13 of the greatest Devonians: Our most famous historical figures

PUBLISHED: 08:48 04 June 2019 | UPDATED: 09:45 04 June 2019

Sir Francis Drake, Plymouth Hoe (c) nikkijw, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Sir Francis Drake, Plymouth Hoe (c) nikkijw, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)


These figures from British history played a massive role in creating the cultural landscape of not only Devon, but of our country as a whole. To fully immerse yourself in their lives, we’ve also listed where in Devon you can experience these 13 legends’ legacies

1) Sir Francis Drake | 1540 - 1596

Born in Tavistock as the eldest of 12 brothers, this privateer and explorer is frequently hailed as one of the greatest Englishmen even though his involvement in the slave trade has tarnished his modern reputation to a certain extent.

Largely seen as one of the finest captains in the world by the English - he was the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe - the Spanish saw him as a marauding pirate and gave him the moniker 'El Draque' (The Dragon).

Where to experience his life: Drake's exploits saw him accrue considerable wealth and in 1580 he purchased Buckland Abbey, a grand house now owned by the National Trust. Plymouth Hoe - location of his legendary game of bowls that took place as the Spanish fleet approached - and Tavistock are also both home to statues depicting Drake's incredible adventures.


2) Dame Agatha Christie | 1890 - 1976

As the best-selling novelist of all time, it's a near certainty that you've either read one of the 66 detective novels written by this Torquay-born author or watched one of the many small (or big) screen adaptations starring iconic sleuths Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple.

Devon's influence is found all over her work: Poirot was based on a Belgian refugee she came across in Torquay, she wrote her first novel in the Moorland Hotel in Dartmoor, while Burgh Island was the inspiration behind the setting for And Then There Were None. Mystery was also a considerable part of her personal life as her 10-day disappearance still remains largely unexplained, though she claimed amnesia.

Where to experience her life: Devon is a huge part of Christie's writing and nowhere has been more influential than her home on the River Dart, the Greenway Estate. Head down to the boathouse to see the scene of the crime depicted in Dead Man's Folly and wander the grounds to pick out settings used in the TV episode of the same name.


3) Captain Robert Falcon Scott | 1868 - 1912

Best known as 'Scott of the Antarctic', this Devonport-born naval officer and explorer is best known for leading two expeditions to one of the most hostile environments on the planet, the latter of which ended with his death. Discoveries made on both trips greatly influenced a number of scientific fields and fossils found just months before his death helped prove that the world was once a supercontinent.

After passing through cadet training at HMS Britannia in Dartmouth, Scott's reputation as a stoic, determined leader saw him appointed head of the 1901 Discovery Expedition that went further south than any other previous exploration. Nearly 11 years after the start of the first expedition, Scott and four others reached the South Pole an agonising five weeks later than Norwegian Roald Amundsen. On the return journey bad weather - at times reaching -40C - and consistent bad luck saw Scott reach his final resting place just 11 miles from a supply drop.

Where to experience his life: In Devonport a statue memorialises Scott in Mount Wise Park while a plaque commemorates his place of birth on Outlands Road. Head an hour up the road to Exeter Cathedral to see a flag that was attached to Scott's sledge during his first expedition to the antarctic.


4) George Monck | 1608 - 1670

An astute political tactician and ruthless general, Monck played a key role in the events leading up to the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 and so his impact on the cultural landscape of the United Kingdom is inexorable. Born in Merton in 1608 into a family of high esteem - his grandfather had been Mayor of Exeter three times - Monck first became a distinguished soldier fighting in Spain, France and the Netherlands.

Back in Britain, he took charge of forces in Scotland and became friends with republican Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell despite rumours that Monck was keen to restore Charles II to the throne. In the face of political upheaval, Monck refused to openly commit himself to either side and received great public acclaim for avoiding unnecessary bloodshed. After he secretly negotiated Charles' return and restoration, his status was such that he was even trusted to govern London during the plague outbreak and the Great Fire of 1666.

Where to experience his life: Potheridge - the estate where he was born - is now an outdoor adventure base for children while the parish church at St Giles in the Wood still bears Monck's coat of arms.

George Monk


Here are some more of Devon's influential people:


5) Sir John Bowring | 1792 - 1872

A multi-talented author, politician and economist, Bowring was Governor of Hong Kong for over four years and could allegedly speak 100 languages. Born in Exeter and educated partly in Moretonhampstead, he developed the traits that would make him such a prominent figure in Victorian life after travelling extensively as a trader - a time during which he spent time in prison for being falsely suspected as a spy.

By the mid 1850s Bowring had forged a reputation as a well-respected MP and writer, a standing that would secure him consular positions in China and eventually the role he is best known for, Governor of Hong Kong. During his tenure he experienced mixed results when attempting democratic reform but his legacy remains there today as he established the territory's botanic gardens and greatly increased access to education.

Where to experience his life: Bowring was the president of the Devon and Exeter Institution - a library dedicated to Devon's history in Exeter's Cathedral Close - from 1860-61 and a marble bust still resides there in his memory.

Central District, Hong Kong from my Apartment in Mid-Levels

6) Sir Walter Raleigh | 1552 - 1618

Another iconic Briton who is known internationally on a similar level to Sir Francis Drake, Raleigh was an explorer, spy, politician and writer from the Elizabethan era. Even though he was instrumental in establishing some of the first colonies in America, he is perhaps best known for contributing to the legend of 'El Dorado' through his exaggerated accounts of exploring the Americas.

Born at Hayes Barton in East Budleigh, he was a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I - he famously laid down his cloak for her to cross a muddy puddle - and popularised smoking at court although he was not the first man to bring tobacco to the country as many believe. After Elizabeth died his popularity faded, and, after pushing his luck with the Spanish on a second expedition to 'El Dorado', he was executed by the English monarchy to appease the Spaniards.

Where to experience his life: As well as a statue in East Budleigh - appropriately part-funded by a tobacco company - you can see his childhood home from the outside and visit the church he attended as a boy while the Raleigh Estate on the River Dart was established by Raleigh's descendants.

Sir Walter Raleigh at the National Portrait Gallery

7) Thomas Newcomen | 1664 - 1729

Without the steam engine the Industrial Revolution may well have not occurred when it did and the course of history could be entirely different - we, therefore, really do have a lot to thank Newcomen for.

Born in Dartmouth, he invented the first ever practical steam engine in 1712 which was widely used throughout Britain and Europe to pump water out from mines as they dug ever deeper for natural resources. Despite many others quickly iterating upon his initially inefficient design, Newcomen had laid the building blocks for countless other modern innovations and conveniences we take for granted today.

Where to experience his life: One of the last few surviving working examples of Newcomen's engines sits in The Engine House in Dartmouth while a trip on the iconic Dartmouth Steam Railway will allow you to experience the technology inspired by Newcomen's groundbreaking work.

SR Bulleid Merchant Navy 35028 "Clan Line" Waterside 20/8/17

8) Sir Francis Chichester | 1901 - 1972

Just five years before his death, Francis Chichester, then aged 65, was welcomed back into Plymouth by 250,000 ecstatic onlookers after becoming the first person to complete a solo circumnavigation of the globe from West to East.

Prior to achieving the feat that earned him his knighthood, Chichester, born in Barnstaple, had already been pushing the boundaries of what many thought was possible from a single individual. After becoming the first man to fly solo over the Tasman Sea from New Zealand to Australia, he won the inaugural single-handed transatlantic yacht race having suffered from a serious lung illness shortly before.

Where to experience his life: You can stay in The Devon Manor House - Chichester's childhood home - and visit Arlington Court, the ancestral home of the Chichesters. A bronze plaque lies on Plymouth Hoe to commemorate his groundbreaking achievement.


9) Sir Richard Francis Burton | 1821 - 1890

Capable of speaking 29 different languages, Sir Richard Francis Burton was at once an explorer, soldier, spy, cartographer, fencer and diplomat with a knowledge of culture rivalled by few others in the world. Incredibly, most of these talents were entirely self-taught, making his achievements - like making a trip to Mecca in disguise while Europeans were entirely forbidden - all the more astonishing.

Despite being born in Torquay, Burton - whose nicknames and aliases include Ruffian Dick, Mirza Abdullah the Bushri and Hâjî Abdû El-Yezdî - largely grew up while travelling extensively with his parents, likely contributing to his extraordinary career. His contributions to public life in Britain are many and varied but his most unusual has to be the translation of the Kama Sutra into English.

Where to experience his life: As may well be appropriate for Burton, you will have to travel a little to find where you'll be able to best experience his legacy. The Sir Richard Francis Burton Museum is located in St Ives and its design is inspired by his smoking room in Trieste.

Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton in disguise for trip to Mecca - 1850s [gri_2008_r_3_35_1clau_recto]

10) Samuel Taylor Coleridge | 1772 - 1834

Born into a well-regarded family in Ottery St Mary - his father was a local vicar and headmaster while his grandfather had previously been mayor of South Molton - Coleridge was one of the founders of the Romantic Movement alongside his good friend William Wordsworth.

Coleridge took regular walks in Exmoor and although not explicitly cited in his work, the magnificent scenery in the area was an influence on some of his greatest poems including the iconic Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Even though his severe opium addiction undoubtedly contributed to the health issues that eventually lead to his death, it also gave him the hallucinatory insight to write Kubla Khan.

Where to experience his life: The Coleridge Way 51-mile walking route takes you through some of the poet's regularly trodden spots in Exmoor, the Quantocks and down to Lynmouth. There is also a plaque on the churchyard wall in his memory back in Ottery St Mary.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, portrait

11) Charles Kingsley | 1819 - 1875

While many on this list are remembered through a statue, plaque or their contribution to society, novelist Charles Kingsley has a whole place named after one of his historical novels Westward Ho!. As the only place name in the UK to contain an exclamation mark, Kingsley and his work will always be remembered by visitors to the village in the Torridge district.

Born in Holne and brought up in Clovelly, Kingsley has strong connections to the county and that is reflected in Westward Ho! as the novel begins in Bideford before following the explorations of Devonians Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh. Continuing his affection for the county, Two Years Ago is renowned for its vivid depiction of North Devon landscapes.

Where to experience his life: Westward Ho! is a holiday resort suitable for all sorts of needs and is conveniently located to explore other iconic parts of the county like Hartland Point and Saunton Sands. To see Kingsley's likeness there is a statue erected on The Quay in Bideford.

Westward Ho!

12) Sir Joshua Reynolds | 1723 - 1792

After learning under Thomas Hudson - a fellow artist from Devon - Joshua Reynolds became the leading British portrait artist of the 18th century and would later found the Royal Academy of Arts alongside Exeter-born illustrator Francis Hayman.

Born in Plympton, Reynolds' love for art was greatly influenced by his older sister Mary Palmer who had written Devonshire Dialogue, a thorough and definitive account of the culture and dialect unique to Devon. By the time of his death Reynolds had gained his knighthood from King George III and ensured his legacy through paintings of some of the most notable figures of the 18th century.

Where to experience his life: Reynolds attended Plympton Grammar School and although the school has now moved to a new site, the original building can be still be seen in George Lane, Castle Barbican. There is also a pub named after him in Plymouth and, unusually, a choir that similarly takes his name.

Sir Joshua Reynolds

13) Hannah Cowley | 1743 - 1809

You may well have heard of The Belle's Stratagem - Cowley's most enduring and successful play - but you may not know anything about the woman who wrote it. Born in Tiverton, Cowley has bemused historians and social observers of her time because despite gaining considerable professional success, she never fully embraced her fame and left scarce records of her troubled personal life.

Premiering in 1780, the play was ahead of its time by questioning the social injustices faced by women at the time, issues that many feel are just as pertinent today. Noted for her witty and fluid dialogue, the legend goes that she only started writing after watching a poor production and she was inspired to do better - thank God that play was so bad!

Where to experience her life: After growing tired of cosmopolitan life, Cowley returned to Tiverton and fragments of her headstone can now be found at the town's museum while her grave can be visited in St George's Church. The Belle's Stratagem is regularly reproduced today so keep an eye out for local productions.

(L-R) John Kielty, Helen Mackay, Richard Conlon, Nicola Roy, Pauline Knowles. Photo credit: Mihaela Bodlovic.


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