Shipping & Ship Building in Bideford

Upto 1500


Early Times to the 16th Century
The Torridge estuary and the seas around our islands have been important routes for travellers and trade since unrecorded pre history (1).  Traders from the Mediterranean were seeking tin, copper and lead from the South West peninsular during the 3rd Century BC and this trade continued throughout the Roman occupation and during the Dark Ages (2). 

Viking raiders made good use of the Bristol Channel for their attacks on our coastal settlements during the 9th Century AD but were defeated by the Saxon tribes of Devon at battles in 878 and 981 (3).  The first document to show that fish were being taken from the estuary dates from 857AD and this probably refers to fish traps which were numerous and continued in use until the early 20th Century. The Domesday Survey of 1086 indicates that there were fisheries at Bideford and that two salt pans were being worked at Northam (4). The salt was needed for food preservation.

One of the most important factors in the development of shipping in our area has been the large tidal range of the Bristol Channel, which is amongst the highest on the planet. This rise and fall of up to 6.5 meters (21feet) roughly twice a day enabled the old sailing ships to travel up and down the channel on the tides even when the wind was unfavourable. When the tide flowed in the wrong direction they would anchor up for six hours then proceed when the tide turned in their favour. River barges or ferries within the Taw-Torridge estuary used the tides in the same way to travel between Tawstock at the limit of navigation on the Taw, to Weare Gifford over twenty miles away on the Torridge.  The barges could also serve all the riverside communities in between (5).

Over the years many ships sought shelter from Atlantic storms in our estuary and they had often sustained damage this lead to the establishment of ship repairing on several sites along the sheltered western foreshore of the Torridge between Appledore and Bideford. The large tidal range enable sea going ships to be beached at high water so that their wooden hulls could be cleaned and repaired during the following period of low tide.

The first wooden long bridge was constructed across the Torridge just below the old fording place at Byda's ford, now Bideford, in about 1290. The bridge prevented sea-going ships from proceeding further up the river so the Port of Bideford became firmly established on both sides of the river just below the bridge. River barges, which could lower their masts could still ‘shoot' under the arches on the tide in order to reach settlements up river or bring farm produce, timber, oak bark and later clay down to the markets in the port or for shipment to other communities around the Irish Sea or to the Continent. 

The twenty-four arches of the present stone bridge were constructed during the late 15th Century around the old wooden bridge. This allowed traffic to continue to cross the river during construction and also enabled the old structure to be used as scaffolding (6).

During the 13th and 14th Centuries most of Bideford's trade was spread around the coasts of the Irish Sea and the Bristol Channel. The ports of South Devon carried most of the continental and English Channel trade. Bideford's main cargos were of wool, cloth, fish, hides and wine, but our ship owners were also involved in transporting travellers or troops. In 1334 the ‘Trinity' of Bideford was licensed to carry up to 40 passengers on pilgrimages and in 1446 seven ships and 120 men set sail from Thomouth, the old name for Appledore, to join in the Crecy and Calais campaigns (7) .


1 GRANT A., P Christie. 1987. ‘The Book of Bideford', P10
2 CUNLIFF, BW. ‘The Voyage of Pytheos, the Greek'
McGRAIL, S. 1992. ‘The New Maritime History of Devon', Vol I, Chap 4
MASON, DJP. 2003 ‘Roman Britain and the Roman Navy'
3 WOOD, M. 1981.‘In Search of the Dark Ages', 1981, P114
4 GOAMAN, M 1968, ‘Old Bideford and District', P15
Doomsday Survey 1086
PREECE, C. 2008. ‘A Field Guide to the Archaeology of the Taw & Torridge Estuaries'
5 GRANT, A,. BD Hughes. 1975, ‘North Devon Barges'
6 WHITING, FE. 1945. ‘The Long Bridge of Bideford Through the Centuries'
7 HOSKINS, WG. 1954. ‘Devon' P201.
CHILDS, WR. ‘New Maritime History of Devon' Vol I; Chap 9

Author - Barry D Hughes, October 2009
Photos curtesey of North Devon Maritime Museum