, to such an extent that by 1817 the Tavistock Canal had been dug (most of the labour being done by French prisoners of war from the Napoleonic Wars, to carry copper to Morwellham Quay on the River Tamar, where it could be loaded into sailing ships weighing up to 200 tonnes. In 1822 the old fairs were abolished in favour of six fairs on the second Wednesday in May, July, September, October, November and December.
In the mid-nineteenth century, with nearby Devon Great Consols mine at Blanchdown one of the biggest copper mining operations in the world, Tavistock was booming again, reputedly earning the 7th Duke of Bedford alone over £2,000,000. A statue in copper of the 7th Duke stands in Guildhall Square. The Duke built a 50,000 imperial gallon (230 m³) reservoir to supply the town in 1845, as well as a hundred miners’ houses at the southern end of town, between 1845 and 1855. There is a strong, recognisable vernacular “Bedford style” of design, exemplified most strikingly in Tavistock’s Town Hall and “Bedford Cottages” ubiquitous across Tavistock and much of the local area to the north and west, where the Bedfords had their estate and summer “cottage” at Endsleigh House and Gardens, which since 2005 is the Hotel Endsleigh run by Alex Polizzi.
Tavistock was deprived of one member of Parliament in 1867 and finally disenfranchised in 1885. The railway came to the town in 1859, with the town being connected to the Great Western Railway and the London and South Western Railway. At around this time the centre of town was substantially and ruthlessly remodelled by the 7th Duke of Bedford, including the construction of the current Town Hall and Pannier Market buildings, and the widening of the Abbey Bridge, first built in 1764, and a new Drake Road ramped up northwards from Bedford Square to the LSWR station. Tavistock North railway station opened to much acclaim and fanfare in 1890. The population had peaked at around 9,000. By 1901 the population had halved, recorded as 4,728. In 1968, following the Beeching Report Tavistock Station closed its doors, and in 1999 English Heritage listed the building as Grade II.
Kelly College, a co-educational public school,amalgamated with Mount House to form Mount Kelly Foundation, to the north-east of the town, was founded by Admiral Benedictus Marwood Kelly, and opened in 1877 for the education of his descendants and the orphan sons of naval officers, and is a pastiche of the Bedford and High Victorian styles of building.
20th and 21st centuries
In 1911, the Bedford influence on the town came to an end after over 450 years, when the family sold most of their holdings in the area to meet death duties. The Bedford name can still be seen in many place names around the town. The council cannot raise capital or income from the landholding and most of its budget on managing the properties.
West Devon Borough Council is based in Tavistock, about 500 metres north of Bedford Square at Kilworthy Park. There is a small police station under part of the Bedford building complex on Bedford Square but the adjacent historic Magistrates Court has been closed and the nearest criminal court is now at Plymouth.
In 1933 the long-disused canal was put to use providing hydroelectric power for the area.
A war memorial in Bedford Square commemorates many, but not all, of the townsfolk killed in the First and Second World Wars. Many families across Britain exercised their right not to have their family members named on these public memorials. In 2006, this memorial is in process of being moved, but due to local opposition this has not happened, to a site in the graveyard of the Parish Church.
Tavistock had two railway stations, both now closed. Tavistock South was the Great Western Railway’s station, on the route between Launceston and Plymouth. This was closed and mostly dismantled between 1962 and 1965. The station was sited to the south of Bedford Square, just over the bridge and to the right—now a council depot: no trace of the station remains. Tavistock North was the Plymouth, Devonport and South Western Junction Railway’s station, operated by the London and South Western Railway, on the route between Lydford and Plymouth via Bere Alston. This opened on 2 June 1890 and closed on 6 May 1968. The main station building survives as railway-themed bed and breakfast accommodation while the extensive goods yard is now known as Kilworthy Park and houses the offices of West Devon Borough Council. The railway for around a mile south of Tavistock North station is open to the public as a footpath and nature reserve and it is possible to walk across the viaducts that overlook the town.
The trackbed of the Tavistock North route is almost intact to Bere Alston where it joins today’s Tamar Valley Line. There has been discussion regarding the re-opening of a rail link for a number of years. Engineering assessment shows the rail-bed, bridges and tunnels to be in sound condition. In 2008 a housing developer offered to rebuild the railway to Bere Alston (from a new station slightly south of the town) if agreement for him to build 800 properties could be concluded. This has also encouraged speculation about restoring the Tavistock-Okehampton rail link, which could provide an alternative to the Devon coastal main line to link the South West Region with the rest of the country. In December 2010 the developer published an update on the possibility of re-instating the line between Tavistock and Bere Alston and hence providing a train service between Tavistock and Plymouth. In April 2010 the Liberal Democrats had suggested that a Tavistock-Plymouth service could be included in the rail expansion plans should they win the 2010 General Election.
In 1986, the town’s two newspapers, the Tavistock Gazette (founded in 1857) and the Tavistock Times (established in 1920) merged to form the current weekly publication, the Tavistock Times Gazette, with a circulation of around 8,000. The newspaper is owned by Tindle Newspaper Group. The newspaper celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2007, with a visit from the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall.
In July 2006 Tavistock was named the eastern Gateway to the Cornish Mining World Heritage Site, which runs westward through the Tamar Valley and Great Consols Mine, down the spine of Cornwall to Lands End. This £75 million project is likely to bring more tourists to Tavistock. A £1.1million World Heritage Site Interpretation Centre, planned for 2007, to be built in the area of the Guildhall, and overlooking the River Tavy has not been achieved.
A local community group known as “Tavistock Forward”, have been negotiating to take over the Guildhall complex with police force and English Heritage endorsement, with lease-back of the existing police station to Devon & Cornwall Police, while developing the Guildhall itself.