To the north of Littleham, centred around St John’s in the Wilderness Church, is the tiny manor (an ancient name for parish) of Withycombe Barton, based on the former manor house of that name.

A church has been here for over a thousand years and the present church originally dates from 1381 to 1435. In Saxon times the manor was held by a woman, Alveva, under the lordship of Gytha, mother of King Harold who was defeated by William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings. The settlement would have consisted of the manor house, probably a wooden structure with thatched roof, and adjoining farm. The manor, as the parish was referred to in Saxon times, retained its name of Withycombe Barton until late in the 11th century. Withycombe, from the Saxon, is said to mean a wide valley.

Prior to the Norman Conquest Withycombe included East Budleigh but not Withycombe Barton. The manor was given by William the Conqueror to William de Clavill, from whose descendants it became known as Withycombe Claville. From 1150 the manor of Withycombe was in the care of various religious orders and then purchased in 1273 by Sir Hugh Raleigh whose family held it from the Priory of Canonsleigh, founded by the Clavilles. The rent they paid for this was set at 'a pair of white gloves or 1/2d per annum'. The Raleighs, including the father of the famous Elizabethan explorer Sir Walter Raleigh, occupied the manor for at least two hundred years. Their name of Withycombe Raleigh came into being as it is still known as today absorbing the small manor or parish of Withycombe Barton. It was then purchased by the illegitimate descendants of Sir Walter’s eldest brother George and then it passed through Sir Nicholas Hooper to his son-in-law, John Bassett MP, after whom Bassett Park and Bassets Farm is named. Bassett sold it in 1756 to William Jackson and then it passed to Edward Divett in 1801 and continued to be held by the owners of Bystock until 1911.

The original Saxon manor house was eventually replaced by several different houses over the centuries. The present Barton House, which sits on the corner of the road leading to the church, is probably Victorian. It was split into two residences back in the 1980s; Barton House and Wilderness House, and the photograph shows the whole property including the magnificent chimneys. It is difficult to exactly date Barton House as there is no mention of any occupants in the censuses until 1871. The current owner of Wilderness House, when he purchased it, was given a handwritten deed which is very faded and the date of this is either 1817 or 1871. Bearing in mind that there is no census entry until that year, that could indicate that Barton House was indeed built in Victorian times. Adjacent to it are more modern dwellings, all from the old farm buildings.

The 1871 census shows that the house was occupied by Thomas Marks, 48, a farmer of 390 acres. He lived there with his wife, Grace, 46, and their children John, 18, James 12, and daughters Alma, 14 and Mary, 12 and Edith,4. They employed three agricultural labourers, all living in, John Peacock, 64, William Bucknell, 26 and William Elliot, 15.

By the time we get to the 1881 census the above family have moved on and we find another Marks, John, 49, a farmer of 262 acres, his sister, Mary, 45, housekeeper and Frances Marks, 19, his niece living there. The 1891, 1901 and 1911 census has no entries for the house.

What happened after that has not been discovered so if you can help please get in touch. I am indebted to Mike Newby, the owner of Wilderness House, for his assistance with research into Withycombe Barton.

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