In-Depth: Sticklepath


Sticklepath One Place Study. Started September 2020.

A village near Okehampton, Devon, England

By Helen Finch Shields.    E-mail:



There are 3 main strands to this OPS:

Website -   Sticklepath people, places and events.

Blog -

Database - plans to use ‘NameandPlace’ as software development allows.


20 miles West of Exeter, 3-4 miles East of Okehampton, this typical single-street Devon village in South West England has many listed picturesque thatched cottages.  Named after the staecle (Anglo-Saxon) or ‘steep’ ancient pack-horse trackway, the main route from London to Cornwall.  As the road starts to rise by Ladywell, the Cleave Valley lane to Belstone branches left.  Here was Cleave Mill, and, further along Skaigh or Ska Valley with its ancient woodlands, one of the largest water wheels in mainland Britain (70ft diameter). Sticklepath folk claim to have a high rainfall due to the valley, and heavy snows can isolate the village (eg 1963).Sticklepath and Belstone along with South Tawton and South Zeal, lie ‘in the shadow’ of Dartmoor’s highest point - Cawsand or Cosdon Beacon. accessed September 2020 accessed September 2020


In 1841 the population was 550-600. Whilst many Sticklepath folk married people from neighbouring villages, changes in employment, varying prevalence of occupation and attractive opportunities to emigrate all had an impact.

In 1950 Jessie Barron wrote:

“The most marked change in the last 50 years has been in the number and character of the population.  In later years the fashion for large families has died out, and as a result of this, rather than for lack of local industry, the population has decreased.  In 1900 there were about 50 houses and over 70 Sticklepath children attending the council school.  Now, although thirty additional houses have been built, there are but thirty children, all told, in the village, including babies under school age.”

Sticklepath school has closed, but school records will be explored.

Provision for the poor was local initially, then within the Okehampton Union. Dread of the workhouse continued into the 1960s, when the building had been converted into the “Castle Hospital”.


Sampford Courtenay Parish, of which Sticklepath was a part, was the site of the Prayerbook Rebellion, with about 7000 men involved.

The memorial and steps of church house where William Hellyons was killed in Sampford Courtenay village.

The memorial and steps of church house where William Hellyons was killed in Sampford Courtenay village.

On Whitsunday 1549 the prayer book in English was introduced. On Whitmonday the Parishioners of Sampford Courtenay forced their priest to revert to the latin format.  At the next service Justices came to enforce the change.  An argument ensued which ended in William Hellyons, a proponent of the change, being killed on the church house steps, sparking the revolt.

Aerial view North of the village centre of Common Field strip or Burgage plots, one sub-divided into allotments.

Aerial view North of the village centre of Common Field strip or Burgage plots, one sub-divided into allotments.

Documents from the 13th century refer to the settlement at Sticklepath. South Zeal’s Burgage plots were planned from scratch but Sticklepath likely involved re-ordering or extension of an established settlement. This field structure is typical of 12th – 14th century Devon villages.

To the South the river and moorland are just one field width away, but despite being adjacent to the moor, Sampford Courtenay Parish had very little Common land.  For Sticklepath, essentially that part of ‘The Mount’ lying between the old and new road, known as ‘Wooders’, and ‘Sticklepath moor’ now lying between the main road and Willey lane.  Traditionally any villagers could graze animals there, but some deeds specify the right.  In 1766 this ‘common of pasture’ was granted to the holding named Reynolds (now Sunnyside house) for ‘two cows, one horse, two pigs and one little pig’.

There were at least three farms in Sticklepath village, at Steddaford, Sunnyside and Hall’s Tenement (now the Taw River Inn).  There was no manor or squire for the village but Hall’s or Hole’s Tenement attained some quasi-manorial status.  A legal case of 1565 mentions ‘John Dymocke, Gent; and Mary his wife of the Manor of Sticklepath’ (Fines Devon, 7 and 8 Eliz: Michm) and many deeds refer to property in the ‘reputed manor of Sticklepath’.  Manorial status was lost long ago.

(Secondary sources used. Examination of primary sources is a long term aim.  Manorial records for Sticklepath are at Devon archive.  King’s College, landowners for much of the area have records in Cambridge.)


At the Northern edge of Dartmoor, in a largely agricultural area on the geological 'Sticklepath Fault’, villagers found employment on farms and quarries.  Greenhill and Ramsley mines employed Sticklepath men and produced high grade copper ore from at least the mid 19th century into the early 20th century.  Others walked across Dartmoor to work for the week e.g. at Princetown.  Encouraging tourism has also been part of the village ethos from at least 1900.

Villagers Douglas and Ruth St Leger Gordon wrote extensively about Dartmoor and its folklore and customs. Traditions include swaling (controversial burning of vegetation to maintain common grazing areas), collecting and using peat for fuel, and ‘beating the bounds’. Dartmoor became a National Park in October 1973.  The informative 2017 Sticklepath Conservation Area Character Appraisal 2017 led to boundaries being extended.

Crucial historically was the diversion of the River Taw to provide water-power.  At the end of the 18th century the village had four mills with at least seven waterwheels.  Scaw Mill on the South Tawton side of the bridge, closed around 1800.    White’s Directory of 1850 records the village as having, ‘...corn, bone and woollen mills.’ Cleave Mill was an early site, described as Wilmott’s or Curzon’s Mill in 1795.  In 1803 it burnt down. The Pearse family bought it in 1810, establishing a highly successful woollen mill, known locally as ‘Factory’.  Later Cleave Mills were converted to flour and grist (grain with the chaff removed ready for grinding) under Messrs Littlejohns,  before conversion to living accommodation.

From 1814 the Finch Foundry, now National Trust, dominated the centre of the village with its noise, smoke and smells. Formerly Manor Mills (or Ballamy’s), at the start of the 19th century, a woollen mill and a corn mill stood here.  William Finch rented the cloth mill in 1814, as a tool-making works. In 1835 the business added the corn mill, which became a tool-grinding house. A saw mill, stable block, rope workshop and reed store followed.  Business waxed and waned with the industrial revolution.  Sudden collapse of the machinery led to its abrupt closure in 1960.

Photograph of the Finch Foundry workers.

Photograph of the Finch Foundry workers.

Occupations are a key theme with early reports on blacksmiths and Edge Tool Makers (in Destinations 2020-21).  Occupations changed reflecting history, economics, poor harvests, increasing education, reduction in domestic servants etc.  Many small shops in 1910, reduced to 3 food shops in the 1960s, now 1 plus a few hours of ‘post office’ in the Hall, the National Trust shop and a plant nursery. Loss of horse and carriage and rise of automobiles had considerable impact on the road, Bowdens’ Taxi and haulage business and our local Garages.

The study will include village policemen and ‘villains’, the candle factory,  wheelwright, thatcher, village doctors, boot maker, cordwainer, tailor and britches maker, dress-makers, laundresses, corsetiere, water diviner, millers etc


In the 1700s there were reputedly 200 Quaker 'Friends' in Sticklepath. Wesley’s diary records several visits.  The resulting strong Methodist tradition from the late 1700s is commemorated in the 'White Rock’ and flag pole on the Mount above the village.  The Wesleyan Chapel, awaiting private renovation, and the 'Quaker burying ground' remind us of this heritage.

During the main timescale of this project 1770-1970 there were two places of worship - St Mary’s Chantry Chapel, known as ‘The Church’ and the Wesleyan Chapel.

In the early 1900s there was a tradition of walking up and down the street on a Sunday, meeting and greeting people before the church or chapel service.  Services alternated so people could attend both and the animosity between church and chapel prevalent elsewhere does not seem to have predominated here.

St Mary’s was historically in Sampford Courtenay Parish, the Courtenay family appointed many of the incumbents.  By 1822 Lysons remarks that services were only held twice a year,  the Rector of Sampford offering Sacrament on the Sundays after Michaelmas and Easter.  Pearse later noted only a single annual service, after which the Vicar dined with the farmers at the Inn to collect his tithes!  United ecclesiastically with Belstone in 1929, it was served by their Rector.

White’s Directory 1850 says the early ‘Chapel of Ease’ burnt down.  Some Sticklepath inhabitants in 1955 recalled their parents talking of the fire, with no suspicion of malicious intent. The new church cost £700 in 1875, funded by subscriptions and the generosity of John Cook, butcher and licensee of the Cornish Inn.  The pig styes and ugly sheds were demolished, creating a pleasant garden.

The Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould writes:

“ a modern erection of no interest or beauty ” and “an insipid and unattractive modern structure”. Time has perhaps mellowed our criticism of its looks.

From 1949 two services and a Sunday School Class were being held.  “The Story of Sticklepath” (1955 WI booklet) wryly notes that when Sampford Courtenay was only able to provide one service on a Sunday many Sticklepath folk went to South Tawton - the only neighbouring Parish with which it had no official ties until 1982 when the livings of Belstone and South Tawton were merged.

Families and Notable People

The project features stories of families and individuals.  Many old families, Yeo, for example, who ran the Post Office for over 100 years, are no longer represented.

Sources include Parish records, census, graveyard and school records, the war memorial, as well as trade directories.

Some are already mentioned here or in the blog.  William Middle a Crimean war veteran for whom several documents and medals survive. Frank Richards well respected headteacher.  Emlin and Rebecca Finch, widows who each ran the Foundry. Morley Thomas Dawe botanist, who worked internationally  (Gambia 1919,  his report resulted in the founding of the Agricultural Department; Commissioner for Lands and Forests in Sierra Leone).  Bert Stead more recently, kind and patient, visitor to the sick, leading star of amateur dramatics and WI events, jam maker extraordinaire, stalwart supporter of the Methodist Chapel.


The village hall, Ladywell and Sticklepath Bridge have already been mentioned in blogposts.  The school, earlier dame school, and many houses are of interest.  Sticklepath Heritage group have also done house histories using deeds. Unusual village features include cast iron gutters on thatched cottages and horizontal sliding windows.  Granite walls are seen throughout the village, especially at the back of properties.  The wall plaque adjacent to the chapel commemorates piped water coming to the village. An old millstone set in the pavement opposite Lady Well toward the Western end of the village has been reflected in the Millennium feature near the grand old oak tree at the East end.

The Taw River Inn, previously The Cornish Inn or Taw River Hotel forms part of the run of thatched cottages in the centre of the village.

The Devonshire Inn is described in the Village appraisal:

“A local inn built in the 17th century, given a Georgian makeover c1800 and further modernised in the 20th century. Its character reflects these phases of change and they are part of its charm.”… “this building captures how the road changed the fortunes of Sticklepath.”

In 1899 Dymond in ‘Trust Property within the County of Devon”  refers to

“the old and now much deserted mail coach road into Cornwall that passed through Sticklepath”.  Today there is plenty of traffic despite the by-pass, opened in 1987.


With sporting achievements, revels, the locally renowned fireshows, flower shows and WI this always was an active community.  Sticklepath Brass Band flourished in the past leading annual processions of the Independent Order of Good Templars and Sunday school anniversaries for example. Many claim Tom Pearse, our mill owner’s link to Widecombe fair, now celebrated annually.

Left: Sticklepath Church - St Mary’s 1983.   Right: Engraved stone in the Burying Ground

Left: Sticklepath Church - St Mary’s 1983.   Right: Engraved stone in the Burying Ground

The Sticklepath Friends established a burying ground by 1713.  Over a century later it was purchased for £14 by Thomas Pearse, the sergemaker of Cleave Mill.  When no one volunteered he appointed 8 relatives as trustees, with himself as treasurer.  The ground became non-denominational and for the use of villagers.  Mr Pearse performed many burials and was buried there in 1875 aged 81.  It continues to be managed by a village committee.

2020 photograph of part of the graveyard.

2020 photograph of part of the graveyard.


Social history - another key theme.  Jessie Barron (1950) says:

“the radio and the daily bus services to Okehampton, Torquay and Exeter have done much to enlarge the lives of the people of the village, and to broaden their outlook.”

“ Now most people have the main water laid on in their houses, with bathrooms and indoor sanitation, although it is generally conceded that much remains to be done in the matter of adequate sanitation and drainage.  However, an epidemic is almost unheard of, and nobody thinks of dying until well past the age of eighty.”


  1. Setting a study boundary is difficult. Sticklepath Civil Parish was formed 1987, previously split between Sampford Courtenay, Belstone and South Tawton Parishes.
  2. Tracing records can be complex. Responsibility for St Mary’s moved between Sampford Courtenay, Belstone, and even Throwleigh. Others aligned with South Tawton.
  3. The Quaker Burying Ground was mapped in the 1970s by the Women’s Institute, held at the Devon Archive. Transcriptions, photographs, burial registers not online.
  4. Living in North Yorkshire limits opportunities to develop collaborative working, visit (to walk, photograph, present information or transcribe gravestones) or visit archives.

Potential Sources and Resources Include:

Parish Registers and records of Sampford Courtenay, Belstone and South Tawton Deeds and Leases
Registers and records of Sticklepath Chapel and the Circuit School Records
Census Returns 1841-1921 1939 Register
Land Tax Returns 1780-1832 Newspaper Archives
Tithe Map and Apportionment Schedules Trade and Post Office Directories
Inland Revenue Returns of 1910 IR58 Board of Trade Records
A wide range of Maps Sale Details, advertisements and Estate Agents’ details
Memorial Inscriptions and burial registers War memorial and Service Records
Manorial and Estate Records Oral Evidence and Memoirs
Dartmoor National Park Survey Diaries and Letters
Wills Photographs and Postcards
Online Parish Clerks Previous local history work for surrounding Parishes, notably that of Patrick Shaw and Chris Walpole
WI and Jessie E Barron’s books of Sticklepath, R Barron Foundry Booklet Halsgrove Books of Sampford Courtenay and more importantly that of South Tawton and South Zeal with Sticklepath.
Various academic papers eg re swaling and agricultural systems Hutchison School Centenary Booklet
Books by Douglas and Ruth St Leger-Gordon The Book of Belstone Chris and Marion Walpole
Dartmoor Archive. Sticklepath Heritage Group
The Beacon (local newsletter) South Tawton Family History Facebook group


 Ann and Roger Bowden and various ancestors, Patrick Shaw, Chris Walpole, Bert Stead, Sticklepath Heritage Group.