Stevenstone is a former manor within the parish of St Giles in the Wood, near Great Torrington, North Devon. It was the chief seat of the Rolle family, one of the most influential and wealthy of Devon families, from c. 1524 until 1907. The Rolle estates as disclosed by the Return of Owners of Land, 1873 (corrected by Bateman, 1883) comprised 55,592 acres producing an annual gross income of £47,170, and formed the largest estate in Devon, followed by the Duke of Bedford's estate centred on Tavistock comprising 22,607 with an annual gross value of nearly £46,000.
From the Glorious Revolution of 1688 to the Reform Act of 1832 the county parliamentary representatives were chosen effectively from only ten great families, mostly territorial magnates. The three most dominant of these were the Bampfyldes of Poltimore House and North Molton, the Courtenays of Powderham Castle, and the Rolles of Stevenstone and Bicton. The Rolles were not from the mediaeval aristocracy as were the Courtenays, but were descended from an able lawyer and administrator of the Tudor era, as were the Russells, later Earls and Dukes of Bedford. Both Russells and Rolles acquired much former monastic land in Devon following the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Indeed, the Rolles were in the opinion of Hoskins (1954) "second only to the Russells in the extent of their monastic and other lands and in time were to surpass them".
In 1669 Sir John Rolle (died 1706), KB of Stevenstone had an annual income of £6,000 making him "one of the richest gentlemen in the country". He died in 1706 seized of more than 40 manors in Devon. The family built several different houses on the same site known as Stevenstone House, the last Victorian version of which was built between 1868 and 1872, but was demolished in two stages firstly by a reduction in size soon after 1912 and then after 1931 it was gradually demolished piecemeal for building materials.
Descent of the manor
John Prince in his "Worthies of Devon" gives the descent of Stevenstone as follows, based on the work of the Devon topographer Tristram Risdon, himself born within the parish of St Giles, at Winscott House. The earliest recorded holder of the manor was Michael de Stephans, who granted it to Richard Basset, the father of Elias Basset, who granted it to Walter de la Lay, or Ley. His descendant John de Lay changed his name to John de Stephenston. The overlord who was then a later Elias Basset, lord of the manor of Beaupier in Wales, released all his interest in Stevenstone to John de Stevenstone. He was followed by another John, Walter and John de Stephenston. The latter left a daughter Elizabeth de Stephenston his sole heiress, who brought the manor by marriage to her husband Grant of Westlegh, near Bideford. Grant was himself also lacking in male progeny and left two daughters joint heiresses, one of whom married Monk of Potheridge, whilst the other married a member of the Moyle family, who received Stevenstone as his wife's share of the inheritance. He made it his chief residence, and Prince suggests, on the basis of Tristram Risdon's assertion, that his descendant Sir Walter Moyle, a Justice of the King's Bench in 1454, was born here.
George Rolle (died 1552), MP, the founder of that family in Devon, purchased the estate not long before 1524. He was probably born in Dorset, rose to prominence as a lawyer in London, and had as clients several monastic houses in Devon. One of his most prominent clients was Arthur Plantagenet, 1st Viscount Lisle (died 1542), whom he served as legal counsel until the latter's death. He served as MP for Barnstaple in 1542 and again in 1545.
The male descendants up to 1842 of George Rolle included about twenty Members of Parliament. In 1842 died the last of the male line, John Rolle, 1st Baron Rolle (1750-1842), descended from George Rolle's second son George Rolle (died 1573) of the manor of Marrais in the parish of Week St Mary in Cornwall, which manor had been procured for him by his father who had obtained the wardship of Margaret of Marrais and bequeathed the same in his will to his son George, who became her husband.
The descendants of George Rolle the patriarch's eldest son John Rolle (died 1570) failed in the male line in 1642 on the death of the infant John Rolle (1638-1642). Stevenstone and several other manors which had by then been accumulated by purchase and inheritance from heiresses, passed eventually to Sir John Rolle (1626-1706), the grandson of George Rolle (died 1573) of Marrais. Some of the estates of the patriarch's fourth son Henry Rolle of Heanton Satchville, Petrockstowe, also reverted to the line of George Rolle of Marais on the failure in the male line in 1747 on the death of Samuel Rolle of Hudscott, Chittlehampton.
Descent in Rolle family
- George Rolle (died 1552), MP. Purchased Stevenstone pre-1524.
- John Rolle (1522–1570), eldest son, husband of Margaret Ford (died 1570) commemorated by monumental brass in St Giles Church.
- Sir Henry Rolle (1545-1625), eldest son, married firstly Elizabeth Watts, daughter and heiress of Roger Watts of Somerset, secondly a Fortescue, daughter of John Fortescue (1525-1595) of Fallapit, East Allington by his wife Honor Speccot (died 1606), whose monumental brasses exist in East Allington Church. His Exeter townhouse was the "Abbot's Lodge" (destroyed in 1942 during World War II bombing), in Cathedral Close within the precincts of Exeter Cathedral. He made alterations to that house and added decorative heraldic plaster escutcheons dated 1602, one of which showed Rolle impaling Watts, of six quarters (1st & 6th Watts: Argent, on a fesse vert between three eagle's heads erased sable as many crosses sarcelly of the first, the arms of Sir John Watts (died 1616), Lord Mayor of London in 1606) the other Rolle impaling Fortescue. The house had been the townhouse of the Abbot of Buckfast Abbey, which Abbey and much of its lands, including the Abbot's Lodge, had been acquired in 1545 by the patriarch George Rolle (d.1552) following the Dissolution of the Monasteries. It had been used by George Rolle as his townhouse, by the name of "Buckfast Place" and was the place of his death in 1552. In 1609 he purchased from William Howard, 3rd Baron Howard of Effingham (1577–1615) several of the larger former holdings of Barnstaple Priory in Pilton and Bradiford, whose family had held the lands since the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
- Denys Rolle (1614–1638), grandson. Sheriff of Devon 1636, one of Prince's Worthies of Devon, in which he is described as "The darling of his country in his time, adorn'd with all the desirable qualities that make a compleat gentleman. He was, though young, of a ready wit, a generous mind, and a large soul." Monument and effigy in the Rolle Mausoleum, Old Bicton Church. Son of Sir Henry Rolle (died 1617) (son of Elizabeth Watts and who predeceased his father), by his wife Anne Denys, heiress of Bicton.
- John Rolle (1638-1642), only son by his wife Margaret Poulett. Died an infant.
- Henry Rolle (1605-1647) of Beam House, Great Torrington. First cousin of Sir Henry Rolle (died 1617).
- Sir John Rolle (1626-1706), KB, MP. Second cousin, grandson of George Rolle of Marrais, Cornwall, second son of the patriarch George Rolle (died 1552). Married his cousin Florence Rolle, sister of the infant John Rolle (died 1642). Died seised of 40 manors in Devon, with an annual income in 1669 of £6,000. In 1669 he entertained Cosimo III de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany (1642-1723) at Abbot's Lodge, his Exeter townhouse, who in the detailed record of his visit described Rolle as "One of the richest gentlemen in the country".
- Robert Rolle (1677-1710), MP, grandson, son of John Rolle (died 1689) who predeceased his father.
- John Rolle (1679-1730), MP, brother. Married Isabella Walter.
- Henry Rolle, 1st Baron Rolle (1708-1750), eldest son.
- John Rolle Walter (1712-1779), MP, brother.
- Denys Rolle (1725–1797), MP, brother. Founded colonies in Palatka, Florida and Exuma, Bahamas. Inherited Hudscott from distant cousin Samuel Rolle (died 1747), descended from Henry Rolle of Heanton Satchville, Petrockstowe, 4th son of the patriarch George Rolle (died 1552).
- John Rolle, 1st Baron Rolle (1750-1842), MP, son. Last of the male line, died without progeny.
Forms of Stevenstone House
The earliest record of the form of the manor house is that given by John Leland (died 1552), who wrote : "There is an hamlet longging to Tarington toun not a mile by est from Tarington coullid S. Gilys, wher George Rolles hath buildid a right fair house of bryke". It is said by Hoskins (1954) to have been the first brick-built house in Devon. A letter survives dated 1539 from George Rolle to his illustrious client's wife Lady Lisle "from my poor house" of Stevenstone.
Two Palladian outbuildings serving as Orangery and "Library Room" were built next to the house by John Rolle (1679-1730), MP, and the Library shows above the keystone of its central arch the arms of Rolle impaling the arms of the Walter Baronets of Sarsden, Oxfordshire, the family of his wife Isabella Walter (died 1734). Hoskins states that the manor house itself was rebuilt or remodelled sometime in the 18th century, Pevsner states c. 1709, perhaps therefore at the same time as the building of the outbuildings. An engraving of this Georgian house survives, by James Bingley, published in 1831.
The house was demolished in 1868 by Hon. Mark Rolle (died 1907) who erected in its place between 1868-1872 to the design of Charles Barry Jr. (died 1900) a Victorian mansion in the "French Chateau style" (or "Franco-Italian style" as it was termed by a contemporary issue of Building News,) widely considered today to have been a building of little architectural merit. It sat within a deer park of 370 acres containing a large quantity of large and valuable trees. In the opinion of Hoskins writing in 1954: "Mark Rolle rebuilt the house again in the worst style of the time. The richest man in Devon built himself the ugliest house".
Sale and demolition
Trefusis, Baron Clinton
Following the death of Mark Rolle in 1907, the Rolle estates, extending to about 55,000 acres, which had been held by him as life tenant under the will of his aunt's husband John Rolle, 1st Baron Rolle (1750-1842), descended to his heir male his nephew Charles John Robert Hepburn-Stuart-Forbes-Trefusis, 21st Baron Clinton (1863–1957), of Huish
Lord Clinton sold Stevenstone by auction in 1912 to Captain John Oliver Clemson (1882-1915) and his wife Mary McKinnon, a wealthy heiress. Clemson was born 30 May 1882 in Crumpsall, Manchester the elder son of John Henry Clemson (1856-1889) of Parkside, Altrincham, Cheshire by his wife Sara Jane Oliver (b. 1855). He had one brother and four sisters.
In 1891 aged 8 he was living with his widowed mother at Brookfield House, Bury Old Road, Broughton, Salford. He attended Windermere College Preparatory School, in the parish of St Mary's Church Applethwaite, Windermere, in which church his name appears on a memorial tablet "Boys of the Old College who fell in the Great War". He later attended Sedbergh School between 1897 and July 1900. In the 1901 census he was residing at Red House, Windermere, as a boarder in a preparatory school with three other pupils. He matriculated at Exeter College, Oxford in 1901. He described himself in about 1909 as a "Gentleman farmer of Peagham (Barton), Torrington", which was one of the farms of the Stevenstone estate, about 3/4 mile north of Stevenstone House. On 10 July 1909 he applied for a commission in the Royal North Devon Hussars, and was commissioned as Second Lieutenant on 17 July 1909.
In 1911, unmarried and aged 28, he was staying at Bydown House, Swimbridge, near Barnstaple, as a guest of Robert Jameson and his wife Margaret (née McKinnon), who was the brother-in-law of Mary McKinnon, also then residing in the house, aged 28 and born in Calcutta, Clemson's future wife. In 1912 at Paddington, London, he married Mary McKinnon, 3rd daughter of the late John McKinnon of 10 Hyde Park Gardens, London. They had one daughter. The new owners demolished about half of the east front of the house including the main tower and one corner tower, to make it more manageable, presumably due to the war-time lack of domestic staff. He was Master of the Stevenstone Foxhounds.
Captain Clemson was mobilised on 4 August 1914 and sailed for Gallipoli on 24 September 1914, as part of the South Western Mounted Brigade, during which campaign he died from wounds on 9 December 1915. He is remembered by a monument in St Giles' Church inscribed as follows: "In Loving Memory of John Oliver Clemson, of Stevenstone, Captain Royal North Devon Hussars, who was killed in action in Gallipoli 9th December 1915, aged 33. A great and glorious thing it is to die for one's country". He is recorded on the Exeter College, Oxford Roll of Honour, and also on the Altrincham & District Roll of Honour.
His widow Mary erected a bronze memorial tablet in the church naming the twelve men of the parish who had lost their lives in World War I, reported on in the local press thus: "Following the unveiling by Mrs. Clemson, and the dedication by the Vicar (Rev. C. Walker), the "Last Post" and Reveille were sounded on cornets, and the effect was grand in its solemnity. Special hymns and psalms were sung by the choir, and the Vicar based his address on the significance of the memorial". His grave is in the Lala Baba Cemetery in Turkey. Mrs Clemson remarried to Col. B.C. James, 8th Devon Regiment, awarded the DSO on 1 January 1917, and remained at Stevenstone.
On 26 September 1930 the estate of Stevenstone was offered for sale by auction, including 665 acres. The property was auctioned again in May 1931, but with only 17 acres and was then described as comprising four reception rooms, 27 bed and dressing rooms and eight bathrooms. It failed to sell at £3,000. A further 300 acres were sold separately.
In the summer of 1931 the house and some of the parkland was purchased by Mr George Millman, the tenant of Winscott Barton (the ancient home of Tristram Risdon), by then part of the Stevenstone estate, within the parish of St Giles. He immediately offered it for sale as building materials prior to complete demolition, split into 609 lots. Lot 609 was the residual shell of the house itself after all else had been sold in the previous lots. Mr Millman however changed his intention against selling, but by then the auction could not be stopped. He bought-in as many lots as he could, and the house continued for a few more years, reduced in size again by the demolition of the servants' wing which connected the house to the stable block.
The house was still habitable during World War II as troops were stationed there, namely the Warwickshire Regiment and later American troops. After the war Mr Millman finally sold the house to Mr Melville, who contrary to his stated intention at the time of purchase, proceeded to demolish it. He used much of the stone to convert the stable block into terraced housing and built several smaller houses and bungalows around it and in the former walled kitchen garden.
In 1970 the vestigial ruins of Stevenstone House were purchased by Mr Parnell, who had purchased the Deer Park in the 1931 sale and had built a bungalow next to the ruins. Although the adjacent detached Library Room and the Orangery were granted Grade II* Listing on 4 October 1960, the ruins of Stevenstone House received much later on 16 February 1989 a Grade II Listing, offering them protection from demolition, but they have continued to deteriorate from adverse weather and are as at 2012 totally covered in ivy.
Around the ruined house exists in 2012 a hamlet of settlement, comprising the terraced houses of the former stable block, several bungalows within the walled kitchen garden, other new houses and the Torrington Farmers Hunt Kennels, previously the Stevenstone Hunt in the days of Mark Rolle. The Palladian outbuildings of the Library Room and the Orangery were purchased in July 1978 by the Landmark Trust and were restored and converted into revenue-producing rental accommodation.
- Hoskins, p.278
- Hoskins, p.296
- Hoskins, p.88. 3rd was the Earl of Devon with 20,589 acres worth £31,000, 4th was the Fortescue family of Castle Hill with 20,171 acres, worth over £17,000 p/a, 5th was the Duchy of Cornwall with 48,457 acres, much of it moorland, with an annual value of under £5,000
- Hoskins, p.183
- Hoskins, p.84
- Quoted from "Tour of the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1669", quoted in Hoskins, p.86
- Hoskins, p.87, Quoting Lysons, Magna Britannia, 82,b
- As seen on framed mural monument in Exford Church, Somerset, to Major Morland Greig (1864-1915), of Edgcott, Exford, Master of the Devon & Somerset Staghounds, killed in action at Gallipoli. The badge is also shown, but with the hand grasping a palm frond, sculpted on the mural monument in the Church of St Giles in the Wood, Devon, to Captain John Oliver Clemson (1882-1915) of Stevenstone, also killed fighting with the same regiment at Gallipoli.
- Hoskins, p.469
- Hawkyard, A. D.K. "ROLLE, George (by 1486-1552), of Stevenstone, Devon and London". History of Parliament Online. Retrieved 30 October 2013.
- "ROLLE, Samuel II (1669-1735), of Hudscott, Devon | History of Parliament Online". www.historyofparliamentonline.org. Retrieved 28 January 2019.
- Vivian, 1895, p.652, "MI St Giles"
- Vivian, 1895, p.653
- Vivian, 1895, p.365
- Will of Honor Speccot, wife of John Fortescue leaves a bequest to "My daughter the Lady Rolle"
- Robson, Thomas, The British Herald, Vol.2, London, 1850
- Devon Notes & Queries, Vol.9, 1916-17, pp.97-9: Armorial Bearings at the Abbot's Lodge, The Close, Exeter
- Reed, Margaret A., Pilton, its Past and its People, Barnstaple, 1985, pp.13, 28
- Prince, p.706
- Vivian, 1895, p.656
- Magalotti, Lorenzo, Conte, 1637-1712, Travels of Cosmo the Third, Grand Duke of Tuscany, through England during the Reign of King Charles the Second (1669), translated from the Italian manuscript in the Laurentian library at Florence. To which is prefixed, a memoir of his life.., 1821, p.129
- Hoskins, p.266
- Library Room, term used in will of Baron Rolle (died 1842), referring to the bequest of his books
- Pevsner, p.760
- Quoted by Pevsner, p.760
- White's Devonshire Directory of 1890, transcribed by Debbie Kennett
- Stags Estate Agents: "A rare opportunity to acquire a detached Deer Shelter with full planning to convert into a 2 bedroom property subject to a holiday restriction. Sought after location enjoying far reaching countryside views and approx 5 acres"
- Lauder, pp.10–11
- Cooke, William (2007). "Memorial to the Fallen Heroes of St Giles in the Wood". GENUKI/Devon. Retrieved 30 October 2013.
- "St Giles in the Wood Monumental Inscriptions". rootsweb. Retrieved 30 October 2013.
- "Dedicated to remembering person surname of Clemson of Altrincham that fought in WW1 for our freedom. Entry Number 181". Trafford War Dead. Retrieved 30 October 2013. Includes information from the 1911 census.
- Malpass, Robert (2010). "Exeter College Oxford - Roll of Honour 1914–1918" (PDF). p. 38. Archived from the original (PDF) on 3 November 2013. Retrieved 30 October 2013.
- Western Times, 29 May 1931, quoted in Lauder, pp.12-13
- The Millman family purchased the freehold of Winscott at the dispersal sale of the Rolle Estate
- Vivian, Lt.Col. J.L., (Ed.) The Visitations of the County of Devon: Comprising the Heralds' Visitations of 1531, 1564 & 1620, Exeter, 1895, pp. 652–656, pedigree of Rolle of Stevenstone
- Hoskins, W.G., A New Survey of England: Devon, London, 1959 (first published 1954)
- Lauder, Rosemary, Vanished Houses of North Devon, Tiverton, 2005, Stevenstone House pp. 7–20
- Pevsner, Nikolaus & Cherry, Bridget, The Buildings of England: Devon, London, 2004
- Prince, John, (1643–1723) The Worthies of Devon, 1810 edition, London, pp. 706–708, biography of Denys Rolle (1614–1638)