Docton House is a Grade II* listed property, the only building in Appledore with that status. 'Docton Court' is the front part of this larger building, and it is here that the Gallery and Gift Shop is located.
There have been many stories associated with Docton Court over the years, but over a decade of research by the present owner has shown that many of these are inaccurate, or just plain wrong.
Most notable is a story that Docton House was supposed to have been a Cistercian Monastery, part of the Hartland Abbey Estate lands, and that travellers to the Abbey could moor their ships in the muddy creek opposite (where Richmond Dock now stands), stay overnight and then make an onward journey to Hartland the next day. Regrettably, this story has now been disproved. Dendro-chronology of the timbers in Docton Court have shown that the building was constructed somewhere around 1600, and other architectural features support this date. Therefore this building could not have been a monastery, because these were dissolved by Henry VIII in the 1530s.
Further investigation of this 'legend' has shown that it does not appear in print until 1952, although there are people who remember a verbal story in Appledore prior to this date. The story seems to have been invented by James Green, who ran a ship's block-making business from these premises. Visitors to Appledore would be welcomed at Appledore's most historic building with a tour by Mr Green, who would often tell them "stories that he thought they wanted to hear", particularly to American visitors. One of these stories appears to have been about a monastery, all invented by Mr Green.
Another legend is that Prince Charles (the future Charles II) stayed in the property when he visited Appledore in 1645. This story is generated by an entry in the Northam Parish registers which states that "Prince Charles was att Apledore in Northam the tenth day of July Anno Dommi 1645". There is no evidence of an overnight stay, and it is well documented the Charles was staying in Barnstaple at the mansion house of Grace Beaple. Given that he had a large retinue of people protecting him, he is unlikely to have stayed anywhere hostile (Appledore generally supported the Parliamentary cause) without many followers. His visit to Appledore would have been to inspect the Civil War Fort on Staddon Hill, and his journey was probably made from Barnstaple by boat.
Docton House does have some significant early history though. Although our deeds only go back to about 1900, a document housed in the National Archives relates to this land. In 1334 permission was granted for a Barnstaple merchant called Geoffrey Fardel to build business premises near to the river in Appledore, and the described position exactly matches the location of this property. It also suggests that the land between here and the main river frontage was quite a lot closer than it is today. The rent for this was one silver penny per year.
Another story recorded in a 1904 newspaper, is that Docton House was the residence of a Spanish Don or Ambassador at the time of the Armada (1580s). He was supposed to be a merchant dealing in Spanish produce, so we can imagine his cellars filled with Mediterranean choice wines and other goods. However, as the current building on this site doesn't appear until c.1600, this reference also appears spurious, but in fact there is some truth in this account, because these storage cellars were used to house imported goods from France and Spain.
The building can be conclusively linked to the Docton family by the crest which appears over the main doorway. This crest includes the coat-of-arms for a man called Thomas Docton, and his arms here are shown being linked that that of Chantrell; a marriage between his parents John Docton and heiress Agnes Chantrell took place c.1544. Thomas was their son, and he would have been the only person able to have used these arms, because it showed his specific armorial heritage.
Thomas Docton was born in 1548 at Hartland, on a farm estate which took the family name. The Docton origins in this location have been traced back to the 13th century. He became a respected person in the community; in 1584 Edward Arundell referred to him as being "an honest man". In 1585 Thomas Docton was named as one of the trustees in the Will of Sir Richard Grenville to administer his estate in the event of his death, for his wife Mary Grenville. There are many records of the lands owned or administered by Thomas Docton mostly in the Hartland area, but also some within Northam parish. In 1604 he is mentioned as being a churchwarden of Hartland church, and in 1610 he is appointed as Town Clerk of Bideford. In 1612, Thomas Docton purchased all of West Appledore, or Irsha as it is also known. The purchase deeds show that this consisted of 12 acres of land and about 30 tenanted properties.
But why was the building originally constructed? And why was a coat-of-arms included over the doorway when the Docton family did not live in it until the 1650s? The answer to these questions can be found in the details of construction, and the political situation at the end of the Tudor era.
After the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, the English coffers were depleted, and the new King James decreed that the collection of Customs Duties at ports should be sub-let, or out-sourced, to a group of businessmen. This was known as 'The Great Farm', whereby the role of collecting duties was farmed out for a percentage of the revenue. This made money for the Crown but also money for the local collectors and businessmen who were awarded these lucrative contracts. Docton Court appears to have been a privately-funded Customs House, constructed for the purpose of receiving imported goods, storing them until the tax was paid, and administering the process in offices above. We can see evidence of this from the following features:
- The building is solidly constructed with stone walls up to 3-feet thick, in order to deter anyone from breaking in and stealing valuable items.
- The doorways into the cellars are also about 4-feet wide, sufficient to roll barrels in and out. Doorways of 3-feet width would have been insufficient for this purpose.
- The sides of the openings have been protected with hard-wearing granite jambs; even so, it is still possible to see where damage has occurred at low level where barrels have hit the doorways.
- Originally there were four large openings into divided cellars, so that individual offices would be needed, and high status rooms were constructed above, in a layout unsuited to domestic accommodation, but perfect for administrative use.
- Offices would be needed, and high status rooms were constructed above, in a layout unsuited to domestic accommodation, but perfect for administrative use.
No record of Thomas Docton's name has been found associated with this 'farming of customs', but this is not altogether surprising. Jurisdiction of the Ports of Barnstaple, Bideford and Appledore came under the port of Exeter, who also managed all the 'creeks' within its area. Whilst the names of the main collectors at Exeter are recorded, there are no records of the people responsible for the collection of revenue in these subsidiary ports. Nevertheless, this is the only possible reason for this building to have been constructed, and from this we can assume a more accurate build-date of around 1604. The Docton coat-of-arms was erected over the entrance, to show that this was 'Thomas Docton's Custom House'. Thomas Docton died in 1618, and his lands in Appledore were inherited by his cousin, also called Thomas Docton.
Signature of Thomas Docton
who constructed this building in 1604.
Signature of his cousin Thomas Docton
who inherited the property in 1618.
Ownership of this property passed down several generations of the Docton family, but the first Docton to actually live there was Peter Docton. He and his wife Elizabeth had ten children baptised in the parish. His son Peter Docton junior married Dorothy French, but they had no children and the Docton family eventually died out in Appledore. In his will of 1715, Peter Docton junior was described as a Merchant who had previously lived at Coimbra in Portugal, also having trading links with a partner in London. His wealth in today's terms would have been around £3-million, and he undoubtedly used the storage cellars for imported goods.
In 1737, Peter's widow Dorothy Docton set up a charity to enable six poor children under the age of 11 to be taught to read until they could understand the Bible in English. She died in 1744, but before her death had sold the Docton Court cellars to John Benson of Knapp. Three generations of the Benson family then owned the property, including the notorious Thomas Benson, MP, ship-owner, merchant and Sheriff of Devon, but also a convicted smuggler and fraudster, whose entire lands were seized. He fled to Portugal where he lived the rest of his life in exile. Who knows what use he put these cellars to?
The property was still known as Docton's Mansion though. In 1864 a sale notice for Doctons refers to two dwelling houses, malt-house, cellars, lofts, stable, enclosed yards, and walled garden, late in occupation of William Williams. Since then, the building has been used for various purposes: making pulley-blocks for ships, a photographer's studio, making canoes and wooden toys, and, more recently, as a builder's store. The property has now been fully restored, with the ground floor forming a Gallery and Gift Shop, and the upper level containing living accommodation.
Much of the ornate plasterwork on the first floor had disappeared, but sufficient remained for the frieze to be fully reconstructed in its original format when the building was restored in 2005. A flattened barrel-vaulted ceiling also graced the first floor; reinstatement of this has not been possible, but research has enabled the recreation of the following view of how these offices might have appeared in the early 17th century.