The article below is one of my most earliest (published in The Devon Historian in 2008). I researched and wrote it towards the end of the second year of my degree, having developed a fascination in local history – particularly that of St. Budeaux in Plymouth – during the preceding two years. Thomas Alcock was one of the names that I stumbled across and I wanted to do his story and involved in the local village some justice. At the time I had plans of writing a full history of St. Budeaux, but this has yet come to pass. Hopefully a project for the future. In the meantime I’ll try and upload as much material relating to St. Budeaux; its history is an interesting one for what is – or was – a small unassuming village in the larger fabric of England.
Called a ‘loved and respected eccentric’, throughout much of the eighteenth century, Rev. Thomas Alcock (1709-1798) was a colossal figure in the small village of St. Budeaux. 1 An isolated parish, St. Budeaux was situated four miles to the North of Plymouth, later merging with the bigger town in the early twentieth century. Alcock’s time was that before St. Budeaux became a substantial community of many thousands, when the village consisted of seventy-seven homes and eighty-two families.2
Noted as a priest, doctor and lawyer, Alcock spent sixty-five years as vicar of the parish. His involvement, as records show, knew no bounds. Yet, he began life further a field from Devon, in Aston, near Runcorn, Cheshire. He was the third son of David Alcock, a descendant of Bishop John Alcock – founder of Jesus College, Cambridge.3 Young Alcock was educated at Warrington School, then Brasenose College, Oxford, gaining his B.A. in 1731, and his M.A. in 1741.4 His first involvement in the West Country came as a curate of Stonehouse, Plymouth in 1731, which lay some five miles south of St. Budeaux. In November 1732 he began acting as minister of the parish of St. Budeaux, becoming permanently appointed by the vicar of Plymouth’s mother church, St. Andrews, on 29 December 1733.5
An early twentieth century anonymous historian of the area states that Alcock was ‘much liked in spite of his eccentric habits’.6 The historian was probably referring to such habits as those of his sermons which contained ‘Latin and Greek quotations and passage from English poets’,7 while a portion of his popularity most certainly is explained in his omission to collect tithes from the locals.
In 1769 the clergyman caused a local controversy when he refused to preach every ninth sermon at St. Andrews, as had been the custom since 1722. Alcock later stated that he ‘refused to submit any longer to such a scandalous Simoniacal Imposition and observed the liberty of a Minister of St Budeaux’.8 A later vicar, Rev. Hancock, writing in the 1930s, shed light upon other reasons behind Alcock’s decision to terminate his sermons at St. Andrews, most notably his failure to gain election to become vicar of St. Andrews itself earlier in the year. Alcock gained only 3 votes, and lost to Mr. John Candy.9 He would never set foot inside St. Andrews again.
Yet controversy and eccentricity was not the total sum of Thomas Alcock. A late twentieth century booklet on the history of St. Budeaux church comments on the ‘much good work’ Alcock directed ‘towards the raising of money for the school and the appointment of teachers’.10 The school in question was (and indeed, remains today, although in different form) St. Budeaux Foundation School, established in 1717. Helping poor children in the locality, the aim of the overseers, in the words of one of the endowments, was:
‘to teach the children to read, write and cast an account, and for teaching them the catechism and instructing them in the principles of the Christian religion, making them to keep the church and Sabbath, and to check and punish them for all lying, cursing and swearing’.11
Alcock dipped into his own pocket to help out with the school, as old registers show, while in 1771 he helped purchase land at Weston Peverel to provide a home for the master of the St. Budeaux charity school.12 The before mentioned anonymous historian believed Alcock lived in the ‘most simple way’, adding that he ‘always [gave] a pint of beer and a bun to every old woman in the parish’.13
Simplicity may have been Alcock’s preference, yet he also took a great fancy to owning land in the area, ending his time there as one of the principle landowners. In 1784 he purchased, from Sir Harry Trelawney, the whole of the manor of Agaton and rights to the presentation of the church of St. Budeaux.14 Included in this, believes local historian of the early twentieth century, H. Montagu Evans, was part of the barton of Budshead, the principle manor of the area.15 The ability of obtaining such a mass of land was probably helped by Alcock’s marriage to Mary Harwood of Ernesettle, a heiress to substantial local property. Their marriage was childless, and Mary died in 1777. Later in the century Alcock sold his stake in Budshead manor to Lord Graves.16
Alcock left St. Budeaux with many writings in which modern day citizens of the area can now look back upon. The earlier mentioned anonymous historian called him ‘a brilliant scholar’. In the later half of the eighteenth century Alcock was to comment on the size of the village, which had increased despite various wars (notably the Seven Years War), writing sorrowfully:
‘These Wars must have taken many men and youths from St. Budeaux for ye Naval Service, and have deprived many Virgins of Lovers, and many Wives of Husbands, and also must have made many Widowed-Wives, and have much hindered Procreation by the Husbands being abroad for many years together’.17
His scholarly skills are found in the shape of the biography he wrote on his brother, Nathan, a doctor who practiced and ‘gained a high reputation’ in Oxford.18 Titled Memoirs of Dr. Nathan Alcock, the reverend compiled the book shortly after his brother’s death in 1779. In 1796 he would help edit the publication of Nathan’s The Rise of Mahomet, Accounted for on Natural and Civil Principles.19
Alongside the above mentioned achievements, Alcock is chiefly remembered today with being associated with the cider rumpus of the 1760s. A self-styled “cydermaker” himself upon his lands in Ernesettle, the vicar reacted negatively to a recently imposed hefty cider tax. Published in 1763, his pamphlet, Observations on that part of a late Act of Parliament which lays an additional duty on the cyder and perry, found its way to Exeter and London, becoming part of a ‘vigorous campaign’.20
The tax was repealed three years later in 1766, to which there were ‘celebrations with bell-ringing, public illuminations, dances and dinners’.21 However, a second blow was to affect the cider makers of the country, coming in the form of a pamphlet of William Saunders who believed that notable cases of severe colic, peculiar to Devon, was the result of lead poisoning from storage vessels of cider. Such a belief was present as far back as 1738, in which a Mr. Huxham noted that this disease made its appearance during the autumn months when new cider was consumed.22
Saunders’ pamphlet, entitled: An answer to the observations of Mr Geach and to the cursory remarks of Mr Alcock, ‘drew attention to the fact that Alcock was a cider maker and so had a vested interest’.23 Defenders of cider making, Alcock included, refuted such accusations, and carried out further tests, resulting in nil lead in the cider. Alcock himself replied to Saunders in 1769 with his essay, The endemical colic of Devon, not caused by a solution of lead in the cyder. Within it, Alcock defended his right to speak on such matters, dismissing Saunders’ doubts as to his qualifications by stating that while at Oxford he learnt ‘both of Physic and Chemistry from a professor in those sciences, perhaps not inferior to this great doctor Saunders’.24 As to believed “vested interests”, Alcock stated that he would only consider selling ‘a hogshead’ of cider when he produced more cider than his family needed.25
In 1756, before the debates on the brewing of cider, Alcock was made vicar of his home-town: Runcorn. He spent the majority of his time in Devon, leaving the running of the Runcorn parish to numerous curates.26 At the age of seventy-eight he married a second time and towards the end of his life returned to live in Runcorn, dying there in 1798 at the grand age of ninety. Rev. Hancock, who wrote of such colourful characters as Alcock, stated that ‘though they have not left a name in local or national history, have left their memorial in the parish in which they lived and to which they were such benefactors’.27
1 Barnes, I.F., & Bevington, C.R., A Safe Stronghold (A short historical sketch and guide to St. Budeaux parish church), 1963 – from: http://www.neilmawdsley.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/sb1.htm (June 2007)
2 Hancock, Rev. T.A., St. Budeaux: Its Documents and Its Treasures, from: Transactions of the Plymouth Institution, Vol.17, 1934 (pp.305-318)
5 Evans, H. Montagu, St. Budeaux: Its Manors and First Church, from Transactions of the Plymouth Institution, Vol. 12, 1913 (pp.290-306)
6 Anonymous, An Attempt at a Brief History of St. Budeaux, 1910
This history is a wonderfully handwritten book of 1910, with amendments added throughout the next couple of decades. Although the writer is unknown, it is stated in the introduction that much of the knowledge was taken from J. Brooking Rowe’s The Ecclesiastical History of Old Plymouth. The book can be viewed in the Local Studies section of the Plymouth Central Library.
7 White’s Directory of Devonshire, 1878-9, found at: http://www.historicaldirectories.org/hd/pageviewer.asp?pnum=696&zoom=-r%2B100&dn=LUL19021tif&fn= (August 2007)
8 Hancock, Rev. T.A., St. Budeaux: Its Documents and Its Treasures, from: Transactions of the Plymouth Institution, Vol.17, 1934 (p.308)
10 Barnes, I.F., & Bevington, C.R., A Safe Stronghold (A short historical sketch and guide to St. Budeaux parish church), 1963 – from: http://www.neilmawdsley.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/sb1.htm (June 2007)
13 Anonymous, An Attempt at a Brief History of St. Budeaux, 1910
14 Hancock, Rev. T.A., St. Budeaux: Its Documents and Its Treasures, from: Transactions of the Plymouth Institution, Vol.17, 1934 (pp.305-318)
15 Evans, H. Montagu, St. Budeaux: Its Manors and First Church, from Transactions of the Plymouth Institution, Vol. 12, 1913 (p.296)
16 Ware, Marshall, St. Budeaux – An Ancient Parish, Arthur L. Clamp. Plymouth, 1983
17 Hancock, Rev. T.A., St. Budeaux: Its Documents and Its Treasures, from: Transactions of the Plymouth Institution, Vol.17, 1934 (p.307)
21 http://www.devon.gov.uk/etched?_IXP_=1&_IXR=114900 (June 2007)
23 http://www.devon.gov.uk/etched?_IXP_=1&_IXR=114900 (June 2007)
25 http://www.devon.gov.uk/etched?_IXP_=1&_IXR=114900 (June 2007)
27 Hancock, Rev. T.A., St. Budeaux: Its Documents and Its Treasures, from: Transactions of the Plymouth Institution, Vol.17, 1934 (p.308)