Bideford History & Tour Itinerary

Sir Richard Grenville

Grenville was an eminent Elizabethan soldier, sailor and entrepreneur equally as important as his cousins Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake. A driving force for change and growth, he obtained the charter for the town from Queen Elizabeth 1 in 1582 and formed the first Corporation, thereby playing a major role in the transformation of Bideford from small fishing town to a significant trading centre.

He was an exceptional adventurer and visionary who made significant contributions to the voyages that probably established the first English colony in North America. In 1585 he set up a “Military Colony” on Roanoke Island off the coast of North Carolina. He returned with a supply ship in 1586, later in the year than planned, to find the colony deserted the settlers, because of the hostility of the natives and the shortage of supplies, had left earlier in the year with Sir Francis Drake. In 1587 he played a prominent role in bringing together would be settlers who that year sailed from Bideford and established a colony on Roanoke.

He intended to go there the following year but the war with Spain intervened and he never returned to Roanoke. In 1590 when an English ship returned to Roanoke they found the colony deserted and few clues as to what had happened to the settlers. This was the beginning of the still unanswered question of what became of the “First Colony”. DNA testing is underway here and in the USA seeking links that would prove that the first English colonists were from Bideford and North Devon.

Sir Richard fought in the Spanish Wars and died a hero. In 1591 he was appointed Vice Admiral by Queen Elizabeth and set sail in command of the Revenge, a royal warship, as part of a fleet sent to capture Spanish treasure. However, in the Azores  a fleet of at least 28 Spanish galleons was sighted and Admiral Lord Howard gave orders to withdraw. Grenville had crewmen ashore and he refused to leave until they were aboard. A worthy decision but it gave the Spanish time to prevent Revenge joining the rest of the swiftly retreating fleet, leaving it to surrender or face the Spanish fleet alone. Grenville chose not to surrender but to face the galleons putting “death before dishonour.

The fight raged on for over twelve hours, two enemy vessels were sunk, a third forced to run aground and several more badly damaged. Then dismasted, unrigged and almost out of gunpowder it was clear that the fight could not go on. The badly wounded Grenville declaring “the Spaniards should never glory to have taken one ship of her Majesty” ordered the master gunner to scuttle her. The other officers, keen not only to save themselves but also to avoid the Inquisition, locked up the Master Gunner to prevent the ship from being scuttled and sent the ship’s Master to negotiate with the Spanish. The Spanish Admiral agreed that if the crew surrendered he would, because of the courage they had shown, allow them to return to England.

The crew surrendered, the Spanish boarded the ship and transferred Sir Richard to the Spanish flagship where he was treated with respect and “all humanity, leaving no means untried towards his recovery”, but two or three days later he died of his wounds. He was 48.

Most of the English survivors were dispersed around the Spanish fleet and found their way back to England.

In an odd way Sir Richard got his way. The Revenge under a Spanish crew and with some of the English survivors aboard was caught in a ferocious gale and driven onto rocks where she broke up and sank.

The fight was later romanticized in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Revenge”.

Bideford’s Tobacco Trade

During the 17th and 18th centuries Bideford played an important role in the development of the colonies in Virginia and Maryland and with this came valuable trading links, not least of which was the Tobacco Trade.

Tobacco growing began in earnest in 1606 when a group of English merchants and shippers seeing the promise of big profits set up the Virginia Company to grow the valuable crop and Bideford was in the perfect position to have a big share of the profits.

Ships left Bideford loaded with cargoes of Bideford pottery and woollen goods bound for Virginia and Maryland where Bideford merchants took advantage of the prominent role they were playing in the colonies to ensure that they had the choice of the finest crops. The tobacco was often bought direct from the growers and paid for with Bideford pottery and woollen goods. The tobacco was brought back to Bideford and re-exported to northern Europe where the high-quality tobacco was popular.

The Tobacco Trade boomed and for decades only London imported more tobacco than Bideford. In 1676, one ship, the Bideford Merchant, brought back 61,200 kilos (135,000 lbs) of tobacco. By the end of the 17th century Bideford was home to a whole fleet of tobacco ships and between 1722 and 1731 the tobacco that passed through the port was worth £8.5m, equivalent to £500m today.

Tobacco was very valuable and storage in Bideford became a problem. The Quay, already heavily congested, was too damp and a drier, quieter site was sought; Buttgarden Street was chosen for development.

The Tobacco Trade was at its height between 1630 and 1775 and brought enormous wealth to Bideford but the American Revolution 1775 -1783 and the loss of the colonies saw the trade come to an end.

Penal transportation

From the early 17th century Bideford was involved in the transportation of thousands of convicts firstly to Virginia and Maryland and later Australia. From 1730 to 1760 Bideford was considered a major port for the transportation of convicts.

 Being sent to prison was rarely used in the past to punish crime instead most crimes were punished with heavy fines, whipping or hanging.  In the early 17th century an alternative form of punishment was introduce- transportation to the colonies.

Transportation started in earnest around 1615 and until the American Revolution, 1775, the vast majority of convicts were sent to the American colonies with a few going to the West Indies. After the revolution the American colonies were no longer available, prisons rapidly became overcrowded and in 1788 transportation to Australia began.

Following the 1718 Transportation Act courts could give sentences of life or 14 years instead of hanging and 7 years for less serious crimes. After being sentenced the convict was handed over to be shipped to a colony and in America private employers bought their “contract to work” for the length of their sentence from the shipper, the average price was £11, equivalent of £650 today. This gave the shipper a handsome profit.

In 1720 a change of law authorised the government to pay the cost of transportation, at the outset £20 per head, around £1200 today and to grant licenses to shippers to transport the convicts who became known as the “King’s Passengers”. This made the trade even more profitable and over the years a number of Bideford traders obtained the licenses. Between 1731 and 1760 21 convict ships sailed from the port to Virginia and Maryland. It is believed that in total over 2000 convicts were transported from Bideford.


Sir Richard, on one of his voyages to Virginia brought back to Bideford a “Wynganditoian” native-American who had been given the name RaleighLittle is known about Raleigh and the reason for him being brought to Bideford. Sir Richard was planning another voyage and it could been his intention to take Raleigh back to Roanoke where his local knowledge would have been extremely useful.

For a short time Raleigh he was part of the Grenville household and was encouraged to adopt the Devonshire way of life.  The Bideford Parish Church records show that “Raleigh A Wynganditoian” was baptised in March 1588 giving him the distinction of being the first of his race to be baptised a Christian. Sadly, the same records show that a year later in April 1589 he died during an epidemic of a flu like virus and was buried in St Mary’s churchyard.

Unfortunately, in the mid-1800s, during a clean-up of the graveyard, the location of his last resting place was lost forever.