A Brief (and rather subjective) History of Charleton
Those of us fortunate enough to have spent a lifetime in this pleasant village, and can remember when there was no piped water supply to the houses, or more recently, when the nearest street lamps were in Kingsbridge, and the nearest traffic lights in Totnes, even we have not experienced changes as radical as those which occurred in the early half of the 19th century, or in the first 20 years of the 20th century.
For nearly 1000 years (for, from its name ending in –ton, we may deduce that it was settled in Saxon times) the Manor of Charleton, which included not only the village of Charleton, but also Goveton, Ledstone and part of Frogmore, remained as a single unit, passing from Heca the Saxon to Judhael the Norman, who did very well out of the conquest of his overlord William of Normandy, receiving a house in Exeter, the borough of Totnes, and over 100 manors in the South Hams.
The manor of Charleton passed through many owners, including the Crown, when it formed part of the dowry of Catherine Parr, sixth wife of Henry VIII, until it was eventually purchased in 1725 by the Parker family. John Parker, Baron Ashburton, inherited the estate towards the end of the 18th century, and in 1805 had a wall built (local rumour has it that the labour was provided by French prisoners of war, a good story, but rather unlikely to be true) which created some 30 acres of pasture land now known as Charleton Marsh.
This land was used during the Napoleonic wars as a firing range by the local volunteers for musketry drill, and the remains of the magazine may still be seen beside the footpath to the shore. The marsh, now part of Croft Farm, is used for grazing cattle, and is a haven for a rich diversity of wildlife. The butts on the embankment have been replaced by a modern wildlife hide much favoured by birdwatchers today..
The formation of the Turnpike Trusts in the 1820s signalled one of the most significant changes in the history of Charleton. Before 1830 there had been no direct road to Kingsbridge, and Charleton was a quiet backwater from which those wishing to travel to Kingsbridge had to negotiate a rough and circuitous track via Church Lane, Daniels Lane or Ascot Lane, to the road from Frogmore to Duncombe Cross, which is now a green lane known as the old Carriageway, thence steeply down to Bowcombe, across the bridge just above Shindle Mill, and up the other side of the creek by a track which eventually joins what is now Derby Road near Overleat House, a route which must have been impassable to all but foot traffic for most of the time, due to the steep inclines and muddy, rutted surfaces.
The Turnpike Trusts built good roads all over the country, and from Frogmore to Kingsbridge a new road was built along the estuary side, through Charleton, with a new bridge over the mouth of Bowcombe Creek. The bridge had a swing section, with a mechanism using twelve cannon balls in an iron slot, to enable barges to sail up to Bowcombe carrying grain for the mill, and cider apples, slate building stone and lime to the farms up the valley. So, after many centuries, Charleton’s isolation ceased, and the coach road between Dartmouth and Kingsbridge saw 10 coaches a day passing through the village, and it was noted that, not only did five coaches pass in each direction, but Charleton was within 3 miles of the railway station. The provision of public transport was actually better in the mid-1800s than it is now!
Towards the end of the 19th century, the manor of Charleton passed through marriage to the Marquis of Northampton, whose eldest son took the title of Earl Compton. Although absentee landlords, (the Lord of the Manor of Charleton had probably never lived here) the family took a Victorian philanthropic interest, typical of the better type of landlord of the times, in what went on in their estates. In 1895 Earl Compton MP visited Charleton, Taking the opportunity to meet many of his tenants, and to finalise plans for the erection of the fountain to provide a reliable water supply for the first time.
The fountain was fed by a spring, and provided clean water for the whole of West Charleton until a piped supply was provided in the 1930s. The old fountain now sadly no longer has water flowing into its trough since it was moved when the road was widened in the 1970s, although it is still a much-loved ornament, with the trough now attractively planted and lovingly maintained by Councillor Smith.
The school was built by the benevolence of the Comptons, when the old schoolroom became too small for its purpose, and the Earl and Lady Compton in 1877 gave 10 pounds, a good sum in the days when the average wage of a farm labourer was about 50 pence a week, to the village fund to pay for the celebration of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Lady Compton also presented commemorative medals to the children of the village. One wonders if any of these medals are still in existence today. The family regularly paid for the supply of coal to the villagers at Christmas, and when the then Earl Compton came of age, the people of Charleton presented him with an inscribed silver horseshoe to mark the occasion.
The following year the Earl and his parents came to Charleton to entertain their tenants to a dinner in the school for which the family had paid. The former schoolroom was repaired and refurbished at the expense of Earl Compton, and converted into a Parish Institute, to provide opportunity for reading and recreation.
During the halcyon years, between 1850 and 1910, with a benevolent landlord, rapidly improving living conditions for all, including education available for every child at least to the age of about 13, and peace and growing prosperity throughout the land, the population of Charleton was about 500, and could boast 11 farmers, a grocer and draper, two builders, one of whom was also an undertaker, a mason, a butcher, two carpenters and a marine store dealer, but all was shortly to change dramatically.
In 1913, only months before the cataclysmic events of the Great War, which we now call Word War I, changed the face of all Europe for ever, the young Earl Compton became involved with a dancer named Daisy Markham, and asked her to marry him. The couple became engaged, but the liaison was short-lived. Either the family brought pressure to bear, or the Earl himself had second thoughts, and the engagement was terminated. Miss Markham sued for breach of promise, and won her case, being awarded the enormous sum of £50,000, a record even for those days, and the family had to find the cash to pay. This so impoverished them that the Charleton Estate was among the family assets which had to go, and an auction was arranged in 1919. So, for the first time in a millennium, the estate was broken up, and sold piecemeal for some £27.000, only about half of the sum which Miss Markham received. This lady lived until 1962, dying at the age of 76.
There were 53 tenants of the estate, and the properties had never before changed hands individually for money The tenants mostly took the opportunity to purchase privately before the auction, thanks to the consideration of the landlord, so the auction was not much of an event, although for the first time a value was put upon some of the properties, including what is now the Ashburton Arms, which had been a farmhouse from which a Mr. William Finch used to sell ale to travellers, and which became a stopping place for the stage coach, and the post centre.
It became known as the New Inn, but when the then Marquis of Northampton was married in 1866 it was renamed the Ashburton Arms, by which name it has been known ever since, except for a short period during the 1960s, when its then owner misguidedly modernised it and changed the name to the Whiteoaks.. It was here that the tenants used to gather on Lady Day (25th March) each year to pay the rent, when the tenant of the inn as part of the terms of his tenancy supplied food and ale for the other tenants.
Until well into the 1950s, the majority of the inhabitants of Charleton depended in various ways upon agriculture, although there were several quarries which had long provided building stone, not only for local buildings, but in the 15th century for Dartmouth Castle and Kingsbridge Church.
Most farms had their own little quarry, to provide stone for walls and outbuildings, but there were several larger quarries. One large quarry near the foreshore, which is called Goose Quarry, and is now planted with trees, has left evidence of its output of good slate in the form of the broken ‘tailings’, the chips of stone left where the stone was roughly shaped before it was shipped out, and the ruts made by the sledges and carts by which the slate was moved to the barges to be carried away to customers. Some of these ruts and ridges were also made by sledges and carts taking limestone from barges to the lime kilns along the foreshore where the limestone was burnt to provide lime for fertilizing the fields and for making mortar.
Though life was hard, and there was little time for leisure, with the growth of literacy the Parish Institute must have been well-used, as it was the only place apart from the school for use as a meeting place. By the end of World War II it was in a very poor state of repair, and too small for most purposes, the parish church had no hall, and people began to feel the need for a good meeting place in the village. In 1949 a committee was formed to raise funds for a village hall, and although it took a long time, eventually some £4000 had been raised so that with the help of some small grants, the new village hall was built, opening in 1956, on a large piece of ground which had been part of an orchard. Soon after the hall was opened, about half of the site was purchased by the District Council to build Sicklemans Close, so the car park is very much smaller than that which the original committee had far-sightedly envisaged.
The old Parish Institute was abandoned, became derelict, and was finally demolished. The site was sold, and Lantern Cottage was built in its place. There was some controversy about the proceeds of the sale of the site, as some people had mistakenly assumed that the Parish Institute had somehow become the property of the church. The Village Hall is still owned and run by an independent, elected Committee of villagers, and has benefitted in recent years, helped by Lottery grants, from improvements which have included the provision of additional storage space, a well-equipped kitchen, good heating, and an extension to the main room which enables short-mat bowling to competition standards to be played.
While East Charleton has grown only slightly, except for the development of the garage from a small filling station to a store selling virtually everything, West Charleton has had three major additions. In the early sixties, the Charleton Way estate was built behind the Ashburton Arms, and now residents enjoy what is arguably one of the most beautiful views in Devon. Then in the seventies the Lyte Lane estate was built, also with similar views across the marsh to the estuary and Salcombe, and soon after, the smaller estate at Herons Reach was added. A certain amount of infill building has taken place but very few houses have fallen into the hands of second-home owners, so that the village has so far escaped the fate of some other places, where many homes lie empty for most of the year. The village remains a vibrant, living community, centred around the church, school and village hall, with a large proportion of residents who are ‘incomers’ and ‘retirees’, but with an active Parish Council, responsive to the needs and wishes of the residents, and an Events Committee dedicated, like the Parish Council but in a slightly different context, to improving the quality of life of the residents.
Despite the ever-increasing traffic, the creeping curse of light pollution, the inadequacy of public transport, and the almost complete absence of those amenities which city-dwellers require, this is such a beautiful place to live, has magnificent views over the estuary, enjoys a superb climate, and is virtually crime-free, so that some of us think that there can be no finer place in which to live.
For those interested in history, the story of our parish church is currently being researched and compiled for inclusion in this section of the Web Site. If any residents (or indeed, anyone who visits this Web Site) has any interesting tit-bits of history concerning the village, the Clerk to the Parish Council would be glad to hear from you.