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
May: Kents Cavern & the English Riviera UNESCO Global Geopark
Our speaker for the May meeting was Nick Powe, who is the owner of Kents Cavern, and the man behind Torbay becoming the only the Global Geopark in England. His great grandfather was the foreman on the original archaeological ‘Great Excavation’ by William Pengelly between 1865 – 1880. His grandfather, Francis, bought the caves and the family has run them ever since.
Nick’s talk first focused on the geology of Torbay, explaining that three key ages are represented in the area: these are the Devonian, Permian and Quaternary. It was in the last of these the caves were used by animals and humans to shelter during the ice ages.
The caves are known as ‘Britain’s Oldest Home’ as the remains of their habitation, the oldest from 430,000 years ago, are the oldest human bones yet found in north west Europe. When first excavated by Father John MacEnery in the early 19th century his ideas of animal and human occupation were dismissed, but he was later to be proved correct as the layer of silt below the last ice age shelf contained flint axes and arrowheads, and the bones of animals such as wolves, mammoths and sabre toothed tigers. Later work found a second shelf this time from the ice age of 430,000 years ago, with bones beneath it.
During Nick’s pacey, clever and witty talk he referred to the kinds of questions frequently asked to describe the caves: eg it is not known why they are called Kents Cavern (he favours from the word ‘Kentis’ meaning rock shelf), they were not discovered as they found Roman coins inside and the oldest inscription on the walls is from 1571. The caves system is unique because they have found the remains of three different species of humans in the same place, hence its listing as an Ancient Monument and a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
In 2000, when Nick’s grandfather gave up running the caves at the age of 86, he invited his grandson to take over; at the time he was working for Nestle’s pet food division as a financial controller so it was a major decision to bring his family back to Torbay. His enthusiasm for geology and the importance of the Cavern shone through in an excellent talk.
June: A Famous Farsley Family
Our speaker for the June meeting was AbbPast committee member Felicity House, who visited a topic dear to her heart, from her young days as a teacher in the Leeds area. In Farlsey the Hainsworth Family have been active in the textiles for over 400 years and Felicity described their rise from ‘Old Bim’ in 1783, until the present day.
Felicity showed the members a montage of 12 apparently unrelated people and events, explaining that each would feature in the Hainsworth story. It was a lovely story of the Industrial Revolution, showing how the woollen industry developed into a huge employer in the Borough of Pudsey.
‘Old Bim’ (short for Abimelech) Hainsworth began as a cloth merchant and began using the local home-based hand loom weavers to create his company. The water powered mills of the area, such as Cape Mill and Spring Valley Mill, pictured above, were constructed. As sons followed fathers and daughters married local merchants the business grew; their red uniform cloth was used in the Crimean War, the move to khaki for the army in the Boer War was made possible by their research and production, and the original RAF blue uniform came from the firm.
The company provided special uniform cloth for Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation as well as regalia cloth used on the Woolsack and the scarlet material used by the Royal Family. A major flood in 1955 meant Hainsworth could re-equip and now is a modern wool producer still based in Farsley.
Felicity had used her knowledge of the area, and added extensive research to create this talk, which was greatly appreciated by the members, with its detail of a fascinating company, who most people would never have heard of, but who had been involved in so many major events.
July: 3000 years of History from the Sea - The Salcombe Wrecks
Our speaker for the July meeting was the Secretary of the South West Marine Archaeology Group, Ron Howell, and what an amazing talk he gave; it is not exaggerating to say that the AbbPast members were spell bound by his story.
In 1989 a group of Northampton divers visited the Erme Estuary and discovered an unknown wreck that produced a number of interesting finds, including cannons. They formed themselves into the South West Marine Archaeological Group and have been together ever since. A second find produced Roman tin ingots, which won the group the Duke of Edinburgh Gold Medal, and the first of four visits to Buckingham Palace.
In 1995 the weather so poor in the Erme Estuary that they decided to try their luck in the sea off Salcombe, and the rest as they say is history. Almost immediately they found gold coins and jewellery scattered on the seabed; these proved to be of Islamic origin, dating from around 1630. The wreck created huge media interest and soon the British Museum were holding an exhibition and SWMAG became famous. There have been various ideas on what the ship was; a Barbary pirate ship and a Dutch merchant vessel being two of them. Despite being offered £2m for the gold the marine rules forced them to sell the haul to the British Museum for £100k.
Remarkably in 2003 they discovered another wreck close by and this turned out to be even more remarkable as it was a Bronze Age vessel that was carrying bronze axes, swords, gold bracelets and a tiny bronze figure that proved to be from Sicily. This meant the wreck became the first proof of trade between Britain and the Mediterranean in the Bronze Age. Later they found the first copper ingots ever discovered in a British wreck.
The sheer excitement of Ron’s story was quite amazing and as his group’s story unfolded the audience was totally transfixed, culminating when he produced one of the original gold coins that he had brought up from the seabed in 1995; what a story.
September: Sabine Baring-Gould
Our speaker for the September meeting was Bob Mann, who is a publisher and performer from Totnes, whose great passion is the life and work of Rev. Baring-Gould. Bob described him as a “creative artist and an individual”. He was from Lew Trenchard in Devon and would spend his life writing a huge number of publications on all manner of topics; he is perhaps most well known as the composer of the lyrics of Onward Christian Soldiers.
Bob explained to the meeting that Sabine (pronoun-ced Sabiene) was an Anglican priest, hagiographer, antiquarian, novelist, folk song collector and eclectic scholar. His bibliography consists of more than 1240 publications. Born into a family of landed gentry his first 10 years were spent travelling around Europe with his parents, he did not have a formal education. Against his father’s wishes he entered the church and became a vicar at Horbury Bridge in Yorkshire where he met a 15 year mill girl and had here educated to become his wife; they had 15 children.
His first book in 1860 was ‘A Trip to Iceland’, which was a country few visitors travelled to, was written when in Yorkshire, as was Onward Christian Soldiers. After a spell in Essex where he wrote his first novel Mehalah, he inherited his father’s estate and took the living at Lew Trenchard. His writing was a way to earn money, since little came from his estate, and he would write for hours stood up at his desk. He also set out to collect hundreds of folk songs from the local Devon men; he always sought the oldest to capture old songs believing these men to be the heirs of medieval minstrels.
Bob’s enthusiasm for all things Baring-Gould was evident to the members, who appreciated his knowledge and depth of understanding for such a complex individual, and one with such a breadth of work to call upon. He read Baring-Gould’s description of Abbotskerswell, which was not complementary of the church’s renovation. Bob also showed us Rebecca Tope’s new biography of Sabine.
October: Newton Abbot's Railway History 1846 to the Present Day
Our speaker for the October meeting was AbbPast member Alan Reddish, who was persuaded to reveal his knowledge of the railways of Newton Abbot. Alan has been an observer of the changes to the station and the Locomotive Works for many years, and used his own photographs, and information from the Newton Railway Library, to tell his story.
This story really began on 30th December 1846 with the opening of the Bristol – Exeter Railways extension to Newton Abbot; on that day a railway town was born. Engineered by I K Brunel, it became the South Devon Railway, as the tracks went on to Plymouth shortly afterwards. The failure of Brunel’s atmospheric propulsion system meant that the Broad Gauge line, the tracks were 7’ 0¼” apart, would see steam locomotives hauling trains up the steep South Devon banks. How many of you remember the loco ‘Tiny’ that was the last example of a broad gauge one, that used to be on the station platform until 1980?
The station has had three different phases. The first had two different ‘train sheds’ (as stations were known then), an up and a down one and were staggered along the line. When the extensions to Kingswear and Moretonhampstead were added the station soon could not cope, and was therefore rebuilt in 1861, with a single train shed and 400 foot long platforms. At the same time 150 houses were built, showing how important the railway was becoming to the town. Other things changed in the coming years, with Newton Junction station becoming Newton Abbot and the broad gauge being replaced in 1892. By 1905 yet another station rebuild was planned, although it took until 1927 for the present station to be completed. By then 25% of the town’s working population was employed at the station, or in the shed and works.
By the 1950s the shed had 75 steam locomotives allocated to it and 150 passenger trains and 85 freight trains would pass through the town in a day. However, the 1960s brought change, the steam locomotives being replaced by diesels, the works and sheds slowly wound down, and were finally closed in 1973. The 1980s saw a remodelling of the track layout in the station, with two lines taken out, new signals and big car parks added.
Using many of his own photographs Alan showed the changes, as well as a number of the accidents as well. His enthusiasm for a topic dear to his heart was evident and the packed audience enjoyed a splendid evening.