North Devon in 100 Objects: 46. The Buckland Brewer Tiles

A decorative tile made from Fremington clay.

You can still see tiles like this built into the floors of some North Devon churches.  This one was removed from Buckland Brewer Church.

The potters in the Barnstaple-Bideford area of North Devon had started making tiles like this by the 17th century, with designs raised in relief above a flat background. Some are dated and indicate a production which was well under way by 1655, and flourished at least until 1708.  Some also have the initials of the tile makers, who included Nathaniel Leachland, born in Barnstaple in 1679.

The tiles are made from local Fremington clay, with lots of river gravel to make sure the thick tiles don’t break during firing. The most common design is a fleur de lys, but geometric patterns are also well known. The tiles were shaped in carved wooden moulds, with many tiles form the same mould. Sometimes the moulds were used on different objects, such as heavy clay firedogs or firebacks.

This tile from Buckland Brewer has perhaps the most interesting pattern the tile makers used.  It is sometimes called “the Smoking Indian” and is thought to represent a Native American man in a feathered head-dress smoking tobacco.  He may even represent the individual who was brought from North Carolina to Bideford by Sir Richard Grenville and baptised “Raleigh” in 1588.  Sadly, he died of the flu the following year.

Grenville was responsible for changing Bideford from a fishing village into a significant trading port, which became second only to London for tobacco imports.

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