Chagford - picturesque market town with an industrial past

Chagford is a small town of considerable charm on the eastern fringes of Dartmoor, set on a hill above the beautiful countryside surrounding the River Teign. Its economic development flourished in the mediaeval period after being chosen by Edward I as one of the three Dartmoor stannary towns through which all exports of tin collected by the moorland tinners had to pass. By the close of the 16th century the tin-works were all but exhausted, but the industrial future of the market town was assured by the spinning of wool for the East Devon weaving towns. Towards the end of the 19th century, the character of the town changed once again: following the end of its industrial heyday with the closure of the blanket and serge factory in 1845, Chagford re-invented itself as a popular tourist destination, a role it has retained to this day.

Chagford street view

Chagford - gateway to Dartmoor

Kes Tor
Kes Tor

To the west of the town the parish of Chagford extends well into Dartmoor, rising to a height of 1432ft. at Kes Tor. There are numerous archaeological remains from the Bronze Age onwards in this part of the moor, evidence of human settlement in the parish for four thousand years or longer.

The tourist trade in Chagford was given a fillip in Victorian times when Dartmoor became more accessible to the general public from the east after the opening in 1866 of the railway branch line from Newton Abbot to Moretonhampstead, about 5 miles to the south-east of Chagford.

To the disappointment of the business community, four separate proposals during the 1860s to extend the line through the Teign Gorge were rejected, and the steam train was never to reach Chagford. To compensate for this, an omnibus service between the two moorland towns was introduced in the 1870s: JLW Page, writing in 1893, mentions that Chagford 'now glories in a 'bus to and from Moretonhampstead Station'[3, p73]. Sadly for railway enthusiasts this branch line no longer exists; the passenger service was axed in 1959 and the line was dismantled a few years later.

Moretonhampstead railway station ca. 1909
Moretonhampstead railway station ca. 1909

Chagford remains a popular tourist destination today, especially for day trippers, leading to snarl-ups on its narrow roads during the summer months. In Victorian times when the means of personal transportation was limited, visitors would mostly board in hotels using Chagford as a base to explore the moors on foot, or to go fishing on the banks of the River Teign.

Chagford in the late 19th century

Ward and Lock's pictorial & historical guide to Dartmoor of 1888 encapsulated the appeal of Chagford and its surroundings to an ever increasing number of summer visitors[7, p40]:

Chagford is greatly resorted to in the summer; by artists, intent on sketching the scenery in the neighbourhood; by fishermen, who "whip" the Teign and its tributaries, and fill their baskets with delicious trout; and by visitors of "all sorts and conditions," who come hither to lay in a store of the good health, for which the dwellers on the Moor are proverbial, and to see the natural and artificial wonders and the beauties of the neighbourhood.
1812 engraving of Chagford Bridge by Samuel Prout
1812 engraving of Chagford Bridge by Samuel Prout

view across the cemetery behind St Michael's Church
view across the cemetery behind St Michael's Church
River Teign near Chagford Bridge
River Teign near Chagford Bridge

In contrast, Page[3, p73] paints a sardonic portrait of the sartorial excesses of Chagford's summer visitors in the 1890s:

At Chagford you come upon civilization rather suddenly. Upon civilization in the form of 'blazers' of every hue; in the form of flannels and of tweeds, with those checks - through which you may jump - wherewith the male biped likes to accentuate the fact that he is holiday-making. You will meet ladies who for the nonce have cast aside the trappings of society and are revelling in the shortest of skirts, and - very often - the nattiest of gaiters, who affect caps 'peaked afore and aft,' a sailor once described them, and cannot walk a mile from their lodgings without a six-foot alpenstock.

Interestingly, due to the contemporary vogue for acquiring the latest gear for all outdoor activities, the alpenstock or its modern equivalent seem just as ubiquitous on the moors today as it appears to have been in the Victorian era.

lighting-up time

For a town of its size, Chagford was no laggard when it came to adopting the latest advances in street lighting. A gasworks was developed on the site of the old woollen mill, and by 1869 gas was in use to light the streets and some of the houses. An even more radical change was the installation in 1891 of a generator used to power the street lamps by electricity. This was the brainchild of George Reed, a local factory owner, engineer and inventor who epitomized the resourceful zeal of the Victorian age. Reed's Chagford electicity generating company became the first to the west of London to illuminate a town by electric street lights[note 1].

a calamitous collapse

Market House, Chagford
Market House, known colloquially as 'The Pepper Pot'

The octagonal Market House in the town square is known locally as the Pepper Pot. It is built on the site of what was once the Stannary Court that met twice yearly to assay the tin and levy the tax or coinage on the smelted metal brought in by the tinners. During one particularly crowded meeting in the early 17th century, proceedings were brought to an abrupt halt with fateful consequences as Westcote recounts[5, p430]:

Now are we come to Chegford, alias Chagford, the fourth place we are to speak of where a tin-court is held; which was very lamentable the 1st August, 1616, for the court held that day, the chamber wherein it was kept stood upon pillars, and those decayed, and the assembly at that court greater than ordinary, the pillars and timber cleft in sunder and the walls fell in, and the steward, a gentleman of good descent and a counsellor-at-law, and nine others were suddenly slain; many more had their arms and legs broken, being covered in the timber and stones;
. . . but that which seemeth most strange, a little child was taken up from among the slain not anything hurt; which is not to be alighted, though not to be made a wonder: for we know who saith that their angels do always behold the face of our Father which is in heaven.

Two very unfortunate deaths

Chagford in the early 1640s was the setting for two remarkable killings, one a crime of passion, the other a casualty of war.

Mary Whiddon

Mary Whiddon was a descendent of the Justice of the King's Bench Sir John Whiddon (or Whyddon) who died in 1575, and whose tomb in the chancel of St Michael's Church is adorned with an ornate renaissance memorial. The unfortunate Mary was shot dead by a jealous suitor as she walked out of the Church after her wedding ceremony on 11th October 1641. So cruelly struck down in her prime, this young lady was buried in the church; nowadays newly-wed brides often lay a flower on her tomb after signing the register. The inscription on her memorial stone includes this epitaph:

Reader, would'st though know who here is laid,
Behold a matron, yet a maid
A modest look, a pious heart
A Mary for the better part
But dry thine eyes, why wilt thou weep
Such damselles do not die, but sleep.
Sir John Whiddon Memorial in St Michael's Church
Sir John Whiddon's memorial in St Michael's Church

St Michael's Church tower
St Michael's Church tower

Little more is known about Mary, save that she was the brother of Rowland Whiddon, a Justice of the Peace during the Commonwealth interregnum who rebuilt the Elizabethan family seat by Whiddon Deer Park at the entrance to the Teign Gorge. Whiddon Park House bares the date 1649 above the door.

RD Blackmore is said to have based his popular classic Lorna Doone on the life story of Mary Whiddon, though the setting for the novel was Exmoor in North Devon.

Whiddon Park House, near Chagford
Whiddon Park House
Sidney Godolphin

Of the two public houses in Chagford facing St Michael's Church, the most historically noteworthy is the Three Crowns Inn dating from Tudor times. It was here where the young poet and politician Sidney Godolphin is said to have died during the Civil War. In February 1643 Sir John Berkeley and a small band of Royalist soldiers including Godolphin attacked and dispersed some parliamentarian forces who were quartered at Chagford. In the skirmish that followed, the 33 year old poet was lost to a single round of musket fire. The Earl of Clarendon paid this tribute to him in his famous history of the Civil War[4]:

The Three Crowns Inn
The Three Crowns Inn
Sidney Godolphin
In those necessarily and brisk expeditions in falling upon Chagford, a little town in the south of Devon, before day, the king lost Sidney Godolphin, a young gentleman of incomparable parts; who, being of a constitution and education more delicate, and unacquainted with contentions, upon his observation of the wickedness of those men in the House of Commons, of which he was a Member, out of the pure indignation of his soul against them, and conscience to his country, had, with the first, engaged himself with that party in the West; and though he thought not fit to take command in a profession he had not willingly chosen, yet as his advice was of great authority with all the commanders, being always one in the council of war, and whose notable abilities they had still use of in their civil transactions, so he exposed his person to all action, travel, and hazard; and by too forward engaging himself in this last, received a mortal shot by a musket a little above the knee, of which he died in the instant; leaving the misfortune of his death upon a place which could never otherwise have had a mention to the world.

ancient monuments

There are a number of ancient standing stone monuments on the eastern side of Dartmoor and to the north of Chagford that are worthy of a visit. Find out more about a selection of these by clicking on any of the markers in the interactive map below. The pop-up windows include a link to an enlargement of the small image, or to a page giving historical background information about the antiquity. One or two other locations of interest are also marked on the map.


For the technically minded, what Reed installed was a 2000 volt single phase alternator operated by an old water wheel working under 14 ft. head at a disused woollen mill on the River Teign ¼ mile upstream from Chagford Bridge. The supply was at 100 cycles with hedgehog transformers supplying lamps at 100v.
This specification is given in the supplement to HISTELEC NEWS No.15 [return]


History of Chagford by Jane Hayter-Hames, Phillimore, 1981. This edition is now out-of-print, but the author mentioned to me that a reprint is available locally. Copies can be purchased from either James Bowden or Webbers, the two splendid hardware stores that stand side-by-side in the centre of Chagford.
Devon by W.G. Hoskins, Collins, 1954; new ed., Phillimore, 2003.
The Rivers of Devon from Source to Sea by John Lloyd Warden Page, London, 1893. †
James Bowden & Son Hardware Store
James Bowden & Son Hardware Store
The History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England by Edward Hyde, first Earl of Clarendon, Oxford, 1704. Volume II, part 1, p175. †
A view of Devonshire in 1630 by Thomas Westcote, Exeter, 1845. †
Magna Britannia: volume 6 - Devonshire by Daniel and Samuel Lysons, 1822. The parish of Chagford. Lysons' work gives 1328 as the year when Chagford was granted Stannary Town status, whereas other authorities say it was 1305. †
Ward and Lock's pictorial & historical guide to Dartmoor: its tors, antiquities, and other interesting features. London and New York: Ward, Lock, and Co., 1888.
† signifies that the book could be accessed in its entirety on the internet at the time of writing.