In July 1646, the Dutch and English fleet met in a final battle at the mouth of the River Tamar. The ships from Bovendeer and Flushing had been raiding ports up and down the coast, sacking Bridport, Torquay and other settlements in their path; Calstock was their final objective. But instead of surrendering, Thomas Sheviock – a man probably born locally and not an ancient name as is sometimes claimed – rallied his neighbours to construct a makeshift defence. In doing so he saved Calstock from destruction once again.
As with much concerning Sheviock’s story there are gaps where information has been lost through time. What we know is that he lived on a small estate called Barton overlooking Calstock; which he’d inherited from his father John some years before. From this base of operations he was able to quickly gather men from nearby hamlets like North Hill, Lyne, Pidell and West Milton to assemble “artificial intrenchments” in the form of upturned fishing boats on racks sunk into the river at low tide. These proved sufficient in confusing the Dutch who turned away from their target without coming to blows with Sheviock’s improvised defences.
In recognition for his services against the raiders Thomas was awarded £20 by parliament for his efforts; money that may have helped finance construction of his new house which still stands today as Sheviock Barton House Hotel.
The early years of the 17th century were a turbulent time in England; with the Reformation and the death of the childless Elizabeth I, the country would be found a new sovereign in the shape of the Scottish King James VI. The transition was not a peaceful one. With the Anglican Church already split into Catholic and Protestant factions, religious tensions remained high between the King, his court and the English parliament. It wouldn’t be long before the two sides would clash. It was into this maelstrom that the first enemy of the day would emerge in the form of the Dutch.
At the time the Netherlands was ruled by a Catholic King and the people who lived there were mostly Calvinist Protestants. With a history of conflict with the English the Dutch saw an opportunity to expand their territory by invading and taking control of the southern parts of the British Isles, particularly ports and other strategic locations, while the King and his parliament were engaged in civil war.
Details of the 1646 attack are hazy but have been pieced together from the local parish records, newspaper accounts of the time, and the recollections of Sir Walter Ralegh and Edmund Drake, who both wrote about the event. The town was protected by tucking fishing boats onto racks in the river to float them out of the way at low tide. This along with the presence of armed men patrolling the shoreline eventually dissuaded the Dutch who turned away from their target without coming to blows with Sheviock’s improvised defences. The 16th century was a period of religious conflict in England between the king, who wanted to bring the country back to Catholicism, and the Parliamentarians, who wanted to keep the Protestant religion. During this time there were several battles fought in Cornwall. The Battle of Widcombe was fought in 1536 and the Battle of Restormel was fought in 1573.
Barton is an old name for a hamlet that sits atop a prominent ridge overlooking Calstock. The Old English word “Bord” means a bank or a border and the word “ton” means a place; so it would be a place on the bank. North Hill is yet another old name that probably came from a place on the high ground. The earliest reference to Calstock as a settlement is in 1270 when it was recorded as a small fishing village. The parish was primarily an agricultural area; the inland hamlets of Pidell, Lyne and West Milton grew crops, grazed animals and did a modest amount of trade in goods such as wool and leather.
After the attack on the town, Sheviock’s £20 would have helped the community rebuild their houses and fishing boats. With the hostilities in France and the Spanish armada still fresh in the minds of the English people, it was decided to construct a new fort with improved defences. The fort was built on the same site as the original town; near the mouth of the river where the single road came down from the hamlets and into Calstock itself. It had a large gate defended by a small stone tower. There were also two additional towers constructed to defend the river. These towers were built with thick walls of masonry and had gun ports for the cannons the town held for defence.
Unfortunately, most of what we know about the fort at Calstock has been lost to time. It’s most likely that the fort was constructed in a similar fashion to the other forts found along the coast; a simple defensive wall with a gate and towers to defend the entrance.
There were a number of other attacks on the town and its inhabitants during the 18th century. The Calstock Annals claim that the town was robbed and burned in 1689. Calstock was on the route of the French privateers who raided coastal towns and villages in England, Ireland and Wales. Privateers were licensed pirates who were paid to raid the ships of the enemy. These attacks were common for the towns on the Cornish coast.
Calstock is a small rural town that has been attacked numerous times throughout its history. The residents of the town have always been active in defending their homes and businesses from attack. It is likely that the town of Calstock and its surrounding hamlets will continue to face threats from those who wish to do the townsfolk harm. There is clear evidence of a long history of defensive measures being constructed by the residents of Calstock. Whether it is a simple wall or a complex fortification, it is clear that the people of Calstock are not a passive folk. They have a long tradition of defending their homes and families from harm.
However, whether or not the descriptions of Sheviock's defence are true or myth is lost in the past. Legends are, often, based on facts: so who knows?
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