Historic River Exe

"Twyfordton" - the town by the two fords. A handsome stone bridge leads to the large suburb of West Exe. Tiverton has existed from the Saxon times through many vicissitudes, and is now a well-built and flourishing town.

Past & Present

History of Tiverton

Set in the curvaceous hills between Dartmoor and Exmoor, the ancient market town of Tiverton sits in a delightful setting on the banks of the River Exe. Few people realise, however, just how ancient the settlement. Human occupation actually dates back to the Stone Age.

It is believed that the name is actually derived from ‘Twyfordton’ or ‘Twyverton’ as the town stands not only the Exe but also the River Lowman. Historically it was referred to as Twyford and at some point that morphed into the name it carries today.

Clearly it was an ideal site for occupation. Many flint tools from the Stone Age were found in the area and an Iron Age hill fort – Cranmore Castle – stands on top of Exeter Hill which looks down on today’s town and the point where the rivers Exe and Lowman merge at Collipriest. A Roman marching camp was also discovered on the hillside below Knightshayes Court near Bolham just north of the town. Henry I chose the town for a Norman castle with a Motte and Bailey type construction built in 1106. Tiverton Castle was extensively remodelled in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Tiverton owes its early growth and prosperity to the wool trade which caused the town to grow rapidly in the 16th and 17th centuries. Many of the wealthy wool merchants were philanthropists, building up the town’s heritage. John Greenway added an impressive chapel to St Peter’s parish church in 1517 and a small chapel and almshouses in Gold Street which still stand. Peter Blundell who died in 1601 bequeathed funds and land to found Blundell’s School to educate local children. It was founded in 1604 and relocated to its present position on the outskirts of the town in 1882. However the impressive original building still stands in its own grounds in the town centre. Around 1600 there were two major fires in the town. The first in 1596, was believed to have been started in a frying pan and destroyed most of the town. The second was in 1612 and was known as the ‘dog fight fire’ because a dog fight had distracted people who were supposed to be looking after a furnace. Again the damage was extensive.

During the Civil War in 1645 the castle was held by Royalists and became a pivotal point for Oliver Cromwell’s incursions further into Devon. Tiverton Castle was the scene of a brief siege by Thomas Fairfax’s Parliamentarian forces. They entered the town under Major General Massey on October 15, the town’s defenders fleeing before him towards Exeter. They left a defending force at the castle and adjacent church. Two days later Fairfax arrived with his troops and bombarded the castle for two days, ceasing fire for the Sabbath. The following day he had several ‘great pieces’ of artillery brought up for a renewed barrage. The siege ended quickly when a lucky shot broke one of the drawbridge chains and an alert squad of Roundheads gained swift access to the castle. Fairfax set up his winter quarters there due to bad weather and was joined in December by Cromwell who then left to lay siege to Plymouth the following month.

Tiverton enjoyed prosperity from the wool trade into the early 18th century, but then came a period of decline during the early industrial revolution. There were occasional riots and societies of Woolcombers and Weavers were formed in an effort to protect jobs and wages. However by the end of the century due to imports of cotton and the expansion of industrialisation elsewhere, the town’s woollen industry was in terminal decline. In June 1731 another major fire broke out in the town destroying 298 houses. After this the streets were widened.

A major development for the future of Tiverton came in 1815 when industrialist John Heathcoat bought an old woollen mill on the River Exe. It followed the destruction of his factory and machinery in Loughborough by Luddites thought to have been in the pay of the Lacemakers of Nottingham. As a result he moved his entire lace-making operation to Tiverton and such was his reputation for looking after his workforce that 500 people – workers and families – walked the 190 miles from Loughborough to come and live and work for him in Tiverton. The factory turned round the fortunes of the town and once again it became a significant industrial centre in the south west. Trade was aided when a branch of the Grand Western Canal from Taunton to Tiverton was opened in 1838 followed by a branch of the Great Western Railway in 1848. The Heathcoat factory is still one of the town’s core businesses to day.

Probably one of the most iconic buildings in Tiverton is the remarkable Town Hall at the top of Fore Street by Angel Hill. It was designed by Henry Lloyd, who also designed the grand Exeter St David’s railway station, and built by Samuel Garth, the mayor of Tiverton from 1861 to 1862. The town hall was opened in May 1864.

Although small, Tiverton had two MPs representing it at one time and as one of the ‘rotten boroughs’ it was often targeted by those seeking electoral reform. Lord Palmerston – or ‘Pam’ as he was known locally – was Tiverton’s best known MP and held the seat for a large part of the 19th century.

Much of Tiverton’s history is still evident today and several historical walks and information boards can be found throughout the town. Tiverton’s excellent museum also has much more of the history to explore and is well worth a visit. Visit the museum website by clicking here.


Tiverton 650 AD - 2007 AD. A brief timeline.

650 AD

Founded early in the Saxon settlement and was a Royal estate from the beginning.

880 - 885

Tiverton referred to as "Twyforde", the place being reached by a ford over each river, in King Alfreds Will.


The Royal Manor of Tiverton belonged to Gytha, Danish born widow of Earl Godwin. Their daughter, Edith, had married the saintly Edward the Confessor. When he died without an heir in January of this year, Gytha's son, Harold, was chosen by the parliament to succeed him.

William of Normandy laid claim to the throne and having defeated Harold at the Battle of Hastings, proceeded to subdue the kingdom of Wessex. Exeter had closed its gates against the advancing army of William but was forced to surrender within days. Tiverton was now at the mercy of William the Conqueror.


Henry 1 gave the large and valuable manor to Richard de Redvers whose son Baldwin was created Earl of Devon. Tiverton Castle was built by Richard de Redvers on the orders of Henry 1.

1193 - 1217

A Borough was founded at Tiverton by William de Vernon, 5th Earl of Devon.


The de Redvers family line died out and the Royal Manor passed to a kinsman by the name of Hugh de Courtenay.

1348 - 1350

Black Death.


John Greenway's Chapel and South porch added to St Peters Church.


John Greenway's Almshouse in Gold Street founded.


Cranmore Castle, the ancient earthwork was the scene of a fierce battle in this year arising out of a dispute as to whether a child should be baptised by Protestant or Roman Catholic rites.


Waldron's Almshouse erected for eight old men.


Spanish Armada.


The plague wiped out one tenth of the population.


Great fire (frying pan fire) burnt town from end to end.


Blundells school founded by Tiverton woollen merchant, Peter Blundell. The old school built in 1604 still stands near the Lowman bridge at the South East end of the town. Converted into dwelling houses in 1880.


Great fire nicknamed the "Dog fight fire" (due to a dog fight which distracted attention away from a furnace) destroyed everything with the exception of the Church, Castle, schools, almshouses and a few poor hovels. Because of this fire, James 1 granted Tiverton its first Royal charter on 10th August 1615.


Tiverton was incorporated and at the same time made a parliamentary borough with two representatives.


Tiverton occupied by Essex and the main parliamentary army but was regained by the Royalists after the parliamentary defeat at Lostwithiel.


During the English Civil War, Tiverton Castle was beseiged by General Fairfax of the Roundhead army and the Castle's life as a military stronghold was over.


The Oliver Cromwell charter states that market day would no longer be held on Mondays, but as today, would be held on Tuesdays to avoid the profanation of the Sabbath by traders preparing their wares which had provoked God's wrath, which manifested in the two Great Fires of 1598 and 1612. This charter is displayed at Tiverton Museum.

1714 - 1730

St Georges Church, in the middle of town was built and is the only notable Georgian church in Devon.


Third Great Fire in June. 300 houses destroyed and over 2000 people were made homeless.


Act of Parliament passed decreeing that in future all Tiverton houses must have roofs built of tiles or slates, not of thatch.


John Heathcoat was born.


Grand Western Canal built for transporting Lime from the quarries to the kilns.


One of the last woollen mills taken over by John Heathcoats, a lace manufacturer from Leicestershire.


The Pannier Market opened on the site of the old bowling green. The following years pens for cattle, sheep and pigs were provided at the Newport Street End.


Grand Western Canal completed to Taunton.


Tiverton Junction railway station built on the main Exeter to Bristol line. Today this is known as Tiverton Parkway.


The Tiverton Gazette newspaper was launched as 'The Tiverton Gazette and East Devon Herald'.


The population of the parish of Tiverton according to the census was 10,447, with 7,947 of those residing in the town.


Blundell's School, founded in 1604, relocated to its present site.


The Tiverton and North Devon Railway, the northern part of the Exe Valley Railway, was opened.


The population of Tiverton according to the census was 10,892.


The population of Tiverton according to the census was 10,382.


The population of Tiverton according to the census was 10,205.


Tiverton Town Football Club was founded as Tiverton Athletic FC. The club was reformed as Tiverton Town FC in 1946.


The course and clubhouse of Tiverton Golf Club were officially opened on May 28th.


Sampford Peverell railway station was opened on the Great Western Railway. It was closed in the 1960s but was returned to service as Tiverton Parkway railway station in 1986.


Tiverton retained an independent police force until this date. It was the last town in Devon & Cornwall to do so.


Tiverton Museum was established. It opened at its present site in St. Andrew Street in 1967.


The Exe Valley Railway was closed to passenger traffic.


The Exe Valley Railway was closed to goods traffic, having closed to passenger services a year earlier.


The population of Tiverton according to the census was 15,582.


Under the Local Government Act 1972, Tiverton District was created by the merger of the borough of Tiverton and Crediton urban district together with Tiverton Rural District, and Crediton Rural District.


Tiverton District, local government district, was renamed Mid-Devon District.


Tiverton Junction railway station was closed on May 10th, to be replaced by the better located Tiverton Parkway.


The population of Tiverton according to the census was 17,187.


The population of Tiverton according to the census was 18,621.


Tesco opened a new supermarket on the site of the old Lowman Works.


Tiverton's last remaining cinema, the Tivoli, was closed.