We begin our walk in the shadow of Totnes’s Norman Castle for a flavour of the town’s rebellious origins. Founded as a royal burgh, Totnes still belonged to the king at the time of the Norman conquest. William granted it, together with 107 other manors in Devon, to Juhel who was deprived of his lands for rebellion just 20 years later.
Our next stop takes us to Totnes’s Guildhall, the civic centre of the town for over 450 years and a site of numerous protests. Throughout the eighteenth century, labourer’s wages in Devon remained virtually unchanged. As the century went by, food prices soared and the possibility of starvation loomed large as people tried — and failed — to make static wages cover all their needs. From the 1760s onwards, people began to take to the streets to demonstrate growing frustration with the merchants they suspected of hoarding supplies to increase their profits. The 1801 bread riots in Totnes are thought to have spread from nearby Dartmouth aided by the dense networks of roads and market towns of South and East Devon. The stability and density of social networks such as political clubs and militant workers associations encouraged the evolution of local traditions of bargaining by riot.
We pause briefly outside of one of Totnes’s 42 independent coffee stores to consider a more modern rebellion. The fight back against Costa Coffee began as rumours of the chain’s interest in the town in May 2012. A dynamic ‘No to Costa’ campaign created ‘Clonestopping’ posters, organised a march on the town hall, and collected 260 letters of objection and 5,000 petition signatures in a town of just 8,000. But the group’s tactics weren’t just about opposition: the launch of an annual ‘Barrista Challenge’ celebrated the town’s independent coffee shops. The town council eventually voted in support of the campaign, along with all of Totnes’s district councillors. This recent campaign recalls the radical history of the coffee house. In the eighteenth century, the coffee house occupied the centre of urban life, creating a distinctive social culture by treating all customers as equals. Gossip, dissent and sedition were exchanged and debated around their egalitarian tables.
We tend to think of progress as linear, but a brief stop on the High Street enables us to reflect on just how much more engaged politics was 100 years ago. Crowds awaiting the result at the declaration of the Mid-Devon poll in January 1910 would have packed streets such as these. Elections were a spectacle that enthused whole communities, particularly in rural areas where public entertainment was limited. Handbills of election songs were distributed for crowds to sing at meetings, often to the tune of music hall favourites. Voters and non-voters alike, women and children would have all gathered for the hustings.