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Who were the Rolles?

The Rolle family were Lords of the Manor for some 350 years.  They lived at Stevenstone in the adjoining parish of St Giles-in-the-Wood.  George Rolle (c1485-1552), who acquired the manor of Torrington from the Fortescue family in Henry VIII’s time, was the founder of the dynasty which came to an end with the death of Mark Rolle in 1907.

Amongst George Rolle’s descendants were Dennys Rolle (1614-1638), known for his intellect and amiability, who made many benefactions to the people of Torrington during his short life, including the foundation of the Blue Coat School.

Sir John Rolle (1626-1706) was knighted by Charles II in 1660.  He had remained loyal to the King during the Civil War, helped Charles II financially when he was in exile, and actively supported the Restoration.

Another Dennys Rolle (1720-1797) was Mayor of Torrington for two terms and Recorder from 1781-97.  He was also MP for Barnstaple from 1761-74.  He was a colourful character who had many interests and adventures including a failed attempt to set up a colony in Florida.  He was very interested in natural history and liked working on the land himself.  He provided schools and garden allotments for the poor.  He died under a tree in June 1797 while walking between his estates of Stevenstone and Hudscott (near Chittlehampton).  He was the first to propose building a canal at Torrington in 1793.

John Lord Rolle (1750-1842) was elected MP for Devonshire in 1780 and retained the seat in the general elections of 1784 and 1790.  He was a supporter of Pitt and a staunch Conservative.  In June 1796 he was raised to the Peerage, receiving the title of ‘Baron Rolle of Stevenstone’.  He was Colonel of the South Devon Militia and Royal North Devon Yeomanry, a county magistrate, a good landlord, liberal benefactor and supporter of the church.  He commissioned plans for the canal his father had proposed and paid for it to be built.  It was completed in 1827.  He died at Bicton, another family estate, in April 1842.

Although he was married twice, John Lord Rolle had no children and his Torrington estates were left to his nephew, the Hon. Mark George Kerr Trefusis (1835-1907), son of Lord Clinton, on the condition that he changed his name to Rolle, which he did by Royal Licence in 1852.  Mark Rolle sold the canal land for the building of a railway in 1871.  He donated land for the cottage hospital, paid for the pannier market to be roofed and for a drinking fountain to be erected in the square in 1870.  In 1868 he started the building of an extravagant new manor house at Stevenstone but in less than 100 years it lay in ruins.

Mark was the last of the Rolle dynasty.  He died leaving no male heir and his estates then passed to his nephew, Charles Trefusis, the 21st Baron Clinton.