The History of Lustleigh

The first mention of Lustleigh in recorded history occurs in the will of Alfred the Great who died in 901, when the Manor, then known as Sutreworde (“South of the Wood”), was left to the King’s youngest son. However, there is ample evidence in the parish, as elsewhere on Dartmoor, of the presence of people living here as far back as 2500 BC. There are Bronze Age hut circles on Lustleigh Cleave and the Iron Age hill fort on Hunters Tor is probably one of a chain of such forts along the eastern edge of Dartmoor. Evidence of the presence of a Celtic community in Lustleigh is supported by the position and shape of the churchyard – raised and oval – and by part of a Celtic gravestone now sited inside the church.

At the time of the Domesday Book Sutreworde comprised some 1200 acres. As well as detailing the land, serfs, swineherds and animals, the entry refers to bee-keepers who rendered “seven sestiers” of honey. This is the only reference in Domesday to bee-keeping in Devon. According to Domesday the manor comprised a demesne farm of some 200 acres (probably Barncourt) and 11 or 12 villein farms averaging about 70 acres apiece. There was also a large area of forest.
In the centuries following the compilation of the Domesday Survey the known history of Lustleigh is largely that of the Lords of the Manor. In 1262 the Lord of the Manor was Sir William de Widworthy. The effigies in the north wall of Lustleigh Church of a knight and lady may be those of Sir William and his wife. In 1273, following the death of Sir William de Widworthy’s son, the manor passed through the hands of several families until in 1403 it was sold to Sir John Wadham, a noted judge. The manor remained in the possession of the Wadham family for the next 200 years and six generations.
Surveys of the Manor of Lustleigh in 1615 and 1626 provide us with details of all the existing farms and cottages, their occupiers, acreage and rental value. From this time on-wards it is possible to trace occupation and ownership virtually unbroken for each house and farm to the present day. Many of the farms in existence at the time of the Domesday Survey had Saxon names which are easily identifiable today.
The Wills family became established here in Lustleigh in the fifteenth century. The male descendants of John Willmead (later Wylls or Wills) prospered and bought into several farms including Rudge, Lower Hisley and Higher Hisley. In the seventeenth century a Nicholas Amery of Bridford married the daughter of a tenant farmer at Middle Combe and for the next two hundred years the Amery family continued to farm there and to purchase other farms in the parish. Kelly Farm is the last remaining farm to be owned by an Amery. In the 1820’s John Gould of Taunton bought Boveycombe, Lower Hisley and Knowle. Several descendants of these families are living in Lustleigh today. However, many of the original farms have been broken up and no longer have links to agriculture. The ruins of Boveycombe are hidden in the undergrowth on Lustleigh Cleave, the three Combes are private houses and Gatehouse Farm became the Cleave Hotel in the mid nineteenth century.
For centuries working life in Lustleigh was mainly centred round farming. Most farms were small hill farms and would have had a mix of animals-cattle, pigs, sheep and poultry. Some of those on the more productive land were able to grow wheat, barley, potatoes and peas. There were also many orchards, growing apples for eating but more especially for cider making. Almost every farm had its own cider press. Farming in the years up to the early years of the twentieth century supported many other industries and skills. The 1851 Census listed 8 farmers and 16 farm labourers among the 39 households. There were also carpenters, blacksmiths and a wheelwright, all of whom would have been employed on the local farms.
As happened all over Dartmoor, tin mining took place in Lustleigh in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, though the evidence of this is now difficult to discern. Much more important in recent times has been the mining of micaceous haematite, or ‘shiny ore’, found at various sites along the Wray Valley, including Kelly Mine which was active from the late eighteenth century until the early 1950’s. It provided employment for 6 to 8 miners as well as surface workers.
The opening of the Newton Abbot to Moretonhampstead railway line in 1866 heralded a new era for Lustleigh. Before the railway came the community was closely linked to agriculture, the population consisting mostly of farmers, farm labourers and craftsmen who supported the farming life. The railway brought many benefits: coal, building materials, animal feed, etc., was transported more easily and quickly. Local produce reached wider markets. People travelled further afield for business as well as pleasure. Local businesses grew and prospered. There was a Post Office and General Stores, two butchers, two bakers and a coal merchant.
With the increase in businesses and services, and the railway itself, there were more opportunities for employment at a time when farming was in decline. The first tourists are likely to have visited Lustleigh in the late eighteenth century however the railway brought a significant increase in the number of visitors who came to enjoy the scenery and walk on Lustleigh Cleave – a steep and rocky area of common land, now largely wooded, in the neighbouring valley of the River Bovey. Accommodation was provided for tourists at several guest houses in the village as well as at the Cleave Hotel. Refreshments were also available at a number of tea rooms and tea gardens which opened up, particularly on the way to Lustleigh Cleave. Tourism remained important to the economy of Lustleigh even after the railway closed in the 1950s. Visitors came in coaches from Torquay and further afield with a record of seventeen being recorded on one summer evening!
From the second half of the twentieth century, with the decline in farming and mining, the loss of the railway and the closing down of shops and businesses, opportunities for employment have either disappeared or are strictly limited. Many working people must now commute to Exeter or Plymouth or the neighbouring towns. With the modern advances in communication some people work from home, from where they can run their own businesses. Today the village of Lustleigh is a lively community, with its historic Mayday ceremony, annual show and gymkhana; church and chapel; numerous voluntary organisations and long established pub, café and village shop.
© The Lustleigh Society, 2012