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2017 MEETING REVIEWS
January: "AGM & The New Newton Abbot Museum"
Following a short AGM, the meeting was handed over to Kate Green, who is a Community Engagement Officer working for Newton Abbot Town and GWR Museum. Kate described the plan to turn the redundant St Leonards Church in Newton Abbot into a new Town Museum and Council Chamber. The building has been empty for five years and has been acquired by Newton Abbot Town Council to replace the rather cramped and out of the way existing buildings in Devon Square. At present it is her role to engage community groups in a debate about what the new museum should look like and contain. She asked for our thoughts and suggestions, and received plenty of ideas.
It is planned to make an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund to create a modern and exciting community museum and council building.
2016 MEETING REVIEWS
February: "Heroes and Villains"
February saw a return to the speaker’s lectern for AbbPast member Nick Nicholson with a thought provoking talk on the nature and meaning of heroism and cowardice in war. As always Nick’s knowledge of military history shone through as he drew on history and personal experience to give examples of the points he was making.
Nick began with an unusual approach, by questioning the very essence of his talk, looking at both sides of what we might understand bravery to mean. Often soldiers are brave just to stay alive, as at Rorke’s Drift or they are fighting for and with their comrades which is then interpreted as fighting for Queen and country in a medal citation. Nick took the theme of the medals to give examples of his point. Theodore Hardy won the VC, DSO & MC, yet he was an aging chaplain whose bravery wasn’t in the fighting but in the saving of wounded men. Lt Col. Edward Parker was dismissed from the army for incompetence but re-joined as a private and won a DCM for great bravery in leading an attack.
Then there was cowardice, where Nick used some examples from the 306 men who were executed for this crime in the British Army during WW1. Harry Farr had been in hospital for 5 months and had all the symptoms of shell shock when he refused to return the front and was consequently executed – was he a coward? Similarly Jimmy Smith had been wounded, buried in an artillery duel and suffered as did Farr.
This was a talk that had the members nodding, gasping and groaning as Nick went on; to say they enjoyed it would be rather simplistic as the subject content needed more from them, but it was definitely appreciated.
March: "Victorian Crime"
Jill Drysdale was making her third visit to AbbPast with her latest local primary sourced talk on Victorian Crime in Totnes, or more accurately the year of 1884’s crime. To help understand the nature of Victorian crime and punishment Jill explained how law evolved from Saxon times to show the importance of land and ownership in punishing criminals. Jill’s main source was the Magistrates Log Book, saved at the last minute from a Totnes solicitors office when it was on its way to the shredder.
The year 1884 was pivotal in Totnes history as it was the year that its local police had to join the County force, an event welcomed with 12 hours of rioting by the locals. Jill’s talk largely focused on petty crime, its nature and the punishments for breaking some unusual laws. At the top of the list of the 340 crime convictions that year was not sending children to school, thereby breaking the quite new law of compulsory education for 12 year olds, their parents preferred them to work and earn money. There were obvious crimes to be punished such drunkenness and theft, but the ‘misuse of the highway’ crime needed explaining; this was mainly galloping horses and carts through the town or not looking after parked horses! The rules on ‘bastardy’ were explained when the mother could accuse the father to receive payment.
Jill gave some interesting examples of the crimes with their punishments, such as boys letting off fireworks in the churchyard and being flogged by birch rods, and a man who was imprisoned for 12 years for making fake coins but only given nine months for raping a girl under 16. There were also 8 murders that year with Mrs Brown being found guilty when her 3 children were found in dead in bed but drowned; rather strangely she was released when the locals complained. As always Jill’s enthusiasm for history shone through to make for an interesting talk for our members.
April: "Lost Devon"
Felicity Goodall was making her first visit to Abbotskerswell, and therefore to AbbPast, to give a talk on lost historical relics of Devon; this was based on her book of the same title. As a preface to her talk she explained that all the money she raises from her talks goes to the Thone Htet Kyaung Monastery School in Rangoon; this is a home for orphans and street children in Burma.
Felicity gave us six varied examples of lost Devon artefacts beginning with the lost library of Bishop Leofric of Exeter. His 70 book library from around AD1050 seems to have been dispersed, possibly to the Bodleian in Oxford, although the treasured ‘Exeter Book’ of Saxon stories was saved for the city. Moving in a totally different direction we learned of Devon’s rabbit warrening, in man-made mounds called pillow mounds. Rabbits were once regarded as high status creatures and specially bred, the first written references to warrening refer to Devon.
In Felicity’s bright and chirpy way we were told of Rudyard Kipling’s early days at one of the first colleges for possible gentleman officers, this was the United Services College at Westward Ho which disappeared around 1906. Then it was the turn of the Devonport built HMS Foudroyant, reputed to be Nelson’s favourite ship, which was saved from the clutches of a German scrap yard and also the handmade paper industry of Tuckenhay Mill.
She finished her talk, with assistance of the audience, by telling the story of Brunel’s ill-fated atmospheric railway from Exeter to Newton Abbot. It was seen by Brunel as an alternative to heavy steam locomotives to tackle the hills of the Devon railway. The time lacked the necessary technology to make the project successful, with leather flaps for the pipes proving inadequate. Felicity is a broadcaster and author and she showed both in an entertaining and informative talk much enjoyed by the members.
May: "The Romanian Royal Family"
It was a pleasure to welcome AbbPast member Steve Brookes to the lectern this month, it was his first talk to the group. His interest in the subject was linked to his family and he has visited the country many times, including during its communist days.
It was Marie who worked tirelessly nursing sick soldiers, she became known as ‘The Soldiers Queen’, who went to Versailles in 1919 to demand that Romania be given Transylvania, which eventually occurred. Ferdinand died in 1927 and what followed was a soap opera of confusion. The heir to the throne, Carol, had been forced to give up his right to the throne because of his poor choice of wife, who was not of equal rank. Therefore a regency for the young King Michael was created, however, Carol arranged a better marriage and re-emerged as Carol II, ruling from 1930 – 1940. However, this marriage failed and his choice of third wife saw him forced to abdicate in favour of Michael again.
The story ended in 1947 when the communist takeover of Romania after WW2 meant Michael was forced to abdicate at gunpoint. When the dictatorship of Ceausescu ended in 1990 there were discussions on Michael’s possible return as King but this was not what the people wanted.
Steve delivered a fascinating insight into the confused picture of European monarchies, using a display of pictures and a family tree to illstrate his talk; it was much enjoyed by the members.
June: "Dealings with the Dead"
We were very pleased to welcome back anthropologist Stephany Leach for her fascinating talk entitled “Dealings with the Dead”, in which she described the ways that mankind has dealt with its dead bodies and what that tells us about how modern life evolved.
It was Neanderthal Man who began burying their dead some 60 000 years ago, when they were covered in ochre and buried with goods useful in the afterlife. In Mesolithic times, 20 000 years ago, proper burial grounds appear, with cremations and ship burials; in Denmark a burial of a young woman with her baby resting on a swans wing was found, presumably to help them fly to heaven. In Neolithic times they seemed obsessed with death building huge burial monuments to help reach their ancestors, although bones were jumbled together as it was not important to have an individual burial.In Roman times there are many burial rituals imported from all over their empire, the idea of large cemeteries outside of a town began so travellers passed the dead on their way in. It was the Saxons who first brought burials into communities with graveyards around churches, but by Victorian times these were so overcrowded that coffins were stacked 10 high. This brought about the modern large out of town cemeteries with elaborate statues and graves in the gothic or classical style. The modern phase of cremation began because of the need to save burial space, with first one being in 1885; today 70% of burials in Britain are by cremation.
Stephany is an splendidly enthusiastic and knowledgeable speaker whose work is much enjoyed by the members.
July: "Britain and Europe"
AbbPast member and prominent villager Brian Mackness was our speaker for the July meeting with another of his questioning talks, this time on the topic of Britain’s relationship with Europe. Brian began by explaining that this was history not politics and that the topic had been chosen over a year ago long before the Referendum reared its head.
Brian talks for less time than more formal content based speakers but then leaves a question which is then debated by the members; he gave us the question early –“What will Britain be like in 2030?”. Brain explained that the key to the question is to look at history and see if that makes us prejudice in answering it. Europe has been the centre of many Empires and has always seemed to be the centre of the world, or the ‘Old World’ as it was called in the 16th century when it ‘discovered’ the rest of the world.
The Europe we know is quite modern, with Germany and Italy only becoming countries in the 1870s and of course Britain and France being long-time enemies until the 20th century. Britain had closer relationships with Germany through its royal house ties and until 1914 preferred to keep out of European affairs, looking to its Empire instead. But inevitably Britain, itself a federation of various countries, has become part of Europe and its history – well until recently anyway.
Brian is a splendidly different and knowledgeable speaker (he even managed to give the first part of his talk during a power cut), whose approach is much enjoyed by the members.
September: "Abbotskerswell Bells"
Our speaker for the September meeting came all the way from Halifax to deliver his fascinating talk on church bells and bell ringing; it has been much anticipated, well by me since he is my nephew! John Thurman is a bell ringer of serous standing, having rung peals at all the bells of worth in the country. His talk covered a range of aspects from bell casting to the history of our village bells.
John began with an explanation of how bells have been cast for the last 500 years, revealing that many bells were cast on site as transport was so difficult hundreds of years ago. The mould of a bell, the cope and the core, are made from layers of a mix of horse hair, cow dung and clay, and then shaped using a strickle. Once dried the bronze metal, 77% copper and 23% tin, is poured between the layers. Many have engravings, with the names of church wardens, or in Abbotskerswell’s case “The gift of H Hare in memory of M J Hare 1924”.
Abbotskerswell has six bells, 2 made by the Pennington family of Exeter in 1637 and 1705 and four made by Mears and Stainbank in 1924, although one was recast from a Pennington bell of 1664 which had been damaged. John described the interesting nature of the Pennington family, with Thomas III in particular liking a drink whilst working. He and his workers once had a bar bill of over £180 for two days work!
John’s talk was well received by the members, with many questions afterwards, always a good sign that a talk has been enjoyed.
October: "Roman Trade & Commerce in the South West"
It is always a pleasure to welcome back Derek Gore, our speaker for the October meeting; he is a higher quality communicator, with a mine of knowledge and great presentation.
Put simply, the arrival of 10 000 Roman soldiers was a massive stimulus to trade in the south west. This was the main point Richard wanted to make, and then supported with a huge number of examples from archaeology and historical interpretation. In AD43 Emperor Claudius’s soldier’s invaded southern Britain, with one of the three armies directed to head to the SW, securing the land as it went. This meant that those soldiers needed feeding, and had coins to pay for it. The local tribe in the SW was the Dumnonii, and they soon realised that replacing the old bartering system with Roman coins was profitable. It is reckoned that this army needed wheat from 6000 acres per year, and used 3500 mature trees, from 88 acres of managed woodland to construct their fortresses. This kind of trade stimulated great change in the local culture with local tribe leaders soon adopting a Roman style of living.
Archaeological evidence, some from the Ipplepen dig, has shown that pottery from the Lizard and Dorset was soon widespread, using the Roman road system and the extensive coastal traffic. Tin, lead, iron and copper mining and smelting was quickly developed for export. Local sites such as Exeter fort and the port of Topsham, have produced large amounts of material, such as the amphora, shown in the picture, in which wine and the fish sauce for a Roman soldier’s stew was imported. When the soldiers left after six years the trading had been established, and carried on with the local people. This then was the impact of the invasion on local trade and commerce, it transformed it. Derek’s talk was well received by the members, with questions afterwards; it was an intense, but fascinating hour, enjoyed by all.
November: "The Battle of Verdun - a Personal Journey"
This was a very different talk for our November meeting; it was given by AbbPast member Max Neu, on the subject of the Battle of Verdun in WW1. However, as the title suggests it was linked to a family connection, but in this case it was to a German soldier.
Max’s father was born in 1887 and lived in Darmstadt in the state of Hesse in western Germany. When Max was researching his family history he discovered that his father had been a soldier in the artillery, being trained in horse management, becoming a bombardier and then a regimental sergeant. When his unit went to war in 1914 there were 57 officers, 1328 other ranks, 1301 horses and 46 cannons. He served in France, won the Iron Cross for ‘bravery in the face of the enemy’ and served at the military headquarters. Then in 1916 the German Army decided to go onto the offensive, and launched a huge assault on the town of Verdun, north of Paris with the intention of bleeding the French Army white.
For seven months the Germans bombarded the French positions and launched countless assaults, but eventually the two armies had fought each other to standstill. Max’s father was seriously wounded by shrapnel in the village of Beaumont (which was eventually totally destroyed) and spent many months in hospital. Eventually the French counter attacked and in two months recovered the lost territory. The statistics for the battle are staggering: in their opening bombardment the German artillery fired 100 000 shells per hour for ten hours, it is estimated that during the 250 day battle 10 shells landed per one square centimetre of land and there were around 700 000 causalities.
A number of years ago Max and his wife visited the area and he used his photographs of the visit to illustrate his talk. Sadly Max was never able to ask his father why he fought in the war, although Max read us the Kaiser’s proclamation, which he had translated. Max visited one cemetery that contains the graves of 160 00 French soldiers.
This was a very personal history, told from a view that is unusual for a group such as hours, and the reception he received reflected the feeling and support of the members.
December: "Not the Antiques Roadshow Quiz"
Our Christmas Social this year featured villager David Wheeleker, who organised a fun, but very informative antiques quiz. David spent a career as a solicitor, in his words "dealing with violence and sex", but always had an interest in antiques, and Staffordshire porcelain in particular. He and his family moved to Abbotskerswell 40 years ago when they bought the old Vicarage on Vicarage Road, now Glebe House.
The quiz was based around 25 antiques placed on tables in the centre of the room. The 30 members who were present were invited to answer questions on each; these included:
- What is it and where is it from?
- What is called?
- Name the war?
- Who is this man?
- What is the purpose of these scissors?
Following much consideration and frowning at the articles David described each and gave an explanation of their historical context, before awarding the winners, XXX and XXX, a bottle of Champagne. It was great fun and much appreciated by the members. This was followed by wine and nibbles, which ended another successful year foir AbbPast.
Oh, the scissors were for making button holes.
January: "Lido Days are Limited
February: "Plague & Pestilence"
March: "Just Going Fishing Across the Atlantic - 1600"
April: "Devon and its Ancient Carved Bench Ends"
May: "The Real Downton Abbey: Clothing the Classes 1900 - 1930"
June: "The City of London and its Manmade Disasters"
July: "Berlin 1985: The Frontline of the Cold War"
September: "The Stover Canal Archaeological Digs of 2014/15"
October: "The Roman Conquest of the South west"
November: "The Ivory Bangle Lady"
December: "Members Quiz Night"
January: "The Creeds of Abbotskerswell"
February: "Murder Most Foul"
March: "Playing For The Other Side: The British Traitors of WW2"
April: "Mining on Exmoor"
May: "Textile Conservation"
June: "The Vikings in Devon"
July: "The Middle East: how we got into this mess and how do we get out of it"
August: "The Roll of Honour Final Exhibition"
September: "Church Houses"
October: "Policing the Miner's Strike of 1984"
November: "The Kingsbridge Branch Line"
December: "Christmas in Victorian Torquay"
January: "Mutiny, Mobs and Mayhem 1793-1867:
was Devon on the brink of revolution ?"
February: "The Lost Mine of Landscove and the Lost canal at Littlehempston"
March: "Devon Place Names"
April: "The Aller Vale Pottery"
May: "Roman Devon"
June: "The Code Breakers of Bletchley Park"
July: "The German Refugees who Fought for Britain in WW2"
August: "The Coming of the Railways"
September: "All the way from France"
October: "Slavery in Devon"
November: "Photographing Torquay in 1850 - 1870"
December: "Members Quiz Night"
February: "Folklore and Legends of Dartmoor"
March: "Devon’s 50 Best Churches"
April: "Secrets of a Victorian Toilette"
May: "Researching Family History"
June: "A Pub Crawl Through History"
July: "Poltimore Community and Landscape Project"
August: "Visit to Shilstone House”
September: "Health and Social Care: Past, Present and Future"
October: "The Abbotskerswell Roll of Honour 1914-1918”
November: "Little Poland"
December: "Members Meeting"
January: "Abbotskerswell: Tony's Reminiscences"
February: "Stover Canal"
March: "Sources - Who NeedsThem?"
April: "Dartmoors History through Postcards"
May: "Abbotskerswell Church - Tombstones and Marble"
June: "Kelly Mine"
July: "Oyez! Oyez! The Manor Court in the 21st Century"
August: "The Battle of Bois de Buttes May 1918: The Last Stand of the 2nd Devons”
August: Visit to Forde House
September: Visit to Kelly Mine
October: "Sights and Sounds of Newton Abbot”
November: "The Old Saltway from Coombe Cellars to Totnes"
December: "Members Meeting"