2015 Meeeting Reviews-ABBPAST
Speaker: Angie Wetherhead, Historian and Librarian.
Subject Summary: The strange customs and traditions of the people and communities of Devon.
The strange customs and traditions that Angie described for us were found at work when she was a librarian; she was drawn to the old books that were no longer loaned out that contained these stories. For instance the first three days of May were May Doll Day, then Kissing day and on the third Sting Nettle Day, when children ran around with clumps of nettles whacking people with them – but they also carried dock leaves!
Of course the origins of most are unknown, and many are no longer practiced, although some are being rekindled. Some are obviously Pagan in origin and many were born of ignorance and the need for hope, such as those associated with the harvest and spring. So wassailing of apple trees to encourage good growth for next year or taking corn from the last sheaf collected to may a corn doll which was kept and then burnt as a sacrifice the next year. There were practical customs too like the Giglet Fair which were attended spinsters and bachelors when they were allowed to talk to each other and find a partner and the Goosey Fair when geese were sold to raise the money to pay rents. Others were of their time, like Lent Crocking when children went round begging for pancakes and if the householder refused crockery was thrown at their house.
May: "Hairy Hands, Devils and Black Dogs"
Speaker: Paul Rendell – author, guide and all round Dartmoor expert.
Subject Summary: the stories and legends of life on Dartmoor.
Paul, sometimes known as ‘Dartmoor Paul’ is a renowned expert on the stories and legends of Dartmoor, and has spelt a life time gathering in these stories. He treated the audience to a rapid fire description of places and their stories, with his opinion on their credibility thrown in. Here are some examples.
Conan Doyle’s ‘Hound of the Baskerville’; written whilst staying in Princetown it is possibly based on the local story of Richard Carvill who frequently set his pack of hounds on people and was universally hated by the locals. Did Bishop Branscombe meet the Devil on a misty day and he accepted bread and cheese from him; just in time he threw both away and they turned into tors. At Dartmoor Prison at Princetown is the mystery of flowers that appear at the memorial to dead American prisoners of war in the prison; many people claim to have seen a lady with flowers in the graveyard. Of course Hound Tor is really where hounds were turned to stone by a witch who was pursued by them when she was being a hare. The stories went on with Pixies, the Devil drinking in the Tavistock Inn, a dog dying from drinking the beer thrown away at Postbridge, Lovers Leap and the crying Nanny of Brent Moor House
June: "Recent Discoveries in Roman Exeter"
Speaker: Derek Gore – author, guide and Exeter Vinversity Lecturer.
Subject Summary: Roman Exeter.
In AD 43 the Emperor Claudius sends troops to invade the British Isles under one of his youngest generals, Vespasian. He sends two powerful legions made up of equal numbers of Legionaries (Roman Citizens) and Auxiliaries. Auxiliaries were able to gain citizenship after serving 25 years, the normal term of enlistment for the Roman Army.
It was their policy not to campaign between October and March, restricting themselves to a barrack life of training and local defence. Conditions of pay and standards of living in the army were high and there was no problem with recruitment.
The Romans set up their barracks in Isca, what is now known as Exeter. Evidence of a substantial military complex have been found in the South Eastern area of the city and Topsham Road shows every indication of having been a Roman Road. It is estimated that much of it was built between AD 50 and 55 with a population of around five and a half thousand Roman citizens. Military, Administrative (tax collectors, Governors staff etc), Tradesmen and some families. Slaves were usually freed on the death of their master.
Under Cathedral Green a brick built bath house has been found, bath houses were akin to social centres. It is estimated that over two thirds of the original Roman city wall still exist. It was forbidden to bury anyone within the city walls. Exeter became an important trading centre with ocean going ships unloading at Topsham when the river at Exeter became unnavigable.
Derek brought his usual level of enthusiasm and deep knowledge of his subject to the talk and those attending were enthralled. A very interesting and enjoyable evening
July: "John Smeaton, Civil Engineer"
Speaker: Felicity House – AbbPast committee member and regular speaker for us.
Subject Summary: John Smeaton – Civil Engineer.
Felicity is from Smeaton’s home town of Leeds and remembers visiting the memorial to him in Whitkirk Church as a girl, hence her interest in a man who had a major impact on the south west. Although initially following his father into his law firm it was soon clear that his main interest was in engineering and was allowed to set up as an instrument maker in London. He was soon making waterwheels, pumps, windmills and even invented a way to measure the speed of ships. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1753 and took to calling himself a ‘civil engineer’ to distinguish himself from army engineers.
He is perhaps best known for building the Eddystone Lighthouse in 1759, using a remarkable dovetailing system to bind the tower to the rock on which it stood. In 1882 the upper part of the lighthouse was dismantled and rebuilt as a memorial to Smeaton on Plymouth Hoe. He was involved in hundreds of other projects but Felicity described four of these which are in the south west: the Pier at St Ives, the Stonehouse Bridge in Plymouth, Chacewater Mine (Wheal Busy) and Charlestown Harbour in Cornwall.
September: "Torre Abbey - Noble House of Status & Heritage"
Speaker: John Risdon – Torbay historian and guide
Subject Summary: the History of Torre Abbey 1196 - 2019
John is a regular visitor to AbbPast meetings and is a font of knowledge on the history of Torbay and its surrounding area, a good reason to have him back each time. In this talk John described how the Abbey was built for ‘The White Monks’ by William de Brewer as thanks for the safe return of his son who had been held as a hostage as part of the ransom deal for King Richard I.
When first built, in Purbeck stone, in 1196 it was a monastery, with a church, cloister and range of buildings for its work: it is this range that survives following the dissolution of the monastery in 1539. There were rarely more than a dozen monks at the Abbey but it gained wealth and importance over the centuries, owning eight manors by the 16th century. Around 1310 the Mohun gate and the crenulations on the existing builders were added for defence. The area became known as Tormohun and after the Abbey acquired the Manor of Tormohun they built its famous Tithe Barn which was used to house the Spanish prisoners from the ships of the Spanish Armada – hence its name ‘The Spanish Barn’.
After Henry VIII took over all the monasteries of England the Abbey was sold to Sir John St Leger, then to the Seymours and finally to the Carys in 1682. By this time the church had been pulled down and the buildings turned into a residence. The Carys owned the Abbey until it was sold to Torbay Council in 1930. In recent time an £11m Heritage Lottery grant has seen it restored and turned into an impressive venue for exhibitions, and well worth a visit.
October: "The Haldon Belvedere"
Speaker: Dr Sue Knox – Trustee of Stringer Lawrence Memorial Trust
Subject Summary: the History of Haldon Belvedere
Actually the real name of the Haldon Belvedere is the General Lawrence Castle, its new name is a modern marketing device. The Tower was built in 1788 by Robert Palk, in memory of his great friend General Stringer Lawrence. Palk and Lawrence met in Madras when they were both working for the East India Company. Lawrence was setting up an army for the Company to protect their investments in India, whilst Palk was initially a Chaplin. As both rose in prominence within the Company, Lawrence to General and Palk to Governor of Madras, they made great fortunes which they eventually brought home. Palk bought Haldon House near Dunchideok where he retired with his wife and three children. He served as MP for Ashburton and Wareham for many years and used his wealth to buy a great deal of land, including the Manor of Tor Mohun, which would become Torquay.
When Lawrence retired from the Company he spent a great deal of time at Haldon House and was buried at Dunchideok Church, leaving his fortune to Palk. The Company erected a large carved monument to him in Westminster Abbey. To honour his great friend in Palk built a three sided tower on top of the Haldon Hill that became known as the Lawrence Castle; it is 26 metres (85 feet) high with round turrets on the three corners. The ground floor contained a life-size statue of Lawrence dressed as a Roman general carved from coadestone, and three large tablets which were inscribed with details of his career. The first floor was an elaborately floored ball room and the top floor contained an apartment. Palk used the tower for the great parties which he liked to throw.
Haldon House and the tower were sold to Mr Bannatyne and later the tower to Mr Dale, whose two sons, Edward and Cyril, lived there until their deaths. Cyril set up the Stringer Lawrence Memorial Trust which now owns and runs what is now known as the Haldon Belvedere.
November: "An Exeter Man in Algiers and Mecca: Joseph Pitts 1662-1739
Speaker: Dr Paul Auchterlonie
Subject Summary: the story of Joseph Pitts' time in North African slavery
Long before European empires ruled in the Middle East, Britain was brought face to face with Islam through the activities of the Barbary Corsairs. From the sixteenth to the early nineteenth centuries, Muslim ships based in North African ports terrorised European shipping, capturing thousands of ships and enslaving tens of thousands of Christians. The Turkish Empire was at the head of this piracy, taxing the Moors, the Arabs, the Berbers, the Jews and the Renegades, (Christians who converted to Islam.) They took money from all the ships operating out of the countries we know as Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. Devon suffered particularly badly in the seventeenth century, people from Plymouth, Dartmouth, Exmouth, Exeter, Lympstone, Topsham and Woodbury all being taken prisoner at different times; ransom being accepted for some of the prisoners, for the Turks another way of raising money. The talk described in detail how the people of Devon coped with this terrible danger and focussed on the experiences of one man, Joseph Pitts.
Joseph Pitts was born in Exeter around 1662 and was captured by Algerian pirates on his first voyage as a sailor in 1678. Taken to Algiers, he was sold as a slave, forced to convert to Islam, (becoming a renegade) and sold on to three different masters. He accompanied his third master on the pilgrimage to Mecca, the Haj, so becoming the first Englishman to visit the Muslim Holy Places and to later give an account of what he saw there. Pitts was freed by his master after this pilgrimage, and then became a soldier in the Algerian army, taking part in campaigns against both the Moroccans and the Spanish, before undertaking a daring escape while serving with the Algerian Navy. (No doubt he had been hoping to be captured during these adventures by a Christian force and so be able to be freed.) Forced to walk across the Alps, Pitts finally reached Exeter after a journey lasting a whole year. On his return, he decided to write an account of his adventures, describing his time in Algiers, his experiences as a slave, his pilgrimage to Mecca (the first such detailed description in English), how Muslims practice Islam and concluding with his audacious escape back to England. On landing at Harwich he was promptly pressganged and taken to Colchester prison, but luckily he had contacts from his journey across Europe and was freed, arriving back in Exeter in 1695, 17 years after he left!
December: "17th Century Witchcraft and Witchfinding"
Speaker: ‘Swords and Spindles’
Subject Summary: 17th Century Witchcraft
It was a welcome return for ‘Swords and Spindles’ when Mistress Agnes (aka author Janet Few) and Master Christopher took us through the dark times and deeds surrounding witchcraft in England in 1600s. It was in 1398 that the Ruling of the University of Paris established the ground rules for persecuting witches, which was mainly an excuse to subjugate women; later Malleus Maleficarum became the witchfinders handbook which followed an Act of 1563 allowing these pursuers of evil. The most famous of these was Matthew Hopkins, known as ‘The Witchfinder General’; he is believed to have been responsible for the executions of 300 alleged witches between the years 1644 and 1646.
Witches could be found in many ways but it was mainly the local accusations that set the process underway. If you were an old lady with a cat and had knowledge of herbal remedies you were an easy target. The reality was that scapegoats and outsiders became an easy target, it was also better to accuse them because it might be you next time. Proof was not needed just a ‘strong presumption’, which was enough within the law; following that came the trial which involved many dubious methods. These included pricking of a ‘devil’s mark’ (a birth mark) to see if it bled or obtaining a confession by torture. A popular method was the water treatment of tying the accused up and throwing them into a river that had been blessed; if the witch floated she was guilty, if she sank (and often drowned) she was innocent.
In England the punishment for witchcraft was usually hanging rather than the European method of burning at the stake. The last execution of a witch in England took place at Heavitree with the Bideford Trials taking place at Rougemount Castle in Exeter. Five were accused, with three women being hung in 1682 and one more in 1685. During the 17th century there were 29 known indictments for witchcraft in Devon.