2013 Meeting Reviews-ABBPAST
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"
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.
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
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.
November: "Fieldwork and Excavations at Ipplepen 2007-2017"
Our speaker for the November meeting was Exeter University archaeology lecturer and author, Derek Gore. Roman expert Derek has been a speaker at our meetings on a number of occasion, and this was a much anticipated event, which brought a number of visitors from Ipplepen and Denbury.
The site is on the left hand side of the Totnes Road, above Ipplepen and the story of the Roman excavation begins in 2007 when a farmer wanted to put up a barn; he was required to have an archaeological survey on the site and this produced Roman finds. A slate quarry containing Roman pottery sherds, a coin, bone and charcoal were all unearthed. Thankfully the landowner agreed to a dig, and the rest is history!
By 2009 a geophysical survey of the site had been conducted and a number of features emerged. Also around that time a local metal detector found a hoard of Roman coins which interested the British Museum and Exeter University. 150 coins have been unearthed on the site, ranging from 100BC to 300AD. In 2011 a series of small trenches were dug and a Roman road and the site of timbered buildings discovered. In 2012 a larger excavation, on the south side of the site revealed an Iron Age hut, in fact the site has material from the Neolithic period through to the early Middle Ages. The 2013 dig uncovered a large section of the road, showing it to be 3.65 metres wide and had four different levels; it was almost certainly originally built by the Roman Army, and contained the top of an amphora dating from 43-70AD.
The site has also revealed 37 graves, since in the Roman period people were buried on roadsides, so people could see the graves and remember the people. Wells, rubbish pits, evidence of smelting and high quality pottery all suggest that this is an unusual site, and almost certainly a town of around 23 acres, rather than the usual one family farmstead. Artefacts found include brooches, coins and the daub from the buildings. Unfortunately the land has passed to a new owner who is less enthusiastic about the digs, but in 2017 he wanted to put up a stable, so had to agree to excavations which revealed another Iron Age hut and an incredibly rare piece of pottery.
The future of digs on the site is uncertain, but Derek showed us a fascinating story in his usual knowledgeable and excited manner.
December: "Coffers, Clysters, Comfrey & Coifs:
the lives of our 17th Century Ancestors"
This was a new departure for AbbPast, with a costumed interactive presentation on life in 17th century Britain. Mulled wine, sausage rolls and mince pies preceded Swords and Spindles’ presentation, which proved to lively, informative and funny. There were many everyday expressions explained, such as the ‘upper crust’ rich, because they ate the top of the loaf, whereas the poor got the burnt bottom crust. We were taken through the details of a household, complete with a member being dressed to show what a working girl would have worn; from shift to coif (bonnet). She had her bodice laced up with a criss-crossed design as the lacing across, favoured by the puritans, provided the ‘straight laced’ pattern to show proper behaviour of religious young ladies. We also learnt about the herbal medicines that were used and also how they were used to make the food less bland and boring. Most working people ate pottage, a stew which had anything put into it .
For the last meeting of the year the members really were given a treat, in more ways than one.