Barnstaple - Then & Now

Updated: Apr 27, 2021

Prowse – the Barnstaple & North Devon Connection

A great deal has been written about the Prowse connection with the fringes of Dartmoor - Gidleigh and Chagford in particular - and a visit to Chagford parish church will show the proudly adorned monument to the last of the line to ‘hold’ the estate of Waye. The family had also held the manor of Withecombe in Chagford. John Prous had married Jone Orchard of Combe Martin in the mid-1400s and thereby came to hold the manor of West Challacombe near the North Devon coast, and then held the same for two hundred years. Prowse wills were proved in the Archdeaconry of Barnstaple for ‘Prowse of Combe Martin’ in 1610 and 1612 and it was probably around this time that the Prowse Arms was added to the projecting porch at West Challacombe.


Roots in Tiverton

John Prous and Jone had numerous offspring, we certainly know of eight, and not for the first time in the Prowse family tree they may have used the same forename twice! We know that Bartholomew was an attorney of the Common Pleas (1505-35) and born about 1473. Patrick became a merchant in London. Pole says that Robert Prowse (of Tiverton) was ‘the younger son’ of John Prous and Jone of Chagford probably the fourth son as claimed later by his younger son – another Robert showing quartering to that affect.


It is likely that Robert Prowse was born about 1473 and became established in Tiverton as a young man and married Christian. We know that he still held land in Chagford in 1524 (lay Subsidy Roll) and was also taxed on property in Tiverton and Kenton (near Exeter). We know that Robert had 3 sons – John (d 1585), Edward (d 1598) and Robert (d 1586). Edward seems to have farmed the family lands at Chevithorne and was described in his will as a Yeoman, John and Robert Prowse became very successful Clothiers and were leaders in the growing and prosperous wool trade of Tiverton.


John Prowse of Tiverton (Gentleman & Merchant) c1502-1585

John was born around 1502 in Tiverton and married Alice White in 1536 (according to his memorial leger stone). He was buried on 13th August 1585 in Tiverton Church – his burial entry in the register describes him as Mr. John Prowse Senior and his will proved 7th February 1586 as a ‘Gentleman’. His stone reads “Here lyeth John Prowse, Merchante, who departed the third daye of September 1585. And Alice his wife which he had in marriage 47 years, who departed the 13 daye of August ano dni 1583”. John was liable in 1524 for £2 in the Lay Subsidy and this liability rose to £140 by 1546 thereby amassing a fortune from the wool and cloth trade. He seems to have then invested heavily in property in Devon and Cornwall, here are 3 examples of substantial acquisitions:

  • 1559 Manor of Weston Peverel in Plymouth – Peter Carew to John Prowse of Tiverton Clothier. Often now known as Pennycross – now almost completely covered in modern housing development and part of the urban mass of Plymouth.

  • 1564 Manor of Chilton Luttrell in Thorverton – Sir John Luttrell of Dunster to John Prowse of Bollame Clothier (later – known as Chilton Prowse in family wills and still to this day). Just a few miles from Tiverton lying to the south of Thorverton village.

  • 1560 Manor of Helsett in Lesnewth (Cornwall) Sir Gawen Carew to George Southcott and John Prowse part moiety later (1570) they purchased balance. In the parish of Lesnewth one of the most picturesque villages in North Cornwall.

It would appear that often these investments were made with the help of others – family members together with other prominent in trade from Tiverton. We can see in the records for the manor of Helsted references to Thomas Hartnoll, John Waldron, and Richard Powell were obviously involved financially (the last two acting later as overseeers to Prowse family wills). The records for Weston Peverel show that Edward and William Prowse were involved at the initial purchase time in 1559, entries again for John Waldron and other prominent merchant families from Tiverton in 1561, including Loosemore, Gover, Karslake and Dunne. It is interesting to see the connection with the famous Westcountry Carew family, later John’s 5th son George bought more land in Bolham from the Raleigh family of Devon (who were also connected to the Carews).


The Next Generation

John and Alice Prowse had 5 sons John, Robert, Thomas, Richard and George - who all continued to prosper in the expanding woolen trade across the Westcountry, as the Elizabethan golden era reach its height.


John’s line prospered in Tiverton, Chudleigh and Axbridge, despite 4 of his sons dying of the plague within 6 weeks in 1591, and his grandson was to become the main advisor to the Lord Clifford, Lord High Treasurer in the Restoration years during the famous CABAL of Charles II reign.


Thomas Prowse ‘of Tiverton’, together with his elder brother John, was one of the main exporters of goods from Topsham to the continent through the last decades of the C15th. His eldest son Roger became MP for Taunton and his line later held the Hillersdon Estate in Cullompton.


Richard Prowse lived at Hayne in Tiverton and died without issue.


George Prowse initially married into a Wellington family and later married for a second time and settled in Yeovil and here one line of his family prospered. George Prowse’s descendants spread across much of south Somerset and one line became merchants and landowners in Truro and and much of Cornwall. Another descendent from South Petherton seems to have supported the doomed coup of the Duke of Monmouth. Leaving the second son Robert – Robert Prowse of Barnstaple.


Robert Prowse of Barnstaple Merchant (c1540-1592)

Robert married Joan Wichalles daughter of the Barnstaple merchant Nicholas Wichalles on 5th October 1573. The Port Books of Barnstaple show him trading exporting goods particularly cloth. He was Receiver for Barnstaple in 1583 and the following year was elected MP to represent Barnstaple in Parliament. ‘Prowse, a Barnstaple merchant, was paid the large sum of £10 12s.6d. wages on the only occasion he represented his town in Parliament’. (History of Parliament on line)


Robert’s export trade involved him in an incident in 1590 when he shipped £250-£400 worth of cloth for ‘the Islands’, in the Marlyn, paying duty at Barnstaple on the cloth and at London on 10 cwt. of wax. Off the Scilly Isles one of the Queen’s ships, led by a Captain Bostock, boarded her and took off some of the cargo, no doubt suspecting evasion of duty. He later petitioned Star Chamber to get compensation and hearings were held in Barnstaple by local dignitaries and presented in Court in London. (I have a copy from TNA)


Robert Prowse was Mayor of Barnstaple in the year 1587/1588 and was in office when Barnstaple famously sent the 5 ships to fight the Armada. An event widely celebrated in the Borough for more than 500 years. There is a board celebrating the event and listing the ships that sailed from Barnstaple in 1588 to help defeat the Armada within the Queen Anne Building. This is adjacent to the site of the original Great Quay which is now delineated on the Strand by the river Taw.

A sketch showing the Plaque from Gribble


Robert was also in office when the Barnstaple Longbridge wooden ‘Maiden Arches’ were replaced with masonry his initials survive on the bridge today.

Plaque on Barnstaple Longbridge - from ‘Gribble’


Philip Wyot (Wyatt) mentioned above in Gribble’s book was the Town Clerk of Barnstaple through the second part of the Elizabethan era. He kept a diary and his story is now published in a book by Todd Gray ‘The Lost Chronicles of Barnstaple’. He makes mention of the trade through the port of Barnstaple and was also one of those who took evidence to support Robert Prowse’s claim following the seizure of the Marlyn.


Robert Prowse of Barnstaple died on 29th June 1592 and administration of his will was granted to his wife Joane on 17th July the same year, and he held the manor of Helset, Lesnewth in Cornwall from his father. It passed to his son Humphry who was born in 1584 but was just a minor at his father’s death. In 1620 Humphrey certainly held the Manor of Helset.


Humphry Prowse of Barnstaple, Mamhead and Helset (1585-1638)

Humphry’s Mother married a Jasper Bridgman in Barnstaple shortly after Robert’s death in 1592 but we know nothing about the arrangements for Humphry’s wardship. All the estates left by Humphry’s Grandfather were entailed to the male heirs only so the moiety of Helset in Lesnewth would have passed to him around 1605 when he came of age. A Marriage Licence for Humphry Prowse of Exeter ‘Gent’ and Grace Legge of Alphington was issued 8th September 1617, the Visitations say Grace was the daughter of William or Walter Legge of Lyme Regis. The same Visitation describes Humphry as ‘of Barnstaple’ does this imply he was still living in the town? We know that later Humphry was settled at Mamhead a parish near Exeter and he was described as Humphry Prowse of Mamhead in his will of 1638, which is a neighbouring parish to Kenton (Kenton was listed in his Grandfather’s Lay Subsidy a hundred years before). It is possible he enjoyed living on some ancient family lands that were owned by the Prowse family for some time.


The 1620 Visitation tells us Humphry’s son and heir is Robert and aged 2 years. He also had two daughters, Elizabeth and Anne - Anne was baptised 8th January 1625 at Mamhead.

Humphrey Prowse was buried on the 23rd May 1638 in Lesnewth Church in Cornwall, the leger stone reads ‘Here lyeth the Body of Humphry Prowse of Mamhead in Devon who was buried the 23 Day of May 1638’. The parish burial entry reads ‘Humphry Prowse of Co Devon Gent’, he was just 53 years of age.

The leger stone of Humphrey Prowse


We can only assume he was visiting the estate and perhaps holding a manorial court. To sum up - we know that Humphry Prowse, who was born in Barnstaple, seems to have lived most of his life in South Devon, and finds a final resting place in a tranquil Cornish valley. The leger stone appears to have been moved on a number of occasions. It seems Humphry was buried in the church but the stone removed during the Victorian ‘restoration’ and was placed out-side in the churchyard. More recently it hung on the wall of the nave wall but was removed for health and safety reasons. When I recently visited Lesnewth Church I could find no trace of the stone. I made contact with the local churchwarden, he informed me the stone was locked away in the tower but kindly photographed it. Perhaps a little ‘crowd funding’ might restore this high-quality piece of carving so it can hang proudly again in the church?


Manor of Helset

The Manor of Helset was owned by the Arundell family but Humphry Arundell was attained for his part in the Cornish Rising of 1549 and his property was seized and the Crown granted the two moieties to Sir Gawen Carew. He suffered a fine to George Southcott Gent and John Prowse ‘of the Manor of Helset with appurtenances, also of twenty messuages, eight cottages, 100s rent & in Helset’. In 1560 the two purchased the manor outright.

The connection between the Southcott and Prowse families obviously crossed a number of generations this would confirm the link between the Chagford and Tiverton branches. John Prouz of Chagford Esq., heir to his grandfather and aged 27 years and more 1548…. Married Margaret dau of John Southcott of Indehoe in the Parish of Bovey Tracey’. (Vivian’s Visitation 1620). Later in the early 1600s John Southcott of Southcott married … da of Prowse (they had 2 sons Grenville son and heir aged 7 and Richard aged 4 (1620 Visitation). Fortescue Hitchins History of Cornwall 1824 mentions Helset …. In the reign of James I it was the property of Thomas Southcott Esq. and Mr. Humphry Brown (sic should be Prowse), a similar mistake in made in Lysons Cornwall.


The papers of the Rashleigh family of Menabilly in Cornwall show that in 1651 one moiety of Helset was sold by Robert Prowse to Nathaniel Moyle, and in 1653 the other moiety was sold by Thomas Southcott to John Moyle. (Maclean’s History of the Deanery of Trigg Minor, Cornwall)


This confirms that Robert had inherited his father’s (Humphry) interest in Helset following his death in 1639 (although Robert would have been only just 21 years of age) he sold his interest in 1651. We have no record of what became of this Robert. The Protestation Oaths of 1641/42 list 3 Robert Prowse(s) in Devon – Dawlish, Brixham & East Ogwell but can find no entry in the Hearth Tax Returns of 1672. There are two wills for Robert Prowse in this period 1674 Ashton and 1676 East Ogwell.


Barnstaple Revisited

When I was a teenager I always thought that one day I may find a link from the Mayor of Barnstaple of 1588 to my family in 20th Century Barnstaple - but this was not to be. I had to set about researching my line to discover when the connection with Barnstaple began. My GG Grandfather, Samuel Prowse (1820-1886) came to North Devon in the 1830s, he was born in Huish and was aged 20 in the 1841 census lodging near Barnstaple and described as a mason. The ‘Huish’ I discovered eventually was North Huish near Totnes in the South Hams, he was baptised in 1820 as Samuel Prowse – I have researched his line back to 1620 in Moreleigh. He lived in a cottage in Anchor Lane (next to Barnstaple Parish Church) and the current Prowse family of Barnstaple was established. Later my Grandfather (retired from the Royal Navy after 30 years – was Chief Engineer of HMS Warspite at the Battle of Jutland and holder of the DSM) On retirement he became the last Harbour Master of Barnstaple in the 1930s, his office next to the Tome Stone in Queen Ann Walk.

CERA Ist Class Richard Harry Prowse


The Prowse connection goes on and we are very proud to be children of the oldest borough in England!


Malcolm Prowse

September 2018




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