What's in a Name - Crowther's Hill
A challenge to walk up and a beautiful place from which to see the whole town of Dartmouth laid out below you – but where does the name of Crowther’s Hill come from? It’s not that straightforward…
The root of Crowther’s Hill’s name is not as clear as it might be, but the hill will always be inextricably linked to the town’s development and most dramatic episodes.
Names in any town are things which evolve, change and shift – but there is often a clear reasoning behind where they come from or what they refer to.
But when it comes to Crowther’s Hill, it would seem less than straightforward to get to the bottom of why Crowther was chosen.
There seem to be few, if any, notable men of the name to blame, and the multiple spellings it also endured during the years - Crow Tor, Crowter, Crotor, Crowders and Croters were all used – only seek to muddy the water further.
The evidence seems rather scant: the recent and well-respected books on the town’s history by Ray Freeman and Percy Russell, usually the first port of call for any researcher looking into Dartmouth’s history, fail to mention a root for the name.
There are a few references out there for those that look however.
Some references in various texts provide clues which could solve the mystery, and it also illustrates the way that economics have changed in the last five hundred years.
The word name Crowther actually connected with a profession – that of making stringed musical instruments (see pic. below). The Crowth or Crwth (pronounced Crooth) was a six-stringed instrument – rather like a violin but with a large square body - which was prominent in mediaeval music. Those who made them were known as Crowthers.
Economics changed during the industrial revolution – which, incidentally, started in Dartmouth with the remarkable Thomas Newcomen’s atmospheric engine – so that people would go TO a place of work.
But before this the ‘cottage industry’ was the prevalent means of earning a living for those who did not work the land. Dartmouth was full of houses which lacked men – those who went to sea to earn their keep – and their families stayed behind them and had to earn some money too to allow them to live – however meagre that living was.
Cottage industries abounded among the hills of Devon, with lace, sewing and weaving being the basis of many families income.
Many processes, such as building an instrument for example, were broken down into different jobs, which were undertaken by different people in their homes, rather like different parts of a car being made on different production lines and then put together today.
It seems that there were several places on Crowther’s Hill which were part of a cottage industry producing these violin-like instruments. However, this could have been just one home with a Crowther living there – it is, frankly, all a bit unsure.
But the hill is more than just the historical home of instrument constructors – it was always integral to the town and its well being - sometimes through being a route in and out, and sometimes as a place to house its sick.
It was chosen as the place to put those unfortunate enough to contract Bubonic Plague when it swept through the south of England in 1627.
When the first deaths occurred in May, the town went into panic – hundreds of Dartmouth’s rich people simply upped sticks and left, as with many natural disasters, those already lucky enough to have money got away much easier than those with little.
But the sufferers, most of them the town’s poorest people were boarded up into their own houses and left to die.
But it wasn’t enough – and if the town was to survive, its leaders had to act decisively. The Mayor, Andrew Voysey, aware that the crisis threatened the very fabric of the community he represented, ordered in June that two special ‘pest houses’ were built on Crowthers Hill. Those suspected of having the disease were told to move into the pest houses, or again would be boarded up. The town lost 90 people in the outbreak.
Dartmouth’s geography has always been a big influence on the way the town has developed - has driven its residents to change their home to fit their needs.
In 1828 the steepness of the road - and if you have had to carry heavy bags of shopping up it you will know exactly what I’m talking about - was a big influence on the decision to reclaim the Mill Pool and build the ‘New’ road out of town.
This road, now known as Victoria, was a boon to Dartmouth, allowing carts and the supplies they carried to come into the town – reducing the town’s dependence on the river.
First Published September 2011 By The Dart