The families that feature on this site are mainly from Devonshire in South West England. Most of them were in mid-Devon throughout the nineteenth century. But our Pitts family originated in the South Hams of Devon and connected to mid-Devon through marriages in the early 20th century. On this page some of the parishes where our families originated are explored.

Where we are from...

Map of Devon with family originsIn 1795 John Heard, of Hartland, N. Devon, a private in the Royal Cornwall Militia, married Susanna Crossman by licence in Sandford, and they raised a family there. Thus the beginnings of this branch of the Heards. Three of the webmaster's four ancestral lines spring from that Mid-Devon area. It is centred on the parishes of Sandford, Crediton, Colebrooke, Shobrooke, Upton Hellions, Stockleigh English, Cheriton Fitzpaine, Morchard Bishop, Down St. Mary, Zeal Monachorum, Cheriton Bishop, Newton St. Cyres, Tedburn St. Mary and some 20 parishes clustered around these. The Heard family became well established in this group of parishes through a network of marriages to Feys, Fursdons, Drews, Hattins, Frosts, Linscotts, Saffins, Turners, Wensleys and Wrights, amongst others. With the third and fourth generations, the coming of the railways, then the agriculture depression, the families begin to spread out from their Mid-Devon heartland. The fourth line of your host's family, originate in South Devon, from the parish of Stokenham and surrounding South Hams parishes. The further geography of our families is explored in more detail elsewhere.

John and Susanna Heard's marriagelicence

Marriage Licence of John Heard and Susanna Crossman, 1795

The Royal Cornwall Militia

On 5 April 1795 Sandford's Minister the Rev. George Bent was greatly concerned when he was shown a notice addressed to the Gentlemen of the Parish. It urged them "to have mercy on their poor distressed brethren who had been driven into poverty and extreme want, a great oppression and heavy burden that could no longer be born". It asked "how the poor man was to live and support his distressed family since over the last 30 years every provision including food, wheat, and wearing apparel had increased by half or even double whilst wages were as they had been 30 years previously." It announced a public meeting of those who were suffering to be held in a field outside the village, on 13 April, and then listed their demands, which included an increase in wages to one shilling and six per day, or an amount determined by the price of wheat. Gentlemen who were willing to settle should attend the meeting. Those who would not, "their reward would be given them which would soon unhappily come upon them".

The Rev. Bent was well aware of the implications of this notice. Thirty years of stagnant wages, a laissez-faire approach to the soaring cost of provisions, particularly wheat, by successive Governments, the shift from employing live-in farm labourers to hiring them by the day, the previous year's poor harvest, entrepreneurs sometimes inflating the cost of flour, and the decline of the woollen trade all brought great hardship, real starvation and often violent unrest. Riots by the labouring class were frequent, and Devonshire was particularly at risk.

Bent sent to the only available Justice of the Peace, the Rev Foulkes, at Cheriton Bishop, asking his advice. Foulkes wrote to the Home Secretary, the Duke of Portsmouth. He told the Duke, "I have likewise wrote to the Commanding Officer of the Cornwall Militia now at Crediton requesting him to have his men in readiness to act in case of need. " Foulkes later heard of identical notices being circulated at Colebrooke, Morchard Bishop, Bow, Down St. Mary, Shobrooke, and was keen that the 25th Regiment of Dragoons in Exeter also be warned.

Militias were part-time military units established at the county level for home defence. When volunteers proved insufficient, a parish selected men by ballot. These men then either served or found a substitute to take their place. In 1795 there was one regiment of Royal Cornwall Militia with 8 companies of about 80 men each. The stationing of the Cornwall Militia at Crediton explains how a Hartland man came to marry a Sandford girl. In fact John Heard had been "quarter'd at Sandford". It was ties like this to the local community that meant the Militia were not always trusted to put down local riots.

The unrest had been well orchestrated for 13th April. There were riots, public meetings and public dissent not only throughout Devon, but throughout England in places as far apart as Plymouth, Tewkesbury, Nottingham and Saffron Walden. In South Devon, blacksmith Thomas Campion was arrested when the Ilsington riot was put down, and later executed as a ringleader.

The meeting advertised by the Sandford notice caused a riotous crowd to gather in Crediton's West Town. James Buller JP read the Riot Act to the crowd. Sir Stafford Northcote brought his Yeomanry from just outside Exeter and the 25th Dragoons galloped out from Exeter. But it seems that Buller was able to persuade the men to disperse without violence. When they departed the women remained as “words won’t feed our families.” But there is no record of the Cornwall Militia playing any part in the action. Perhaps this is as well, for in Seaford and Newhaven that day, the Militias joined the rioters.

Cornwall militia button

Royal Cornwall Militia Button

Crediton April Cattle Market

Crediton High Street with April Great Market


"... or Stokingham, a village, a parish, and a sub-district, in Kingsbridge district, Devon. The village stands 5 miles ESE of Kingsbridge, and 15 SSE of Kingsbridge-Road r[ailway]. station; was once a market-town; and has a post-office under Kingsbridge. The parish contains also four other villages, two hamlets, and a coastguard station; and comprises 5,671 acres of land, and 340 of foreshore. Rated property, £6,052. Pop., 1,566. Houses, 327.... The living is a vicarage, united with Chivelstone and Sherford, in the diocese of Exeter. Value, £695. Patron, the Crown. The church is later English. There are two dissenting chapels and a national school.

Thus was Stokenham described in Wilson's Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales in 1870-1872

Stokenham villageThe fourth branch of my family originated in Stokenham, in the South Hams of Devon, home to the Pitts family and the Prettyjohns, Loyes, Coles, Randalls . And there too connections with the Crockers and the Blacklers. The parish covers the whole of the southern half of Start Bay from Slapton Sands to Start Point and on to Lannacombe Beach.  The other communities to which Wilson referred include Torcross, Beesands, Hallsands, Kellaton, Kernborough, Dunstone, Beeson, Chillington as well as the village of Stokenham itself.  White  tells us that "several of them are fishing villages, noted for fine crabs, which are in high repute in  London."

In 1917 the small fishing village of Hallsands suffered a disaster when January storms overwhelmed the pebble defences of the seawall, and during two days of storms and high tides, all but one of the houses in the village were destroyed. From 1897 on, sand and gravel had been taken from the seabed further along the coast to enlarge the Naval Dockyard at Keyham, and during the next four years some 660,000 tonnes of material

Hallsands fishermen 

Hallsands before and after the storm of 1917

Hallsands in ruins

were removed. What was not known was the disastrous effect this would have on the stability of coastal defences. The villagers were alarmed when the level of the beach began to drop. Eventually the danger was recognised and the dredging stopped. But the damage was done. In 1903 the sea undermined the London Inn which started to collapse. Over the next decade the sea continued to destabilise the shore, just waiting for the dangerous combination of high tide and easterly winds which occurred in January 1917. During that fateful two days, the whole village lost their homes and livelihood. According to Pathe Newsreel footage from 1960, the last inhabitant of the village was Miss Elizabeth Prettejohn.

The Pitts family, as with the Mid-Devon ancestors, are found in many of the nearby parishes - Modbury, South Pool, Chivelstone, Ugborough, Sherford, Aveton Gifford, Loddiswell, Kingsbridge and Thurlestone.

Fishing and farming form the economic foundation for this part of the South Hams. But unlike the Blacklers, with whom I share South Devon ancestors, and who spawned several generations of sailors, the Pitts turned their back on the sea, and were mostly farmers, though there is a family tradition they were involved in smuggling spirits during the Napoleonic wars.

But...Heards or not Heards?

In June 2013 Family Tree DNA advised me that they had found an exact match for my Y-DNA at 37 markers, which means that I was definitely related to this person through our direct male line. It was very exciting to learn about this stranger who was definitely related to me. Where would his Heard line link with mine?

Alas things are rarely that straightforward in Family History. The matched DNA was that of a gentleman in Canada, whose paternal ancestors were not Heards at all, but Lewises. How could that be? We discovered that we have Hartland in common in our male lines. He knew for sure that his g-g-grandfather John Lewi(e)s lived in Hartland , though he could not be certain who was his g-g-g-grandfather Lewis. I know for certain that my g-g-g-g-grandfather was from Hartland. I can only speculate as to which of the Heards there was my g-g-g-g-g-grandfather.

What the matching DNA with different male surnames indicates is that there were some extra-marital hi-jinks perhaps, between a Heard and a Lewis. Research undertaken by Peter Murray of Canada suggests that  an unmarried Elizabeth Heard who gave birth to a bastard son Dominick, in 1672, perhaps owed his arrival to a Lewis father, and our lines descended from that bastard and his father. The legitimate descendants from that Lewis maybe settled eventually in Canada. Further work undertaken by Peter Murray has identified the ancestors of the various branches of Hartland Heards, and their economic activities and birth dates, by process of elimination strongly indicates that it was Dominick's descendants whose John Heard joined the Royal Cornwall Militia, and moved to Sandford.

Heards distribution map in1881 UK

Heard: derived from the Old English word herde, which in turn comes from the Old English heird, meaning herd. An occupational name indicating that an early ancestor  tended domestic animals, a herdsman. Variations - Herd, Hurd, Hird, Hirde, Hearde; also Herdman and Heardman.  

The map shows the  1881 Heard surname distribution in Great Britain.  The prevalence of Heards in parts of South Wales reveals migrants from North Devon.  Recent research initiated by Mr Peter Murray in Canada not only provides an explanation for the Lewis DNA link, but also, contrary to my beliefs that our Heards had remained in North Devon, reveals that many of our North Devon Heard cousins moved to South Wales, particularly Newport, Monmouthshire.  The Essex, Nottinghamshire and Borders Heard clusters seem to represent Heard Close signquite different families. The spellings Herd and Hurd are differently distributed. In 1880 the Heards in the USA were concentrated in Texas, Illinois, Missouri, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.  Today ranked 1,140th most common surname in the USA. Most of the US Heards seem to have traced their origins back to Ireland.

Hartland, North Devon: "Its original name was Hertiland-- The land or home of one called Hert. This name later became Heard. That is why the Heard family is known as the oldest family within Hartland." Thus proposed the Rev. Fred Pennington to the Hartland Society in 1997. The prevalence of Heards in Hartland is reflected in this street name there.

What they worked at

The Heards and their relatives were predominantly humble folk. Most of them worked on the land. Many were, in the language of the family historian, "Ag Labs". And many were farmers. And herdsmen, shepherds, cowmen, carters, ploughmen, dairymen and dairywomen...In the database of our families the number of farmers and farm workers were five times the number of the next most common occupation - domestic servants. And with origins in Devon,many more worked at occupations that relied on the farming community - slaughtermen, butchers, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, saddlers, agricultural implement makers, millers...

domestic servantsA few generations were cordwainers - boot and shoemakers who jealously guarded this designation, that implied working with new leather, unlike cobblers, who worked with old. The Feys were carpenters. The Turners and Wrights were blacksmiths and ironworkers. The Berrys were thatchers and builders. The Picketts were tailors and shopkeepers, the Greenslades millers.

Domestic servants, including grandmother on the leftWestwood  smithy

Great grandfather William Turner at his Westwood smithy, centre

Of course, not all the families appearing on these pages were from a rural background. Several of our in-laws worked in the industrial centres of the North and Scotland, and Donalds, Boydells and Wilkinsons all worked in cotton mills. For some of the families the occupations began as skilled cottage craftsmanship, and as the industrial revolution and its factories took over, subsequent generations would often be working in the same trade, but with the craft skills gone, replaced by machines, with opportunities for men women and children to supply the unskilled factory labour that meant lives so radically different from those their parents had lead. This happened even in Crediton where several of the family worked in the towns boot and shoe factories. And in both town and country there were family members who were clerks, and teachers.

DressmakerincottageAcross all classes it was unusual for women to work after marriage. Some of course did. But before marriage the women of our families were often employed as dressmakers, seamstresses, milliners, domestic servants, weavers, school teachers, shop assistants, dairy maids.There was little breaking of the stereotypes for our women.

There were a good number of ancestors both male and female who were recorded as paupers. But as can be seen throughout this web site, there were an extraordinary range of occupations, and many classes are represented here too.