Widecombe History Group Talk on Devon's Century of Change


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Devon’s Century of Change by Helen Harris

Born in Buckfastleigh, and with a life-long interest in the history of Devon, Helen gave a most illuminating talk on the changes that had taken place in the County concerning a wide variety of aspects over the last 100 years.

The Twentieth Century witnessed a period of unprecedented change.

Roads and Transport: The improvement of the roads from narrow lanes to massive dual carriageways was emphasised in particular by two photographs of the stretch of road at Lower Dean, Buckfastleigh, adjacent to the old Buckfastleigh Race Course, the first photo of 1914 with an avenue of trees and a horse and trap, the recent one of 1999 of the dual carriageway A38, they showed an amazing contrast. Early transport of the last century was mainly horse-drawn, one example of a firm at Tavistock doing day trips to Dartmeet in a wagonette, their phone number was Tavistock 34. As the roads improved and developed, so did the means of transport. First came Steam Wagons, two makers in particular, Sentinel and Foden, were the prime movers for early lorries. Steam engines and Steam Rollers were quite commonplace, but with the development of internal combustion engine, the demand for better quality surfaces resulted in much widening and strengthening of the roads. In 1970 the A38 was made into a dual-carriageway, old bridges were replaced with big concrete structures and on the approaches to some cities, the interchanges resulted in two or three layers of road criss-crossing each other. The lovely old bridge at Bideford, partly collapsed in the 1980’s, resulting in the new Torridge bridge being constructed in 1987 to join with the North Devon Link Road .

Communications: The pre-mentioned telephone number Tavistock 34 is an example that showed how few businesses had the telephone, compare this with the modern telephone numbers of eleven digits. When telephone communications became commonplace, call boxes appeared in town and countryside alike, now with mobile telephones being an every-day accessory many of the call boxes are disappearing. Radio became another means of communication, followed by television, note the mast on North Hessary Tor, and now the computer era has brought e-mails and the world-wide web. The postal service was also considered, in 1900 there was a very good postal system with up to five deliveries a day in towns and cities. Numerous cases were recorded of letters being sent in the morning and replies being received that same afternoon. A lovely photograph of a Victorian letterbox illustrated this early postal service.

Water: Transport by canal was another early means of moving industrial commodities, the Grand Western Canal at Tiverton for instance, but due to the spread of the Railways this ceased to be viable and was closed in 1930. By 1980 the Devon County Council restored much of the Canal which is now a tourist attraction, with the horse-drawn barge (Tivertonian) in which the Group enjoyed a trip a few years ago.

Railways: An intricate railway system built up during the twentieth century, but in the 1950s, several sections were closed down, one of the first was the Princetown railway, which closed in 1956. All the rails and sleepers were removed and the old track is now used for walkers and cycling. Another example was Meldon, closed in 1964 and now re-opened as a tourist attraction. No railways at Tavistock now, when at one time there was both Great Western and Southern Railways servicing the town. Is was possible to travel from Tavistock to Waterloo non-stop. There was a narrow-gauge railway running from Lynmouth to Barnstaple from 1898 to 1935, now being restored and the viaduct seventy feet high still remains.

Air Travel: Plymouth Airport opened in 1930 and Exeter in 1937. This now means that travel to all parts of the World is readily available to people living in the Southwest of England.

Newspapers: The Western Morning News was mentioned as a great source of information. Originally a broad-sheet publication, with all of page one taken up with advertisements, now a tabloid paper with local, national and international news, the daily paper the norm today for most households.

Farming and Rural Activities: In the late Nineteenth Century life on the farm was financially secure, by the early Twentieth Century, agriculture went through a period of depression. Horses were the main source of energy on the farm, at one time there were 40,000 horses on the farms of Devon. Photographs showing horses at work enlightened the talk, three horses for example pulling a Binder brought back memories. When WW1 was declared 1914-1918, many horses were commandeered for the War effort, as was common in those situations, it was the best animals that were taken for this purpose, and due to the lack of man-power, many of the large Estates were divided up, staff shortages also lead to these Estates being sold. W.W.II created further problems and in a effort to increase production from the land, various systems were devised for “land improvement”. An example, north of Dartmoor, was the draining of the Culm Measures, this marshy land when drained was very fertile resulting in much grass and cereals replacing the old rushes and pastures. Now in the Twenty-first Century, those areas of the Culm Measure still surviving, are appreciated for their environmental value and are part of the “Environmentally Sensitive Area Project”.

Cattle: Mention was made of the two indigenous breeds of Cattle. The South Devons and the Devons (Red Ruby). It was always considered that the A30 was a dividing line between the two breeds. In the 1940s the necessity for more milk lead to the Dairy breeds, Freisians and the like, being introduced to the County.

Tourism: Mention was made of how in the Victorian era seaside resorts like Ilfracombe in North Devon and Torquay in South Devon thrived, thanks to the ease of rail travel, they became very fashionable seaside resorts. Ocean liners putting in to Plymouth in the 1930s now replaced by cross-Channel Ferries. Clovelly was an important fishing village, at one time sixteen herring boats plying their trade. Teignmouth and Bideford now ports for the export of Devonshire clay.

Industry: China Clay, one of the major industries that has altered the landscape of Devon, huge workings in some areas creating a moon-scape appearance and in contrast some of the spoil heaps associated with the industry now getting covered in grass and creating new hills. Mining for tin and copper and iron ore, has left its marks on the countryside and the quarries for Dartmoor granite still evident, the last one at Merrivale closed in 1997. The old cottages connected with these industries, many having being destroyed but some now adapted into holiday homes. Other industries like Ship-Building, Woollen Mills, all created jobs were mentioned, as was the coming of the Mains Gas and Electricity and with the increased population the necessity of more water. Reservoirs have been developed including Meldon in 1972 and the large one at Roadford in recent years.

Health and Education was also considered, common diseases in 1900 treated with great success in 2000, due to antibiotics, surgery, technology and organ transplant. In 1900 the average life expectancy of men was 48, woman 52. Now it is in the 70s and 80s.

As we reflect back over the last 100 years, we notice that the Church has had to adapt to smaller congregations, with one Minister serving many Parish Churches as a Team Minister, where years ago there was a Vicar for every Parish Church.

Leisure pursuits seem to be a major occupation and Sundays are taken up by Sport, Cinema, Theatre and shopping.

There is a lot of food for thought in Helen’s comprehensive talk.

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