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THE ILSINGTON BREAD RIOTS OF 1795

by John Dyer

You can contact  John Dyer about his articles or for information on the Dyers of Trusham at

jdtorquay@aol.com

 

The Author would like to acknowledge the helpful contribution made by Mandy Rhodes of Ilsington.

 

THE BACKGROUND TO THIS STORY:

 

Throughout the 18th century, labourer's wages in Devon remained virtually unchanged - 1s 2d per day  in 1700 and 1s 4d in 1790. Notwithstanding changes in the purchasing power of money, this was a very low wage - just 7s 2d a week to cover rent, food and clothing for an entire family. But the proportion of income spent every week on each component part of their expenditure (i.e. rent, food and clothing) did not remain constant. As the century went by, food prices began to climb and the very real possibility of starvation began to loom large for the poorest people as they tried - and failed - to make static wages go further to cover all their needs.

The price of wheat, in particular, began to rocket and the idea grew among the general public that supplies were being held back by some merchants so that they could increase their profits. Then came a period of appalling weather which severely interrupted the crop-growing processes as well as making scarce (and therefore expensive) alternative foods such as potatoes, turnips, swedes and greens.

 

From the 1760s onwards, the poor began to take to the streets to demonstrate their growing frustration. Their protests began low-key  with the usual suspects booing authority figures and shouting slogans. But things got worse, partly because the population was growing so rapidly and partly because of terrible winter weather which froze the water which drove the mills so that what wheat there was could not be ground. Unemployment grew and even with charitable help from their better-off neighbours, the plight of the poor became more and more desperate as flour became even more scarce and expensive. This is the background to the sad story which follows and to Thomas Campion's ultimate fate, which was to serve as an example to all local people who dared to make public their dissatisfaction with the situation.

 

But Campions' death was not the end of the matter. You can continue this story through one of Arthur Rodway's articles in which he describes how the Rifle Volunteers were used to subdue food riots in various places in Devon as late as the 1850s.

 

John Dyer writes:

The Thomas Campion referred to below was born in Bovey Tracey in 1765 and was baptised in Ilsington 17th November that year. He was the illegitimate son of Thomasine Campion who had been born in Ilsington in 1742. Later, in 1776, she was to marry local blacksmith,  James Howard.

At the time of the Bread Riots. Thomas Campion was 30 years of age and, like his step-father, a blacksmith working in Ilsington. He was buried on 8 Aug 1795, at IIsington, Devon,  following his hanging.

 

"On the 13th April 1795 a mob assembled at Bellamarsh near Chudleigh. For some time the price of wheat and other commodities such as potatoes rose making it impossible for the ordinary people of England to afford them. Harvests the previous year had been poor and it was suspected that entrepreneurs were inflating the cost of flour. The mob were intent on causing problems for the Mill owner at Bellamarsh, a Mr James Ball. The mob broke into the mill and caused damage to the machinery and proffered violence towards anyone opposing them.

 

The mob comprised ordinary working men from the Ilsington and Bovey Tracey areas who armed them selves with clubs and axes. A detachment of Militia from nearby Chudleigh were summoned and attended the scene to disperse the rioters. An alleged ringleader, Thomas Campion, was taken into custody, as were two others - a William Northway and a William Southward. A fourth man, John Mortimore, was sought in connection with the riot. When some two days later he was caught in Ilsington, a mob forced the officers with a warrant for his arrest, to retire from the area. All four men were from Ilsington.

 

The men appeared before the Devon Assizes* sitting at Exeter on 27th July 1795. Thomas Campion was found guilty & sentenced to be executed by hanging. William Northway was reprieved, as was William Southward.

From The Exeter Flying Post

6 August 1795

Thomas Campion, guilty of a riot on 13th April at Chudleigh, proceeding to Bellamarsh Mills, the property of James Ball and others, with intent to destroy them. He was ordered to be hanged at Bovey Heathfield (aka Bovey Tracey)

 

From The Western Antiquary

Volume 8

"In Mr Freeman's 'History of Exeter, 1887' page 226, it is stated that:

"In 1795 a riot outside the city against millers who were suspected of 'engrossing', was made memorable by the unusual way in which an alleged ringleader was put to death. The execution was conducted in a manner hitherto unknown in this city, being entirely military, and entrusted to the care of Major Shadwell, of the 25th Regiment of Light Dragoons. The condemned man, Campion by name, was taken to Heavitree in a mourning coach, with every precaution, both to hinder a rescue and to secure the city and neighbourhood."

 

I have just been favoured with a copy of a Broad sheet, published at the time of Campion's trial; and, also by a verbal tradition of how this poor misguided man came to be singled out of the riotous mob and bought to trial. Campion, like his father, was a blacksmith, and when the riots began he was forced to join them, this he reluctantly did, but he, it appears, soon caught the spirit of the mob, and very foolishly rendered himself conspicuous by hoisting a red handkerchief on a pole, he was at once marked down as a ringleader, and as from this accusation he was not able to clear himself; he was brought to trial, and suffered the full penalty of the law. It will, however, be observed that he was taken not to Heavitree, for execution, but to the place where the riots began, and where Campion lived, namely, to Belle-Marsh mills, in the parish of Kingsteignton.

 

The following is a copy of the account of the "Trial and Execution of Thomas Campion."

 

"A trial and particular account of the character and dying behaviour of Thomas Campion, who was executed on Thursday, August 6th, 1795, for rioting near Kingsteignton, in the county of Devon: Thomas Campion, aged thirty, the unfortunate victim of public justice, for the above crime, was born at Ilsington, near Bovey Tracey, of poor parents. His father was a blacksmith, and brought up his unfortunate son in the strictest rules of sobriety, honesty, and industry - till the above lamentable circumstances occurred, he was approved of by all who had any connections with him. He was, by his peculiar industry, the principal means of providing a comfortable subsistence for his aged parents, who, through infirmities were incapable of providing for themselves, and now the fatal scene has happened, they have no other hope but to see their beloved son hereafter, in mansions of bliss. What makes his premature death more lamentable, is that it was proved he was forced by a great number of the enraged mob from his work, to co-operate with them in their hasty measures, otherwise he might now have lived and been a useful pattern to mankind."

 

*(Details from PRO Assize records)

 

A number of Campion blacksmiths from Ilsington and

the immediate neighbourhood can be found by visiting

http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~blacksmiths/devon-1.htm

Many more blacksmiths from other areas of Devon are also listed on this useful site.

 

 

 

 
 
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