South Molton is a small market town on the River Mole, trading mainly in sheep and cattle. Market day is Thursday and still attracts many visitors. There are lots of pubs, antique shops and art galleries in the centre of town. The town was once a thriving wool town until the mid 19th century and river supplied power for both the woollen and also corn mills.
The town was founded in early Saxon times and gained in prominence throughout medieval times. In the Domesday Book, it is called Sudmoltone and is recorded as belonging to the King. In the 16th century it became both a borough and a bishopric. South Molten was not only an important market town but a staging post and centre for the wool trade and mining. Although the town declined when bypassed by the railways in the 19th century, it has once again become a thriving centre for a different type of trade; the town has a number of antiques shops and similar establishments.
The Old Market House is an elegant red brick building situated in the middle of the street and was built to replace the shambles of butchers and other small shops which had sprung up around the Market Square. In 1856 the upper floor was used as the Mechanics Institute. This floor was originally supported on pillars but these were bricked in when it was later converted into a Post Office. The plaque on the wall above the door commemorates the opening of the Post Office. The frame of the doorway is decorated with the borough’s coat of arms and swags of flowers. Local people had gathered in the open space underneath to sell their produce until the conversion took place and the Pannier Market was built. Early in the 20th century, the upper part of the building was used as a telephone exchange.
In 1860 the Town Council decided to build a new covered area for stall holders - the Pannier Market. A property next to the Town Hall was bought and the foundation stone was laid in 1863. Over the Market a large new Assembly Room with a beautiful arched ceiling was built. The new market was opened in February 1864 by the local Mayor.
South Molton’s splendid Town Hall is located in the square next to the market and has an interesting history. In 1739 the Corporation decided to build a new Guildhall. Materials for the building were obtained from the recently demolished mansion at Stowe in North Cornwall and the Town Hall was completed in 1743. The facade is Portland stone and the courtroom is supported by three arches extending over the pavement. Beneath is the town coat of arms representing the Crown, the woollen trade and the Church, flanked by swags of fruit and flowers. On the ground floor of the Town Hall is a small museum which exhibits many artefacts from the local trades and exhibitions of the history of the town.
There are various other buildings of interest within the town. Falcon House was at one time known as The Falcon Inn. The roof timbers are 16th century. In 1856 the house was owned by Humphrey John Norris Bawden Esq. JP who was later the first person to be buried in the new cemetery in 1858. Chapel House was once a mediaeval chapel dedicated in 1449 to St. Anne and St. John of Bridlington (an Augustinian canon and scholar who was Prior of Bridlington and died in 1379). In 1849 part of the building was used as a schoolroom for infants under 6 years. When it was converted into a dwelling in 1982, inkwells and small candle-holders were found in the large upstairs room.
Local historians generally agree that the present Parish Church of
St. Mary Magdalene is the third to have been built on this site. The second of these buildings is said to have been built before 1270 but the date of the first one is unknown. The church fell into disrepair during the 14th century, but was restored and the chancel was incorporated into the present building during the 15th century. The interior has some fine stained glass windows, mainly given in memory of local families during the 19th century, and is well worth seeing.
Langmead House was formerly the Congregational Church and was built on the site of a previous chapel. The date 1662 over the entrance refers to the founding of the sect in South Molton rather than the erection of the building. The church closed in 1986 and remained empty until it was converted into apartments in 1998. The original stained glass windows, diamond leaded lights and wood panelling has been incorporated into the finished design of the apartments.
Wagstaffe’s Gate was named after Sir Joseph Wagstaffe who led a West Country Royalist Rebellion against Cromwell in 1655. The King’s men rode into South Molton pursued by Cromwell’s soldiers on March 14th. After two hours of house to house fighting, the battle was won by the Roundheads who took sixty of the Cavaliers prisoner. Tradition has it that Wagstaffe escaped by leaping his horse over the north wall of the churchyard.
Methodism came to South Molton in 1807 and the first chapel was a converted barn in East Street known as The Rookery Chapel. A replacement cob-built chapel was erected at the top of Duke Street in 1821 and a day school added in 1877. The present Methodist Church was built on the same site and, in 1906, the school buildings were extended.
The United Junior School was formed by the amalgamation of the National School, built in 1834, Hugh Squier’s Free School, and the Blue Coat School which was established by subscription in 1711 and sited in the churchyard. The new school buildings were erected on land purchased from a local solicitor, who paid for the iron rails and the wall in front. The school was extended in 1910 and later provided education for children up to the age of 15. When the new secondary school opened it became the United Junior School.
The first workhouse in South Molton was opened in 1735 in North Street where. The second was on the site of the Old Vicarage in Parsonage Lane, where was destroyed by in May 1837. The Union Workhouse was completed in 1838. This time it was built of stone and sited on the outskirts of town. In 1929 the building was handed over to Devon County Council. When the Poor Law of 1601 was finally repealed a new day dawned for the workhouse. Residents were allowed to come and go as they wished and to take part in community life. The buildings fell into disuse in the mid 1970s but were converted into a working honey farm in 1978. Quince Honey Farm is the largest honey farm in the country and one of the most popular tourist attractions in the area.
The Medical Hall is built on an island known as Oliver’s Island and has had a medical connection for at least 140 years. The premises have been a chemist shop throughout the 20th century. They were originally built as two houses and have imposing entrances on each side of the island.
There are many more fascinating buildings in the town. South Molton is an ideal centre for anyone wishing to explore Exmoor and the North Devon Coast.