Devon has strong historic links with the Canadian Province of Newfoundland dating back to the 16th Century, when boats from local ports sailed to the waters of Newfoundland to fish for cod. Initially men left Devon in April and returned in the autumn, but gradually land bases were established and in 1583 the Devon mariner Humphrey Gilbert claimed Newfoundland as the first English overseas colony.
While people in Newfoundland are very aware of their Devon roots, Devonians are less well informed about the link. Indeed most of us would have to ask Google where it is! Bideford of course was a major port in the Elizabethan age, and quickly developed close maritime links with the New World colonies. Importing tobacco was initially the main source of income but the town also gained a large share in the lucrative Newfoundland cod trade, sending out more ships than any other English port except London and Topsham. The fish were sold in southern Europe in exchange for fruit and wine. Bideford pottery for export and provisioning ships was also renowned for several centuries.
If you want to do some reading about this, we have in our Chope Collection in Bideford Library a number of books that cover early Devonian seafarers such as John Hawkins and Francis Drake. We also have a couple about Newfoundland in particular. A History of Newfoundland by D W Prowse 1896 is a fine old book with reproductions of lots of contemporary illustrations and a big fold-out map at the back. (It’s a bit worn, so you’ll need to be careful if you come to have a look at it). There are references to Bideford in the earlier parts of the volume. Westwarde Hoe for Avalon in the New Found Land as Described by Captain Whitbourne of Exmouth Devon 1622 very nearly has a title longer than the book! Published in 1870, it is only 47 pages long and is a transcription with the original Early Modern English spellings preserved of Richard Whitbourne’s accounts of his travels. It is a lovely little book, nicely bound and has beautiful woodcut illustrations.
For those of you who don’t know, the Chope Collection is a collection of books left to the people of Bideford by Richard Pearse Chope (1862-1938). A native of Hartland parish, he was a keen local historian, writer and member of the Devonshire Association. These books are held at the library but they do not belong to the library. They belong to the people of Bideford. They are available for reference only, so why not come in and have a look at them.
Matt Chamings, Bideford Library.