6. Community Spirit – Market and Town Life

The earliest record of a ‘feria’, or fair being held in Torrington, is in 1221, controlled by William Briwer, held at Michaelmas, (September).

The 1249 Assize Roll records Torrington as ‘Villata de Chepyng Toriton’ which roughly translates to ‘Town of Market Torrington’.

A record of 1291 records the town as ‘Magna Toriton’ (Great Torrington) for the first time.

The 1544 Charter of Incorporation decreed Torrington had one official weekly Saturday market and biannual fairs in September and April.

The Pipowder Court (‘piepoudre’ translated from Norman French- ‘dirty, or dusty feet’) was the open air courts of justice, held at the fair, dealing with claims such as slander and feuds between traders. Rife with corruption, it often descended into mass brawls and shouting matches.  

Great Torrington Market Square was one of the largest in North Devon, it occupied the whole of the centre of town. Traders operated from shops around the square and timber covered market stalls were wheeled into position whilst others had large foldable trestle tables.

Great Torrington was famous for leather working in the medieval period: saddlery, boots and gloves were a particular specialty. The market square was the centre of town life but there were lots of rules. Medieval football was played in the street, often by unlimited numbers and there were often deaths! It was banned in town centres in 1388.

The town square was also for showing off and socialising. Clothing in a town could be highly controlled by the authorities, with fines for tunics being too short or for wearing shoes that were too long. Men’s fashion was considered particularly important as the more impractical, the more it expressed wealth as it implied the owner didn’t need to work.

Keeping such a large and busy town clean fell to many junior officials who could be fined or even whipped publicly for lack of diligence; many court quarterly sessions from the mid 18th century show the pig drivers were constantly in trouble for allowing feral pigs to wander in the streets and the churchyard!!!