Cullompton is an old market town in Devon, about 10 miles north of Exeter, with a population of approximately 10,000. There are reputed to be 40 different ways of spelling the name of the town which have been used in the course of its history – the more popular versions being:
In Saxon times it was known as Columtune – the town on the river Culm. But the area was visited in 549 AD by St Columba, an Irish saint who preached the Word of God, and it is thought that the name of St Columba has been preserved first in the name of the local river and then in the name of the town. And since columba is Latin for dove or pigeon, we can justifiably claim that Cullompton is the Town of the Pidgeons.
John PIDGEON married Joan BOWER in Cullompton church on the 2nd June, 1748. Joan, the daughter of Thomas BOWER, had been baptised at Silverton in 1728. We think John came from Cotleigh, where he was born in 1723. The couple settled in Cullompton and over the next twenty years produced nine children, seven of whom survived childhood. John was a miller by trade, and the first of five John Pidgeons, miller, of Cullompton. Other sons and grandsons became bakers, using the flour from the family mill.
There were three mills in Cullompton, Higher Mill (left), Middle Mill and Lower Mill (below), evenly spaced on a man-made mill stream called the Leat. This was a tributary of the River Culm running roughly parallel to the main streets of the town on its eastern side (see map
). Initially, all three mills were used for making flour. But in the late 18th century Middle Mill became part of Thomas Bilbie’s bell foundry, and later still it was converted to an axle works. In the 18th century the Pidgeons owned the Upper Mill, which was also known as Clark's Mill, but in 1800 it was sold to the Upcott familt. However, it was later leased back by the Pidgeon family and in 1841 the third John Pidgeon was living there. This John died in 1857, but in 1861 Higher Mill was being run by his widow Rebecca with the assistance of two of her sons. Her eldest son, John the fourth and his family (including 2 year old John the fifth) were living at Lower Mill. However, by 1871 Rebecca had retired to a house on Cockpit Hill and John and family had moved into Higher Mill, where they were still living in 1881.
There were also two tanneries in Cullompton, one to the north and the other to the south of the town. Two sons of John the first probably worked at one of them. His second surviving son Henry was a skinner and a tanner, while the next, William became a leather dresser and glover. But Henry left Cullompton for greener pastures in the north, and was said to have arrived in Stockport, Cheshire wearing silver buckles.
Today, Higher Mill and Lower Mill have both been converted into private housing. Middle Mill has been demolished and only a few bricks remain to show where it once stood. But it seems Cullompton was a delightful place in which to live. The following letter, published in the Tiverton Gazette, was written by a Mr Harris, who left Cullompton in 1854 to emigrate to Australia, returning for a visit in 1891 after an absence of 37 years:
I arrived at Cullompton on 1 May… on my first walk through the streets of the town I noticed great improvements had been made to its general appearance and comfort.
The old rough stone pitched side walks have given place to nice smooth square tiles. Gas has taken the place of oil, though in my boyhood the street lamp-posts were not illuminated with any kind of light. The tree planting in High Street is also another step in the right direction. In a few years, when the trees are larger, they will make this pretty street still more attractive. I think the trees should have been planted further from the street line by six or eight feet, for when they have grown to their usual size, their branches will be, I fear, too close to the buildings. I noticed some addition had been made to the town in the way of buildings, notably Mr Pidgeon’s pretty terrace [Belle Vue Terrace], built of brick, in Lower Street, and many old dwellings had been renovated and beautified. Others, again, had been replaced by houses built of brick and free stone, modelled on the modern development of architecture. It speaks well for the public spirit of the proprietors and the good taste displayed by the local architect, for the neat and pretty designs introduced.
When I reached Church Street I was pained to find a very old house, opposite the late Dr Porter’s residence, had been pulled down. This house was occupied by John Lane, between the years 1500 and 1550, who, during that time, built and gave the additions to the church, called Lane’s Aisle. Our family dwelt in this house for over 200 years; I believe my grandfather, Thomas Middle and all his children (7) were born there, also Mr Henry Middle of Cullompton, and myself, representatives of the third generation. Although sorry I could not renew my acquaintance with the old house, I confess its removal has improved the appearance of the street.
From a sanitary point of view, I observed that the small streets and byways had not been neglected, but my greatest pleasure was to know that the domestic position of the working people had kept pace with the town. They appeared happy, better clad and better fed; in fact a butcher friend told me that the consumption of meat in the town was now 100 per cent more than 40 years ago, with 600 less in the population now than then.
During my visit I travelled upwards of 5,000 miles over England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales and I say that during my travels I saw no twelve-to-fourteenth century town of its size, or even larger, to equal or to approach Cullompton for good buildings, compactness and cleanliness, with such copious supply of water running in open gutters in every street and such good natural drainage making it one of the healthiest and prettiest of little towns, and around it, where can you find its equal for scenery?
When I commenced this letter I intended to have spoken of the May fair of 1891, and the May fairs, as I saw them in the thirties; also my visit to the first Cullompton races last year… But, I fear I have trespassed too much already on your valuable space… Ever faithful to the home of my birth.
Yours R.S. Harris
Warrnambool, Victoria, Australia, 24 September 1892
In 1891, John Pidgeon (the fourth) had retired and was living with and his wife, Anne and Daughter, Laura at no.1 Belle Vue Terrace – the end house of his pretty terrace. Although John and Anne died in 1906 and 1918, respectively, Laura continued to live in this house until her death in 1946. Rumour has it that there were two old ladies then living in Cullompton; perhaps the other may have been Laura’s widowed younger sister, Annie Eliza Goddard, whose son from Harrogate reported Laura’s death.
John Pidgeon (the fifth) had disappeared from Cullompton by 1891. But, in 1894 a 30 year old John Pidgeon, who was English, single and a miller, sailed from Auckland, New Zealand to San Fransisco, USA on the SS Monowai. He had $350 in his pocket, so was not poor. Was this the young miller’s son from Cullompton, seeking his fortune around the world?