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2017 MEETING REVIEWS
January: "AGM & The New Newton Abbot Museum"
Following a short AGM, the meeting was handed over to Kate Green, who is a Community Engagement Officer working for Newton Abbot Town and GWR Museum. Kate described the plan to turn the redundant St Leonards Church in Newton Abbot into a new Town Museum and Council Chamber. The building has been empty for five years and has been acquired by Newton Abbot Town Council to replace the rather cramped and out of the way existing buildings in Devon Square. At present it is her role to engage community groups in a debate about what the new museum should look like and contain. She asked for our thoughts and suggestions, and received plenty of ideas.
It is planned to make an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund to create a modern and exciting community museum and council building.
February: "The Great Blizzard of 1891"
There was a change to the planned programme for February, with AbbPast Committee Member Peter Wade delivering two very different pieces of locally based history. His first was telling the remarkable story of The Great Blizzard of 1891 in the words of Dartmouth mariner, Capt. W H Angel. On 9 & 10 March a raging blizzard struck South Devon, with gale force winds driving the blizzard into huge snow drifts that buried animals and caused major disruption to transport, trapping Capt. Angel and his fellow travellers aboard the Kingsbridge to Dartmouth coach. He told his story in the local papers and Peter used this to describe the trials of Angel and his travelling friends and the huge loss of life on the seas off the South Hams. It was a different approach to telling the story as it was delivered as if by the master mariner, complete with cravat!
Peter then used his knowledge of village history to provide a variety of pictures from the last 100 years and then what those views look like today to show an “Abbotskerswell: Then & Now”. Beginning with the recently discovered view of ‘Bottom Bridge’, painted by Frederick Kerr in 1892, he used postcards and photographs to show how the village has changed and also stayed the same in that period. Here is an example from a postcard recently discovered.
This shows Prospect Cottage on the right in c.1935 and 2017.
The members appreciated a slightly different approach this month.
March: "Here's a Howdy Do - Coleton Fishacre & the D'Oyly Carte"
Our speaker for the March meeting was Jeremy Pearson, formerly Curator for the National Trust in the South-West, who told the story of the D’Oyly Carte family and the house that they had built at Coleton Fishacre, near Kingswear.
Rupert D’Oyly Carte was the heir to the fortune of his famous impresario and hotelier father, Richard, who staged the Gilbert and Sullivan operas. In 1907, Rupert married Lady Dorothy Milner Gathorne-Hardy, and in 1922 whilst sailing along the South Hams coastline, they spied Coleton Fishacre and decided build their country home there, and create a beautiful garden. There was a family connection with the area as The Pirates of Penzance had been premiered in England at the Royal Bijou Theatre in Paignton.
Rupert inherited the family businesses and after serving in WWI, he revitalised the opera company, presenting fresh productions of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas in seasons in the West End, as well as international and provincial tours; he also released the first complete recordings of the operas. He also rebuilt the Savoy Theatre in 1929. As an hotelier, he expanded the Savoy Hotel, and refreshed the other hotels and restaurants in the Savoy group, including Claridge's and the Berkeley Hotel.
The house at Coleton Fishacre was built between 1923 and 1926. The architect was Oswald Milne, a former assistant to Edwin Lutyens, who designed the house with a simplicity of design and quality of craftsmanship using the principles of the Arts and Crafts Movement. I was built of local slate rubble with a Delabole slate roof. As a weekend retreat it was well staffed, with a Butler, and three household servants, a Head Gardener and six under gardeners. The Chauffeur would meet the family and any visitors from London at Churston Railway Station. The gardens that run down from the house to the sea at Pudcombe Cove were originally planted by Lady Dorothy and featured rare and exotic plants which she acquired during her journeys abroad. The garden is Grade II* listed in the National Register of Historic Parks and Gardens. At Pudcombe Cove the family had a sea water pool constructed as well as a sunbathing terrace and a bathing hut. On the house wall there is a wind dial which indicated good sailing weather, and a bell on the side of the house which could be rung to call the family in from the cove at the bottom of the garden at meal times
In 1941, their daughter, Bridget, took over the house which she sold in 1949 to Rowland Smith, owner of the Palace Hotel in Torquay. It was his descendants who sold it to the National Trust in 1982, and it was opened the house to the public in 1999.
Despite some technical hitches, it was a really interesting evening.
April: "Raleigh & the Gilberts of Compton and Greenaway"
Our speaker for the April meeting was John Risdon, who was returning to the group for another of his amazingly informative talks about Torbay history; we were not disappointed, with one member saying they thought it was the best AbbPast talk that they had attended.
John’s talk focused on the family links between the famous merchant adventurers, the Gilberts from Compton Castle, pictured left, and the Raleighs (pronounced Rawleigh) who built Greenway Court, the forerunner of the famous house now on that site.
It was the marriage of Otho Gilbert to Katherine Champernowne where the story began, since Humphrey, one of their three children, would become a great soldier and adventurer and favourite of Queen Elizabeth 1. On Otho’s death Katherine married into the Raleigh family of East Devon, and this union produced Walter. The River Dart became the highway for the family business at Dartmouth, where they had ships and warehouses. First we learnt how Humphrey Gilbert used the Queen’s ‘Letters Patent’ to claim Newfoundland for the Queen and then search for the North West Passage around Canada to the Pacific Ocean, but died in the process.
Next we were told how his step-brother Walter Raleigh, whose charm and sophistication captivated the Queen, took over the ‘Letters Patent’ to found Virginia in North America and raid the Spanish treasure ships. However, despite his success he upset Elizabeth by marrying in secret without her permission and ended up in the Tower of London. Although released to sort out the fallout from the arrival of Spanish treasure ship at Dartmouth, he was eventually executed by James I.
The Gilbert’s and Raleigh’s were hugely important families in the area in Tudor times and left us with important houses and estates that can still be seen today. John never fails to disappoint, it was a fascinating evening
2016 MEETING REVIEWS
April: "Lost Devon"
Felicity Goodall was making her first visit to Abbotskerswell, and therefore to AbbPast, to give a talk on lost historical relics of Devon; this was based on her book of the same title. As a preface to her talk she explained that all the money she raises from her talks goes to the Thone Htet Kyaung Monastery School in Rangoon; this is a home for orphans and street children in Burma.
Felicity gave us six varied examples of lost Devon artefacts beginning with the lost library of Bishop Leofric of Exeter. His 70 book library from around AD1050 seems to have been dispersed, possibly to the Bodleian in Oxford, although the treasured ‘Exeter Book’ of Saxon stories was saved for the city. Moving in a totally different direction we learned of Devon’s rabbit warrening, in man-made mounds called pillow mounds. Rabbits were once regarded as high status creatures and specially bred, the first written references to warrening refer to Devon.
In Felicity’s bright and chirpy way we were told of Rudyard Kipling’s early days at one of the first colleges for possible gentleman officers, this was the United Services College at Westward Ho which disappeared around 1906. Then it was the turn of the Devonport built HMS Foudroyant, reputed to be Nelson’s favourite ship, which was saved from the clutches of a German scrap yard and also the handmade paper industry of Tuckenhay Mill.
She finished her talk, with assistance of the audience, by telling the story of Brunel’s ill-fated atmospheric railway from Exeter to Newton Abbot. It was seen by Brunel as an alternative to heavy steam locomotives to tackle the hills of the Devon railway. The time lacked the necessary technology to make the project successful, with leather flaps for the pipes proving inadequate. Felicity is a broadcaster and author and she showed both in an entertaining and informative talk much enjoyed by the members.
May: "The Romanian Royal Family"
It was a pleasure to welcome AbbPast member Steve Brookes to the lectern this month, it was his first talk to the group. His interest in the subject was linked to his family and he has visited the country many times, including during its communist days.
It was Marie who worked tirelessly nursing sick soldiers, she became known as ‘The Soldiers Queen’, who went to Versailles in 1919 to demand that Romania be given Transylvania, which eventually occurred. Ferdinand died in 1927 and what followed was a soap opera of confusion. The heir to the throne, Carol, had been forced to give up his right to the throne because of his poor choice of wife, who was not of equal rank. Therefore a regency for the young King Michael was created, however, Carol arranged a better marriage and re-emerged as Carol II, ruling from 1930 – 1940. However, this marriage failed and his choice of third wife saw him forced to abdicate in favour of Michael again.
The story ended in 1947 when the communist takeover of Romania after WW2 meant Michael was forced to abdicate at gunpoint. When the dictatorship of Ceausescu ended in 1990 there were discussions on Michael’s possible return as King but this was not what the people wanted.
Steve delivered a fascinating insight into the confused picture of European monarchies, using a display of pictures and a family tree to illstrate his talk; it was much enjoyed by the members.
June: "Dealings with the Dead"
We were very pleased to welcome back anthropologist Stephany Leach for her fascinating talk entitled “Dealings with the Dead”, in which she described the ways that mankind has dealt with its dead bodies and what that tells us about how modern life evolved.
It was Neanderthal Man who began burying their dead some 60 000 years ago, when they were covered in ochre and buried with goods useful in the afterlife. In Mesolithic times, 20 000 years ago, proper burial grounds appear, with cremations and ship burials; in Denmark a burial of a young woman with her baby resting on a swans wing was found, presumably to help them fly to heaven. In Neolithic times they seemed obsessed with death building huge burial monuments to help reach their ancestors, although bones were jumbled together as it was not important to have an individual burial.In Roman times there are many burial rituals imported from all over their empire, the idea of large cemeteries outside of a town began so travellers passed the dead on their way in. It was the Saxons who first brought burials into communities with graveyards around churches, but by Victorian times these were so overcrowded that coffins were stacked 10 high. This brought about the modern large out of town cemeteries with elaborate statues and graves in the gothic or classical style. The modern phase of cremation began because of the need to save burial space, with first one being in 1885; today 70% of burials in Britain are by cremation.
Stephany is an splendidly enthusiastic and knowledgeable speaker whose work is much enjoyed by the members.
July: "Britain and Europe"
AbbPast member and prominent villager Brian Mackness was our speaker for the July meeting with another of his questioning talks, this time on the topic of Britain’s relationship with Europe. Brian began by explaining that this was history not politics and that the topic had been chosen over a year ago long before the Referendum reared its head.
Brian talks for less time than more formal content based speakers but then leaves a question which is then debated by the members; he gave us the question early –“What will Britain be like in 2030?”. Brain explained that the key to the question is to look at history and see if that makes us prejudice in answering it. Europe has been the centre of many Empires and has always seemed to be the centre of the world, or the ‘Old World’ as it was called in the 16th century when it ‘discovered’ the rest of the world.
The Europe we know is quite modern, with Germany and Italy only becoming countries in the 1870s and of course Britain and France being long-time enemies until the 20th century. Britain had closer relationships with Germany through its royal house ties and until 1914 preferred to keep out of European affairs, looking to its Empire instead. But inevitably Britain, itself a federation of various countries, has become part of Europe and its history – well until recently anyway.
Brian is a splendidly different and knowledgeable speaker (he even managed to give the first part of his talk during a power cut), whose approach is much enjoyed by the members.
September: "Abbotskerswell Bells"
Our speaker for the September meeting came all the way from Halifax to deliver his fascinating talk on church bells and bell ringing; it has been much anticipated, well by me since he is my nephew! John Thurman is a bell ringer of serous standing, having rung peals at all the bells of worth in the country. His talk covered a range of aspects from bell casting to the history of our village bells.
John began with an explanation of how bells have been cast for the last 500 years, revealing that many bells were cast on site as transport was so difficult hundreds of years ago. The mould of a bell, the cope and the core, are made from layers of a mix of horse hair, cow dung and clay, and then shaped using a strickle. Once dried the bronze metal, 77% copper and 23% tin, is poured between the layers. Many have engravings, with the names of church wardens, or in Abbotskerswell’s case “The gift of H Hare in memory of M J Hare 1924”.
Abbotskerswell has six bells, 2 made by the Pennington family of Exeter in 1637 and 1705 and four made by Mears and Stainbank in 1924, although one was recast from a Pennington bell of 1664 which had been damaged. John described the interesting nature of the Pennington family, with Thomas III in particular liking a drink whilst working. He and his workers once had a bar bill of over £180 for two days work!
John’s talk was well received by the members, with many questions afterwards, always a good sign that a talk has been enjoyed.
October: "Roman Trade & Commerce in the South West"
It is always a pleasure to welcome back Derek Gore, our speaker for the October meeting; he is a higher quality communicator, with a mine of knowledge and great presentation.
Put simply, the arrival of 10 000 Roman soldiers was a massive stimulus to trade in the south west. This was the main point Richard wanted to make, and then supported with a huge number of examples from archaeology and historical interpretation. In AD43 Emperor Claudius’s soldier’s invaded southern Britain, with one of the three armies directed to head to the SW, securing the land as it went. This meant that those soldiers needed feeding, and had coins to pay for it. The local tribe in the SW was the Dumnonii, and they soon realised that replacing the old bartering system with Roman coins was profitable. It is reckoned that this army needed wheat from 6000 acres per year, and used 3500 mature trees, from 88 acres of managed woodland to construct their fortresses. This kind of trade stimulated great change in the local culture with local tribe leaders soon adopting a Roman style of living.
Archaeological evidence, some from the Ipplepen dig, has shown that pottery from the Lizard and Dorset was soon widespread, using the Roman road system and the extensive coastal traffic. Tin, lead, iron and copper mining and smelting was quickly developed for export. Local sites such as Exeter fort and the port of Topsham, have produced large amounts of material, such as the amphora, shown in the picture, in which wine and the fish sauce for a Roman soldier’s stew was imported. When the soldiers left after six years the trading had been established, and carried on with the local people. This then was the impact of the invasion on local trade and commerce, it transformed it. Derek’s talk was well received by the members, with questions afterwards; it was an intense, but fascinating hour, enjoyed by all.
November: "The Battle of Verdun - a Personal Journey"
This was a very different talk for our November meeting; it was given by AbbPast member Max Neu, on the subject of the Battle of Verdun in WW1. However, as the title suggests it was linked to a family connection, but in this case it was to a German soldier.
Max’s father was born in 1887 and lived in Darmstadt in the state of Hesse in western Germany. When Max was researching his family history he discovered that his father had been a soldier in the artillery, being trained in horse management, becoming a bombardier and then a regimental sergeant. When his unit went to war in 1914 there were 57 officers, 1328 other ranks, 1301 horses and 46 cannons. He served in France, won the Iron Cross for ‘bravery in the face of the enemy’ and served at the military headquarters. Then in 1916 the German Army decided to go onto the offensive, and launched a huge assault on the town of Verdun, north of Paris with the intention of bleeding the French Army white.
For seven months the Germans bombarded the French positions and launched countless assaults, but eventually the two armies had fought each other to standstill. Max’s father was seriously wounded by shrapnel in the village of Beaumont (which was eventually totally destroyed) and spent many months in hospital. Eventually the French counter attacked and in two months recovered the lost territory. The statistics for the battle are staggering: in their opening bombardment the German artillery fired 100 000 shells per hour for ten hours, it is estimated that during the 250 day battle 10 shells landed per one square centimetre of land and there were around 700 000 causalities.
A number of years ago Max and his wife visited the area and he used his photographs of the visit to illustrate his talk. Sadly Max was never able to ask his father why he fought in the war, although Max read us the Kaiser’s proclamation, which he had translated. Max visited one cemetery that contains the graves of 160 00 French soldiers.
This was a very personal history, told from a view that is unusual for a group such as hours, and the reception he received reflected the feeling and support of the members.
December: "Not the Antiques Roadshow Quiz"
Our Christmas Social this year featured villager David Wheeleker, who organised a fun, but very informative antiques quiz. David spent a career as a solicitor, in his words "dealing with violence and sex", but always had an interest in antiques, and Staffordshire porcelain in particular. He and his family moved to Abbotskerswell 40 years ago when they bought the old Vicarage on Vicarage Road, now Glebe House.
The quiz was based around 25 antiques placed on tables in the centre of the room. The 30 members who were present were invited to answer questions on each; these included:
- What is it and where is it from?
- What is called?
- Name the war?
- Who is this man?
- What is the purpose of these scissors?
Following much consideration and frowning at the articles David described each and gave an explanation of their historical context, before awarding the winners, XXX and XXX, a bottle of Champagne. It was great fun and much appreciated by the members. This was followed by wine and nibbles, which ended another successful year foir AbbPast.
Oh, the scissors were for making button holes.
January: "Lido Days are Limited
February: "Heroes and Villains"
March: "Vicorian Crime"
February: "Plague & Pestilence"
March: "Just Going Fishing Across the Atlantic - 1600"
April: "Devon and its Ancient Carved Bench Ends"
May: "The Real Downton Abbey: Clothing the Classes 1900 - 1930"
June: "The City of London and its Manmade Disasters"
July: "Berlin 1985: The Frontline of the Cold War"
September: "The Stover Canal Archaeological Digs of 2014/15"
October: "The Roman Conquest of the South west"
November: "The Ivory Bangle Lady"
December: "Members Quiz Night"
January: "The Creeds of Abbotskerswell"
February: "Murder Most Foul"
March: "Playing For The Other Side: The British Traitors of WW2"
April: "Mining on Exmoor"
May: "Textile Conservation"
June: "The Vikings in Devon"
July: "The Middle East: how we got into this mess and how do we get out of it"
August: "The Roll of Honour Final Exhibition"
September: "Church Houses"
October: "Policing the Miner's Strike of 1984"
November: "The Kingsbridge Branch Line"
December: "Christmas in Victorian Torquay"
January: "Mutiny, Mobs and Mayhem 1793-1867:
was Devon on the brink of revolution ?"
February: "The Lost Mine of Landscove and the Lost canal at Littlehempston"
March: "Devon Place Names"
April: "The Aller Vale Pottery"
May: "Roman Devon"
June: "The Code Breakers of Bletchley Park"
July: "The German Refugees who Fought for Britain in WW2"
August: "The Coming of the Railways"
September: "All the way from France"
October: "Slavery in Devon"
November: "Photographing Torquay in 1850 - 1870"
December: "Members Quiz Night"
February: "Folklore and Legends of Dartmoor"
March: "Devon’s 50 Best Churches"
April: "Secrets of a Victorian Toilette"
May: "Researching Family History"
June: "A Pub Crawl Through History"
July: "Poltimore Community and Landscape Project"
August: "Visit to Shilstone House”
September: "Health and Social Care: Past, Present and Future"
October: "The Abbotskerswell Roll of Honour 1914-1918”
November: "Little Poland"
December: "Members Meeting"
January: "Abbotskerswell: Tony's Reminiscences"
February: "Stover Canal"
March: "Sources - Who NeedsThem?"
April: "Dartmoors History through Postcards"
May: "Abbotskerswell Church - Tombstones and Marble"
June: "Kelly Mine"
July: "Oyez! Oyez! The Manor Court in the 21st Century"
August: "The Battle of Bois de Buttes May 1918: The Last Stand of the 2nd Devons”
August: Visit to Forde House
September: Visit to Kelly Mine
October: "Sights and Sounds of Newton Abbot”
November: "The Old Saltway from Coombe Cellars to Totnes"
December: "Members Meeting"