The Tithe Commutation Act of 1836 converted ancient obligatory payments (or ‘tithes’) from the parishioners for the upkeep of Anglican Churches, such as St Andrews, from goods and food into money. The charges were set as a proportion of the value of the land that someone owned, with some reference made to the current price of corn. To set up the system, a massive survey was carried out to determine exactly how much land each person owned, hence the need to draw up accurate maps of land ownership and detailed lists of each property in every parish.

Analysis of the Moreton lists reveals a pattern of ownership that had probably existed since the late 1100s and lasted until the 1920s.

Owner (main holding)Acres% of totalCumulative %
Earl of Devon / Courtenay family294740.040
Dean & Chapter of Canterbury (Doccombe Manor)147620.060
John Courtier (Wray Barton)4766.567
Thomas Cousens (Moor Barton)3244.571
Matthew William Walbank (Steward & Willowray)2233.074
Thomas Pethybridge Newcombe (Butterdon & Cranbrook)1882.577
Edward Seymour Bailey (Whiddon Farm)1752.479
George Bragg (Cowley Parks)1702.381
Elias Langdon (Moor Farm)1341.883
John Germon (Meacombe & Sloncombe)1271.785
Judith Southmead (Lewdons)1241.786
William Tozer (Great Howton)1051.488
Dunsford Charity Trustees (Little Cranbrook)751.089
Elias Cuming (Beera & Bowden)741.090
48 other owners108210.0100

Landholding in Moretonhampstead Parish based on the Tithe Assessment of 1841

This list shows a handful of local owners with estates of 75-500 acres and about fifty others had smallholdings of 1-70 acres. These were sometimes farmed by the owners but the great majority of farms were tenanted and it was two absentee landowners who dominated the parish: the Earl of Devon (nearly 3000 acres) and the Church of England (nearly 1500 acres).

The Courtenay Estate

The manor of Moretonhampstead passed through several hands after the Norman Conquest until settling with the Courtenay family in 1309. A minor branch, the Courtenays of Powderham, acquired it and thereby the ownership of nearly half the property in the parish. They also acquired the title of Earl and then Viscount of Devon. Their 3,000 acres in Moreton parish were part of their East Dartmoor group of properties that also included lands in the parishes of Bovey Tracey (Heathfield), Lustleigh, Manaton and North Bovey. Together they covered 5,369 acres of the total of about 20,000 Courtenay acres in Devon.

Their Lordships did not visit much but their Steward presided over the manorial courts twice a year in the Court House on Court St until the 1850s. Tenants were ‘sworn to fealty’ and were liable to an array of fines such as broken hedges and a heriot was levied on the inheritance of a Courtenay tenancy. Appointments were still made to ancient posts such as Portreeve, Constable, Scavenger and, perhaps the most sort-after post, Aletaster. The courts could be lively affairs as can be seen from an extract of its records for 1753:

(Shadrach Bidder (the Scavenger of the Borough of Moretonhampstead aforesaid) is for raising a disturbance in this court and striking one of the jurors, fined by the steward three shillings and four pence)

Perhaps the Courtenay’s greatest beneficial influence on the farmers was to help bring a railway line to Moreton from Newton Abbot in 1866. Analysis by Kingdom and Lang of the freight carried on the line between then and its final closure in 1964 shows its importance to local farmers:

Main incoming traffic

  • Coal
  • Animal feeding stuffs
  • Grain
  • Fertiliser
  • Food for the Manor House

Main Outgoing traffic

  • Cattle, sheep and ponies
  • Timber
  • Rabbit skins
  • Milk
  • Whortleberries

By 1890 the Courtenay Estate was in financial difficulty following twenty years of agricultural depression, and the expensive life style of a recent Viscount. The East Dartmoor Estate was sold to the ‘nouveaux riches’ Smith family in 1890 and it was finally broken up when they in turn sold it in 1928 (see the Hambleden Estate below).

The Church and its ‘poor little estate of Doccombe’

In 1921 Messrs Callaway & Co. of Plymouth announced the sale of ‘Doccombe Manor Estate comprising seven farms, 12 cottages, allotments and woodlands extending to a total area of about 1,350 acres’. We do not know when or how this 20% of the parish became a separate manor. However, at some time between February 1173 and the summer of 1174 William de Tracy made a grant of ‘one hundred shillings worth of land in Moretonhampstead, namely Doccombe with its appurtenances and with the adjacent lands’ to the Benedictine monastery of Christ Church Canterbury. It is not certain if de Tracy was lord of all the manor of Moretonhampstead or if he just held Doccombe. But we do know why he made the grant.

De Tracy was one of the four knights, some say the leading one, who murdered Archbishop Thomas Becket in Christ Church Canterbury on December 29th 1170. This grant was an act of atonement for the murder and the income from Doccombe would pay for the ‘clothing and provision of one monk in that monastery for ever to celebrate masses there for the salvation of the living and the repose of the departed’. De Tracy made it in his death bed in Italy where he was probably on his way to a crusade when struck down by a fatal disease. King Henry II confirmed the grant between July and October 1174 and Doccombe remained the property of the monks until 1541 when, as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII, it passed to the control of the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury Cathedral. It was then sold to the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury Cathedral. 300 years later the estate was sold to the Gregory family in 1864 and it was finally broken up in 1921 when it was mainly bought up by the existing tenants. The 400 acres of Mardon Common, however, were only acquired in joint ownership by six of the farms around it in 1992. Other properties still retain grazing rights on the Common.

Doccombe was not valuable to the wealthy monastery of Christ Church Canterbury who often called it ‘our poor little estate in Devon’. But as an estate given in honour of the most very revered English medieval saint, St Thomas Becket, it was carefully protected by Canterbury from attempts by the lords of Moreton manor such as the Courtenays to control or tax it. But it also had to meet its obligations. A steward or bailiff was appointed to run the estate and administer the manorial court and sometimes he had to take the rent and other payments, such as a palfrey horse for a new prior, in person to Canterbury – probably a two week round trip in medieval times! The tenancies were for 3 lives and free bench whereby a widow, until she remarried, could retain tenure of her late husband’s land. The usual medieval obligations such as paying a heriot on inheriting a tenancy would apply and there were strict rules about coppicing the woodland. There was a water-powered mill for grinding and tannery workshops but it may have had another use.

According to Lysons’ Magna Britannia of 1820, at Doccombe ‘the lord of the manor is obliged to keep a cucking-stool for the punishment of scolding women’. A ‘scold‘ or nagging woman would be sentenced by the manorial court to sit in the cucking stool and be dunked in the local stream or mill pond. The number of duckings she received depended on how sharp her tongue was but normally three or four was the norm. One of the routes of the ‘red tide’ of Devon cattle also passed through Doccombe. A ‘Yoleway’, an old Saxon word for such a route, is mentioned in a Doccombe court roll of 1492. It probably refers to the road from the Exeter area that crossed the Teign Valley on the stepping stones at what is now Steps Bridge and went via Doccombe and Moretonhampstead to the open moors. A turnpike road was built at the end of the Napoleonic Wars but the old drove road is still there.

(The Doccombe Yoleway (old way) or drove way is still there.)

The Doccombe farms were typical of the whole parish. They averaged about 140 acres of which about a third was arable and two-thirds pasture with some rough pasture. They also had small orchards, coppice wood and grazing and sporting rights on Mardon Down. The arable was mainly for animal feed but also some commercial crops such as potatoes were grown. A barn in the centre of the hamlet was once a store for potatoes supplied to the Royal Navy. The farmhouses are well-built and quite substantial in size to accommodate large families and one or two farm labourers or servants. They had an array of granite farm buildings around them. Here is the 1921 sale catalogue description of Cossick farm:

House: Stone built and thatch roof. Sitting room, kitchen, dairy, 5 bedrooms.
Farm buildings: Cider house, yearling’s house, shippen 5 tie, root house, 2-stall stable, barn, bullock’s shed for 6, cow house for 2, calf box, implement shed & potato house with loft over all, piggeries and fowl house.