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Widecombe History Group Talks
The talk this month was given by Dr. Todd Gray
The title of his talk was The New Directions on Devon's History
Dr. Gray started his talk by saying how different history research is now compared with thirty years ago. It was done largely in an academic way, when Devon boasted six full-time university staff. The funding for such research has altered and people and communities are doing the research in their own area i.e. North Devon, Dartmoor, E. Devon etc. but not many are writing about Devon as a whole. Todd is now the only full time Academic Researcher on Devon's history and he particularly likes places such as Widecombe where research is done mainly by the people of the parish.
He divided his talk into four sections:
1. The Black Shirts in Devon 2. Slavery in Devon 3. Looting in War time Devon
4. Women's history in Devon
1. The Black Shirts in Devon Todd has discovered some interesting new facts as a result of The Freedom of Information Act since the publication of his book on the subject. Plymouth had the largest fascists movement outside London which quickly spread all over Devon. In December 1933, Moseley addressed a gathering of 2000 people in Plymouth, with the same support in Barnstaple and Exeter and he tells London that the people of Plymouth were his best supporters. But it brought a lot of violence to the city.
The Western Morning News even altered the corners of their newspapers, instead of the usual daisy motif they printed swastikas in each corner and were very supportive in their reporting of various events in connection with the fascists movement. This continued for seven months until October 1934, when Mosley arrived and disaster occurred. There was opposition to the gathering and everyone turned on Mosley when the Black shirts attacked a Western Morning News photographer. They demanded that the fascists should apologise and told Mosley 'to go to hell'. That was the end of fascists movement in Devon, and the Western Morning News from then on became the most anti-fascists paper. During the WWII the fascists had a lot of support in Plymouth, North Devon, Exeter and Newton Abbot and particularly from the small villages, when farmers were promised by the movement to take away tithe payments. Farmers found after a while that their support of Moseley was more expensive than the tithes.
2. Slavery in Devon Hockings was the first Devon man to take slaves from Africa to the New World. Devon was involved with the slave trade and records show that Devon had only 40 slave ships out of 12,000 active at that time, so Devon had just 0.3% of the slave shipping. Out of the 15 million Africans that were shipped to America, 5,000 were moved by Devon ships which equates to 0.03%. In Devon there were many privateers who were out to make as much money as they could in the shortest possible time, sometimes trading with Muslims in North Africa but on most occasions simply stealing from the French and Spanish, capturing their goods and gaining financially.
Historians must not ignore the evidence and only record what they to believe is true and it is wrong to assume that figures relating to other areas of the country should equate to Devon. For example, boats from Liverpool and Bristol took some 15 million slaves to America where only 5,000 were moved by Devon ships.
3. Looting in War time Devon In 1941 there was much looting in Devon, and between August and December 1941 newspapers carried stories about looting. Winston Churchill wanted to know what was going on and asked to be kept informed of the numbers brought to court from the police and there were 10,000 cases of people ransacking ruined properties in England. This was happening in every town and city and as it will soon be the 70th Anniversary, Todd has studied this, as a result of The Freedom of Information Act, and found out that in all the towns and cities there were looters, including policemen, firemen, wardens and soldiers involved, as well as other people. Many looted for survival and many bombed properties literally had nothing left in them, everything disappeared including floorboards, doors, cupboards as well as food. In Cardiff there were reports of houses being repaired ready for re-occupation and over night everything stripped out and disappeared. It was hard to believe that while our Forces were fighting for their Country this was happening in their towns and cities. Society did deal with it. It is a subject that the generations born since the war have little or no knowledge. He has found pages of statistics since this evidence has been made available, which he previously didn't know anything about. It was not all bad news, however these subjects Todd said is 'History that Hurts'.
4. Women's History in Devon The history of women's influence on the County's life really became important from the onset of WW1 1914. There are some remarkable women who had a lot of influence within the county from then on. One such lady, Elizabeth Holbit became a female navvy when her husband went to war. She dressed as a man and had her hair cropped short and by working as a man earned four times as much as she would have been paid as a woman. There is a report that she worked for thirteen years on the railways before being discovered. In the eighteenth century there was a girl named Maria Foot who paved the way as a female entertainer at Covent Garden. From Exeter came a lady who originally had a hat shop and ultimately became Mrs. Disraeli, much to Queen Victoria's disgust. Another lady who became known as Dame Aggie, was a spinster and for 50years ran a hostel for sailors in order to keep them away from the public houses and brothels. When she died over a 2000 sailors marched behind her coffin in respect. He also mentioned the famous Mrs. Parlington who tried to keep the sea at bay in Sidmouth with a mop, she failed, and her house was washed away. Her fame resulted in her being caricatured ever since in political satire.
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