A Walk through #Sticklepath

First published in several parts in 2019 as ‘Walking Sticklepath through the Centuries’ in Devon Family Historian, the magazine of the Devon Family History Society

I have been keen to present my family history in an accessible way. The Pharos Course ‘Writing and telling your family history’ with Tutor Janet Few opened my eyes to ways of incorporating village, local and national history. A wider perspective, placing my ancestors in their context, perhaps attracting a wider readership. This is the beginning of a series of articles, and is based on the assignment for that course which inspired me to finally start writing! Join me on an. imagined walk through the village with my sister Ruth, niece Ellen and Derek, a representative of Sticklepath Heritage Group.

Sticklepath is a very special place on the edge of Dartmoor. My family have lived here for over 200 years. I am so glad you could join me in this walk through the village. Travelling in comfort in our automobile we drive from Whiddon Down, back in time along the old A30 to Sticklepath.

Hand drawn map, not to scale, for general information only
Map 1 shows approach from the right ‘old A30’ is thick black line.

Travellers along the ancient ‘ridgeway’ would have passed through South Zeal, to rejoin our route just before Sticklepath Bridge. We follow the less steep road built 1830, down the hill past Ramsley mine with its spoil heap. Many of the workers here come from Sticklepath. We continue to Ford Cross.

In my youth there was a useful garage at Ford Cross, the first place I bought petrol, now houses. Turning left here would take you to Ford Farm (colloquially ‘vord varm’) where my relatives grew mangolds (mangel-worzels) for their livestock and potatoes to feed themselves.

Entering the village, the first dwelling we see is Bridge Cottage on the right. There are more houses now but in 1898 this was the first.

1898 or earlier, view as entering Sticklepath. Labeled on the back as a Christmas greeting.

My sister Ruth and niece Ellen wait patiently at Sticklepath bridge. Ellen brings curiosity and an up to date youthful view. Ruth and I were children of the village a good 50 years ago, our knowledge relates largely to key village figures over that time and the Finch and Bowden families back to Victorian times. Derek will also join us. A recent chair of the Parish Council and strong advocate of Sticklepath Heritage group he brings knowledge of the present, and a wider view of the past. As our mother, Ann Bowden, was the first chair of the Sticklepath Parish Council, it seemed doubly appropriate to ask Derek along.

We reach the door of Bridge House and note the unusual double doorbell with different buttons for Night and Day. We are invited in, while Derek gets
ready. Bridge House was previously the home of Dr and Mrs Sharp. He explains bells would ring in different parts of the house. The GP was always available. In the early 1900s there were no quick trips to A&E. Village doctors tackled all illnesses, minor surgery, and accidents. The doctors in Sticklepath, who were also involved with the new vaccination programs, were well named: Dr Sharp was in competition with Dr Pearse!

View of the road and lane entering Sticklepath, Bridge Cottage closest, Bridge House with smoke from chimney. View of Western and Carnall Mills beyond the Bridge. Early 1900’s?

These doctors had trained to deal with health problems when they arose, but by the end of the 1920s vaccines for diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough and TB were all available. The idea of preventing diseases was spreading across the globe and the first vaccination programmes, though controversial, dramatically reduced early deaths. By 1955 polio vaccination was available and this perhaps brought the hope that life-long disability, previously common after polio, could also be prevented. As I explained to Ellen:

“Many people of my generation or older will remember individuals made lame by polio, who perhaps wore a chunky metal calliper all their life, to support their crippled leg.” Ellen was interested, listening quietly initially, but now I realise she is taken aback:

“Crippled? Are you sure you’re really allowed to say that about someone? It’s quite rude actually…” These are considered offensive derogatory words now, but her great grandmother used both these words to describe the ‘facts’.

“You are quite right Ellen.” I agreed “Times change.”

As we step back outside we see Bridge Cottage again across the road. One hundred years ago it was the house of Will and Beat Hellier.

William Hellier outside Bridge Cottage

In 1903 William Hellier married Beatrice, daughter of Emanuel Bowden, an agricultural labourer who lived from 1843 to 1920. We will meet several of his children as we walk through the village, as well as finding father ‘Mannie’ himself in the burial ground.

William Hellier’s father worked in Sticklepath’s copper mine and his brother, Jo, worked for Finch Brothers as an edge tool maker. In 1901, William, aged 14, was working as a stone cutter. By the 1911 census he calls himself a miner, and in 1939 he is a pneumatic driller and quarry heavy worker.

William Hellier and wife Beatrice in Bridge Cottage Garden

Miners and quarrymen often suffered pulmonary conditions especially chronic bronchitis. Will lived to a good age. He may have been a smoker, but his occupation may have contributed to breathing problems or even hastened his death.

William lived from 1876 to 1947. He died from heart failure and chronic bronchitis at the age of 71, death certified by Dr Sharp (see below). Beatrice, my great Aunt who I called Auntie Beat, outlived William Hellier by 25 years, living until 1972, her 90th year.

Death certification William Hellier

Bridge Cottage is situated in the tongue of land between the old A30 and the lane referred to earlier leading from South Zeal. Derek tells us

“When that lane was the main highway, before 1830, Bridge House holding extended to the old highway and consisted of 4 dwelling houses. Two were apparently in Bridge House itself, and two in Jane’s Cottage adjoining. Further back, in 1800, Bridge Cottage was ‘Scaw Mill’, with a stream diverted to run a small waterwheel.” I smile at Ellen

“In fact there were several waterwheels creating power to run the various industries of Sticklepath. Perhaps you could keep count as we continue our walk?” Ellen just shuffles her feet, is clearly cold and keen to get moving.

Just next to Sticklepath Bridge is Tawside, a striking house and setting. It has features of the ‘Arts and Crafts’ style and a coach house next to the lane.

“I don’t know much about Tawside.” I admit. Ruth tells us that Gertie Harvey and her brother Willie lived there:

“We used to visit weekly, as children, collecting for charity. Miss Harvey gave regularly. I think she enjoyed our visits, we certainly did. She always had cats and inevitably kittens to play with. In the late1960s women always wore aprons! I suppose to protect their clothes since food preparation, cleaning and washing took a lot longer then.” Few households had washing machines and there were no microwaves. The first large table-top microwave oven was produced in 1967. In the 1970s they reduced in both size and cost and became very popular.

Gertie was a well known village character, part of our family life and the Methodist family.

Michael and Ruth Bowden visit Miss Gertie Harvey and her kittens C1967

As we walk over the bridge I stand in one of the small triangular bays pointing towards the river. I tell them

“These V-shaped areas seemed fun as a child. Now I visualise the pedestrians sheltering as a cart rumbled past, or later the much faster, noisier, dustier motorcar.”page6image6339968

“In a car” says Ellen “you can’t hear the water so you hardly realize this is a bridge, or that the river is Taw passing underneath. Can I ask you, do either of you know the story that the bridge had to be widened for the King’s carriage to pass? Is that true? Which King would it have been?”

“That” smiled Derek “is the excitement of finding out about the past. There are always rumours and family tales. Finding some evidence is always exciting, but, in my experience, inevitably leads to at least one more question you must know the answer to! Mr E.P. Burd wrote a paper on the ‘Okehampton Turnpikes’ in 1936. He says:

‘There is a story that when King George III passed that way the parapets of the old bridge had to be taken down before his coach could be got across it.’

I wonder if King George (who lived 1738-1820) kept a diary, so we could check?!”

Chapman postcard Sticklepath Bridge. Posted 1917 (so taken 1917 or before).

As we walk across Sticklepath bridge we note the old parish boundary stone, marking the transition from South Tawton to Sampford Courtenay parishes.  On the left now, set back, we see Albany House.  Derek tells us it was built around 1950, built on the site of Western and Carnall Bone and Grist Mills, with a waterwheel added in 1972 to provide electricity for the house.

Parish boundary stone on Sticklepath bridge 2019

As we walk across Sticklepath bridge we note the old parish boundary stone, marking the transition from South Tawton to Sampford Courtenay parishes.  On the left now, set back, we see Albany House.  Derek tells us it was built around 1950, built on the site of Western and Carnall Bone and Grist Mills, with a waterwheel added in 1972 to provide electricity for the house.

“Just a minute” Ellen stopped us. “What on earth is ‘Grist’? 

“Grist is corn” Derek explains “but in the 19th century, wheat was called corn, which is confusing.  There is an old fashioned saying, ‘all is grist for the mill’, which really means you can use things to your advantage. The mill needed power and that would have been from a waterwheel then too.”  

Yeo series postcard early 1900s. Watersmeet house abuts the road. Elm trees edge the field on the right, where Oaktree Park 
housing estate now is. Taw River Hotel (now Inn) far distance.  House on left middle distance is Primula. Note the whitewashed walls on the left, no pavement on the right.

We walk on along the road past Watersmeet . Mill House, the first cottage on the left has had several uses. It was one of the village bakehouses. We take our ovens and supermarket bread for granted now, but this has not always been the case.  Later, during the early 1900s it served as the local Police Station until the1930s.

Chapman Postcard: Mill House, Taw Leat (thatched) and Silverlake (slated) on left.  Current village shop and Taw River Hotel, now Inn, in the distance. A monkey puzzle tree obscures most of Primula House.  

“On the right hand side” Ruth indicates “is Oaktree Park, a housing development of the 1980s. Helen and I remember when this was a field.  Nan remembered further back – how the handsome elm trees edging this field all along from the bridge were taken down to widen the road  in 1928.” 

The oak tree and rear of Steddeford’s House and barns.

“Ralph Finch, the last man to run the Foundry business, lived in ‘Silverlake’, the last house in that row opposite.  When the plans for Oaktree Park were first mooted, people worried about how this development would affect their house values.  Around that time, Uncle Ralph sadly died.  Silverlake valuation comments on that, but also mentions an increase in value should a bypass be built, which of course it was.” 

“Ooo a silver lake,’ Ellen grins “that sounds pretty!  Is that a lake that reflects the light and the silver sky? Or was there really silver there? “

“Sorry.” Derek responded “Several Dartmoor place names end in ‘lake’, said to derive from a Celtic word meaning ‘rivulet’.  It refers to the little mill leat running through their front gardens.  Nice thought though with the copper mine at the other end of the village!”

We have arrived at the Millenium seat. We note the millstone at our feet. 

The Millenium seat and oak tree
Sticklepath 2019

From here we have a good view of Silverlake and the next house, Primula.  Silverlake was the house that William Finch made his home when he first moved here in 1814 to set up the Foundry. If you look carefully you can see the very old windows upstairs slide across to open.

“William was born in 1779 in Spreyton, a village not far from here, the son of Isaac Finch and his second wife Elizabeth.  We know little of his early life, but when William married Ann Rowe in Tavistock in 1803 he is described as a whitesmith.”  

Ellen looks confused again

“A whitesmith?  Is that anything like a blacksmith?  Or even a silversmith?”  

 “Well, a blacksmith works mainly with hot metal” Ruth replies “whereas a whitesmith deals mainly with cold metal.  So they finish the tools made by the blacksmith, sharpening and polishing and likely adding handles and so on. Others use it to mean those working with white metal such as tin.”

“William” I continue “was living in Tavistock and likely working in the iron foundry there.  William and his wife Ann Rowe had three sons, William Rowe Finch, Isaac and Joseph.  Joseph’s baptism record in 1809 states William is a blacksmith. Ann died before William moved to Silverlake in 1814, he only brought his three sons with him.  He later married Susanna, and it was three of their sons, John, Samuel and George, who became the Foundry edge tool makers.”  

Census 1841 household of William Finch

William  Finch 60y

Susanna Finch 46y

Maria Finch 21y

Susanna Finch   12y

Harriett Finch     9y

John Finch 18y

Samuel Finch 15y

George Finch     7y

James Finch   5y

“George is my great great great Grandfather?” asked Ellen.  We agree.  

Ruth rather cautiously says

“I am sure there is a good explanation, but Susanna Finch appears to be William’s half-sister, sharing the same father. My guess is that her mother Mary was pregnant by her previous husband or perhaps had the child before Isaac Finch married her.  We hope to find out more exact dates for these events in the future, to help clarify this potential scandal.

Another family tradition says a Finch woman walked from Sticklepath to Tavistock carrying a bag of edge tools for sale in the market, whilst heavily pregnant.  I imagine that was Susanna, since their first child Maria was born in Tavistock in 1822, long after William moved to Sticklepath.” 

Derek is surprised 

“Goodness, that must be at least 20 miles, a full day’s walk. Who would consider walking to Tavistock these days, let alone pregnant and with a load of tools!”  

I continue the saga 

“Silverlake was not a large house.  As the family grew extra rooms had to be built on at the back, referred to as ‘the boys’ rooms’.  When George married Rebecca she moved in and their sons William who only lived a few days, and James were born at Silverlake. Between 1858 and 1861, perhaps because it was a bit cramped, George built his own house ‘Primula’ next door. The little family moved in and their younger sons, Albany George and Thomas Seacombe were born there.  Later these three ‘Finch brothers’, James, Albany and Thomas, will follow George and then his wife Rebecca as joint proprietors of the business.”  (The Finch Foundry is now a National Trust Property).

This well published photograph is of 13 members of the Finch family in Silverlake Garden around 1890.  Here they all are, Rebecca, her 3 sons and daughter Naomi stood at the back, (Left to right James, Thomas and Albany), the wives and various grandchildren including Jessie sat at Rebecca’s feet.

 Derek asks us to stand safely on the pavement and look across the road at the far corner of Primula.  Can you see that large stone?  You can make out a ‘C’ carved into the stone.  That marked this as an important road, a county road. 

Pointing to the ‘C’ stone in Primula House at the road edge

Thomas Finch was born, lived and died in Primula.  Bob Barron’s booklet about the Foundry tells us more: 

‘… Thomas Seacombe Finch, was a farmer at heart.   He was responsible for running Western and Carnall Mills to which local farmers brought their sheaves of corn to be threshed, winnowed and ground for cattle feed.  He took care of Okehampton Market Stall where most of his customers were farmer friends.  He also hired out saddle horses and horse-drawn vehicles.’

 “Nan talked about Uncle Tom’s pet horse called Bessie” Ruth added “She pulled a little jingle, and that was how he liked to go to market.” 

 ‘The firm had land at Sticklepath and about 1919 acquired Ford Farm not far distant.  They also had land at Harepath off the A30 road near Whiddon Down… Thomas Finch managed the farming of these lands.  During harvest times the Foundry workmen were pressed into service making hay or lifting mangolds.  They found this a welcome change from the noise and heat of the forge.’ R.A. Barron

One of the Finch brothers, Thomas or Albany, supervising the potato harvest. Willie May and unknown older third man also present. Apparently posed photo taken for a fertiliser advertisement.

The food Thomas ate one hundred years ago was much more seasonal than ours. I wonder how they coped with bad weather or a poor harvest. In 1891 a terrible blizzard halted work for the farm and hire business and probably the foundry.  Railways were blocked. (The railway to Okehampton had opened in 1871). Supplies could not get through, food must have been short for both people and livestock.  Ships were lost. Perhaps tools and Foundry supplies from America were affected. Sticklepath being in a valley is easily cut off.  They must have relied on stored foods, potatoes, apples, jars of preserved fruit, salted meats, dried pulses, local milk and eggs.

The story of the next generation of Thomas’s family is a sad one, which we will explore another time. 

Further details and information can be found on: 


Reference:  The Finch Foundry Trust and Sticklepath Museum of Rural Industry by R.A. Barron produced 1970’s