MUSEUM UPDATE: The Ottery Heritage Museum is now open in the Old Town Hall from 10am to 4pm daily except Sunday.
How Ottery Began
The large Saxon estate of Ottery, which predates the present parish (and shares its boundary) was also a hundred. The town, hundred and parish all share the same name of Ottery St Mary, making it difficult to tease out the town's history from the records, which almost always refer to the hundred as a whole. Many of the villages and hamlets that are part of the 10000acre parish, including Alfington, Wiggaton, Tipton, Fluxton and Gosford, are therefore seldom found in the record.
All these settlements were in existence before the Norman accession, but only Ottery, as the geographical focus, acquired a church (by 1145) and then a market and fair (1226) and finally an ecclesiatical college in 1338, so became the cultural and economic centre of the parish.
Ottery first appears in the record in 963AD when King Edgar granted a slice of the parish to Wulfhelm, one of his advisors at court. The boundaries of this grant are set out in a charter detailing the grant. In 1061AD the entire parish was granted by Edward the confessor to the Dean and Chapter of Rouen Cathedral in Northern France. The text of the charters detailing these grants can be read on the historic documents page (Resources tab).
Domesday records the hundred in 1086 as having "land for 46 ploughs" which equates to around 4600acres of arable land, about half of which would be active in any one year. There was also substantial pasture, meadow, woodland and waste (common land). Ottery's (town) population at this time would have been around 250, and the parish as a whole stood at about 1000. This had doubled by the middle of the 14th century, after which the black death reduced it to pre conquest level, and population figures remained depressed until the late 18th century when the parish once again contained just over 2000 people.
The town lived by trade, particularly in wool and lace, but in the 16th century those industries declined, and we also lost the College in the dissolution, leaving Ottery as a quiet market town, keeping its head above water by providing goods and services to the parish's large agricultural hinterland. As the 19th century rolled on, Ottery lost ground to Honiton, which was on the new railway network, and to the coastal towns, Sidmouth and Exmouth, which were growing as a result of the increasing popularity of tourism.
Today we are growing again as the charms of East Devon's countryside and coast draw people here to live, many of whom work in Exeter, or who have retired here. Since 1945 the town has doubled in size, although it remains a fairly closely knit community. The growth of the town and its future is a topic of much local debate, as we try to reconcile the varying requirements of modern day Ottregians, with what might be the requirements of future Ottregians.
The best summary of our history is in John Whitham's book called simply "Ottery St Mary". It is currently out of print, but crops up on ebay and Amazon occasionally. The Society also publishes books and pamphlets on local topics - these are detailed in the Resources section.