Village History of WESTLEIGH, Near Bideford

By Chris Notley 15th April 1999

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The settlement of Westleigh is Saxon in origin. It featured in the Domesday Book of 1086 under the of Weslega: “Robert of Albemarle has a manor called Weslega, which Ulward held on the day on which King Edward was alive and dead… “The manor covered seven acres and contained 4 villains (feudal tenants with some land), 5 bordars ( cottagers who would often hire out their labour ) and 4 serfs ( unskilled labourers with no rights). It was situated in the Fremington Hundred.

By 1238 the spelling had been changed to Westlegh, and by 1288 to Westleghe. It is not known when the current spelling was adopted: in a map thought to be early 18th century, it is shown as Westley. In Benjamin Donn’s Map of Devon (1765), the name had changed to Weftleigh which, given the practice at that time of using an f instead of an s, is probably one of the earliest instances of the current spelling being used. Thomas Moule’s map of 1830 splits Westleigh into two words.

The history of Westleigh is closely linked with that of neighbouring Instow (spelt Inftow on Benjamin Donn’s map ), and to a lesser extent with the manor house of Tapeley Hall ( Tapeleia in the Domesday Book) and its squire. At one time, the village was almost entirely owned by the Tapeley Estate, where most of the villagers worked, and much of it still is.

There are tombs in the church yard to the Christie family ( of Glyndebourne fame), who have occupied Tapeley Hall since the early 20th century, and to their predecessors, the Clevlands (also spelt Cleoland and Cleveland). The writer of this brief history lives in the house originally provided for the head groom of Tapeley Hall.

The village has traditionally been an agricultural community, although there are records of coal mining there, and it was – at least in the 16th and 17th centuries – a wealthy one. For example, when Henry VIII was raising taxes for the war with France in 1524, 33 people from Westleigh had to pay tax, compared with 23 from Instow.

In 1667, when Charles II decided to raise money by taxing people on the number of their hearths, Westleigh had , more sizeable houses than Instow, including one house belonging to John Burry which had fourteen heaths. On the other hand, Instow had only 33 “paupers” – people with a single hearth, considered too poor to be taxed – whereas Westleigh had at least 45.

In the 1850s, when the population of the parish was 525, there were two blacksmiths, two millers, three boot and shoe makers, three masons, three carpenters, an innkeeper (when the inn was called the New Inn), a tailor, a shopkeeper, two butchers and two teachers. There was also a Wesleyan chapel, now a private dwelling.

An interesting account of life in Westleigh in the 1850s is quoted by Peter Christie in his book “More North Devon History”. In October 1857, the squire’s youngest daughter married Mr W Beach, a Hampshire MP. 0n the morning of the marriage, the bride and her mother went to the village and gave £20 to be distributed among the poor, and a bible and prayer book to each child at the school and to their teachers. In the evening, “a large gathering of domestics, peasantry and visitors” collected in the hall, and Mrs Langham Christie, the bride’s sister, served tea “to the ancient women of the village”.

A two-room village school was built in 1876, at a cost of £860, on land given by Tapeley Hall, replacing the old school which had been held in a room next to the church. The new school opened the following year, with two teachers and ninety children.

Subsequently, although the number of pupils rose to over a hundred for a short time, the school population gradually fell, and had dropped to forty at the start of World War 11. Wartime evacuees temporarily raised the number to sixty-eight, but the school was forced to close in 1981 when only nine children remained. In terms of numbers, it had become North Devon’s smallest school.

Kelly’s Directory for 1902 states that an alternative name for Westleigh was Leigh West, and mentions three specific people: the sub-postmaster, William John Lemon; the clerk to the school board, Frederick Lee, of Eastleigh (a hamlet a mile away); and the school mistress, Miss E M Rea.

Westleigh parish church, constructed in stone, was completed in the late 13th century, and extended by the addition of a south porch and door in the late 14tli century and an aisle in the early 16th century. It is dedicated to St Peter, although early documents refer to the church of St Medom, whose origins and history are unknown.

The last recorded rector, of the “Ecclesia of Westleghe”, was Sir Warine de Penildes in 1288. Since 1297, the Dean and Chapter of Exeter have appointed vicars, the first of whom was Sir Symon de Stiria. The church until recently contained a noted painting, “Rizpah”, by Lord Frederick Leighton (1830- 1896), which was exhibited by the Royal Academy in 1893, but which has now apparently, been moved to a more secure location. Some of the floor tiles date from the 15th century, probably from the original Barnstaple pottery.

The village, 2 miles north-east of Bideford and 7 miles south-west of Barnstaple, has been designated a conservation area, although this has not prevented a few modern houses from being built. Westleigh is now purely residential, with a population of around 350; there are no longer any shops there, and the penultimate commercial activity, the sub-post office closed in March 1999. Happily the inn, now called the Westleigh Inn survives.