Famous People of Modbury

Several famous people have lived in Modbury and the surrounding district. It would be difficult to place them in order of importance, but the following people will always be remembered and have their place in history.

In the field of medicine, two eighteenth century physicians were born in Modbury: they both became Presidents of the Royal College of Physicians. WILLIAM BATTIE was born in 1704, the son of the vicar, the Rev. Edward Battie, who died in 1714, leaving his widow a very small income. She managed, with some difficulty, to send William to Eton, where he showed diligence and ability. He obtained a scholarship to King’s College, Cambridge. Being unable to afford a legal training he ‘diverted his attention to physic’ and practised for a short time in Cambridge. After practising for many years in the field of psychiatry in London, he acquired two private madhouses near St. Luke’s, from which he gained a handsome income. Battie’s appointment at St. Luke’s gave him a firm base upon which to consolidate his reputation. By extending to the poor, methods of treatment ordinarily reserved for the affluent, he raised psychiatry to a respectable specialty. His monograph, ‘A Treatise on Madness’, published in 1758, was the first lengthy book on the subject, and his ideas were copied elsewhere. He died following a stroke in 1776 and was buried alongside his wife in Kingston, Surrey.

SIR GEORGE BAKER was born in Modbury in 1722. His father, the Rev. George Baker, was the vicar. His mother, Bridget, was a daughter of Stephen Weston, Bishop of Exeter. He was educated at Eton and King’s College, Cambridge, and was subsequently elected to a Fellowship of the College. He practised medicine in Lincolnshire for a few years before seeking broader opportunities in London in about 1761, contributing an academic elegance to the medical scene. He was ‘Physician-in-Ordinary’ to George III and was created a baronet in 1776. He was also a Fellow of the Royal Society and held the most important offices in the Royal College of Physicians, where he was President from 1785 to 1795. He attended the King in his second attack of madness (the first was hushed up) and administered to him for many years. When the condition ‘Devonshire colic’ attracted his attention, Baker found a subject to his liking and recalled his childhood in the County. After much investigation, he discovered that the cause of the colic was cider contaminated with lead. A lot of argument followed because apple-growers had been producing cider for years using the same methods and equipment. However, when all traces of lead were removed from their millstones, casks and conduits, the colic disappeared. Baker enjoyed good health throughout his long life and was highly respected by his colleagues. He died in 1809 and was buried at St. James, Piccadilly, where he is commemorated by a mural tablet.

Most people will have heard of STETSON hats, but it is not widely known that the Stetson family originally came from Modbury. Cornet Robert Stetson, progenitor of the Stetson Kindred of America Inc., was born in Modbury and baptised in St. George’s Church in 1615. He married Honour Tucker of Plymouth and they emigrated to Massachusetts. Eight children were born to them, and their descendants still send generous donations towards the upkeep of our Church where the Stetson family records are deposited.

The CHAMPERNOWNE name is well known in Modbury (where a large housing estate bears the name). The Champernowne ancestors came from Normandy. A younger son of the family, Richard, with no inheritance of his own, married Joan Okeston, whose mother had previously married into the de Valletort family. As a result, Modbury, together with extensive estates of the de Valletorts, was later transferred to Richard Champernowne by Edward II. Later marriages added further possessions to the family estates. The Champernownes gained influence at Court during the reign of Henry VIII and were involved in the upbringing of the young Princess Elizabeth. Katherine Champernowne, the wife of Otho Gilbert, was the mother of Sir Humphrey Gilbert, founder of the first British colony in Newfoundland. Katherine’s second marriage to Walter Raleigh produced the even greater Sir Walter Raleigh. Further information regarding the Champernownes can be found in the local History Society’s booklet Modbury: Our Inheritance.

THOMAS SAVERY was a local inventor: no record of the date or place of his birth has been found, but he was born about 1650. His grandfather lived at Shilston, just north of Modbury. Thomas Savery and Thomas Newcomen of Dartmouth were the pioneers of the steam pump, which was originally designed for pumping out mines. Thomas Savery was granted a patent in 1698. He was also involved in inventing a machine for grinding and polishing looking-glass and marble stones, and even worked on a rowing machine for propelling ships. Thomas invented a variety of machines, not all of which were successful, and a year before his death, in 1714, he was appointed Surveyor of the Water Works at Hampton Court.

RICHARD KING was another important Modbury man, although he left the town early in his life and settled in New York. In 1840 he founded the Modbury Literary Institute, an impressive building in Brownston Street, together with two adjoining dwelling houses, for endowment. Mr. King conveyed the property to trustees ‘For a library and museum and for reading and study and for lectures and discussion’. The first minute book has been preserved and contains much interesting information regarding the lectures and experiments that took place over the first few years.

The Institute performed a valuable function as an instrument of higher education and as a social meeting place during the nineteenth century. However, from the period of the First World War it fell increasingly into difficulties. Membership dropped and costs rose and in 1954 the Institution was wound up, and the building became a private dwelling. The assets were transferred to the Memorial Hall.

Author: David Mitchell