Chairman's Report, 2005
It goes without saying that the principle event of the year has been a tragedy, the loss of the man who stood here and delivered the Chairman's report last year. I mean of course Bob Simkins, who died on 17 February and whom we all sadly miss. But we have soldiered on in his absence, and I think he would be pleased that we have done so. Indeed, whichever cloud it is he is sitting on, as chair (of course), I am sure he is keeping a close eye on the Society, along with his predecessor, Les Adams.
The year has seen a quite extraordinary range of talks, if you think about it. Cast your minds back: last November Stefan Janota was talking to us about Moreton Pharmacy over the last three hundred years. From Medical History we moved into our distant, rocky past with our president's address on Dartmoor geology, and then aerial analysis of the landscape from Bud Young, including a close aerial look at Mardon Down sixty years ago. Our collective eye then soared even higher, into orbit, literally, with the Meteorological Office's description of the weather and how to predict it. Prediction: that's not history - I hear you say - that's the future! But all of these talks were immediate, visual and directly comparable with our own experiences: we all know Dartmoor stone, and we're all familiar with the good old weather forecast. No one here, however, has had quite the experience of building a medieval house, or seeing a one-ton oak beam crash down into their unbuilt living room, like the Codlings have at their longhouse at Cherry Tree. Nor have many of us had quite the life of excitement which a former chairman had during the war, which we heard about in May when Edward Hobson delivered his lively rendition of the life of Ken Theobald. Do you recall the story of Ken having to deal with a Medicine Man, or the one about him cooking up a dish of snakes? June saw us visiting the National Park Authority-maintained grade one listed medieval longhouse at Uppacott, and July brought us Michael Thompson, the manager of the National Trust-maintained pseudo-medieval Castle Drogo. And of course last month we were treated to one of the most enthusiastic speakers I have ever come across: P.C. Dell, speaking on 'Policing the West Country', and selling books at every possible opportunity, even halfway through his presentation. With a further ninety-one lectures to do in the next twelve months I am sure we all wish him well!
You see what I mean by range! The geology of Dartmoor began with our own Big Bang about 282 million years ago; the Met Office predicts aspects such as variations in Atlantic currents up to several weeks in advance. We have not just covered HISTORY but a period of time extending from the primeval through to the future, and not many history societies can claim that! For me, memorable highlights have included the story of the toad which took up residence on a wet staircase at Castle Drogo - or Toad Hall as I now think of it - and the claim that three-day forecasts today are as accurate as the one-day forecasts thirty years ago. I am also still amazed by the sad story of the young policeman, William Bennet, who was deemed to have been killed lawfully by a drunken criminal after it emerged that his wife had no right to permit any man - even a policeman - over the threshold without her husband's permission. And to learn that 95% of all the medieval thatch which survives is to be found in Devon - because of the local tradition of only removing the top layer - has found a permanent place in my memory. It all goes to show that, just as Sir Alexander Fleming found, the longer you leave something lying around, the more interesting it becomes.
These comments show that the society continues to thrive in its meetings and regular events. But what of our activities beyond that? That is a good question. Thanks to Peter Collier, we continue to enjoy a regular and informative newsletter. But otherwise? We have had no exhibitions this year. I have failed to make any significant additions to our website. We have no co-ordinated research projects underway. We don't do much by way of getting involved as a society in community events, such as Carnival. If the Young Farmers and Playgroup have a float each year, why not the History Society? We are no nearer to having our own space, designated for our own use, where we can keep things. We still have no inventory of our documents and artefacts, and many of these still are stored in private houses, under beds and even on top of beds, often at some inconvenience to the owner. Especially if they intend to offer the said bed to someone in the near future.
Should we be doing these things? Indeed, are we running ourselves as an organisation in the best way? On the whole I think the answer to this latter question is Yes. We need to make some changes to our constitution, to make it less formal and more flexible. I don't think we need to go down the route of becoming a charity, as the committee discussed over the year. In effect this would only constrain our activities and bring no great financial benefit. But there are certainly things we could be doing which would place the Society on a sounder footing.
Firstly, I need to improve our website. I would like to see all the listed buildings in our area referred to there, and all the photographs we have on the website made available through a gazetteer. I would like to see a more thorough 'Who was Who' of Moretonians, and I would like to complete the potted history of the town. I can't do this immediately, because of my own work pressures, but to report that it still needs doing is nothing more than a reflection of the state of the society's website.
Secondly, with regard to research. As many here will know, in March our speaker will be Simon Dixon from the Friends of Devon Archives project who will pose us an interesting question about Moreton and the oath of allegiance in 1723. This should give a great opportunity for a small group to work on the people who made up the community of Moreton in that year, who they were and where they travelled to, why nearly 200 of them swore the oath of allegiance. From a professional point of view, this is all uncharted territory, and it gives a Society like ours a great opportunity to undertake some valuable research, and to begin to find good and reliable data to set against the myth that people never travelled more than ten miles from their birthplaces. On one day in 1723, for instance, approximately one third of the adult male population of Moreton walked to Chudleigh and back; others went to Exeter, others Ashburton. And supposedly all of these were freeholders! Clearly there were other motives behind all this.
Thirdly, and this is where I start to fly a kite or two... I am hopeful that we can work towards finding a 'home' for the Society. It may not be much: it may be only somewhere to store and collate our archives and artefacts. Or it maybe more substantial: an office and a more permanent exhibition in conjunction with the development of a central office for Moreton. At this stage we cannot say whether the last option will ever become a reality; but if it does, I very much hope the history society will be involved. Call it a vision statement for the time being, but one day, with an increased awareness of how Moreton has prospered despite the slings and arrows of the last century or so, the history society may well help all those live here to be proud of their community and their heritage, whether they are members of the society or not. Indeed, the idea of bringing what we know and love about the past into the community, and making history interesting, enlightening and above all FUN, may well be the area where this Society can improve most.
Finally I would like to thank certain individuals for their efforts on behalf of the Society.
- Wendy Coombes, for producing a programme of events for the forthcoming year
- Peter Collier, for producing the newsletter without fail, every month
- Our president Ian Mercer, for his excellent advice
- And the officers and members of the committee, for all their work over the past year.
19 October 2005.