In an old aerial photograph of Torrington, probably taken in the 1930s, there are very few houses in Warren Lane: Culver House, Uplands and Rock Mount (overlooking Mill Street common), Enfield, The Warren (now called Warren House), Hillcrest, Torridge House and Penhallam. Warren Lane seems to have had a variety of names over the years including Fares Lane, Rack Park Lane and Dedalls Lane. The houses in this street have lovely views over the Torridge valley.
The Warren may well have been built over 250 years ago and the magnificent holm oak by the front gate is believed to be much older than that. The castellated walls in front of the property are similar to those at Castle Hill erected by the Rolles in the 1840s. It is thought that the house was called The Warren because the owners kept rabbits which were a welcome addition to the diet of impoverished townsfolk. Existing documentation dates back to the 1860s when the house was part of the Town Lands of Great Torrington. In 1872 it was proposed by the Town Council that The Warren should be used as a smallpox hospital but the Trustees rejected this proposal. Captain Walter Bayntun Starky purchased The Warren in 1923 for the sum of £1,450. He had worked as a civilian engineer for the government in India and been given an honorary title. He was three times Mayor of Torrington in 1930, ’31 and ’33. His wife retained some of her colonial ways and a local man remembers calling at the house and, when he rang at the front door, Mrs Starky told him, from an upstairs window, to go to the tradesmen’s entrance at the back. This he duly did only to be told, ‘Not today, thank you!’
Mr George Doe, local historian, Town Clerk and twice Mayor, lived next door at Enfield. The drain from his house and his cesspit were, rather inconveniently, in the garden of The Warren.
Torridge House, a ‘late Victorian gentleman’s residence’, was built in around 1870 and the house was originally square with the front door facing east. An extension was added in 1907 by Mr Boatfield, a bank manager in the town. The garden stretched down the hill to Mill Street, where there was access, and west to the commons where a house, Hillside, was built on the old tennis court. The building was turned into two flats after the war and many original features were damaged. In 1968 the whole house was bought by Theo Page, an eccentric graphic artist, who used the attic as his studio and set about returning the flats to one residence. He became ill in 1972 and the rather haphazard work on the house stopped so that when the present owners bought it in 1976 the interior was virtually derelict. Since that time they have slowly put the house back together. It has an extensive cellar, which used to be the kitchen at ground level on the south side, wine and coal cellars and various larders. There is a deep well with a very worn pump that moved water up three flights through a large lead pipe to a big tank in the attic.
Penhallam, at the end of Warren Lane, where it meets Mill Street, is a large three storey building with a square turret, divided up since the 1940s into interlocking apartments. It has fine high-ceilinged rooms and lovely westward views. The property was formerly known as Rack Park House and was renamed by George Stawell, a solicitor, who came from Cornwall in late Victorian times.
An early form of football, called ‘outhurling’, used to be played centuries ago on the commons. Two sets of stakes, some half a mile apart, were the designated goal posts and two teams of 25 to 30 men used to play with a pig’s bladder covered with pieces of leather.
Torrington FC was established in 1908. Their home ground is the Vicarage Field and, at present, they play in the top division of the North Devon League.
In the 1920s each street had its own football team and practised on its own bit of commons: Mill Street on Mill Street common, Calf Street on Quiet Possession, Town Boys at Barley Grove, and New Street on the Old Bowling Green, which was also the location for the annual inter-street finals. In 1931 the ‘Street Shield’ was won by Mill Street.
In a letter to the Commons Conservators in 1895 a proposal was made to form a Torrington Golf Club. This proposal was accepted and a nine hole golf course was established on the Old Bowling Green where play continued until the First World War. After the war, a new course was made and opened at Darracott. The club moved to its present site at Furzebeam in 1932.
The bowling club is said to have been founded in1645 and is the third oldest in England. It stands on the site of the old castle overlooking the Torridge valley.
As well as football, golf and, presumably at one time, bowls, the Old Bowling Green has been used for shinty and women’s hockey and as a venue for special events such as the Coronation Sports of 1902.
Rugby was played in the past (I’ve seen a photo of the 1898/99 team) but the present club started in 1985. Before the clubhouse was built in 1996, home games involved changing at the comprehensive school, a walk up to the pitch at Donnacroft on Hatchmoor Road, and then, after the match, down to the Newmarket Inn in town for a few beers.
The ’round the tree race’ at May Fair is a long-held tradition. In the past, when there were fewer trees and bushes on the commons because of grazing, the runners used to plunge straight down over Castle Hill and wade through the river.
Tennis club records go back to the 1950s but an elderly woman who lived in Torrington in the 1930s says she belonged to the junior section of the tennis club and was coached by Bruce Blatchford, who had a saddler’s and sports shop in Potacre Street. They played on two grass courts down by the gas works, where the three hard courts are now. Facilities at the tennis club were always poor – an old shed with no toilets. Promises of improvements by the local council in 2011 came to nothing and tennis is no longer played in Torrington.
There used to be a bathing spot in the river below Castle Hill and, in the late 1920s, a concrete platform and changing shed were built. The shed was divided into two, for women and men, and boys used to punch holes through the dividing wall to look at the girls! The present swimming pool was built in 1972 on the site of the old market.
The Plough Arts Centre, situated in Fore Street in the centre of Torrington, is a great cultural asset to the town and to North Devon. It hosts live events, films, workshops and art exhibitions and there is a café in the foyer. The Plough is home to the Torrington Players, the Plough Youth Theatre, Ploughcappella singers, the First Thursday Writers’ Group, and there is an annual poetry competition. The centre also has an extensive outreach programme that puts on events at twelve other venues across North Devon. The official staff, led by Richard Wolfenden-Brown, who has been Director since 2002, are helped in the running of the arts centre by a team of volunteers. Plough supporters help to keep the venue afloat by their financial contributions and receive price concessions in return.
It is thought that the original building where the Plough now stands was the town house of a wealthy merchant or, possibly, a building with some municipal purpose as a fine, large, iron fireback dated 1616 – now in the museum – bears the Royal Coat of Arms and the site has always belonged to the town.
In around 1750 the building became the Plough Inn run by William Waldon, ‘a Maltster’, and his wife Judith who are both buried in the churchyard. There is mention of the inn over the years in the Council Minutes, such as in 1855 when the Mayor, Silas Snell, invited the Town Council to a grand dinner at the Globe while the Beadles and Constables dined at the Plough. It seems the neighbouring establishments catered for a different clientele. The Minutes of 1875 note ‘complaints having been made of the bad state of the closets and dung pit behind the Plough premises’ and the ‘nuisance therefrom’.
The Plough remained as a public house until 1910 by which time the building was evidently in a shocking state of repair. The final indignity was a letter from Mr Parnell of the Globe, dated July 1911, requesting to keep a cow in the premises for a week! (Permission was granted!)
In 1912 the Plough Inn, its many stables and outhouses, was demolished and a drill hall was built on the site for the use of the Devonshire Regiment of the Royal North Devon Yeomanry and the Territorial Army. It was completed in 1914. By August, war had been declared and townspeople gathered to give the ‘D’ squadron of the R.N.D. Hussars (some 150 strong), based at the drill hall, a fitting send off.
The drill hall was uncompromisingly military and Spartan. It had a lobby, a 30 yard shooting range down the right hand side, storage for a large 25 pound field gun, and lots of space besides. It was used for training men and women who drilled with the army there. However, a music and dancing licence had been granted in July 1914 and, when not performing its military function, the drill hall was a venue for a variety of social activities such as badminton, concerts, jumble sales, coffee mornings, children’s fancy dress parties, and dances, especially during the Second World War when the Americans were based nearby.
The Territorial Army gave up the lease of the drill hall in 1968 but it continued to be used for Cavalier Bonfire dances, Christmas parties, hunt balls, and the May Ball where some well-known musicians of the time appeared, such as Nat Temple and his band from London and The Fourmost from Liverpool. The hall was painted dark green and was rather drab so the Cavaliers brightened the place up with a series of murals reflecting the theme of an event. One year they painted shields with rather tongue-in-cheek coats of arms depicting local dignitaries and tradespeople (some of whom were none too amused!). Monthly auctions were held there as well as other events, including a wrestling match modelled on the somewhat stage-managed wrestling shown on Saturday afternoons on ITV at the time.
John Lane from Beaford was one of a small band of movers and shakers who helped establish the Plough Arts Centre. He set up Beaford Arts in August 1966 and later heard that a group of people in Torrington had a vision of creating a community theatre. The late Clifford Quick, former Mayor and Town Councillor, was one of the leading spirits among this group who wanted to convert the drill hall into a theatre. John Lane linked up with the working group, which eventually became Torridge Arts Recreation Association, and they bought the lease of the building from the Town Council in 1974.
Work on the building took about six months and the centre was opened on 11th April 1975 by Col. J. E. Palmer who was thanked by the Mayor, R. H. Cotton. This was followed by a concert featuring the famous actress Edith Evans, who performed a number of poems and amusing pieces, and promising young musicians from the North Devon Music Centre who played Mozart’s ‘Quartet in G. Major’. There followed a month long festival of amateur and professional events culminating in May Fair. People turned up in droves to see George Melly and the Footwarmers, and the first film night was so successful that a queue of 200 had formed by opening time and two consecutive showings were put on of ‘King Kong’. One of the highlights of the 1970s was when the Royal Shakespeare Company came in 1978 and played to packed houses for three nights.
Not everyone in Torrington was supportive of the idea of an arts centre at first and there was some resentment when the drill hall was taken over by ‘luvvies’. There were people in the close-knit community, with its entrenched traditions and insular attitudes, who felt the whole project was alien and unnecessary and would cost money which would be better used for other more essential causes. However, as time passes and outlooks are broadened by easier travel, the media and the internet, suspicions have lessened and local people have realised that the Plough provides a variety of events, to appeal to a wide range of tastes, and is a hub of local activity for people from all over North Devon.
The Women’s Land Army was formed in 1917 during the First World War. In June 1939, with the threat of war looming again, the organisation was re-formed so that by September 1939, when the call came, 1,000 volunteers could immediately be sent into employment, many of them already trained.
Thelma was sent to Torrington in February 1944 to join the Land Army. She was twenty years old and came from London where she had seen the first doodlebugs (flying bombs). She arrived by train and, as she emerged from the station with her luggage, it was raining and she looked up the long blank hill in dismay. ‘Where on earth have I come to?’ she wondered. As she walked into the town she didn’t see a young man standing outside Pope’s garage (where Lidl is now) but he noticed her and thought to himself, ‘She’s the one for me.’ As it turned out, he and Thelma got to know each other and, eventually, they married and had two children.
Thelma stayed with nine other girls in a hostel in New Street opposite the Royal Exchange pub, while some of the girls were billeted in private houses. They came from various parts of the country and were of different ages and backgrounds. Ann Spenceley was the oldest at thirty-two and was in charge of the canteen. Ann de Haviland was a member of the well-known aircraft family and was one of the drivers.
The girls did ‘gang work’ in a group of eighteen and cleared moors and planted them with potatoes or wheat. They did four months forestry work at Okehampton, lopping off branches, and lived in freezing cold Nissen huts at Moretonhampstead. At other times they would do re-stooking work, picking up sheaves and leaning them against each other in stooks of eight to finish drying off. Walking all day on the stubble was hard work but the feeling of camaraderie between the girls kept them going. They went down to Sidmouth and Countesswear to dismantle barbed wire coils and wind the barbed wire around ‘grannies’ (granary sticks).
They worked with gangs of boys and conscientious objectors who were billeted down near South Drive. They also worked with Italian POWs from the hutments by the senior school, who were ‘lovely’ and courteous, and with German POWs who were billeted out of town and driven to work by lorry. They were good workers but, unlike the Italians, weren’t allowed to talk to anyone.
Every day the girls had spam, jam or cheese in their sandwiches. Rationing wasn’t as hard in Torrington as in London and, although food was restricted, no-one went hungry. Land girls were allowed 12 oz of cheese a week whereas it was 2 oz for other people. Chickens were kept to supply eggs and milk was available from local farms, although no-one was allowed to make cream.
The only entertainment in town was the Saturday night dance at the drill hall (now the Plough) and the pubs. The Setting Sun at 24 Cornmarket Street was a favourite.
Three thousand Americans came to Torrington, virtually doubling the population at the time, and they were good fun. They had lots of food and supplies from their quartermaster’s stores which seemed to stock just about everything. They were billeted at Porch House and at number 88 New Street where a ‘Red Indian’ could be seen sitting in his window gazing out and smoking a pipe. The land girls cried when the Americans departed and later wondered if they had been involved in the disastrous operation at Slapton Sands which happened soon after they left Torrington.
I asked Thelma how she felt, looking back, about her time as a land girl. She said it had been ‘bloomin’ hard work’ but they all liked the life, even though they were often muddy, soaked or sunburnt. It had been the first time away from home for all of them which was wonderful!
The Women’s Land Army was disbanded in 1950.
The Great Torrington Trust made use of eight toll-houses around the town but only three can still be identified.
The Rothern Bridge Toll-house, which stands in the fork where a steep minor road turns off to Frithelstock from the main A386 about a mile out of Torrington, is a very good example of a traditional angle-fronted toll-house. There would have been space for a toll-board above the projecting ground floor window overlooking the road, or over the porch. It was occupied in 1871 by ‘toll collector’ John Tucker and his wife.
Town Bridge Toll-house is a Grade II listed, square built, classically inspired toll-house next to Taddiport Bridge. It was built by the Great Torrington Trust in around 1830 alongside the town’s Canal Offices that, in 1874, became the Torridge Vale Butter Factory. This company, by then known as Dairy Crest, closed down in 1993 and the house faces the dilapidated remains of the factory buildings. Census returns of 1871 show 33 year old ‘Farmer’s labourer and toll-collector’ Robert Mitchell living at the house with his wife and daughter.
An unusual two storey house which stands in Calf Street opposite East Street, where the roads from Barnstaple and South Molton enter the town, was probably the Calf Street East Toll-house. It is in the right position for a toll-house and possesses a blanked out window suitable for a toll-board on its tall projecting front gable. In 1841 the ‘Toll-gate keeper’ is recorded as 55 year old John Hill. Still recorded as the ‘Calf Street Toll Bar’ in the Census of 1871, it was then occupied by 53 year old Rebecca Copp and her family.
Other toll-houses which no longer exist include Rosemoor Toll-house which stood near the junction of the present-day A386 with the A3124 and was used to catch travellers coming from the direction of Morchard Road and Exeter. In 1871 it is recorded as the ‘Row’s Moor Toll-Gate’ with 71 year old Chelsea Pensioner Joseph Hammon in residence.
A new bridge over the River Torridge was constructed in 1843, to carry the new main road into the town from Okehampton and Hatherleigh, and New Bridge Toll-house was built on the west side of the bridge. In 1871 the ‘turnpike gate toll-collector’ is recorded as 44 year old Sarah Hammet in residence with her four children.
After New Road was built into the town, a turnpike gate was constructed at the west end of Calf Street, which probably also had a toll-house. Another toll-bar operated at the western end of what is now Dick Hills Lane to catch travellers from the direction of South Molton who tried to evade tolls in Calf Street. Although retaining the name of ‘Castle Garden Lane Toll Bar’ in 1871, the house was occupied at that time by 71 year old ‘Master Shoemaker’ Richard Hill and his family and may by then have stopped being used by the trust for collecting tolls on this road.
There was another toll-house built at the junction of the road into the town from Weare Giffard, where School Lane joins New Street. The toll-house has long since been demolished, no doubt a victim of road widening, but was occupied in 1871 by ‘Glover and Toll-collector’ Fanny Piper and her two children.
In 1880 toll gates throughout North Devon were sold off as the old toll road system had come to an end.
A fascinating archive exists at Great Torrington School: a Log Book hand-written by the first four headmasters from 1939, when the school opened (built at a cost of £25,582) until it became a comprehensive in 1974. Especially interesting are the first entries which record life at the school during the Second World War.
Written in ink in large, bold handwriting, the first headmaster, Thomas Nancekievill, records the opening of the Great Torrington Senior Council School on 13th September 1939. There were five men and five women members of staff together with a woman from the Agricultural Department who was to teach two lessons a week, a cook, a kitchen maid and a caretaker. Pupils came from 17 contributory primary schools, many of which no longer exist, such as Roborough, St Giles in the Wood, Weare Giffard, Frithelstock, Alverdiscott and Yarnscombe, and they travelled in seven buses and two cars with prefects ‘appointed to each conveyance’. At the end of the first week, 15th September, there were 296 pupils which, by the following week, had increased to 303 because of the admission of evacuees.
By 13th October attendance was down to 60% because of an outbreak of measles. This epidemic continued into 1940 which caused a lot of staff and pupil absence. This, together with the call-up of several male members of staff for military duties and harsh winter weather, which prevented the buses from running, prompted Mr Nancekievill to write, on 21st February, ‘It is most difficult to carry on’.
Activities at the school were necessarily of a practical nature to ensure survival during this period and treats were few, except around Christmas time when there might be a concert by pupils in school or an outing to the cinema in Church Lane which leads from Whites Lane to the parish church. The mayor, Mr Lampard Vachell, and his wife often put on entertainment for the pupils of the senior school together with the children from both the Torrington primary schools and Weare Giffard. On 10th January 1940 Mr Nancekievill writes, ‘A conjuring display was enjoyed and oranges were distributed to the children. Nearly 500 children were present.’
May Fair didn’t take place during the war but on 31st May 1941 it is noted that the ‘School took part in Folk Dancing on Old Bowling Green at 7pm’. School sports are mentioned from 1942 onwards between the four houses, Drake, Kingsley, Raleigh and Walpole.
By 9th September 1940 the number of pupils had risen to 620 including evacuees, mainly from London, and by 28th November there were 645. School buses had to make double journeys and it was difficult to accommodate everyone in the canteen. At first, a double lunch shift was impossible, owing to a lack of equipment, until plates were received from the Bovey Tracey Pottery Company. Everyone rallied round. Gifts of apples, rhubarb, vegetables, jam and, on one occasion, two gallons of ice-cream were sent into school by local people for use in the canteen.
To help food supplies during the Second World War, potatoes were planted in the school garden and at the end of the football pitch. 30 chicks were put in the garden shed in March 1940 and poultry houses were set up in April. On 9th October 1940 ‘Mr Popham gave the school a swarm of bees and installed them’.
In the summer holidays the school was unofficially opened for the voluntary attendance of children engaged on work of National Service which consisted of gardening, salvage of paper and iron, stripping tin at the milk factory, mending and making clothes, and fixing lace on the school windows for air raid protection. Staff took it in turns to be on duty and were only excused if they were occupied with work of national importance. Groups of boys were employed ‘potato dropping’ in the locality in March and ‘potato picking’ in October.
Doctors and nurses regularly visited the school for nutrition surveys, psychiatric tests, examinations for cleanliness (sometimes children had to be re-examined or were sent home), inoculation against diphtheria, eye tests, and dental inspection and treatment.
On 24th May 1940 the school held ‘a Special Service in Commemoration of Empire Day. Children contributed the sum of £2 7s 9d to the Over-Seas League Tobacco Fund’.
Several male members of staff were called up for military duty, including Mr Pearse the caretaker. Women teachers were allowed days off if their husbands were home on leave. Staff who had come from London with the evacuees were often called away because relatives had died or their houses were destroyed. Other teachers obtained jobs elsewhere. By 22nd April 1941, Mr Nancekievill notes in the Log Book, ’62 teachers have done duty in this School since the opening’.
On 19th November 1941 there is an entry reading, ‘Attended the birching of Hunter and Heath at the Police Station.’ Mr Browning, the headmaster of the Croydon school from where some of the evacuees had come, was also present so perhaps it was evacuees rather than local lads who were being punished.
The school was inspected in February 1944 by HMI Arnold Platts. He writes:
‘The building is perhaps the best of its kind in the county and much hard work has been carried out to put it to good use, whilst the land for gardening has been put into production. Under an enterprising, painstaking and kindly Headmaster the school has not only been established but has in the national emergency made a definite contribution to educational progress in a rural area and has played a prominent and successful part in the evacuation scheme’.
On 16th April 1945 the school reopened after the Easter holiday with the new name of Great Torrington Modern Secondary School. On 8th and 9th May the school was closed ‘for Celebration of Victory over the Germans’ and reopened on the 10th with a ‘Special opening Service for Victory’. Following this were entries about the results of football matches against local teams.
Mr Nancekievill’s final entry is on 29th April 1946. The next entry isn’t until February 1950 when a Mr Hinchley writes, ‘Commenced duties as Headmaster of this school’.
Rosemoor is a mile and a half to the south of Torrington along the road to Exeter. The area was known originally as Rowe’s Moor. There has been a garden at Rosemoor since 1931, at first extending over 8 acres and now consisting of 65 acres, which attracts about 240,000 visitors a year. Approximately 18 full-time gardeners are employed with 4 students and 4 apprentices aided by around 50 volunteers.
There is something to enjoy all year round in the various parts of the garden which include a spectacular display of roses, colour themed gardens, herb, potager and cottage gardens. There is a foliage and plantsman’s garden, a stream garden and rock gully, woodland walks, a lake, and ‘The Brash’ which is a family play and picnic area. A Devon apple orchard has been planted on the way to the fruit and vegetable garden. There is a restaurant serving meals and a ‘Shepherd’s Rest’ refreshment van. The Garden Room and various shelters in the garden can be hired for weddings. There is a Learning Centre and Teaching Garden and allotment area. In Lady Anne’s original garden there are holiday apartments in the house and a tea room. There are differently themed gardens and many large and beautiful trees. There is the Palmer gazebo and the Copse play area.
The house, dating from the 1780s and originally the property of the Rolle family, local landowners, was bought by Lady Anne Berry’s father in 1923 as a family fishing lodge to be used only from March to May. Following the death of her father in 1931, Lady Anne moved to Rosemoor and, with the help of her mother, began some landscaping of the garden. In 1939 she married Colonel Eric Palmer and her early life was spent ‘camp following’ the regiment and having two sons. During the Second World War, Rosemoor was lent to the Red Cross as a rest home for Londoners from the East End who were suffering the effects of the Blitz. After the war her husband bought more land round Rosemoor and established a dairy farm. Lady Anne’s passion in those days was horses.
It wasn’t until 1959, while recuperating from measles in Spain, that she met Collingwood ‘Cherry’ Ingram who suggested that she take up plant collecting and start a garden of her own at Rosemoor. She subsequently travelled widely in South America, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, the USA and Japan to build up the collection of 4,000 plants in her garden. In 1980 Eric Palmer died and in 1988 Lady Anne donated Rosemoor, plus eight acres of pasture land, to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS). In 1990 she married New Zealander Bob Berry and went to live with him at his farm at Tiniroto, Gisborne in North Island and created the Homestead Garden of Hackfalls Arboretum.
There are lots of events held at Rosemoor during the year ranging from flower competitions and displays, food and antiques fairs, art or craft exhibitions and workshops to live music in the Garden Room, outdoor theatre and a drive-in movie night. Activities for children include a Lindt gold bunny hunt at Easter. There are sculpture exhibitions in the garden and ‘See how our garden glows’ from November to January when parts of the gardens are illuminated in the dark winter nights. There is a plant centre and shop and, twice a year, a free entry day.
The dilapidated industrial building standing forlornly by the River Torridge is the remains of a milk factory that had been there since 1874. It closed in 1993, mainly as a result of milk quotas which had been introduced a decade earlier, and 134 people lost their jobs. For many years it was one of the town’s main employers.
The pioneering Torridge Vale dairy was founded by Robert Sandford, a local greengrocer and entrepreneur, on the site of the old Rolle Canal stores near Taddiport Bridge. The coming of the railway to Torrington in 1872 had seen the end of the canal as a means of transporting goods.
The steam-driven cream separator, invented in around 1880, was replacing the work of individual dairy maids and men in the production of butter, extracting cream from considerable quantities of milk daily (200 gallons of milk were being dealt with in an hour). The separated cream was either potted into little Barum Ware jars and sold as rich Devonshire cream or converted into butter. Milk from Torrington could reach London by train on the same day.
Over the years the business prospered, buildings and machinery were enlarged and by 1931 milk was being collected from about 50 farms, peaking at 1,850 gallons per day.
In 1932 the dairy became associated with Cow & Gate Ltd and the trading name changed to Torridge Vale Dairies (Devon) Ltd. Stimulated by conditions during the Second World War and encouraged by government policy to enlarge the output of home-grown food, and also to build up an export trade, the factory developed far beyond what its founder could have expected.
The main products processed at Torridge Vale Dairies were butter, cream, spray and roller dried milk, and the cooling and dispatch of milk for the liquid market, as and when required. Milk production, with a ready and guaranteed market, was increasing and the dairy was growing at considerable speed; by 1939 the peak intake had increased to 10,500 gallons per day. However, workers’ wages hadn’t increased accordingly and they went on strike carrying placards declaring, ‘Support the men who MAKE cream but can never afford to BUY it’. By 1952 intake had risen to 60,000 gallons per day.
By the late 1940s a new larger factory building was completed, equipped with modern dairy machinery with far more powerful engines and five new large boilers to produce the steam required. It had one of the largest milk drying process machines in the world, new methods of purification of river water, and the first reinforced concrete chimney in the country which rose to a height of 175 feet (nearly 54 metres).
In 1959 the United Dairies merged with Cow & Gate to form Unigate Ltd and, by 1969, the trading name was Unigate Foods Ltd.
In August 1979 the Milk Marketing Board purchased a large share of Unigate’s interests, including the Torrington factory, and the dairy became Dairy Crest Foods, Torrington. The last milk churns were used at this time and all deliveries in future were to be by bulk-tanker. A major rebuilding programme was undertaken, which included a new separating and butter-making area and cold storage, and £5.3 million was invested to enable the whole process to be achieved on a continuous enclosed production line, all controlled by computer. It was one of the most modern milk processing plants in the country producing butter, milk-based desserts and skimmed milk powder. In the 1980s the factory employed 230 production staff and 100 drivers.
The demise of the Torrington milk factory started in April 1984 when the Common Market decided to bring in milk quotas. From then on, unlimited milk production could not continue and a brake was going to be put on to reduce the butter and powder mountains. Quotas meant that milk production was going to be capped to a lower level than 1984 production and farmers were not going to be able to expand their businesses. Milk prices are never very good for farmers and many of them gave up milk production so the amount of milk produced in the British Isles started to reduce. Consequently, in the next ten years there was a situation where too many milk factories were chasing a reducing supply of raw material. Milk factories were becoming less efficient and so several rounds of closures occurred within all dairy companies. Torrington hung on longer than most because of its size and the large milk field around it.
The management at Torrington, seeing the future of the industry under quotas, tried desperately to bring new ‘added value’ products to the site. A UHT cream dessert was tried first and then Clover. The latter was very successful but, eventually, because the site was so far away from the main markets and because Dairy Crest needed to make savings to protect its future, with the demise of the Milk Marketing Board, Clover production was transferred to a site in the Midlands. The production of clotted cream had, unfortunately, been disallowed for a period as part of the sale agreement between Unigate and Dairy Crest.
The factory closed for production on 30th March 1993. ‘The milk will be transported to creameries outside the area, but it doesn’t seem quite natural to have no dairy in the middle of all those dairy farms,’ said an article in The Guardian. Unemployment in the town rose sharply and families who had several members working at the dairy faced hard times.
In 1998 a co-operative of 50 local farmers, under the name of Torridge Vale Ltd, took over part of the building. They wanted to set up a small operation to manufacture all their own milk to retain more profit for themselves. A very good brand was created called ‘Definitely Devon’. They wanted to produce more added value products, like clotted cream and soft cheese, but it proved much more difficult than anticipated.
What had once been a thriving hub of activity and a major employer in the town has been for many years now a blot on the beautiful North Devon landscape. The building has been vandalised, is riddled with asbestos and rats and, tragically, has been the site of two suicides. Over the years various plans have been drawn up for the dairy site (some at great expense) but, as yet, none of these plans has come to fruition.
There has been a parish church in Torrington for at least 750 years. The oldest parts of the present building date from the 13th and 14th centuries.
In 1510 Henry VIII granted the rectory and advowson of Great Torrington to Cardinal Wolsey who appropriated them to his foundation of Christ Church, Oxford and since 1549 the perpetual curates (more recently called vicars) have been appointed by the Dean and Chapter of that College.
The older rectory had been at Priestacott (off the road to Huntshaw Mill) but when Margaret of Richmond became Lady of the Manor ‘she pitied the long path that the rector had from the church’ and in 1491 presented to the rector, Thomas Burswell, and his successors her manor house and land. The present vicarage which stands on this site dates from 1841.
During the Civil War at the Battle of Torrington in February 1646 there was an explosion in the church which killed some 200 people and destroyed part of the building as well as many of its records of other events. Restoration work was carried out in 1651. The lower part of the old south tower survived the explosion while the upper part and the spire disappeared. The church had previously had a leaded broach spire similar to the 14th century spires of Barnstaple and Braunton. A second spire was erected which remained at least until 1786 but at some time before 1830 was blown down by a gale and the remaining part of the spire was converted into the curious cupola shown in the old engraving of 1830 with a bell hung on the outside. During the 1830s a new spire was built at the western end of the church by local builder, Walter Brown Cock. The old south tower was converted into a transept and after 1864 it accommodated the schoolchildren and seating was put in for that purpose. In 1938 the seating was removed and the transept was furnished as a side chapel and memorial to the late vicar, the Rev. Frank Emlyn-Jones, who served as parish priest from 1894-1934. It is named the Chapel of St James after the demolished chapel of Torrington Castle.
The inside of the church feels large (107 ft / 33 metres long) and bare. The fine roof is of the waggon-shaped pattern typical of this part of England. The pulpit with its carved cherubs and gilded lions’ heads is typical 17th century work. During the restoration of 1860-64 (when the old galleries and box pews were removed) the pulpit was moved and the sounding-board discarded. Someone later rescued the sounding-board from a builder’s yard and gave it to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It remained there until 1960 when the Mayor of Torrington, Colonel J. E. Palmer, arranged for its return to the church.
The Willis organ is one of the finest organs in the West Country. It was built by Henry ‘Father’ Willis (1821-1901) for Sherwell Congregational Chapel in Plymouth in 1864. In 1989 Sherwell planned to get rid of the organ during alterations to the church and it was dismantled and rebuilt at Torrington church where it is much treasured.
The present vicar is Peter Bevan.