Sandwell Manor, Harberton.

Benjamin Donn’s 1765 survey of Devon, produced at a scale of an inch to a mile, was the first large-scale map of any British county. Alongside towns, villages and farms, Donn marked the location of 656 “gentry seats” and thus provides us with a unique glimpse into the social and economic geography of Devon in the mid 18th century.

Since 2006 Donn’s map has been at the core of the Devon Rural Archive’s ongoing research into the history, significance and development of our county’s manor houses and their landscapes. The premise of our project is that high-status houses, like those that Donn identified on his map, are unlikely to have been constructed on green-field locations; instead they represent the further use of long-established occupation sites, which, we assume, may preserve evidence from the later medieval period or possibly earlier. So, by studying the standing structures and their environs, in conjunction with any surviving records, we are able to track and report on the evolution of domestic dwellings and architecture in Devon over the centuries.

Most recently Donn’s map led me to Sandwell Manor, in the parish of Harberton near Totnes in South Devon. This Grade II listed country house is of late Georgian construction, with some mid to late Victorian alterations, but is on the site of a much earlier dwelling. It was the previous incarnation, however, that Donn recorded on his 1765 map, at which time it was the home of Thomas Lear; contemporary sources describe the house as being ‘one of the most complete residences for a Gentleman of fortune… in the county of Devon’ during the Lear occupation. The family had purchased the property in 1708 from the Risdons, a branch of the family at Bableigh in Parkham in North Devon, who had held Sandwell since the late 16th century. It was a substantial structure and in 1664 the second Risdon to reside at Sandwell paid tax on 16 hearths; interestingly of almost 23,000 Devon households, only 90 of those recorded in the tax return had more than 15 hearths. It is therefore no surprise that, a century or so earlier, Sandwell was part of the Champernowne family’s property portfolio, alongside Dartington Hall in Dartington and Court House in Modbury. The origin of the dwelling site, though, is earlier still and long predates the earliest documentary reference to Sandwell in the 14th century, as the wider landscape shows clear evidence of prehistoric activity.

What I find most remarkable, is how a small, standardised symbol of a house, on a 256-year-old map, can provide the first clue to a history that has spanned thousands of years. It represents lost communities, a changing landscape, forgotten buildings, influential families, success, failure, inheritance, relationships, infidelity, legal disputes and so much more. Small surprise, then, that I nominate Donn’s map as being worthy of inclusion in this series about documents that change our understanding of history, or, as in this case here, provide the stimulus for further study. 

Abi Gray, Curator and Resident Archaeologist

The full report on Sandwell Manor is available to read in our library. 

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