The history of Barnstaple is a long and distinguished one. This ancient town has seen much change over the centuries and has been through good times and bad, experienced prosperity and hardship, seen great change, but remained the same in so many ways.
The story traditionally begins in 930, the date that Barnstaple claimed to have received its first Charter, the basic layout of the town was already in place. Boutport Street and the High Street were in existence with a strong defensive wall surrounding the town.
Barnstaple was one of four “Burhs” and as such was allowed to mint coins. The earliest known coin made here, dates back to King Eadwig’s reign (955 – 959). The town was also important as a centre of commerce. Its old name ‘Bearde Staple’ means the Market or Staple of Bearda. According to tradition, King Athelstan granted the town a charter with rights to hold Markets and a Fair.
By 1066 Barnstaple was a well-established town, and twenty years later was mentioned in the Domesday Book. The King held the Borough of Barnstaple for himself and it was not until Henry I came to the throne that the first Lord of Barnstaple, Judhael of Totnes, was created. It was Judhael who in 1107 founded the priory of St. Mary Magdalene outside the town wall.
By 1290 Barnstaple had become an important trading centre, in particular for wool, and 5 years later sent two burgesses to represent the town in Parliament.
The late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries were the most exciting period in Barnstaple’s development. The Great Quay was built at this time leading to a large increase in trade. Tobacco was imported from the New World and pottery, tools, cloth and other goods were exported in return. In 1603, work began on the building of a new quay, to cope with the expanding trade.
In 1642 the Civil – War began. Barnstaple was first held by the Parliamentarians but changed hands 4 times before the end of the war. After the war, Barnstaple settled down to consolidate its position as a port and industrial centre and in the 18th century, Queen Anne’s Walk was created in its present form as a merchants' exchange. Marshy land at the end of the bridge was drained and, in 1710, the first proposals were made to create a formal Square. Several roads leading to Barnstaple were repaired and widened after George III passed an act requiring this work to be carried out.
In 1825 steam was used for the first time in Barnstaple to power lace bobbins at the Derby Mill factory and a year later the present Guildhall was built, replacing the Old Guildhall (actually Barnstaple’s second) which stood at the entrance to the churchyard. During the first half of the century, the population had doubled to 8,500 and by 1835, the town’s boundaries were extended to include Pilton and Newport. There was much re-designing taking place and in 1854 the Barnstaple to Exeter railway opened.
The continuing silting of the River Taw resulted in the running down of Barnstaple as a port, and, as time passed the major part of the woollen industry moved to other parts of the country with other, larger ports taking much of Barnstaple’s trade.
However, the twentieth century saw a gradual resurgence of Barnstaple’s fortunes with several major firms settling in the town at Pottington and Roundswell and as we move further into a new century Barnstaple continues to flourish as the chief town of North Devon.