9. Health & Highwaymen – Potacre St. and New St.

Medicine in the medieval period was limited, whilst there were over seven hundred hospitals were founded in England between the Norman conquest and the middle of the sixteenth century, these were very different from our modern concept of a medical hospital.

Hospitals developed from religious institutions, the word derived from the Latin ‘hospites’ which means guests. So ‘hospitals’ or ‘hospitallum’ were places of shelter, where travellers or pilgrims could briefly rest and receive shelter and food. At the same time many of the local poor may turn to such institutions for primitive treatments, often herbal remedies etc which the monks may have grown in their physic gardens, some ‘hospitals’ were associated with almshouses and general care of the poor, aged or destitute.

Special orders of monks even grew based on the care of people in these new institutions, called ‘hospitallers’ and they often cared for pilgrims on their way across Europe to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and were involved in the Crusades in the 11-13th centuries.

It is very likely the great abbey at nearby Frithelstock had at least one priest who specialised in healing. A Herbarium or Physic garden was a common element of most large monasteries and the concept of the home-remedy herb garden continued in common use in rural settlements well into the 19th century in some capacity and is now making a comeback in the 21st century. We have a community physic garden laid out in a 17th century style here in Great Torrington, which you can visit; it is behind the visitor centre on Castle Hill!

Not only did the people of Great Torrington have the nearby Abbey to rely on but in the 1400s a hospital organisation was seemingly set up in the town itself. This was known as St John’s Hospital and is believed t have been developed somewhere on or near the castle, or on castle hill, possibly at the site of the old castle chapel, which had been replaced by the larger purpose-built parish church in 1259.

A second institution was the Leper hospital which developed just out of the town, on the other side of the valley at the small river crossing settlement of Taddiport, run as a religious institution, the lepers were cared for by an outpost of monks, with a medieval chantry chapel, built in the 13th century, which survives in the village. If you walk down the commons path and walk over the bridge, the chapel is on your right!). From the commons south of the town you can look across the valley and see a couple of the medieval strip fields which survive from the medieval landscape and once belonged to the leper hospital.

For those who may have been disabled by illnesses and were unable to work, they may have been supported by a series of almshouses and poor-law union houses, within the parish, run by the authorities or private charities. In the 1880s a large workhouse was built, which was intended to house the poor collectively under one roof.

Despite the care available, the people of the medieval and post-medieval period were as vulnerable to pandemics as we have been in 2020 and 2021 to Covid-19. In the 14th century (1300s) and the 17th century (1600s) plague, or the Black Death swept England. Being located on the London-Bideford road and being a busy market centre for trade Great Torrington was susceptible to such illnesses.

If you had a more common ailment which didn’t require care away from home, then in the medieval period, right into the 18th and 19th century you may have visited an apothecary.

‘Potacre’ is a corruption of Apothecary and was the area in medieval Torrington where many herbalist shops were to be found. The street linked between the busy market square and stagnant waters of the moated manor house and muddy road to Bideford. Much of this area of town belonged to the church and were old and unimproved tenements. Apothecaries held a vulnerable place in society, needed for their medicines but often targeted by the superstitious, or if their treatments failed.

There wasn’t a college of doctors in London until 1518 and Culpepers ‘The Complete Herbal and English Physician’, produced in 1653 gives us a good idea of what the average town apothecary would have used.

The medieval medicine chest in Torrington would have been gathered from the commons or from a herb garden; Torrington has a replanted physic garden, which can be visited behind the Tourist information centre, at Castle Hill House, in South Street Car Park.

A Torrington apothecary would have stocked and prepared herbs, such as: (DONT TRY THIS AT HOME KIDS!)

Vervain (a herb often found in hedgerows or cultivated in gardens) – infused with vinegar or distilled into water was used to ‘expel worms from the belly’.

Valerian – (cultivated herb but also found in the wild on heathland – i.e Darracott moor) when boiled with urine and distilled was thought good for treating plague!

Mistletoe – (a parasitic plant, often found growing on oak trees) – a bunch of mistletoe hung around the neck on a string was believed to prevent the effects of witchcraft spells!!

Wild Thyme (a herb growing on the commons) – chewed fresh leaves or steeped in vinegar this expelled trapped wind from the gut!!!

Honeysuckle – (wild flowering plant on the commons) boiled and used in a poultice for infected wounds, or boiled with pig fat to make an ointment for warts and boils!! Pressed juice could be drunk to counteract adder bites!!

Sloes – (wild berry, lots on the commons) a decoction of the bark in alcohol or dried berries was believed to stop diarrhoea (known as the bloody flux!).

For all of the genuine herbalists there were plenty of conmen and bizarre treatments:

Leeches (found in stagnant ponds) are bloody sucking slug-like invertebrates were kept in jars and put on peoples skin as blood-letting was believed to reduce fevers and restore good health.

Snails for burns or scalds….rub a clean snail’s slime on a wound and it would heal (this has some basis in truth and snail gel is used in skin treatments today).

Warm hogs dung was packed in the nose with straw to treat nose bleeds!

One of the most controversial remedies was ‘powdered mummy’ or ‘mummia’; this was included in ‘Pharmacopoeia Londinensis’ printed in 1618. This evolved from a poor translation of Arabic medicinal texts recording the use of natural resinous bitumen. Whilst this would have had very real medicinal uses, the poor translation led to the stealing and grinding up of Egyptian mummies until the 16th century when Egypt banned the trade. A horrific black market trade then developed in Europe using bodies, stolen from churchyards or of executed criminals, desiccated in ovens. Supposed to be used for infections and wounds, the fake product would of course have had no healing quality and depending on the process may have made the patient worse.

New Street and Highwaymen

‘New Street’ actually developed in the medieval period, with documents from the 1300s, but it may even originate in the 1200s. It was indeed the new addition to the town, running west to the new Rothern bridge and a new route to Bideford and Holsworthy, important local towns. This street was outside of the bounds of the square borough plan and there was more space to plan and layout the space; the form of town planning at the time created long thin strips which ran back from the road, so that everyone had some important street frontage, but made us of all of the land to the rear. The new town plots were called burgage plots, so called as they were laid out and agreed by the burghers, or town officials of the borough corporation. They also survive within the core of the town but are far more cramped. If you walk along New Street today you can still see the narrow character of the houses as they front onto the road, even though their facades have been updated and many rebuilt.

The space along the new road also allowed new institutions to be built, both the Rolle almshouses and Workhouse were laid out in later extensions of the road, as well as the 19th century new cemetery.

The development of toll roads in the later 17th century; lengths of new well maintained roads run by companies rationalised the road network in the 18th century and focussed the wealthy along certain routes. The busy Bideford to London route ran through Torrington adopting a long stretch of Calf Street and New Street, requiring the widening and altering of the roads, which is why many of the houses were rebuilt.

These new roads revolutionised the connectedness of England, with messengers able to travel faster and journey times reduced for travellers, as well as trade and goods being improved. However the roads also drew a new and more organised type of criminal, the highwaymen; these were individuals or gangs who preyed on the coach travel running along the routes; people would have had ready change available in purses to pay the various tolls, easy to steal and without the need for passing on stolen goods. Famously their phrase used during a hold-up, was ‘your money or your life’ or ‘stand and deliver’. Coaching Inns brought great wealth to towns in this period, where travellers stayed overnight, between the ‘stages’ of a journey. Both The Plough and The Globe Hotel are such ‘new’ hotels, their rear yards, stables etc now being converted to new uses but facing directly onto the road are historical examples, although both buildings have been remodelled in later periods.

Torrington was notorious for its number of pubs and inns and drunken behaviour, rumoured to be the location of several gangs and individuals preying on travellers.

The infamous Tom Faggus’ downfall, when he bought an undercover constable from Barnstaple, a drink and revealed his identity may have happened in Torrington.

Tom Faggus was a late 17th century blacksmith, who lost his living, his home and his fiancée after a legal battle with a wealthy Devon family. Destitute, angry and rejected by society he became a highwayman and much like Robin Hood he made sure to only steal from the rich. With the help of his ‘enchanted strawberry mare’ Winnie, he escaped numerous traps, including jumping over the parapet of Barnstaple’s bridge and dropping into the river below when cornered by constables. He later achieved immortality as a character in famous novel ‘Lorna Doone’ published in 1869.

School Resources

The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries


British Library – apothecaries shop image – 14th century

GCSE History – Medical knowledge in the early medieval period

GCSE History topic – changes in health and medicine 1340 to today

Key Stage 3 – BBC Bitesize Medieval and Renaissance medicine

Key Stage 2 resources on highwaymen

Key Stage 3 – Roads and Transport in the Industrial Revolution

Why did Britain need a new road network – GCSE video

Key Stage 3 and above – highway robbery crime and smuggling

Further Reading

Thackray Museum of Medicine – history of apothecaries

Science investigating modern uses of medieval herbalism

PDF Academic paper on Monastic Medecine – Benjamin Silverman

PDF Academic paper on Medieval Patient care – D.A Furniss

Turnpikes Trust- history and location of toll roads

PDF Academic Paper on the development of Turpike roadways – Dan Bogart

British Library – documents on the lives of famous highwaymen

National Heritage Records

Medieval Tenements on New Street

HER No: MDV71127

Text: Documentary reference to tenement in New Street, dated 1382. Very limited archaeological remains of that date survive at this location.

National Record Link: https://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=MDV71127&resourceID=104

Burghage Plots New Street

HER No: MDV71128

Text: Medieval burgage plots on the north side of New Street, visible on 19th and 20th century maps.

National Record Link: https://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=MDV71128&resourceID=104

Rolle Almshouses New Street

HER No: MDV441

Text: Rolle Almshouses in Great Torrington, site now occupied by late 20th century sheltered housing.

National Record Link: https://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=MDV441&resourceID=104

171/172 New Street

HER No: MDV18632

Text: Former stone and cob house incorporating firebricks inscribed with the dates 1604 and 1614. Demolished, probably in early 20th century.

National Record Link: https://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=MDV18632&resourceID=104

Great Torrington Union Workhouse

HER No: MDV55060

Text: Site of the Great Torrington Union Workhouse shown on 19th century map which later became an artificial insemination clinic

National Record Link: https://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=MDV55060&resourceID=104

Taddiport Bridge Tollhouse

HER No: MDV11798

Text: Nineteenth century toll house on the north-eastern corner of Taddiport Bridge.

Link to National Record: https://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=MDV11798&resourceID=104

Holy Trinity and St John Evangelist Almshouses, Torrington

HER No: MDV17121

Text: Almshouse dedicated to the Holy Trinity and St. John the Baptist and Evangelist. Founded sometime before 1400. No other details known.

Link to National Record: https://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=MDV17121&resourceID=104

Great Torrington Hospital of the Holy Trinity


Text: The Hospital of the Holy Trinity, St John the Evangelist and St John the Baptist, Great Torrington, was already extant and refounded in 1400 by R Colyn. Date of dissolution and type of hospital unknown. Exact location unknown. Documentary record.

Link to National Record: https://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=MDV57950&resourceID=104

(Associated with Holy Trinity almshouses).

Fields Associated with the Leper Hospital, Taddiport

HER No: MDV20306

Text: A field system said to have belonged to the medieval Taddiport Leper Hospital.

Link to National Record: https://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=MDV20306&resourceID=104

Chapel associated with Leper Hospital, Taddiport

HER No: MDV427

Text: Chapel associated with a leper hospital mentioned 1344. Thirteenth century building, probably remodelled in 15th century.

Link to National Record: https://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=MDV427&resourceID=104

St Mary Magdalene Leper Hospital

HER No: MDV71758

Text: Site of medieval leper hospital founded in 1344. A leper hospital with a chapel was founded by Ann Boteler in 1344, and in the 16th century seems to have been used for the poor. Not supressed at the time of the Dissolution.

Link to National Record: https://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=MDV71758&resourceID=104

Chapel of Mary Magdalene

Listing: Grade II*

List No: 1147254

List date: 1960

Text: Chapel. C13 origins probably remodelled in C15. Rendered stone rubble walls. Gable ended slate roof. Plan: Nave, west tower, north transept.
Exterior: Very small crenellated west tower with partly blocked four-centred belfry lights which have hoodmoulds over. On south side is four-centred circa late C19 wooden doorway. To its left just below the eaves is a small early C16 three-light roundheaded wooden mullion window. Transept projects on north side. East window is a complete late C19 or early C20 restoration.
Interior: Walls retain their old plaster with two panels of C18 painted text on the east wall of the transept and one on the south wall of the nave. The simple roof structure is probably C17 and consists of straight principals with morticed straight collars and trenched purlins. The older carved wall-plate survives in the transept. Late C19 octagonal Perpendicular style font. The chapel was founded in C13 and originally attached to a leper hospital.

Link to National Record: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1147254

 The Globe Hotel

List No: 1161661

Listing: Grade II

List date: 1951

Text: Circa 1830 3 storey 3 window front sashes with glazing bars. 3-light to ground floor. 1st floor windows are very tall and set in round headed sunk panels. Central round-headed doorway with moulded archivolt and good fanlight. Nos 7 13 and 15 and Nos 2, 4 and 8 (South Side) form a group.

Link to National Record: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1161661