In Bideford Town Hall you will find a portrait of John Strange, four times Mayor of Bideford, and an unusual man. (There is also a copy in the Burton Art Gallery). In the background of the portrait are certain objects (cliff, arrow and
bridge) which symbolise episodes from his youth in which he might easily have been killed. When he was a boy he fell off a cliff whilst bird-nesting but remained unhurt, was hit in the forehead with an arrow which left him with only a slight scar, and on another occasion, a robber threw him over the Long Bridge, but again he remained unscathed.
John Strange was obviously destined for other things.
By trade, he was a merchant ship owner and worked in conjunction with another Bidefordian, George Shurtt. Between them they owned a small fleet of ships, including the ‘Friendship’ (80 tons) and the ‘Fellowship’ (170 tons), and some of these ships would be sent out to the Newfoundland Fisheries.
Strange was also instrumental in setting up the Virginia Company, in which blankets were sent out to Virginia in return for tobacco. He also helped in establishing trade with New England.
However, his moment came in 1646, when the plague struck Bideford.
The tale is told that a Spanish ship carrying a cargo of flea-ridden and plague- infested wool, moored in Bideford, and three children playing amidst the sacks brought the plague ashore, for within a few days these same three boys, the sons of local surgeon, Henry Ravening, and their father, had died . The mayor at the time, fearing for his life, hastily left the town, and John Strange, who had been Mayor three times before, stepped into the breach as Mayor again. He put guards at the entrances of the town, to prevent the disease from spreading, made sure the sick were cared for, the dead buried, and the bereaved comforted. The official death toll was 229, ( more were buried than appeared on the official lists, including the Ravening family) but more would have died if not for the efforts of John Strange.
One of the people who succumbed to the disease was John Strange himself, who died on 30th July 1646, aged 56. John was married to Katherine, and they lived at Ford House. They had one daughter, and four sons, all of whom died young and predeceased him, except his youngest son, also called John, who grew into adulthood, married and eventually emigrated to Virginia.
In the meantime, a sea captain, whose life John had saved in a shipwreck, came to Bideford to thank him, only to be told that he had recently died, so the captain made sure that a monument was placed in St. Mary’s Church in his memory. Unfortunately, when the church was rebuilt in the nineteenth century, it was placed too high up the wall to be able to read the inscription without a ladder, which is a pity, as it is very fulsome in its praise of this heroic character, who gave his life to save others.
Even in death, John Strange was very generous, leaving in his will enough money to build 5 almshouses in Meddon Street ‘for poor old people’. These still stand , and are now listed buildings.