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Topsham is located within Exeter local authority area. Historically it formed part of Wonford Hundred. It falls within Aylesbeare Deanery for ecclesiastical purposes. The Deaneries are used to arrange the typescript Church Notes of B.F.Cresswell which are held in the Westcountry Studies Library. The population was 2749 in 1801 2790 in 1901 . Figures for other years are available on the local studies website. In the valuation of 1334 it was assessed at £01/08/08. The lay subsidy of 1524 valued the community at £20/05/00. In 1641/2 293 adult males signed the Protestation returns. It is recorded as a borough from 1257. A market is recorded from 1822.
A parish history file is held in Topsham Library. You can look for other material on the community by using the place search on the main local studies database. Further historical information is also available on the Genuki website.
Maps: The image below is of the Topsham area on Donn's one inch to the mile survey of 1765.
On the County Series Ordnance Survey mapping the area is to be found on 1:2,500 sheet 92/4 Six inch (1:10560) sheet 92NE
The National Grid reference for the centre of the area is SX965884. On the post 1945 National Grid Ordnance Survey mapping the sheets are: 1:10,000 (six inch to a mile: sheet SX98NE, 1:25,000 mapping: sheet Explorer 031, Landranger (1:50,000) mapping: sheet 192. Geological sheet 325 also covers the area.
Extract from Devon by W.G.Hoskins (1954), included by kind permission of the copyright holder:
TOPSHAM is one of those ancient, decayed estuary-ports which are perhaps the most fascinating kind of town that England can show, with their colour, smells, and strong sense of past life everywhere in the streets and alleys and along the water-fronts. It consisted formerly of one long main street with a number of short streets running at right angles to it down to the foreshore of the Exe, where its life and navigation lay.
It is possible that a native Celtic trading settlement existed on this site, comparable with the Mount Batten site on Plymouth Sound, but the evidence of prehistoric occupation is so far slight. What is undoubted is that a Roman port grew up here about the middle of the 1st century A.D. to serve Isca Dum- noniorum (Exeter), with which it was connected by a straight road 3 m. long leading directly to the forum of the tribal capital. This is the present Topsham Road along which the Exeter buses now travel. The port was active throughout the Romano-British period down to about A.D. 400.
Whether or not Topsham survived after the Roman withdrawal from Britain, we do not know. The depopulation of the Celtic kingdom of Dumnonia in the late 5th and 6th centuries may have produced economic changes leading to its collapse as a river port, but there was no reason why a small agricultural community should not have continued on these fertile light soils that are noted to this day for their market gardening.
However this may be, the Saxon occupation of East Devon during the 7th century brought important changes. A considerable village was planted on or near the old site, with its own open fields. Athelstan gave it in 937 to the monastery of St. Mary and St. Peter at Exeter, a gift which was later confirmed to Bishop Leofric. By 1066 Harold had unjustly seized the estate from the Church (as he had seized other estates elsewhere) and at the Conquest it was taken back into the royal demesne. Henry I parted with it to Richard de Redvers, whose son Baldwin founded St. James's Priory, between Topsham and Exeter, in 1141 and endowed it inter alia with half the tithes of his fishery at Topsham. The fishery would have been a salmon fishery, which is still carried on in a small way (plate 54).
The most important event in the medieval history of Topsham was the closing of the Exe by the Courtenays, who by building weirs across the river between here and Exeter prevented ships from reaching the city, and so forced merchants to land their goods at Topsham. Although the city took legal proceedings, the weirs remained, and Topsham became a flourishing port. All goods had to be unloaded here and carried on to Exeter by road. The construction of the Exeter ship canal in 1564-7 restored some trade to the city, but for various reasons the canal was not entirely satisfactory and Topsham remained in fact the outport for the greater part of the vast Exeter trade in woollens throughout the 16th and 18th centuries. Its prosperity, throughout this period, and well into the 19th century, is well evidenced by the architecture of the town, which contains some notable merchants' houses. In the Strand are the beautiful "Dutch" houses, with delightful small courtyards, which were built c. 1700-25 by Topsham merchants from Dutch brick brought back as ballast, and obviously with Dutch architecture in mind (plate 41). Holland was then the largest customer for Devonshire serges, and these were the greatest days of the port.
The buildings of Topsham, from the 16th century to the 19th, are so varied, numerous, and individual, that one cannot even begin to catalogue them. It is quite the most rewarding small town in Devon for the student of local styles in building, and probably one of the most interesting in England. The whole feeling of the water-front is remarkable: the decaying shipyards, the rotting hulks on the river mud, the derelict warehouses, nail factories, and quays, the multitudinous cats, the wonderful river views across to the Exminster marshes and down to the sea, with the woods of Haldon closing the western horizon. No wonder Topsham has been a favourite walk for Exeter people since the 18th century, for Polwhele tells us they were accustomed to stroll down by the canal banks on summer evenings in the 1780s, and probably before that. The view from the churchyard, set on a small cliff overhanging the river, is incomparably beautiful when the evening tide is coming in. Poor harassed George Gissing, who had so little peace in his life, used to walk here from Exeter, where he lived for a couple of years (1891-3), and remembered it when he poured out his heart in The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft. "A whole day's walk yesterday with no plan; just a long ramble hour after hour, entirely enjoyable. It ended at Topsham, where I sat on the little churchyard terrace, and watched the evening tide come up the broad estuary. I have a great liking for Topsham, and that churchyard, overlooking what is not quite sea, yet more than river, is one of the most restful spots I know."
The collapse of the Devonshire woollen industry at the end of the 18th century greatly injured the trade of Topsham, but the little town had many irons in the fire and it continued to grow throughout the first half of the 19th century. It had a considerable shipbuilding industry, which had probably taken root in the 16th century, and also an important salmon and herring fishery. Shipbuilding also meant nail, chain, and rope factories, and a number of other subsidiary trades.
The inns and taverns of Topsham are as varied and excellent as those of any old river-port. Best of all is the Salutation ( 1720) with its former Assembly Room, Bowling Green, and all the other attributes of a good 18th century inn. The Globe is also notable. Nor should the visitor fail to visit the Passage House Inn, the Steam Packet Inn, the Lighter Inn, theLord Nelson Inn, and the Bridge Inn. The last named is particularly fascinating. It stands away from the old town, facing the Clyst, and is said to be of 16th century date.
After the middle of the 19th century the town lost many of its ancient trades and crafts, but in the past 30 years it has developed rapidly as a dormitory for the city of Exeter and now has almost as many people as it had a hundred years ago. Fortunately, the new housing has been forced to develop on the farther side of the town, away from the water-front, and the old town remains almost completely unchanged and unspoiled. May it long remain so, for it has an incomparable charm and quality that the muddy fingers of the 20th century could only soil.
Of all the buildings of the town, the parish church (St. Margaret) is the least interesting. It was rebuilt in 1876- 8, except for its medieval red sandstone tower, and utterly ruined. It does contain, however, two monuments by Chantrey to the Duckworths. These, and its superb site on a bluff above the estuary, save it from complete non-entity.