Yelverton & District Local History Society


EVENTS 2017: 


 “William Spreat: a leading photographer of Dartmoor, Devon and Cornwall in the 1860’s/70’s.”

At our last event of the year, our members were treated to the customary complimentary mince pie and glass of wine, followed by Dr. Tom Greeves’ excellent illustrated talk on the works of this 19th century artist.

Born 1816 in Exeter, he published his first book at the age of 26 in 1842 on the Churches of Devon, images of superb quality including one of St. Andrews in Buckland Monachorum. He quickly mastered all aspects of his art including landscape painting, lithography (only invented a few years before), engraving and publishing. He began to create images as stereographs – 2 prints side by side – which when viewed through a stereoscope produced a 3-dimensional picture. Annotating interesting labels such as “looming through the sea mist” he put his stamp on the reverse. He travelled extensively carrying heavy equipment to sometimes very remote locations.

In 1862 he advertised a collection of 300 numbered photos for sale to tourists and visitors at a price of one shilling each. Tom took us through a selection from this amazing work of quite superb quality images from all over the region. Some of the earliest featured coastal scenes of Lynmouth, Torquay and Teignmouth plus another of the Royal Albert Bridge, Saltash with some figures walking along the railway line. He was also keen on the natural world with photos of ferns and waterfalls.

His photos were extremely varied including buildings as well as landscapes and often featured human figures in the background. They also provide great physical and historical comparisons with today and how things have changed. In Cornwall we see his picture of St. Levan church with its sash windows and a thatched building nearby – now no longer there. He labelled Botallack Mine as a “sublimity of nature”. Others included Lanyon Quoit, the Moorswater viaduct and Looe canal and the Holy Well of St. Keyne.

He was very fond of Dartmoor and these images are very interesting for the changes. A photo of Rippon Tor shows a heather clad area - not so today. His image of Fingle Bridge and gorge before Castle Drogo was built is fascinating because of the absence of the dense woodland there now. One of the earliest photos of Wistmans Wood shows it being much smaller back then. Another shows the finely balanced logan stone on Nutcracker Rock and buildings belonging to the New Inn near Hemsworthy Gate – both long gone. In the same picture the prehistoric Foales Arrishes settlements can be seen. However his picture of Manaton Green looks remarkably unchnaged today.

Tom ended his talk with probably the most striking image of them all, taken around 1865 and 40 years earlier than the next known image of mining on Dartmoor. It features a group of miners beside a waterwheel at Vitifer Mine.

Thanks to Tom Greeves for the opportunity to see photos that were published around 150 years ago to such an incredible quality and clarity.



“George Magrath: Nelson’s Forgotten Surgeon.”

There is little general information around on Sir George compared to other surgeons who served with Lord Nelson but Barbie Thompson’s detailed research has helped to highlight the career of a remarkable man. Although some dismissed him as a tall, thin, one-eyed Irishman, Nelson himself described Magrath as “by far the most able medical man I have ever seen” and wrote letters to Lady Hamilton singing his praises.

He was born in County Tyrone in 1775 and learned his trade from 1794 as a surgeon’s mate on board HMS Theseus. He spent time in the West Indies taking part in the evacuation of Guadeloupe but contracted yellow fever and lost the sight in his left eye. However, despite this he soon demonstrated his skills and was promoted to full surgeon in 1797 and joined HMS Russell. He served 4 years here including major naval action at the Battle of Camperdown in the North Sea. Casualties were huge with Magrath performing many operations including multiple amputations but earning great respect and confidence with his skills and alternative remedies.

In 1803 he joined Nelson on board HMS Victory as the flag medical officer. Nelson was very concerned about the health of his crew and Magrath’s skills soon made him a favourite. When a major outbreak of yellow fever broke out in Gibraltar killing over 6,000 people, Magrath was tasked to stay behind to help as superintendent of the naval hospital, Nelson assuring him that he would return afterwards to continue serving with him. Much to Nelson’s annoyance, he was over-ruled from London and William Beatty was appointed instead. Magrath was apparently “mortified” at not being able to share in the glory at the decisive Battle of Trafalgar.

Before the battle he had continued to exchange letters with Nelson but then became a Medical Officer at Millbay Gaol in Plymouth which housed American POW’s from the War of Independence. Unlike his predecessor, Magrath proved to be very popular with the prisoners because of his concern for their welfare and he served there for 9 years. Beatty even wrote to Lady Hamilton commending Magrath for his services.

In 1814 he transferred to Dartmoor Prison where he practised his unique cold water treatments. He treated the injured sympathetically after the 1815 riots and was later praised in many letters and memoirs from staff and prisoners. After the prison closed in 1832 he started a practice in Union Street, Plymouth, using his skills again in the later cholera outbreaks. He continued to live in Plymouth until his death in 1857.

A christening mug presented by Nelson to Magrath was recently discovered in Canada and in 2013 four of the medals awarded to him were sold at auction for over £14,000.



Dartmoor’s War Prison – Constructing, Supplying and Skulduggery.”

Due to the scheduled speaker Dr. Todd Gray sustaining a knee injury, Elisabeth Stanbrook kindly stood in, at very short notice, with a new talk, which proved to be very interesting and informative and coincidentally was a good follow up to our recent visit to the prison cemeteries and museum.

Lis told us how Thomas Tyrwhitt, Private Secretary to and friend of the Prince Regent, enclosed 2,300 acres of land to the south-west of Two Bridges and built his estate, Tor Royal.  He discovered that the land was unproductive for agriculture and had the idea to build a war prison.  At the time there were two other prisons in Peterborough and Bristol but, when these became full, prisoners were held in hulks in the Hamoaze in very bad conditions, packed in like sardines; these were French prisoners from the Napoleonic wars. 

Daniel Asher Alexander was to be the architect.  A contract was drawn up between the Duchy and Transport board; in 1805/6 they advertised for masons, carpenters, stone cutters etc.  The original plan was to construct buildings for 1,000 men, a hospital, Petty officers’ prison and barracks on 15 acres.  There were lots of problems during the building: walls collapsing, slow deliveries, bad weather etc. which delayed the finish date of 1807. The barracks were completed in 1809 and 5,000 prisoners arrived on foot from Plymouth in late May 1809.  There were further problems such as not enough bedding ordered and insufficient privies; still very overcrowded so new prison blocks were built in 1812 and American prisoners started to arrive a year later.

The water supply came from a leat taken off the River Walkham to a reservoir opposite the prison gate.  There were a number of bake houses supplying bread to the prison – some prisoners complained about ‘bad bread’ and after testing it was found to be contaminated with china clay.  Milk and dairy produce were also supplied from the surrounding area.  Pubs started to arrive – the Plume of Feathers was established in 1808.  A chapel was eventually built in 1813 and the French prisoners helped to do this.  There were lots of delays with the construction and when the French left the Americans helped to finish it.  The church became grade 2 listed, was very damp and rundown and in 1994 was made redundant; it was nearly demolished but was reprieved.

There are a number of the original buildings still in existence: octagonal store rooms, Prison no 1, Prison no 4 – with enlarged windows and now used as a cinema, the market place, three of the barracks, the Petty officers’ prison and the hospital.

Today the prison still stands as a stark reminder of the past now housing over 600 convicts. Its history can be read in much greater depth in Elisabeth’s book, on which this talk is based: “Dartmoor’s War Prison and Church 1805 – 1817”.


“A guided tour of Dartmoor Prison Museum and POW cemeteries.”

A good turnout of members enjoyed a return visit to the newly refurbished museum and cemeteries, led ably by the deputy governor and museum curator.

We were given a brief history of the prison, now the oldest operating one in the country, category C housing 637 prisoners with only 20 staff! A brainchild of Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt it was built during the Napoleonic Wars replacing the floating hulks in Plymouth. It opened in 1809 with French prisoners and quickly became overcrowded later with the arrival of the Americans, at one point housing over 11,000 inmates. It lay empty from 1817 reopening in 1850 as a temporary convict prison then being re-established in 1917 as a Work Centre for conscientious objectors. Today its future is still unsure.

We were then invited into the museum for a taster of what lies within.  This is a fascinating place requiring a much longer visit, housed over several rooms and two floors a huge variety of historical artefacts and photographs. These include items such as model ships, trains, planes and dolls made by prisoners out of everyday materials like meat bones, matchsticks, soap and wood. There is a video containing scenes from the 1932 mutiny at the prison. Old maps, paintings and letters from POWs as they transferred from the hulks sit alongside details of governors’ logs and escape records. Downstairs is the creepy weapons room with displays of prisoners’ “creativity” – knives made out of sharpened toothbrushes and razor blades, escape tools like guns and miniature mobile phones from matchsticks, plus catapults for moving items around and drone hooks.

Outside, we were then guided under the "Parcere Subjectis" gateway, alongside the forbidding prison walls to the beauty & tranquillity of the two cemeteries. During the Napoleonic and the Anglo-American Wars of the early 1800’s almost 1,500 POWs died at Dartmoor Prison. They were buried in unmarked graves in a nearby field but after complaints in later years of bones regularly coming to the surface, the remains were exhumed and reburied in 1866 in the newly created cemeteries.

They stand in beautiful landscaped grounds, having been significantly revamped in 2002, both poignant reminders of the horrors of war. The French memorial obelisk is modest having been made by prisoners and in 2009 on the bicentenary of the first French prisoners of war transferring from the hulks to the Prison, a ceremony was held here attended by descendents of the prisoners of war and French dignitaries.

The American side is rather grander with an obelisk and its two marble memorial walls containing names of the 271 POWs who died, the youngest of which was only 12 years old. Names such as Placid Lovely, Dumpy Kitre and Shadrack Snell add to the sense of sacrifice.




“A guided tour of the Plymouth Synagogue.”

We congregated in Catherine Street outside the synagogue (or meeting house) and were given a brief history of the area by Jerry Sibley, the synagogue’s custodian.  The street was named after a visit by Catherine of Aragon and buildings have also included a workhouse which then became the police station and a public dispensary. The dispensary and the synagogue were the only buildings to survive the WW2 bombing of Plymouth but the area has been much built up since encircling the synagogue.  At one time the street was twice the length it is now with the caretaker’s house facing the street and originally attached to the synagogue, being now above the school room.  There was also a Hebrew school, the remains of which are under the Guildhall.  A new school was built opposite the entrance in the 1840s.

Jerry explained that he is ‘the slave’ who does all the jobs that Jewish people aren’t allowed to do on the Sabbath which starts at sunset on Friday. An ex-soldier, he discovered that the synagogue was likely to close due to lack of funds and had the idea of opening it to the public for free guided tours but receiving donations.  He has extensively researched all areas of the Jewish faith and now teaches at schools, 74 last year

We were shown the bath tub – deep, tiled and L-shaped and an important part of Jewish life and culture.  Men and women bathed separately once a week.

The synagogue itself was built in 1762. The hallway is an extension and holds the rolls of honour from the world wars.  Inside, the gallery was extended in 1864 and paid for by Levi Solomon – he later went to the USA, changed his name to Simpson and his son married Wallis of Edward V111 fame. In Judaism ladies are the more important and they can sit in the gallery with the children (boys up to 13 only): the men are in charge of the service and have to attend.

The beautifully ornate Ark, built by the Dutch in 1761, is on the eastern wall, made of wooden plaster and having survived the war.  It holds the scrolls which are ‘sung’ during the service.  In the centre of the synagogue is the Bimah, the platform from where the services are conducted and built by naval carpenters to look like a ship, again quite ornate with 8 candle sticks topped by acorns. 

The congregation kept on growing and at one time had at least 3,500 men with many of its members (as tailors) supporting the local naval economy.  As this diminished and houses were not built nearby after the destruction of WW2, many moved away as they were not permitted to drive but only walk a short distance to the synagogue.  As a result some moved to London and Manchester and then to the State of Israel which was created in 1948.  In 1968 the membership was so low that there was no longer a Rabbi and is now only 39 in the whole South West.

The Synagogue however is a fascinating place to visit with Jerry, a very knowledgeable and entertaining guide.





“A walking tour of Moretonhampstead”

On a very warm June evening local characters Bill Hardiman and Gary Cox led us on a highly entertaining and informative tour. Granted a market in 1207 by King John, the rent was one sparrowhawk pa. The town has seen much change over the years with a whole series of fires destroying ancient buildings, though many interesting and listed ones remain.

Passing by the restored bus depot, now the motor museum, we noticed the old courthouse, then  into Court Street the Lucy Wills Nurses’ Home and Coppelia House, once the home of the wealthy Bowring family. Shops and cottages still show signs of smoke blackened timbers and no. 16 was once the Plymouth Inn, one of the original 16 pubs in the town - only 4 left now. This is a busy street, the turnpike road having been routed through here in 1770, probably to the dismay of Chagford.

In Pound Street near the site of the old slaughterhouse, 3 cottages have been replaced by a restoration project featuring sculptures of animals, birds and legends. The sparrowhawk sculpture dominates the wall in the Square along with a plaque to George Bidder, the famous engineer. The Horse and White Hart still ply their trade as does the Bell Inn around the corner, another ancient inn which once hosted dances and wrestling matches. It also featured as a meeting place for French prisoners housed in Moreton who were on parole.

Many of the current buildings in Fore Street are replacements for those destroyed by fires in the 19C. Fire tenders had to be brought from Exeter and often prioritised those buildings which had fire insurance, plaques on some of the walls identifying them thus. Nearby is the Bowring Library, a gift to the town from shipping merchant Sir Thomas Bowring. In front stands the town’s War memorial. Also here is the old Baptist Chapel, now a Community church, a throwback to the town’s strong non conformist traditions.

The railway came to the town in 1866 and it seems that further tensions with Chagford arose as it terminated in Moreton! It closed in 1964 and is now the site of Thompson’s Transport business. The new car park stands on the site of the old animal market with the old turnpike tollhouse on the corner. Some narrow and quaint alleyways link through to Cross Street.

The eye here is drawn immediately to the almshouses but there is much to see along the way. The old Methodist Chapel is now a workshop and Ponsford House c1740 retains many original features. The 800 yr old cross now has a new tree alongside it, replacing the old oak dancing tree. The Grade 1 listed almshouses date from the 15C, once a workhouse now rented out by the National Trust.

 The path through a gate leads to the Sentry, the village green with superb views over Mardon Down. We ended our tour looking in on the 12C Grade 1 listed church of St. Andrew’s, passing then along Green Hill, site of the original market place, and the Arts and Heritage Centre.

Excellent maps and guides are available from the town's information centre, making this a really interesting place to wander around.





“Violet Pinwill: Woodcarver of Ermington and Plymouth


The Revd Edmund Pinwill came to Ermington in Devon in 1880 with his wife Elizabeth and their seven young daughters. The church there was rather dilapidated and he decided to restore it, helped financially by local landowner Lord Mildmay and the architect John Sedding. There was family background in shipbuilding and the girls’ grandfather had been a woodcarver, so their mother decided that some of the girls might like to take up the trade.


Working under the direction of Sedding, 3 of the sisters, Mary, Ethel and Violet soon became highly skilled at the craft and in 1889 set up their own company in Plymouth under the name of Rashleigh, Pinwill & Co., using Mary’s middle name to disguise the fact they were women. Sedding’s son Edmund became an integral part of the team and engaged the sisters to carry out many of his designs for church furniture. The pulpit at Ermington church, installed in 1893 was one of their early pieces, and as with all their work, was carried out using oak.


In 1900 Mary got married and moved away but the other two carried on, picking up commissions from other architects. In 1911 Ethel also moved away carrying on woodcarving in Surrey and Violet now became the sole proprietor under the new company name of V. Pinwill Carvers. She started to win commissions by herself, working from a large workshop employing around 29 other woodcarvers. She travelled all over Devon and Cornwall, mostly by train and bicycle, to meet with vicars and churchwardens to talk about the work they required. She never advertised, owned a typewriter or a car, and did not employ a secretary. It is also believed that during WW1 she worked in an aircraft factory making propellers.


Dr. Helen Wilson’s interest in her subject had started in Morwenstow where she had seen work by the Pinwills on the altar and reredos there. She explained that her research had since taken her to almost 200 churches, reading through their records,  and gaining access to Violet’s lavishly illustrated photograph albums of woodcarvings deposited at Plymouth and West Devon Record Office. She has also collected information from family memoirs, newspaper archives and English Heritage listings, postcards sent by one of the joiners, as well as from her church visits.


Examples of Violet’s work exist all over Devon and Cornwall and even as far away as British Guiana. So far, Helen has discovered 645 items varying hugely in design and from Violet’s archive, she led us on a photographic tour of some of the best.


These included a restored medieval chancel screen at St Buryan, 32 saints in the Quire at Truro Cathedral, choir stalls at Lanteglos by Fowey, the beautiful reredos at Ermington, 26 bench ends at Sheepstor, and choir stalls at Yelverton. In Plymouth, a lot of work was destroyed during the blitz, but the photographs record some of these pieces, such as a reredos in Charles Church and a gilded tabernacle top at St Peter’s.


Violet died in 1957 but examples of her magnificent work live on.


Image result for ermington church pulpit                                  

 The pulpit at Ermington                                            Violet


‘A factious place of backsides & dung-heaps - the lives & times of 17th century Moretonians’

By the 1600s the main town settlement of Moretonhampstead had just over 2,000 people and was relatively prosperous, mainly from the wool trade and some tin workings. It had an important role as a ‘gateway’ on the north-south and west-east travel routes. About 60% of the land was owned by the manorial lords and the Courtenays of Powderham Castle.

The rectors drew income from the glebe lands, tithes and payments for baptisms, marriages and burials. However, before the C17th none of them resided here, one was even given papal dispensation to be the rector at the age of 10 to pay for his education! In his talk Bill Hardiman spoke of the rivalries between Moreton and Chagford and new insights into this ‘factious place’ come from transcriptions of archives by the local History Society.

The first revelation was that the manor was regularly leased out to help the Courtenays ease their financial burdens. Sir William Courtenay (1553-1630) admitted to a lavish lifestyle and ambitious rebuilding projects led to indebtedness. However, Sir Simon Leach of Cadeleigh, a successful lawyer, lent Courtenay £3,000 in return for ‘all the lordshippe Mannor and borough of Moreton Hampstede’. This indebtedness and the misunderstanding of religious politics at the time probably also explains another intriguing development.

During the C17th Moreton became one of Devon’s foremost centres of Nonconformity, the driving influence being John Southmead, a prominent ‘gentleman’. With his son-in-law, Francis Whiddon, the self styled ‘pastor’, they set about demolishing what they called ‘the Kingdom of Satan’. They strove to curb ‘heathenish sports and pastimes, long haire in men and naked backs and breasts in women’. Difficult tensions in this relatively remote community continued and in 1672 Moreton opened one of the first Nonconformist chapels in the country which competed strongly with the local church.

The power and influence of the manorial system was still quite considerable. Tenants still paid rents to the Courtenays and had to swear fealty to the lord. Copyhold tenants had to supply the lord with a capon each year and pay a heriot or death-duty of their best beast or its value on the death of each ‘life’. The widows of the last ‘life’ had the right to stay on a tenement and could prolong this by avoiding remarriage and ‘living in public fornication with a man’.

Many tenements had ‘backsides’ - burgage plots that were originally for cultivation but were by now often filled in with buildings. There were duties to oversee the woods and rabbit-warrens, the making and retailing of ale and leather, the cleaning of the streets and King’s Highways – ‘dung-heaps’ were a particular problem and were closely regulated. Miscreants were fined and there were also frequent pleas of debt and trespass between the tenants providing useful means of income for the Courtenays or the lessees of the manor.

There were significant developments in education although the Rector of Drewsteignton warned of the hazards of teaching ‘in such a factious place as Moreton ... of fickle persons ... [whose ]minds may alter’!


“The Bishop Rock Lighthouse”

The Bishop Rock lies just 4 miles west of St Agnes in the Isles of Scilly, facing the full force of storms. Back in the 14th century it was traditional that anyone convicted of felony would be left there to be drowned by the tides, as happened to a mother and two daughters in 1302. Nearby are the dangerous reefs of Gilstone and Western Rocks where in 1707 the Association, flagship of Sir Cloudesley Shovell, was wrecked with the loss of almost 2,000 lives.

Trinity House had been set up by Royal Charter in 1514 by Henry V111 and the first lighthouse was built in Lowestoft in 1609. Various other initiatives followed though they were privately owned until 1836. Requests had been made to Trinity House by the Governor of the IOS in 1818 for a lighthouse in the area because of the dangers to shipping, but it was not until 1847 that work began on Bishop Rock by the chief engineer James Walker. The 120 foot tall iron tower with basic accommodation and a light was completed two years later at a cost of £12,500 but was destroyed by a storm in 1850.

Work started in 1851 on a new stone structure. A base and workshops were established on nearby Roseveare and Rat Islands but the construction presented huge difficulties due partly to the shape of the rock itself. Granite had to be cut and transported from Lamorna Quarry and on one occasion the boat sank in atrocious weather conditions. Stone barges and hulks were also used and despite all the problems, the lamp was lit in 1858 with no loss of life during the building work at a total cost of £34,559.

The first principal keeper was John Watson with 3 others and 4 houses were built for them on St Agnes.  Operating on a 3 on, 1 off rota, they boarded the Rock by breeches buoy. They had to buy their own food and baked bread, but were often on rations because of the weather and there were occasional pay disputes.

In 1882, engineer James Douglass and son William oversaw a new design and strengthening of the tower. With an outer casing of granite it was extended to a height of 167 feet with 7 stories including an entrance room, oil stores, bedrooms and living space, at a cost of £64,889. Once again there many difficulties encountered including disputes with contractors and of course the weather but it was completed in 1887.

Elisabeth Stanbrook went on to colourfully describe the lives and tribulations of the keepers. They had to make their own entertainment, were often in trouble, sometimes drunk, for them it was a tough life. One John Ball went outside for a smoke and was never seen again. The work was often dangerous especially the outside cleaning of the light. Huge storms meant they spent time marooned on the Rock and in 1946 a BBCTV crew had to stay there from Christmas until the end of January.

Various modifications and improvements arrived from the 1960’s onwards - fridges, TV, VHS radio and telephones. A helipad was installed in 1975 and the light was automated in 1992. Solar panels came in 2009. The lighthouse is now the second tallest (after the Eddystone) in Britain.

Elisabeth’s talk (based on her book of the same name) was an entertaining and lively account of the incredible feats of bravery and engineering involved and also the amazing lonely lives of lighthouse keepers.


“The Road to Messines: Military Mining on the Western Front 1915-17”

Rick Stewart’s talk opened with a picture of the strategic Hill 60 near Ypres. In December 1914 the Germans had launched a huge offensive in the “race to the Channel” and the small force of the British Army was under great pressure to hold the line. Sir John Norton Griffiths, (“Empire Jack”) saw an opportunity to help. He was an engineer who had developed a new “clay kicking” technique of tunnelling during his work in the Manchester sewers.

When the Germans started digging tunnels from the high ground to the east of Messines Ridge and gaining ground, Griffiths and a large contingent of men from mineral mines, quarries and collieries were sent to the Front. Throughout 1915 both sides dug masses of tunnels 30 feet down in the soft clay, working in horrendous conditions trying to outflank each other.  Mines were exploded by the British and the Germans responded with chlorine gas (canaries were carried in the tunnels as a detection device). Officers were trained to use geophone listening devices in lateral tunnels and there were many close encounters as the two sides broke through and confronted each other. Men with no experience of arms were given specialist weaponry such as daggers and truncheons for the hand to hand fighting underground. Many men died from the fighting and collapsed tunnels.

Griffiths then came up with a plan to dig deeper to undermine the enemy but a German offensive at Verdun forced General Haig to divert resources to the Somme to support the French.  Huge mines were blown creating large craters (with names like Lochnagar) but these only gave the Germans places to take cover. A new bigger role evolved for the tunnellers at Arras in 1917. Backed up by miners from Australia, New Zealand and Canada, Griffiths’ men had great success digging through the chalk creating huge underground caverns and pushing through the German lines.

Further south however, the French were losing ground badly and control of the Messines Ridge became paramount. Haig resurrected Griffiths’ plan to blow the ridge by tunnelling down deeper to the blue clay, though by now the original tunnels had started to collapse, plus also the Kemmel Sands were very wet and extremely difficult to penetrate. Griffiths however had developed the “Tubbing” method, an enclosed steel tube which made this possible. This was hugely successful and when 19 mines were exploded simultaneously (supposedly heard in Dublin!) the British took the ridge and 7,000 prisoners in a battle that is hardly ever spoken of or celebrated.

Haig’s next offensive switched to Passchendaele and the tunnellers took on new roles. Here they were employed in building barracks, offices and underground hospitals. When a new offensive was started by the Germans, a further change saw them become combat engineers, blowing up roads and bridges as the forces retreated. After the successful battle at Amiens they then took on the role of mine clearance as the Germans began to retreat and the US entered the war.

 Rick’s talk emphasised how critical a part the tunnelling companies played in the defence of the Western Front. Their civilian experiences of digging sewers and working in coal mines and quarries enabled them to drive the tunnels in extremely difficult and dangerous conditions, witnessing the horrors of war and deaths of many of their colleagues. They have never been officially recognised and only one of them, Sapper William Hackett received a posthumous VC. He is remembered on the Ploegsteert Memorial to the Missing near Armentieres.


Dartmoor Prison’s Conscientious Objectors of World War 1”

Simon Dell’s talk was extracted from his forthcoming book due to be released shortly* on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Princetown Work Centre.

At the start of WW1 Lord Kitchener’s recruitment campaign was very successful with people rushing to join up to fight with the expectations of a short war. However, as the war dragged on and casualties grew, particularly after campaigns like the Somme, appetites for fighting diminished and objections increased.

The need for replacements intensified and the Derby Scheme was set up to encourage voluntary recruitment. There was a lot of resistance on political, religious and pacifist grounds. Although there was a theoretical right of objection it was actively discouraged – of 16,000 applications for exemption, only 300 were approved. Despite then the introduction of compulsory conscription in 1916 (the Military Service Act), many men still refused to sign up and were labelled cowards - the derogatory term “conchies” was born. Public sympathy was not forthcoming and objectors were regularly humiliated by the White Feather League.

After the introduction of the 1916 Act, conscientious objectors (CO’s) were subjected to further biased tribunals assessing their conviction and sincerity.  The Alternativists” were offered work of national importance such as agriculture and forestry whilst those in the Non-Combatant Corps took on alternative civilian work in the Royal Army Medical Corps or Munitions.

The “Absolutists” who refused to do any war-related work or obey military orders were sent to prison often for the length of the war. These prisons were run on strict disciplinary and inhumane systems and Richmond Castle was particularly notorious. One group known as the Richmond 16 were forced into uniform and sent to the war front in Belgium. Here they still refused to fight, were punished severely, sentenced to death but then commuted to 10 years hard labour.

In 1917 over-crowded prisons and reports of ill treatment eventually let to the set up by the Brace Scheme of two Work Centres, one of which was at Princetown. Over 1,000 prisoners were transferred here supposedly to engage in work of national importance, though in this case more likely for improving and maintaining the Duchy Estate! The work was very hard, with long shifts digging drainage ditches, quarrying, building walls and roads (eg. “Conchies Road – the road to nowhere”). Poor conditions and meagre diets meant life was no picnic. However the centre was run  by CO committees with open “rooms”; they wore no uniforms and were paid for their work,; they had common rooms and libraries, were allowed outings and visitors, performed plays and concerts and had football teams and rambling clubs. They were common sights around the village but were not popular especially as some of the villagers had relatives still away fighting in the war. There were strong protests in Plymouth and they were often set upon and abused in the village.

 When the war ended the men were not released immediately in order to give priority for jobs to those returning from active service. Although released in 1919 many were still subjected to abuse and called cowards. Did they really deserve such a label or to receive such harsh treatment?

*due to be released on March 12th.


EVENTS 2016:

The Bloudie Booke: a 400 year old tale of Bickleigh, Tavistock and Twickenham”

The Tragical End of John Fitz was retold by Dr. Tom Greeves from eye witness accounts detailed in the “Booke” of the same name. The story started in the late 16th century, a time of prosperity in Tavistock thanks to tin mining, wool and maritime industries. John Fitz Snr. was one such wealthy beneficiary but whilst visiting his estates on the moor got lost in mist (pixy led?). Finding and drinking from a spring he found his way again and built a well at the spot, now the earliest dated structure (1568) on Dartmoor. The rebuilt Fitzford Gate stands at the entrance to his former main residence in Tavistock; he held various properties around the area and was a steward of the manorial court which met at Lydford Castle – a man of some standing. However, he was deeply superstitious with an interest in astrology and visions of ruin – drops of blood are on his coat of arms!

John Fitz Jnr. inherited the estates at the age of 21 and despite being well educated in “laudable rudiments” started to live a “careless and resolute life”. His best friend was Nicholas Slanning, another man of considerable wealth, owning several local manors. They fell out over payment of rent and Fitz threatened Slanning with a knife. Slanning and his friends left for home at Bickleigh but Fitz and his pals including Rusty Jacke “galloped up and attacked” – it was said that the others were “pickt on by bloody urging” and Nicholas was “run through by Fitz”. He was buried at Bickleigh and had a tomb there until 1838 – today there is still a memorial at the church.

Fitz fled to France but later returned having been given a conditional pardon by Queen Elizabeth. However he was soon “consorting with loose prodigals” and despite receiving a knighthood in 1603 continued to engage in “riotous sur fettinge and abhominable drunkenness”, quarrelling and fighting. His wife Mary (nee Courtenay) left him.

 The Courtenays were a leading noble family in Devon and along with the Slannings were not happy. Fitz was aware of this and became paranoid that they were out to get him. When staying in London seeking a full pardon, he couldn’t rest easy being kept awake at night by “every stirre of a rattle”. He fled to “Twicknam” putting up in a victualing house called the Anchor. Later, in a panic thinking he was about to be attacked he accidentally killed the landlord Daniel Alley and then fell on his own sword “gored himself quite through the body” like “a pig lately sticked”. He was persuaded to leave £100 to Mrs Alley and as he died shouted that he was going to be “blown up by gunpowder”.  He was buried in Twickenham “a gentleman borne and of good kindred”!

His wife Mary inherited all his wealth and later went on to accumulate even more along with lots of bad luck, with a series of four husbands including the sadistic royalist Sir Richard Grenville who treated her badly. She became known as the infamous Demon Bride Mary Howard suspected of murdering her husbands…..another story. Mary is said to haunt the moor riding in a coach of bones with a headless horseman and black bloodhounds……

This amazing tale of historical families of the area was brought to life by the colourful, almost Shakespearian language of the eye witness accounts and Tom’s own entertaining portrayal of these incredible events.

“Reputation and Slander in Devon: How to Swear like an Elizabethan”

Sub-titled “Strumpets and Ninnycocks”1 Dr. Todd Gray’s talk was at times both shocking and hilarious as he captured the 16th century age of invention for the art of rich language and insults, which often got their transgressors into court. Todd’s extensive research provided evidence of many defamation cases brought before Exeter’s Diocesan Court and other Civil courts.

Insults in this period differed greatly from today and words were used to mock, ridicule, scorn or embarrass and referred to poor behaviour, low intelligence, unusual physical attributes and sexual practices – their existence tells us a lot about society at that time. Much use was also made of gestures such as showing of backsides, cocking of legs and sticking out tongues.

Reputation was very important and damage through rumours could result in losing your job or a wife being thrown out of her home; hence the reason for the many defamation cases.  A baker’s customers in Bow refused to buy her bread when she was rumoured to have syphilis and trustees of Axminster’s almshouse had the right to evict residents defamed with drunkenness, adultery, fornication, theft or brawling. Exeter’s puritans would often prowl the streets at night listening at doors for signs of these misbehaviours and rumour was everything.

Insults came in many forms with men and women also having their own specifics. Witness statements from the court records also suggest that these differed according to local pronunciations. Being called a drunkard was a common one with terms such as sots, tosspots, drunken sows and scurvies. Poverty attracted the words beggars, knaves and rogues. Women were called jades, pocky whores, rotten and ill favoured witches. A considerable number of words applied only to men; a mazed rogue, a pattick (mean and spiteful), pickthank slave (tale teller) and beefeater (well fed menial), cuckoldy roastmeat (ridiculing), varlet (dishonest). Accusations of low intelligence carried terms such as fool, ass, ninnyhammer and mooncalf. Blinkard, crookback and cripple were used to ridicule physical deformities.

Women were most often slandered as strumpets, whores, giglets (cheeky), copper nosed (syphilis related), hollow mouthed (lacking teeth) and scolds (disturbers of the peace – the public ducking stool being a common punishment for this crime).

Sexual misconduct and allegations of incest, adultery, illegitimacy and diseases featured highly in the insults and court cases. Favourite insults for men were ninnycocks (under endowed), cucumbers (sexually redundant), cuckolds and wittols (complicit in wife’s adultery). Bawds and panders were what we call pimps today. Scab, maggot arse and poxy whoremonger were aimed at women. Many unprintable insults referred to certain body parts.

In the period between 1540-1640 theft, dishonesty, drunkenness, illicit sexual behaviour and witchcraft were serious crimes. Anyone being wrongly accused of such would take to the courts to clear their names and protect their standings in the community. A poor reputation could ruin lives and have serious implications for marriage, housing and employment. Another unusual topic from our speaker in the series “history that hurts” which provides a fresh and unique way of understanding Devon at the time of Raleigh and Drake.

 1 From Todd Gray’s book of the same name, a strongly recommended read.

“Church Houses in Devon: Community, Continuity & Change over 500 years”

Sue Andrew kicked off our autumn series with a fascinating talk on the origin of these houses and how they have changed over time.

Devon is a particular stronghold many of them dating from the 15th and 16th centuries in a time of piety and purgatory when the church was very popular. Although often built as an extension of the church, they were used for secular activities including brewing of ales and baking.

Usually 2-storey and constructed of local stone and cob they had an external staircase with the aim of separating the activities within. Downstairs was functional with a kitchen and brewhouse, sub- divided by oak screens whilst upstairs were used as feasting halls. Celebrations were held at various times in the year and Church Ales were sold raising funds for the church or the parish. However during the late 17th century Puritanism took over and drinking was banned and the role of the church house began to change – many were closed and demolished. Many good examples prevail in Devon however and Sue illustrated how these have changed and survived.

Some of these are open to the public such as the recently restored Poundstock Gildhouse (Tudor cob built Grade 1 listed).  This became a schoolhouse then a poor house and finally parish meeting rooms for exhibitions etc. South Tawton is another fine example also recently restored and Grade 2 listed. Built of local stone and thatch – smoke blackened – it faces south with no windows on the north and west. It also typically has the one big chimney with a huge internal fireplace and cloam oven and the external granite staircase. Closed for ales in 1603 it went on to become school rooms, poor house and parish hall. It was reopened in 2003 with a new specially brewed ale.

Throwleigh is unusual in having a small internal spiral staircase. Drewsteighnton was restored in the 1980’s and has a layer of cob on the roof which helped the thatcher tie in his materials. Two old church houses have taken on a bit of artistic licence – the Rattery Inn claims to be of the 11th century but there is no evidence to support this date and the one at Torbryan sports an Arthurian pub sign!

There are other fine examples at Sampford Courtenay (1549) and Widecombe (1540) with its ground floor arcade supported by seven granite pillars – once an almshouse and school, now owned by the National Trust. The Royal Oak at Meavy - originally the Church House Inn – is still owned by the local parish.

Sue finally came around to her own home – the Walkhampton Church House. Situated unusually along with the adjacent church on a hill some way out of the village it was an inn until 1895. Earliest records date back to 1506 when a local John Atwylle was accused of heresy but survived. There was also a case of an Antony Giles restrained in the Church house for sheep stealing. It was also used for distribution of penny loaves and as a manor court and a school.

After being separated into two dwellings it was put back as one by Sue and her husband and lovingly restored. Sue related the amusing tale of flipping coins through her gargoyle in the wall!

An excellent well illustrated talk detailing the importance of these houses over the centuries, also dispelling the myth that they were built solely to house the church builders.

 Church Cottage, Buckland-in-the-Moor (Nigel Rendle)

A guided walk on Ridding and Crownhill Downs

On a warm but breezy evening about 35 of our members met at Tolchmoor Gate, near Lee Moor, for a walk led by Dr Tom Greeves. 

Crownhill Down has undergone a traumatic change in modern times due to the China clay works and the new works at Hemerdon.  It is an ancient landscape with many prehistoric, medieval and industrial artefacts.  The walk began on Ridding Down which was moorland but has been subject to ‘improvement’ over the last few years by the farmer - despite being legally protected no-one noticed the change. As we walked over the Down we turned to look back at the site of a cairn which used to be on the open moorland and was one of the finest prehistoric cairns on Dartmoor.  

We walked on to the top of Crownhill Down with the view of Hemerdon Ball (a rounded hill) where tungsten and tin are being excavated and the white hills of the Headon china clay works. We also visited Broomage farm made up of a house and 2 barns but now a ruin, documented in 1249 and abandoned in the 19th or early 20th century.  A public right of way runs through to Broomage Wood where there are prehistoric huts and circles. Next stop was the site of a medieval longhouse (discovered by Sylvia Sayer) above Knowle Wood which was occupied in the 13th century, maybe earlier.  It was thatched and single storey, about 40 feet long and on a slope with the shippon below.

We walked on to get a view of the Torycombe valley where there have been clay workings since 1835.  The Herreschoff kilns are managed by the French-owned Imerys, and the remainder of the site by the Belgian firm Sibelco. At this point we crossed over a prehistoric boundary and passed a marker stone engraved LM 1887 with southward views across to Plymouth Sound and the stunning landscape of Dartmoor behind.

Further on we got our first view of the huge Drakelands mine which is on the continuation of Crownhill Down and also of the solar panels on the former Mica dams. We stopped at a ‘mystery feature’ which is believed to be a bomb crater from the Second World War: there is no spoil surrounding it so it is not a mine shaft!

Further on we came to a linear barrow cemetery - a series of ridges which are prehistoric burial places, around 10 or 12 have been identified here and are legally protected. There are lots of different designs including a flat topped circular one though access is restricted because of a fence through the middle of the cemetery. We passed the largest barrow on the walk which was four and half thousand years old and along the ridge we passed a hut circle in the midst of the gorse.

This 2 mile long stretch of moorland has never been included in the National Park but it deserves to be and will hopefully be restored when the mining is over. Thanks to Tom for an enjoyable and informative stroll.



“A guided walk around Devon Great Consols Mine"

On a warm summer's evening Rick Stewart followed up his talk in April with a lively and entertaining walk around the ruins of the old mine. Another large turnout of members gathered at the iconic arsenic flue chimney of Wheal Anna Maria, named after the 7th Duke of Bedford's wife, and one of the 6 main mines which worked the 2 mile copper lode. Although some parts are covered in thick vegetation much can still be seen particularly of the later workings.


First stop was the now capped main engine shaft, originally 138 fathoms deep, its engine coal driven at first but later replaced by water power with a flat rod system. Regular flooding meant the relocation by some 2 miles of a huge pumping engine. The site in places is now heavily wooded, an initiative of the Earl of Bradford, but Rick pointed out the sites of old reservoirs and the incline plane of a narrow gauge railway connecting across to Wheal Fanny.


The first scramble down into a deep ditch and the lifting of a heavy cover exposed Blackwell’s Adit which was part of the system which connected the various reservoirs by a series of leats and tunnels.  Good water management was essential as clean and dirty water had to be kept separate to facilitate efficient working of the various engines. Emerging from the woods, we enjoyed superb views over the large tailings heaps and beyond as Rick recapped on the history of the operations, from becoming the largest copper mine in the world to the largest producer of arsenic.


The next scramble down loose scree challenged the fittest of us but was worth it for the feeling of being in the heart of the old workings. An old 20th century crushing device sits in the shadow of the large copper dump. Part of the old processing mill which pulverised using ball bearings and washed the ore and the only survivor of its type in the South West, it lies rusting and partly vandalised, surely deserving of much more careful attention. One of the original ball bearings was found nearby.


Tunnels can be seen driven into the sides of some of the arsenic waste heaps supported by wooden timbers, thought to be for ventilation purposes. Remains of trestles for tramways to transport material to the tops of the heaps can also be seen. Back up on level ground we stood on the 1850’s Haldon’s dressing floor, now cleared away apparently as part of the sale agreement when the mine closed in 1901.


Our final stop had arguably the most impressive features still standing in some recognisable form.  Remains of the once 3 storey building which housed the 1850’s beam engine, trommel for sorting the ore and roller crusher are still evident. Redeveloped in 1920 as an arsenic works, this area of the site has recognisable relics of the time, such as Brunton calciners, reverberatory furnace, flue and condensing chambers.


Rick explained the process of how ore known as mispickel was fed into the coal fired furnace and roasted producing fumes which were drawn up through the flue into the condensing chambers.  The vapours cooled and condensed on the chamber walls leaving a soot where it was scraped off by workers wearing little more than gloves and a mask. Further refining took place to leave pure arsenious oxide in the form of white crystals. This was dug out, ground to powder with millstones, packed into paper-lined barrels for storage and shipment – to places as far away as the USA.


A fascinating place to visit especially as an addition to Rick’s previous excellent talk – see below.








“A visit to The Royal William Yard”

40 members and friends enjoyed a 2 hour stroll around this iconic site under the expert guidance of Nigel Overton.


Built for its easy sea access on the rocky Stonehouse peninsula 1826-35 and replacing an earlier site at Sutton Pool, it became the major victualling depot of the Royal Navy occupying an area of around 16 acres. It’s an awesome place with its huge Grade 1 and 2 listed buildings made of locally quarried limestone and Cornish granite.


Nigel described how the surrounding area was completely changed by the development of the yard and how convict labour had helped to clear the old quarry site. We passed through the huge entrance archway with its carved ox heads and crossed anchor symbols and the 14ft statue of King William IV into the old abattoir with its muster bell on the roof. Although designed for processing up to 80 bullocks a time it was never used to its full capacity – a feature of much of the yard. On the left of the entrance is the Guardhouse and Police quarters which were permanently staffed to reduce endemic pilfering.


Nigel’s tour took us systematically through the various buildings and along the waterfront with its quayside furniture of cranes, hoists and cast iron bollards. The Mill and Bakery originally housed 2 huge steam engines driving millstones to grind the flour for bread and biscuits with iron pillars and beams designed to protect against fire risk.


The Basin was constructed as a deep water facility for the barges with its Horsley Bros. swing bridge of 1883. The Brewery next door and its steel louvered roof is another impressive building though never used for its original purpose following the end of naval beer rations in 1825. Subsequent uses included an abattoir (1885) and stores for rum, meat and vegetables (1891), armaments (1936), submarine torpedoes (1971) workshops and an HQ for the Raiding Squadron of the Royal Marines (1972). Probably the grandest building is the Melville, designed as a general storehouse and the admin centre notable for its attractive façade with clock, cupola and weather vane over the archway. Plans exist now for conversion to a hotel.


In a large courtyard stands the original Cooperage built to house up to 100 coopers making and repairing barrels but this was relocated to a smaller building after wooden barrels were phased out – the building was used subsequently as an ammunitions workshop. A narrow gauge railway used to link to the Long Store (Clarence) - for storage of wet vinegar then weapons – now luxury apartments. Separating the yard from Devil’s Point is the high retaining wall of Back Alley built from left over quarry stone with its coal stores and workshops and their corbels, fireplaces, hoists, ornate brackets and chimney breasts. The reopened tunnel through to Firestone Bay was an alternative entry route for materials when sea conditions were difficult.


Our tour ended back near the entrance alongside the attractive houses of the original Yard Superintendent and the Chief Clerk.


The Yard closed in 1992 and has been converted and restored by Urban Splash into an upmarket mixed used development – an absolutely superb place to visit for its historic buildings and recreational activity.



“The Siege of Plymouth and its Environs in the English Civil War”

Philip Photiou brought the past of 17th century Plymouth to life with an enthusiastic and detailed account of how the town became a brutal battlefield during the Civil War in the mid 1640’s after siding with Parliament against the rule of King Charles 1.


Much of Philip’s research has been gleaned from the diaries of John Syms, a Puritan minister and curate of Sheepstor who fled from the Royalists. Syms details the twists and turns of the siege and the resolve of the town’s inhabitants to hold out for over 4 years against up to 14,000 of the King’s men. The local population including women and children were employed to build new defences in an arc around the north of the town from Stonehouse Creek to Lipson as other towns around the South West fell to the Royalists and Plymouth became surrounded and besieged by the King’s army.


Refugees fleeing from the other defeated areas flocked to Plymouth bringing overcrowding, disease and food shortages with living conditions becoming unbearable. When Drake’s Leat bringing fresh water to the town was also blocked, they still refused to surrender and even sent out raiding parties to take on the enemy, including one all out attack on Royalist forces who were stationed at Modbury.


People were often prone to changing sides and Syms’ diary tells of one particular betrayal. Alexander Carew, the commander of Drake’s Island a key defence of the town, decided to change his alliance. Fortunately the plot was discovered in time and Carew despite protesting his innocence was executed.


When King Charles made his HQ at Widey House expecting surrender, the town refused and he tasked Prince Maurice to break the siege. However one of the town’s biggest victories came in the Sabbath Day fight when Maurice’s men were defeated in the mud of Laira Creek where extra defences had been built. A commemorative monument to this battle still stands in Freedom Fields.


Maurice withdrew leaving a legacy of plague which killed significant numbers of the population. In 1644 Richard Grenville (a brutal and corrupt man and another to change sides) took over the siege attacking in force with over 6,000 troops. Despite being pounded by Royalists cannons and repeated incursions into their defences, the town held firm aided by bad weather which hampered the enemy advances. Small skirmishes continued on the outskirts of the town on an almost daily basis.


Plymouth was finally victorious and the Royalists withdrew. Following the King’s execution in 1649 however and the restoration of the monarchy, Charles 11 ordered retribution on the town and many of its inhabitants were arrested and imprisoned on Drake’s Island.


Philip related many other interesting, sometimes amusing tales from Syms’ diary. Also of great interest is the proliferation in Plymouth place names today which have strong associations with the time of the Siege.


Devon Great Consols – a new History”

A hugely informative and entertaining talk was hosted by Rick Stewart; author of a comprehensive study on this once important mine.  First documented in the 1530’s as a tin mine, it went on to become a world class copper and arsenic mine  employing around 1300 workers at its peak in the mid 19th century.


After earlier exploitation of tin down to a depth of 100feet, underneath a rich copper lode was discovered in 1844 eventually extending to 2.5 miles in length. Early resistance from the 6th Duke of Bedford who didn’t want it interfering with his pheasants was overcome by his successor the 7th Duke realising the substantial financial benefits this might attract. Devon Great Consols (DGC) was formed and very soon divided into several subsidiary mines including Wheals Anna Maria, Josiah and Emma, named after some of the original shareholders. Two years later the original £1 shares were being offered at £800! By 1850 the area was the biggest copper producer in the world.


Initially coal was brought in from Wales to work the pumping engines though this proved to be very expensive and as the workings went deeper additional resources were required. Steam engines were introduced and water came into use with the construction of 3 huge leats taking waters from the local rivers, powering massive waterwheels - one in particular was 40feet in diameter (33 in total) and using powerful flat rod systems. A mineral railway was built to replace road transport, taking the ores through to the port of Morwellham, connecting to the quays by means of an incline plane. Rick showed a fine photo of the extended docks around 1868 – one of the few photos available of the period.


However by the middle of the 1860’s the mine was getting too deep and expensive to work despite the use of “man engines” to lower miners to the depths. Competition grew from overseas with a resulting drop in copper prices and labour relations deteriorated as wages were reduced. So DGC diversified into the production of arsenic which was in great demand as a pesticide (particularly in the US to counter the cotton boll weevil) as well as in tanning and dyeing. Big processing plants were built including roasting ovens known as calciners with long flues to take away the fumes. This prolonged the life of the mine for the rest of the century.


During this time, the management also thought they saw a future in reviving tin production based on the experience of Dolcoath Mine in Cornwall which had discovered a fresh layer of tin way down below the copper lodes. Unfortunately costly excavation down to 1800 feet found absolutely no tin. New owners with experienced management tried again later on but with no success.


Big floods in 1895 affected the mine badly and demand for arsenic also began to decline. By 1905 the mine had been stripped and the port at Morwellham had died.  The mine lay idle for about 12 years until in about 1915 underground mining was resumed at Wheal Fanny for arsenic and at Wheal Frementor for tin and tungsten. Despite the decline in mining during the post WWI slump in 1921, some picking over of surface dumps continued until about 1925, although mining at Frementor continued until 1930. Fresh investors tried further deep drilling but found little and by the 1980’s crashing ore prices defeated any further plans to start again.

Much of the industrial archaeology can still be seen at the site today dating mainly from the early twentieth century working, including two Brunton calciners and some enormous waste tips. We have a site visit planned with Rick in July.


“The History of the Bedford Hotel”

Alex Mettler brought our talk topics back to a local level with his well researched history of this prominent Tavistock landmark, also now published in book form entitled “A Devon Gem”.


The first major changes to the site occurred in 1719 when the Abbey House was built close to the Higher Abbey Gate, the work of Jacob Saunders. However, he was not particularly popular for his demolition of parts of the original abbey (now a Scheduled Ancient Monument Site) including the Chapter House, Refectory and Cloisters.


In 1821 the site was purchased by the 6th Duke of Bedford and a year later the Abbey House was converted into the Bedford Hotel . The Duke was later to go on and make many improvements to the town of Tavistock itself. The architect for the project was the renowned Jeffry Wyatt (later Wyatville), born at Endsleigh House and well known for his work on the remodelling of Windsor Castle. He was knighted for his works in 1828 by King George IV.


A few years later in 1830 the ballroom was developed from the original Abbey kitchen by Plymouth’s leading architect John Foulston, recognised for various works in the city including the Royal Hotel and the Athenaeum. A stable block was added and then a third floor with billiard room followed around 1894. Interestingly, the middle floor had been constructed of shillet and rubble whilst the other two floors were of the local Hurdwick stone. A veranda was added in 1910. The ballroom was converted into bedrooms in 1931.


Over this period there were 7 different leaseholders from various professions including a coachmaker, horse lover, malster, linen draper, school teacher and an actual publican!  One of these, a William Blake also played football for Plymouth Argyle. A double room in 1916 would have cost you 42.5p and a bowl of soup 5p. By 1947 accommodation had increased to 70p. Around this time the Hotel was the hub of social life in the town especially amongst the well dressed “country set”.


Unfortunately heavy estate duties following the tragic death of the 12th Duke in 1953 forced the sale of the hotel, which was purchased by Trust House Forte at an auction in 1955. In the hands of THF the hotel established a reputation for high standards being decorated by Charles and Diana as a “best girl hotel of good value”. However they were not always popular with the locals closing the Bedford Tap in 1976 which had been the home bar of the Rugby Club – they also demolished the stables. After being taken over by Regal Hotels in 1996 the hotel suffered a decline becoming known more for its poor maintenance and service.


In 1999 a Welsh newspaper publisher who later sold out to Robert Maxwell bought the hotel. Philip Davies was already the owner of the Two Bridges Hotel and was a co-founder of the Dartmoor Brewery at Princetown. His ambition was to restore the hotel to its former glory and among his changes Gallery 26 was rebuilt, lift access installed and some of the original abbey windows have been uncovered.


Today the hotel is known for the high quality of its facilities and service, with long serving staff and loyal patrons.


“The Lees Cottage Story – a Study in Victorian Landscape History”

Phil Planel’s talk related to the East Devon AONB Parishscapes Project, one of the objectives of which was to digitise the tithe maps for the area and make them available to local councils and local history societies on disk, and to the community online.


The feature which attracted the most interest was the existence of several houses

and farms in each parish which had completely disappeared from the landscape. In conjunction with Devon Historic Environment Service, a recording form was developed to begin recording the sites and remains of these houses. Although the 1841 Census gave an indication of names, the precise location of the various dwellings was not clear.


Efforts were concentrated in Northleigh Parish where there was a cluster of disappeared farms and houses. The landowner was willing to allow work to proceed and a study area was defined. Volunteers carried out historical research and attempted to marry the census data with the tithe apportionment

data. It turned out that all the houses were abandoned by the end of the 19th century. Lees Cottage was identified as the smallest of the houses and was selected for partial excavation by volunteer labour under professional supervision.


Excavation amongst the boggy and overgrown area revealed that tiny and ‘primitive’ as it was, the occupants of Lees Cottage were able to afford a reasonable standard of living, as revealed by the small finds. A fragment of an inscription on the hearth, reading Lee, established that this was indeed Lees Cottage (the name appears in the census data but not on the map). The Census also revealed that a Mr Dunning, a tailor, had lived there.


The discovery of poignant artefacts such as a hearth, kettle handle and chain, bread oven and a rare example of a lime ash floor, brought a human element into the narrative and raised questions about the circumstances under which this and the other families had left the valley. People don’t normally leave without good reason but by 1881 all had left the valley – probably because of the late 19th century agricultural depression and the loss of communal grazing and enclosure of the Summerdown above the valley.


The report was put on the AONB website and immediately attracted the attention from the descendants of the Dunning family, the last occupants of Lees Cottage, who were tracing their origins prior to their migration from East Devon to the industrial centres of South Wales. Several members of the family subsequently visited the site.


Phil’s talk emphasised the importance of tithe maps and tithe apportionments as they fit into various Parishscapes projects, especially since the digitisation process began whereby records previously held on parchment are now being transferred to a computer database, available to all. A wealth of historical information can be built up about one’s own parish and the people who lived there.


“The Impact of the Normans in Devon"

Kevin Dickens' talk started off with the events following the Norman invasion of Britain and the battle of Hastings in 1066 as depicted on the famous Bayeux tapestry. A somewhat colourful illustration, it conceals the horrors and carnage that followed.

By 1068 William 1 had extended his domination and control into Devon with the siege of Exeter and the subsequent construction of Rougemont Castle as the centre of Norman Law and administration. The Normans rampaged through the land evicting the locals and burning crops and took over Tavistock Abbey. Land belonging to the local Saxon thegns were seized and taken over by the invaders as William systematically dispossessed the English landowners and transferred their property onto his followers. Names of the manors were changed from Anglo Saxon to the French equivalents, male names such as Robert (eg of Sampford Spiney), Richard and William became common. The impact on place names however was less significant. (By the time of the Domesday Book in 1086, less than 5% of land in the whole of England was still in English hands). Despite this, the Abbot at Tavistock was able to retain his office until he died some 14 years later.

There was still resistance however and the sons of the late King Harold raided the south coast burning villages and crops laying waste to the new Norman manors. A new system of rule called Mudrun Law was introduced to stop the killing of Normans by the locals – basically you had to prove that anyone found dead was not a Norman! Undoubtedly the peasants suffered most in the turmoil whilst the townspeople seemed to accept their fate more gracefully, though most Englishmen were removed from high offices in Government and the Church.

The “biggest smash and grab in English History” continued with more and more land seizures and the rapid construction of motte and bailey castles. These were fortifications with a stone or wooden keep on a raised earthwork (motte), and an enclosed courtyard (bailey) surrounded by a protective ditch and palisade. Kevin’s map showed how widespread these were, with over 800 dotted around Britain at strategic points in towns and the countryside.

Houses were swept aside to make room for these fortifications. In Exeter alone 47 were destroyed to make way for the building of Rougemont Castle. In Lydford 40 houses had to make way. The rest of Kevin’s talk was accompanied by a photographic tour of around a dozen of the remaining castles in Devon. This was a mixed bag of those that are still in good condition and can easily be visited, to those on private land and totally neglected – Barnstaple being a good example of the latter.

Of the former, Rougemont, Plympton, Okehampton and Totnes stand out as fine examples, peaceful now yet symbols of the brutal Normans and their desire to terrorize the local population. Blackmoor Rings in the South Hams is well preserved and is built inside an earlier Iron Age fort – probably a campaign castle for William on the move. The one at Burley Wood is also next to an Iron Age fort.

One of the most interesting examples is one at Highweek in Newton Abbot. Surrounded by houses in a private garden, it even has its own model railway!

A fascinating talk to start our year on a topi

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Talks are held on the 3rd Tuesday of each month at Meavy Parish Hall. Outdoor visits and walks take place in the summer at various locations in the area.



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Contact: Nick Lane, Whitehall, Buckland Monachorum, Yelverton PL20 7NL


The journal is published periodically depending on contributions from members.


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