Social History


The town of Modbury ascends three steep hills from a hollow in the Poundwell area and is dominated by the Church of St George on the hilltop to the west. It is located midway between Bigbury Bay and the southernmost boundary of Dartmoor, and lies between the rivers of the Avon and the Erme to the east and west respectively. The parish covers approximately ten square miles of mainly hilly country descending to the river Erme, with an ancient ridge road running along the northern boundary from a point near Sequers Bridge. Five of the Manors in the parish appear in the Domesday Book: Motberia (Modbury), Silfestana (Shilston), Comba (Spriddlescombe), Lega (Leigh) and Orcatona (Orcheton).

Population and Economy

Modbury’s origins date back to Saxon times when it was known as ‘Moot Burgh’ probably the meeting place of a parish or district, which after the tenth century became the ‘Ermington Hundred’. During the century following the Norman Conquest, the population increased considerably to four or five hundred. Two centuries later, however, the Black Death accounted for a considerable decline in numbers of at least a third to about three hundred, leading to a general recession. Towards the end of the fifteenth century Modbury moved into a period of great prosperity. Extensive building of houses and farms took place, with large estates changing hands.

During the seventeenth century the merchants of the town grew in importance, wielding considerable influence, clothiers featuring prominently among their number. Modbury reached a further peak of prosperity in the late eighteenth century with the development of the serge industry. A domestic system of production has left little evidence today of the industrial era, except insofar as the Georgian and Regency houses in the main streets are more visibly the dwellings of a commercial prosperity than those of a modest market town.

By 1801 Modbury’s population numbered 1,813, with as many as 882 people employed in the wool trade. In 1821 there were 2,195 inhabitants, an increase partly due to the decline in the death rate.

Subsequently the population began to decrease due to the rise of the mechanised wool industry in the north of England, fuelled by coal and adequate water supplies. Modbury’s old style woollen manufacturing industry was thus left behind by the Industrial Revolution. Workers migrated to large cities in search of employment and others emigrated to the New World to found and join new settlements. The exodus of many agricultural workers and, in part, the failure to have a railway line routed via Modbury from Plymouth to Kingsbridge also played a part in the decline of the town’s population. However, Modbury carried on as a thriving market town until the Second World War, the final cattle market being held in 1944. The decrease in population continued until 1961 (1,077 inhabitants). Since then, with an influx of ‘New Modbury’ people and the building of new housing estates, the numbers have increased to the present level of roughly 1,500.


Social changes in the eighteenth century had their effect on the appearance of the town. It was probably during this century that the present street plan was established. Before the eighteenth century there would have been rows of small houses and cottages at an angle to the present streets, with a wide market place around the crossroads at the centre of the town, surrounding the Shambles and Yarn Market. New houses of greater magnificence were erected on the street fronts, incorporating the older cottages at the rear and blocking the original alleyways. Sometimes these adapted buildings would be domestic dwellings and sometimes workshops or retail outlets, usually with living accommodation included. Examples are: Brook House in Galpin Street, Chain House in Brownston Street (front Queen Anne, rear Jacobean), 21 and 22 Brownston Street and 16 Church Street.

In the early nineteenth century housing standards were much lower than they are today. Many dwellings now housing a small family were tenements for two or more large families. For instance, 5 Broad Street housed five families in 1851 and there were two uninhabited tenements at the same address. Cottages in Poundwell Street, Back Street and Galpin Street have been demolished. Outside the town many mills, farmhouses and cottages have disappeared, those remaining housing smaller families.


From the eighteenth century the Nonconformists became firmly established in Modbury. A Presbyterian Meeting House was built in 1736, in Galpin Street beside the water conduit. A Wesleyan Chapel was founded in about 1781, with access under the arch in Brownston Street. The old chapel was sold in 1835, a new building having been constructed in 1834 in New Road. The Baptists established themselves in Modbury in 1791, and in 1795 had a meeting house behind 7 Brownston Street. In 1806 the present building in Church Street was opened. A Quaker Meeting House was in existence in Modbury in 1808, having been referred to as a ‘very silent meeting’.

Family and Christian names

The Modbury Parish Registers show family names for the years 1601-1610 of families resident in Modbury today. Burials recorded during this period include members of the families of Bickford, Colman, Hill, Hingston, Hodge, Hooper, Light, Phillips, Ryder, Stevens, Wakeham and Weymouth. Interestingly, Christian names during the same period show much of the same popularity, particularly males, as at present. John is a clear favourite followed by William, Thomas, Richard, Henry and Nicholas. Female names during that decade were led by Joan (usually spelt Johan), then Mary, Elizabeth, Agnes and Margery. More biblical names and names of virtues, such as Grace, Prudence and Peace, emerged in later centuries, with the growth of Non-conformist denominations and baptisms held outside of the Church of England, but these were never in the top ten favourites.


There is evidence of at least eighteen public houses having been in business over the past centuries, not to mention The Half Moon which featured in the eighteenth-century Andrews’ Diaries as an establishment to which to ‘retire’ following a busy day. Twelve inns were listed in 1850. In addition, during the nine days duration of the Great Fair, instituted by the Bishop of Exeter in 1310 to celebrate St George’s day, anyone was permitted in past times to sell liquor, a holly bush hung outside the premises exempting the householder from paying excise duty. The opening of the Modbury Fair was announced by the Portreeve’s proclamation of the Edward III Charter and the hoisting of a flower decorated glove by the Town Bell above the former Bell Inn in Broad Street. The ceremony originally symbolised the right of the parishioners of the borough to free trade.

The Modbury Mile race and the Fair procession (now known as the Carnival) date back to the nineteenth century. The fair was held, with stalls and cattle market, in the streets of Modbury until 1940 and was revived in 1971, the Charter now being read by a representative of the Parish Council.

Cockfighting is recorded as taking place in 1708. It seems that over two centuries later, certain Modbury inhabitants were still indulging in this practice. The Andrews’ Diaries make note of a football match at Brownston in 1749, bull baiting on a Sunday afternoon in 1751, and ‘great wrestling’ in 1771. The diarist enjoyed bathing in the Erme estuary under ‘Orcheton Wood’ and took part enthusiastically in musical events. In 1789 he attended lectures on Electricity and Magnetism, fifty years before the founding of Modbury’s Literary and Scientific Institute.

Author: Mary Rose Rogers