Shipping & Ship Building in Bideford
1500 to 1740
The revolutionary changes in ship design during the first part of the 16 th century enabled our mariners to undertake longer voyages of exploration. The ships became more manageable and seaworthy and could be manned by smaller crews and consequently less food and drink was needed to be carried in order to sustain them on the long ocean crossings.
The discovery of vast shoals of cod off the shores of Newfoundland by John Cabot in 1495 attracted our fishermen away from the Irish Sea and Iceland, where catches had been declining for many years and across 3000 miles of ocean to the foggy shores of Labrador and Newfoundland. This annual fishery continued for four centuries and was the foundation of Bideford’s wealth as a port. When the first British colony in North America was set up by Humphrey Gilbert on Newfoundland in 1583, most of the settlers were fishermen’s families from Devon who had been sailing to the fishing grounds for over forty years (8).
The sturdy ships and skilled navigators and seamen needed for the stormy transatlantic voyages bred determined and often ruthless Tudor adventurers. Amongst the first of these were Stephen Borough and his younger brother, William. They had grown up in Northam and had probably gained their skills on board their uncles’ ships trading to Ireland and Bristol. In 1552 Stephen was master of the ‘ Edward Bonaventura’ , which was part of Sir Hugh Willoughby’s expedition to find the Northeast Passage to the Orient. Sir Hugh and his crew perished in the ice, but Stephen, with William as one of his crew, found a passage through the White Sea to St Nicolas in Tsar Ivan the Terrible’s Russia, where they were able to set up a trading post. This lead to the creation of Britain’s first joint stock trading company, the Muscovy Company which became the model for all later British trading companies and marked the beginning of our maritime commercial empire (9).
Other contemporary Devonian mariners were more interested in ‘roving’ expeditions. These were essentially pirates, financed by wealthy landowners and merchants and occassionaly sanctioned by ‘letters of marque’ from Queen Elizabeth I who then took a large share of any plunder. Drake, Raleigh. Hawkins and Grenville, all later national heroes, developed their skills in naval warfare in these ‘adventuring’ expeditions (10) . Grenville and Raleigh also attempted to set up a colony in North America on the island of Roanoke on the coast of what is now North Carolina. The story of the expeditions in 1585, 1586 and 1587 can be found under ‘Roanoke and the Lost Colony’. The colony failed when six relief ships due to sail from Appledore in 1588 had to be diverted to join Lord Howard of Effingham’s fleet at Plymouth for defence against the Spanish Armada (11).
Later colonies were established on the more fertile coast of Virginia and Maine to the north. Their crops of tobacco and sugar brought great prosperity to Bideford with imports of tobacco alone rising from over 133 tons in 1676 to almost 253 tons in 1683 (12). This story is found under the heading ‘tobacco trade’.
There are comparatively few records for the construction and ownership of ships on the Torridge before the mid 18 th Century, although there was obviously a thriving industry here during Tudor times. The first documentary evidence is found in John Leland’s description in his ‘Journey through the South Western Counties’ in the 1540s when he observed a whole street of ‘smiths and occupiers for ship crafts’. He also notes that Appledore is a ‘good village’. In 1566 Bideford shipwrights constructed a ship of 250 tons for an Exeter merchant but an early register of 1566 shows that none of the ships owned in the port exceeded 80 tons (12) . At that time our main trade was still centred around the Irish Sea and our ships needed to be small enough to carry cargos to and from open beaches or shallow river estuaries as the first quays even in major ports like Bideford were not constructed until the middle of the 16 th century.
The Torridge was an ideal river on which to build wooden ships as the valley was surrounded by oak woodlands, providing the curved timbers needed for the frames of the vessels. Estates further inland provided the straighter lengths of elm for keels, oak for outer planking and pine for masts and spars. We had our own ropewalks for rigging but iron for forging into ships’ fittings and canvas for sails had to be brought in by sea.
Coopering was an important trade as casks were needed to hold drinking water, beer, wine and spirits in addition to the barrels to hold dried peas, flour, salt meat and fish as provisions on long voyages or for general cargo. Other important trades included boat builders, block makers, blacksmiths, coppersmiths and all the trades included in victualling the ships. Local millers had bakeries producing ships biscuits and butchers were smoking and salting meat, maltsters and brewers were providing beer.
Our numerous potteries (see ‘Pottery Trade’) were producing all types of earthenware needed for domestic food storage and this developed into an important export trade to other coastal towns. As the American colonies were being established this pottery was being transported for use by the first settlers. Archaeologists are now able to date early North American sites by the broken pieces of North Devon pottery found in their excavations (13).
A period of economic depression afflicted Bideford in the middle of the 17 th century due to war with France and losses during the Civil War. Bideford had joined other Devon ports in a declaration against King Charles I caused in part by the imposition of The Ship Money Tax. The Royalists then captured Bideford, which led to a Parliamentary blockade of the estuary. These problems were exacerbated by plague and food shortages. Trade gradually revived during the 1660s and by 1663 the merchants were able to extend the old Tudor Quay to Cooper Street and then in 1692 to Bridgeland Street where they were constructing elegant new houses.
Apart from the imports from North America, ship owners were profiting from the coastal transport of coal from the ports of South Wales to Bristol and all the other parts of the south and west coast. Coal was rapidly replacing wood for fuel during the 17 th century and the coal trade grew rapidly. The ball clay mined at Peters Marland was also in demand by the makers of tobacco pipes and potters. Annual exports from Bideford had reached 300 tones in the 1680s (14) and continued to grow as the large Staffordshire potteries were linked by canal to the rivers Mersey and Severn in the latter part of the 18 th century. Ball clay is still being exported from Bideford Quay in ships which can now carry up to 3,000 tons.
Between the 1670s and 1740s Bideford prospered from its many shipping interests. The new American plantations required all types of manufactured goods until they were able to establish their own industries. Tools, clothing, footwear livestock and all types of household goods formed part of the cargos packed into the holds of our transatlantic traders.
In addition, over 20 ships from our port sailed each year to the Newfoundland cod fishery between 1690 and 1710 (15) . Each ship needed fitting out for the arduous voyage with new sails and rigging. They also carried dozens of ‘dorys’ – small, two man fishing boats in which the fishermen, based on shore, set out each day to catch the cod. The ships also carried barrel staves, which were needed to make the casks in which the salt cod and ‘train oil’, an oil made from cod’s liver was transported. This oil was used in lamps and for lubrication. The ships also had to carry enough food and drink for the ships crew and the fishermen, splitters, salters and other workers who would spend the summer months based at the inhospitable shore stations where the cod were dried and packed for transport to the Iberian peninsular or Mediterranean countries. Cargos of salt, iron wine and dried fruit were then purchased for the voyage back to Britain. Some of the faster ‘stock’ ships made the transatlantic voyage several times in a season, taking extra supplies of salt and food to the fishing stations.
Barry D Hughes, October 2009
1 GRAY, T. ‘New Maritime History of Devon’ Vol I; Chap 17
2 MAYERS, K. 2005. ‘North East Passage to Muscovy’
3 RONALD, S. 2007. ‘The Pirate Queen Elizabeth I’
APPLEBY, JC. ‘New Maritime History of Devon’ Vol I; Chap 10
GRANT, A. 1996. ‘Atlantic Adventurer’
4 WALLIS, H.ed. 1985. ‘Raleigh & Roanoke’, British Library Exhibition Book.
WOOLLEY, B. 2007. ‘Savage Kingdom’,
5 GRANT, A. ‘New Maritime History of Devon’ Vol I; Chap 16, P137
6 GRANT, A. 1983. ‘North Devon Pottery in the 17 th Century’
7 GRANT, A. ‘New Maritime History of Devon’ Vol I; Chap 16, P137
8 OPPENHEIM, MM. 1968. ‘Maritime History of Devon’, P106-7
Author – Barry D Hughes, October 2009