This is an on-going series about the history of a small, forgotten hamlet in Plymouth. The first part outlined an overview of King’s Tamerton in terms of definitions and geography. This part looks into its speculated Roman origins.
Many local historians have speculated on a Roman influence in the local area of King’s Tamerton and St. Budeaux. Key factors include the naming of the road ‘Roman Way’ and the prominence of Plaistow Hill in terms of the wide-ranging views it provides of the area; the hill itself has been suggested as a possible location for a Roman fort or signalling tower.
Such suggestions are noted in Derek Tait’s pictorial publication of the history of St. Budeaux (2007): ‘…Roman which is said to be the way the Romans passed, from their signalling fort at King’s Tamerton, on their way to Cornwall’ (p.21). This is repeated in Tait’s later book – South Devon: Stone Age to Cold War (2018) – in which he notes:
‘Evidence also suggests that Romans once inhabited the area, now called Roman Way (Roman Road is nearby) in St. Budeaux. Roman Way was originally called ‘Old Wall’s Lane’ which suggests an ancient occupation. A Roman signal station was believed to have once stood on the hill there…’ (cited on Scribd, 2021).
These suggestions are fascinating, however, they are also debatable for a number of reasons. This is primarily due to the possibility that the area of Plymouth – including the wider region of west Devon and Cornwall – was not as Romanised as other parts of England, thereby limiting the potential of their influence in the form of roads and forts in and around King’s Tamerton.
It is clear that the Romans controlled land as far west as Exeter (then titled Isca Dumnoniorum), which was a key settlement within their British possessions. However, beyond this – into the wilds of Dartmoor and then into Cornwall – it is debatable as to whether the Romans built and maintained an extensive road network deep into Devon; Philip Payton confidently states that ‘there is no real evidence for the existence of Roman roads’ in Cornwall, which borders on the hamlet of King’s Tamerton (Payton, 2004, p.52).
This thesis is supported by academics, such as Professor Barry Cunliffe who noted how: ‘in the southwest peninsula of Devon and Cornwall the lack of Romanization, after a brief military occupation in the first century, is particularly striking. West of Exeter the native socio-economic system simply continued unhindered’. This is further supported by Philip Payton, who states: ‘there is still remarkably little evidence for the Roman conquest of South West Britain’ (Payton, p.50). Such claims diminish the claim of the existence of the likes of a Roman road or fort in the area of King’s Tamerton does not fully correlate to the wider context of the west-country region during the Roman period.
The central Roman road that connected Exeter to the other settlements was the Fosse Way; it connected Lincoln in the north-east with the south-west. Some academics have argued that the Fosse Way actually extended further into the west, as outlined in a 1915 paper by T.J. Joce who stated: ‘the question of its southern ending has for centuries attracted the attention of antiquaries, among them some of the highest eminence, and various routes have been suggested’. Such routes include one heading southward toward modern day Torbay (of which Joce dismisses by stating ‘it would seem to be but a feeble and unpractical terminus to a military road which crosses with so bold a stride’) and one that continues through the middle of Devon, roughly tracing the modern A30 along Okehampton into Launceston.
The recent archaeological discoveries at Ipplepen, near Torbay, has provided additional strength to the argument that the Roman Empire extended further west than Exeter, with one writer noting how it has ‘led to the redrawing of the boundary of the Roman empire in south-west Britain’ (Morris, 2016). Evidence of a stretch of Roman road in the area has furthered the argument that it continued onward ‘towards the modern town of Totnes and possibly even further south and west’ (Morris, 2016).
Furthermore, there is ‘some evidence for Roman activity’ in the St. Budeaux area, such as the finding of a Roman coin from the reign of Emperor Claudius (41-54 AD), and other coins (dating from 100-117 AD) ‘found during the digging of a pit at Camel’s Head school’; as stated in a report from Scott Wilson Ltd relating to the suitability of the area for the construction of an incinerator. However, the same report does stress that this activity does not provide ‘enough [evidence] to indicate actual settlement’.
Some academics have argued that the discoveries of various Roman artefacts does not provide firm proof that they controlled the region. The Romans appear to have held what Ian Soulsby calls ‘nominal…rule’ over the region, which accounts for the lack of evidence of Roman influence in the region (cited in Payton, p.51). This is further supported by R.R. Sellman in Aspects of Devon History (1985, p.14), in which he states:
‘…beyond Exeter the romanisation of the civil population was only superficial, if not entirely lacking…’
Therefore, local chieftains held a degree of autonomy, with the Romans holding informal political influence. The key interest of the Romans appears to have been trade, particularly in terms of tin; this is supported with the evidence found at Mount Batten. Although there is evidence of remnants and construction, Payton stresses that within the region of Cornwall they ‘are only Roman in the sense that they were constructed during the period of Roman rule’ (Payton, p51). Such a position mirrors the recent discoveries at Ipplepen, with ‘the settlement is still puzzling as it does not really compare to other Romano-British settlements in neighbouring counties to the east’ (Morris, 2016). Sellman’s points confirm this, with the ‘distribution [of coins and pottery] in Devon is very sparse when compared’ with other counties (Sellman, p.14). All of this seems to confirms Payton’s judgement on how Roman influence in the south-west is something of a ‘paradox’: the Romans were ‘the first to establish Cornwall as an administrative-political unit’ but also ‘in other respects Roman influence west of the Tamar was in fact minimal’ (Payton, p.49).
Such statements do not provide a strong basis for the possibility of a ‘Roman signalling station’ existing in King’s Tamerton. Roman signalling stations are stated to have been ‘built by the Roman army for military observation’, with signalling utilised ‘by means of fire or smoke’ (Historic England). A signalling station in the area of King’s Tamerton would suggest stronger political control over the region, and if the claims of Soulsby and Payton are correct then this is unlikely to the case.
The location itself – on top of Plaistow Hill – would have provided excellent views of the surrounding landscape, stretching across the Tamar and into south-east Cornwall. This illustrated by Sellman with a map of the Armada preparations outlining the locations of fire-signals that provided warnings of seaborne attacks; ‘St. Budeaux’ is noted, connecting to the Hoe in the south and to Roborough in the north. It is likely that Plaistow Hill was the actual site of this beacon due to its wide-ranging views with the Tamar and to the moor. Furthermore, Sellman notes that the origins of such a system date much further back than the sixteenth century, noting how they go ‘back at least to the final stage of the Roman period in Britain, and was part of the Saxon defensive system against the Vikings’ (Sellman, p.34).
Hard evidence of a signalling tower is unlikely to be found. Many are believed to have been constructed of wood, and English Heritage state that ‘fewer than 50 examples have been identified in England’. As such, it is highly unlikely that such evidence will help to prove the theory of a signalling station at Plaistow Hill. On the whole, if the Romans only maintained nominal rule beyond Exeter, significant doubt must be placed on the basis of a Roman signalling station in King’s Tamerton.
But yet, there is another theory that provides a suggestion for an earlier settlement during the Roman period: the legend of Tamaris. I’ll explore this legend in the next post in the series.
Cunliffe, Barry (2018) The Ancient Celts (Second Edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Historic England (2021) ‘Roman signal station at Goldsborough, 130m south east of Scratch Alley’. Available at: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1016537 (Accessed: 04 July 2021).
Joce, T.J. (1915) ‘The Secret of the Fosse Way’. DA Transactions, pp.-299.305. Available at: https://devonassoc.org.uk/devoninfo/the-secret-of-the-fosse-way-1915/ (Accessed: 30 June 2021).
Morris, Stephen (2016) ‘Discovery of Roman coins in Devon redraws map of empire’. The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/jun/22/roman-coins-devon-map-empire-ipplepen (Accessed: 05 July 2021).
Payton, Philip (2004) Cornwall: A History. UK: Cornwall Editions.
Scribd (2021) ‘South Devon: Stone Age to Cold War’. Available at: https://www.scribd.com/book/444976241/South-Devon-Stone-Age-to-Cold-War (Accessed: 30 June 2021).
Sellman, R.R. (1985) Aspects of Devon History. Devon: Devon Books.
Scott Wilson Ltd (2011) Energy from Waste Combined Heat and Power Facility North Yard, Devonport [Report]. Available at: https://www.mvv.de/fileadmin/user_upload/Ueber_uns/de/geschaeftsfelder_1/environment_1/plymouth/planningapplication/4_Environmental_Statement/Volume_01_Main_Text/09_Cultural_Heritage.pdf (Accessed: 30 June 2021).
Tait, Derek (2007) St. Budeaux. UK: Driftwood Coast Publishing.