APPLEDORE & PIRATES!

Appledore has a long unique maritime history which has probably been due to its beautiful location. The village is situated at the mouth of the rivers Torridge and Taw in North Devon, England. Its name appears to be first documented in 1335 under the variation of "Apildare".

Through the years Appledore has had its place in history with Hubba the Dane landing at Appledore in 878AD barely reaching Northam before he was defeated in a mighty battle at a place which is still known today as Bloody Corner. His grave is said to be nearby, at Hubbastone. On 1st November 1974 a token Hubbstone was ceremoniously returned to Appledore from Torrington and was mounted by the Appledore Lifeboat Station on Hillcliff Terrace.

 In Elizabethan times Appledore was also recognised for the courage of its sailors and ships that joined the British Fleet against the Spanish Armada of 1588 that Queen Elizabeth I, made Appledore a free port, a status which remains today.

Whilst Appledore has a long association with the sea there was no formal quay until 1845 when property owners on the eastern side of Market Street joined their garden walls together to form the Market Quay. In 1939-40 the old quay was doubled in width and in 1997-98 a flood defence scheme was constructed raising the height of the quay by one metre. Further details can be found at Northam Town Council Website.

Whilst what we know of Pirates today are a mix of myth, Hollywood and legend there were certainly individuals involved in various merchant activities who sought to avoid taxes, smuggle goods and par-take in illegal activities; like Thomas Benson whose wicked ways have been chronicled on Devon Perspectives who have kindly allowed reproduction of the extract below.

An Eighteenth Century Wrongdoer

Thomas Benson emerged as the leading merchant trader out of the North Devon port of Bideford after inheriting the family fortune in 1743 at the age of 37. Despite the onset of naval warfare between England and Spain, his vessels transported large quantities of tobacco from the colonies of Virginia and Maryland, exporting locally made woollen goods in return, and his fishing vessels sailed to the Newfoundland cod banks each year. In 1744 France joined the war against England as an ally of Spain, and this prompted Benson to fit out one of his vessels as a man-of-war with which he engaged the expanded enemy fleet as a privateer with some notable successes.
To further strengthen his grip over North Devon, and to facilitate the procurement of lucrative government contracts, Benson decided to enter politics and joined the governing Whig party which had by this time awarded him the prestigious title of High Sheriff of Devon, an office he held until 1749. After presenting the Corporation of Barnstaple with a magnificent silver punch bowl, he was duly elected unopposed as MP for Barnstaple in 1747.

His power-base in the region had become so entrenched that he began to believe he was above the law. But after his first serious brush with the Customs authorities over unpaid tobacco import duties, he became entangled in a web of deception involving breach of contract, smuggling, tax evasion, and finally a bold insurance fraud that was to lead to his undoing. When this last scam was exposed Benson ignominiously took flight in self-imposed exile, leaving Captain Lancey, the master of his vessel the Nightingale, to face criminal charges on which he was found guilty and duly hanged.

Portugal, another great maritime trading nation of the day, was a natural choice for Benson's bolt hole. He had several influential contacts there, merchants he would have entertained at Knapp House when their vessels were docked at Bideford. The masters of his two remaining ships, the Peter and the Placentia, were directed by the Melhuishes to sail from the Newfoundland cod banks to Oporto (perhaps at Benson's request) where they were to sell the vessels. The Peter was purchased by a local man, and the proceeds enabled Benson to start trading in a modest way using the Placentia. He was joined some time later by his favourite cousin, Thomas Stafford, and the two of them built up a successful trading company from scratch.

News of Lancey's death sentence, although expected, would nevertheless have come as a terrible shock to Benson, leaving him filled with remorse. He was in constant contact with his lawyer who no doubt would have informed him of the opprobrium being heaped on his head in the popular press, and the clamour for his extradition to face justice, after he had abandoned the loyal Lancey to face the gallows.

On receiving word that the British Government had made an application for his extradition, fearing for his life he fled to Spain. With the Government preoccupied by a fresh outbreak of war with France, Benson was able to return to Oporto where he remained until his death in 1772 aged sixty-four. There were rumours that he had secretly returned to Knapp House for a while before he died, but these are unsubstantiated.