Cullompton – A Brief History

People have been living in and around Cullompton for thousands of years. One of oldest finds is a mace head from around 6,000 years ago in the Middle Stone age. From the New Stone age, when people began farming a sandstone pebble hammer was found at Hillersdon, as well as a perforated hammer of quartzite and a small amount of prehistoric pottery and worked flint was recovered during excavations on land off Shortlands Lane. Pottery and flints from this period were also found at the site of College Surgery, off Willand Road, and these pots were made locally.

The Romans left their mark on Cullompton, beginning with a military fort on St Andrew’s Hill in the first century A.D., which was found from aerial photography in 1984 and from a small excavation of its defences in June 1992. An excavation of several burgage plots to the west of Fore Street in 2009 found traces of buildings, of occupation and burials were observed, thought to have been set along a road heading for St Andrew’s Hill and thought now to be represented in this area by the line of Shortlands Lane.

Fascinating Fact:
An urn was discovered during the excavation in 2009 and x-rayed at Exeter Airport because it was too large for the machines at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter. Pictures showed it contains soil, dense material thought to be ash from a cremation and several mysterious curved object, which may be bone fragments or possibly metal items. This proved the Roman occupation lasted from the 1st Century until the 4th Century.

It is thought that St Colomba came to the area in about 450AD and set up his preaching station close to the river ‘where two roads intersected’ possibly somewhere in the St Georges Well area and that it was around that preaching station that the town of Cullompton gradually emerged[NS1].

The Saxons did not reach Devon until the early 7th century, however most Devon place names are of Saxon origin. Many rivers retain their Celtic names and it was common practice to join ‘ton’ to the name of a river to describe a settlement on its banks. Each settlement managed its own affairs and existed mainly in isolation. For the next 400 years the lands stretching from beyond Taunton through Cullompton down to Torbay seem to have passed as a whole into the hands of the Saxon kings. It still belonged to the King at the time of the Norman Conquest and afterwards.

Before the Battle of Hastings had been fought William the Conquer vowed to build a mighty abbey on the site of the battlefield if God gave him victory. Battle Abbey took many years to build and cost more than anticipated. To secure the money to pay for the Abbey it was necessary to confiscate the endowments of existing churches. The land belonging to the defeated Harold was a natural target and the church and churchlands of Cullompton were among the first to be given to the new abbey. They subsequently became the property of St Nicholas Priory, Exeter and became known as the manor of Upton Weaver after the two main settlements the lands contained. The patronage of this benefice and the appointment of its parsons for nearly 500 years passed into the hands of monks until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536-39.

From 1257 weekly markets were held and while these helped build the local economy it was cloth which made the town prosperous. Three particular factors were important in Cullompton’s development as a centre for the cloth trade. Firstly, the rich pastures of the rural hinterland produced great flocks of sheep with their necessary fleeces. Secondly, the River Culm provided the water which powered the mills. Finally, the town was relatively close to Exeter which was a finishing, marketing and export centre that was vital to inland towns such as Cullompton.

Cullompton had a significant part in a burgeoning industry that had Exeter at its heart but that city was equally dependent upon market towns for cloth. Production in Cullompton rose in the 1400s and continued to do so for 300 years.

Fascinating Fact:
Owing to low wages in 1724, weavers, woolcombers and others from Bradninch and Cullompton rioted carrying clubs and ransacking houses. In 1738 there was a riot in Tiverton over wages by combers and weavers from Uffculme, Cullompton and Bradninch”

Cullompton adapted to changing technology and the Industrial Revolution of the late 1700s brought modifications in production. It moved cloth manufacture from private cottages into factories. The Upcotts, Browns, as well as Fowler & Davy were leading local firms that continued to produce cloth for foreign markets. William Upcott became the largest employer. Tanners were also prevalent.

On 6 May 1356 a water course was conferred on the town. It was given by the Abbot of Buckland and flowed through the town for 600 years until November 1962. At this time Buckland Abbey owned the Manor of Cullompton

Cullompton was visited by various sections of troops during the Civil Wars. In 1642, supporters of the King attempted to assert their authority over the local militia. However, the local constable, one Walter Challis refused to accept their authority and their response was to “taketh care for the fencing of the Towne with Walls, and Chaines, and Ordnance”. His Majesty King Charles I with soldiers was here on 20 September 1644, and on 12 October 1645, Sir Tomas Fairfax marched from Honiton to Cullompton. On 5 November 1688, the Prince of Orange landed at Brixham with 6000 horses and 10,000 foot soldiers. He advanced northwards leaving a small force at Tiverton, Honiton and Cullompton. 

In 1745, Thomas Bilbie moved to Cullompton and established a bell foundry in 1746 in Shortlands Lane. The Bilbie family cast 400 or so bells at the Cullompton bell-foundry including a peal of eight bells for St Andrew’s Church, the church now has 10 bells. The business continued until 1815 when Thomas Castleman Bilbie (grandson of Thomas Bilbie) sold the business to a local tinman named William Pannell who moved the foundry to his house in the New Cut. His son Charles Pannell later moved the business to Exeter in 1850. 

In 1816 two schoolrooms were built on the site of the car park in Gravel Walk, one for poor boys and one for poor girls. In 1872 a new school was built on the site of the car park and Hayridge Centre at Exeter Hill at a cost of £2,315. It was later modernised and used as a Secondary Modern School until 1964 when it was knocked down. The new Secondary Modern School, now Cullompton Community College, was opened in September 1964. 

Cullompton has always been a place that people pass through. At first on horseback and later by stagecoach but the days of horses galloping over Cullompton’s cobbles came to an end in the spring of 1844 when the Bristol and Exeter Company completed its railway line to Exeter. The engineer on this section of the line was William Froude who lived in the town during the construction and became a church warden, helping to pay for the church’s restoration. The railway enabled the growth of large manufacturing towns and local industry, particularly the woollen and weaving trades, gradually shifted from rural areas to large factories. The station closed in 1964 as a result of the Beeching report which questioned the viability of rural lines.

After the Second World War people gradually became more affluent and were able to afford cars and holidays. Cullompton was on the main route through to South Devon and Cornwall and, in the summer, on a Friday night and Saturday the road through the town centre would be nose-to-tail with traffic. To ease this problem a bypass was completed in October 1969 and upgraded to become a section of the M5 in 1974.

Fascinating Fact:
“Two stage coaches, one for Bath and the other for Bristol go through every morning, except Sunday, at seven o’clock, return every evening about five, and stop at the Half Moon Inn.”

The Principal inns are the White Hart, kept by Joseph Nosworthy, the Half Moon by Lucas Pulsford and the Red Lion by Robert Frost. The latter inn is the excise office, and that at which the wagons put up” (1790 Universal British Directory)

Although fire devastated part of the town in 1839, there was continual development. In 1890 Fox Brothers built a new factory at Cullompton which was connected with the demands of war particularly during the Great War. In the early 1900s the town also had flour mills, a paper mill, tannery and a lace factory. In 1948 John Heathcoat & Company of Tiverton opened a new factory in Cullompton which mended “nets” for wedding dresses and curtains.

Today Cullompton is home to two Grade I listed buildings: the fifteenth-century St Andrew’s parish church and the seventeenth-century house known as The Walronds. The centre of the town is the only conservation area in Mid Devon and there are seven Grade II* listed buildings and ninety Grade II listed buildings in the parish.

There is still some local manufacturing, including paper and grain mills but a large proportion of the town’s population (currently about 10,000) are commuters. There are currently proposals to reopen the railway station and build a bypass to solve the town’s current traffic problems.