Widecombe History Group Talk on Lost Devon

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Dr. Gray began his talk by saying that even in a country as small as England, 500 years ago individuality was very evident. Not only in the country as a whole but in the counties, towns and cities, and even neighbouring villages, individuals had varying skills, crafts and working methods that today seems difficult to understand.

Where today everything is produced by similar methods with similar materials, and producing similar commodities, in bygone years everyone had a skill of their own and what they produced had a particular “trade mark” of their own.

Over the years so much of these personal crafts and skills have been lost and perhaps this is why when we look at past artefacts, be it furniture, clothing, implements and the like, we are now conscious of the need to preserve for the future these wonderful examples of our ancestors work.

The Work Houses of the 1830s were a source of cheap labour but these people had their own skills and practices that contributed so much to everyday life.

A photo of old Dartmouth showing the construction of the shops and some of the old signs regarding the business of these premises, made interesting viewing. A picture of a sign from Ottery St. Mary read: “Tooth Pulling and Blood Letting” (all done without anaesthetic), would we survive today? Old signs, architecture, stones and sculptures, many still standing on our streets today, we pass without noticing them. One such an example was a medieval wooden sculpture of St. Peter that stood unnoticed in Exeter for generations, now rescued and safely in the hands of Exeter Museum. There is so much that wants saving and one needs to consider how it is that so much of it gets destroyed in the name of advancement.

Transport has done a lot of damage, the need to build railway lines in the 1800s and since, removing anything that stood in the way. Now they have gone in many instances and their history destroyed forever, South Brent to Kingsbridge, Yelverton to Princetown, Newton Abbot to Moretonhampstead just to mention a few. Some historical trees have disappeared, some cut down to make room for road widening, some to create building sites, we should in this era at least get photographs to help keep these memories alive.

Many buildings have also disappeared and been replaced with concrete monstrosities. In some places a little still remains to be seen, like the ruined Abbeys and Priories of Cornworthy and Frithelstockstone. Some converted into houses and virtually unrecognisable as a result. Religion too has played its part in the destruction of our historical features. Henry VIII, a Catholic and then a Protestant, and his son Edward, Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth changing faiths from one reign to another, and as a result many murals and Church items were damaged and destroyed in the process. Things are still changing, pews being removed and replaced by chairs, Parish Churches and Chapels being made redundant, some being turned to dual-purpose buildings. Village halls during the week and religious buildings on Sundays. The need to do this results from reduced congregations, but it does help maintain these buildings for future generations.

Nature too, does its bit towards altering the scene. On our coasts the power of the sea and erosion of the cliffs have resulted in the loss of many buildings. Here in Devon we remember Hallsands and the first Eddystone Lighthouse. Many towns were altered as a result of fire sweeping through its streets. Ottery St. Mary and Chudleigh are two well recorded instances. The demands of the individual have determined many alterations i.e. Shute near Axminster in the 1500s had wonderful orchards, now alas very little survives. These loses of architecture, buildings and natural wonders are still continuing today where obsolete buildings are replaced to satisfy present day needs.

Dr. Gray emphasised that there is still a lot that we can do to preserve our heritage. Photographs and diagrams add a lot to our knowledge, documents and the like, need to be preserved for future generations. The one thing that came out of this address was emphasised to us all for each one individually to write a pocket history of their own life to pass onto the next generation. If we are fortunate enough to still have older relations encourage them to do this also or at least ask them for family details that they can remember and record it yourself.

It must be remembered that in the majority of cases, all our stories die with us. Do your best to avoid losing our historical monuments and our social history. We can all do our bit to preserve what each day can become part of “Lost Devon”.

How quickly we ourselves can become history.

Dr. Todd Gray has written several books on the history of Devon including one entitled “Lost Devon” which is a very good read and will give you food for thought.

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