Chairman’s report 2009-10

This year has been a good one for Moretonhampstead History Society. Both behind the scenes and in our programme we have attained a level of excellence and, furthermore, progressed.

First, cast your minds back over the speakers we have attracted, through the good services and hard work of our programme secretary, Wendy Coombes. The range, scope and quality of the talks have been excellent – and I do not say that just because I was one of those who spoke. We have touched on the Vikings and the Victorians, prostitution and cathedral building – and you have to admit, those are quite striking contrasts.

Last November, Todd Gray gave a thought-provoking talk on Victorian prostitution in Devon, not only uncovering the seedy side of Victorian life and revealing the harsh conditions that provoked so many women to offer themselves but also the difficulties the historian faces in uncovering such aspects of the past. Particularly evocative were the photographs he showed: in my notes I recorded how old these women looked – some appearing in their mid-fifties when they were actually in their early thirties. I am sure that many of us were shocked to hear that in 1865 there were thought to be 1,770 prostitutes in Plymouth and another 300 in the surrounding area. One 36-year-old woman whose occupation was recorded as ‘prostitute’, Sarah Stevens, was also a mother: nevertheless she was sentenced to nine months hard labour because she was caught stealing a blanket and it was her third offence.
Following the traditional Christmas dinner – at the Ring of Bells in North Bovey – our next speaker was yours truly, on the theme of ‘Rewriting History’. This title was one that I decided to use throughout 2010 to allow me flexibility to talk about whatever I wanted at whatever venue I turned up at, without having to commit myself to a particular topic months in advance. Basically I was trying to answer the question ‘why do our ideas about the past change?’ Despite being entirely about historiography – which makes most history students yawn – no one threw eggs or rotten tomatoes.

In February, Jane Marchand, an archaeologist at Dartmoor National Park Authority, came to speak to us on Dartmoor leats – their history, importance and measures taken today to preserve and reopen them. In March, Mark Cottle gave us an illustrated talk on the architecture of Exeter Cathedral. And in April our own Brian Spittles fascinated us with the life story of George Eliot. Todd Gray had opened our eyes to a disturbing side of women’s lives in Victorian England: so all of us were well positioned to understand just what a strong-minded woman George Eliot was to impose herself over and above the expectations and standards of her time. Daughter of a farmer, she did such un-Victorian things as turning her back on the church, living alone in a foreign country as a young woman (Switzerland), having affairs, assuming various other names, living in open adultery with George Lewes and, at the end of her life, making large amounts of money from writing.

In May, Derek Gore came to us to speak about Viking intrusions into Devon. From their first recorded appearance in 836, a day out raping and pillaging at Carhampton, the Great Fleet terrorised these shores on and off for 170 years. Like so many of this year’s talks, this one was not just about the subject itself but the difficulty of knowing the details. For instance, the Vikings wrote almost nothing themselves – all we know about their visits is what Christian writers recorded... Who says that history is always written by the victors? In the case of the Vikings, it was written entirely by the victims.

The summer brought us not one, not two but three site visits – to Ugbrooke House near Chudleigh, Kelly Mine, and the hidden corners of Exeter Cathedral. I was able to attend only the first of these – and for my part I can vouch to a wonderful sunny afternoon looking around Lord Clifford’s family seat beneath the curly-haired gaze of his seventeenth-century ancestors; but I understand all three visits were equally successful. Once again thanks to Wendy for arranging these.

The last and most recent event will be the one uppermost in people’s minds: Martin Watts talking about Devon Water Mills. As everyone who attended will agree, Martin is a complete enthusiast and in some ways a living treasure – one of the very few fulltime professional traditional millwrights. But mills are much more to him than just a day job. Passion and knowledge – from the history of the mills to the widespread usage (there are 1,800 mill sites in Devon alone), to how you carve millstones, and the relative efficiency or inefficiency of overshot and undershot millwheels – there seemed no end to his involvement with this machine-buildings. The talk – I cannot resist saying it – was anything but run of the mill.

The behind-the-scenes developments over the year have also been very positive. On the gorunds of cost, we decided we could not proceed with partnership in the Moretonhampstead Development Trust’s project at the Old School Building, and so therefore lost out on a permanent storage oace for our archives. However, we did push forward other projects. We shifted our website away from Eclipse Networking to Moretonhampstead.Net, operated by local man Merlin Howse, who has transferred the files into a document management system. We had a new logo designed by James Housego of Jam design – and although there have been a few teething troubles laying out the said logo, these have now been sorted out, I understand. We have relocated Peter and Ruby Collier’s model of the train station to Bovey Tracey Heritage Centre, thereby removing it from Edward Hobson’s office to aplace where we hope it will be cared for. Chris Pilkington has interviewed Jack Bond, the centenarian from North Bovey; and Wendy is slowly transcribing the recording of that tallk. Certain research projects have also advanced, due in no small part to Bill Hardiman’s hard work, aided by Gary Cox. Bill’s research into who took part in recent wars – by ‘recent’ I mean the last two hundred years – has proved fascinating and we look forward to hearing a talk from him on the subject before long. Bill has also made progress with cataloguing our photographic collections and on unlocking the school records for Moreton Primary School.

I realise that this report is going on a bit – but I hope you’ll forgive me if I just take an extra moment to reflect on the last five and a half years, as this will be my last report as chairman. I have to admit to having several regrets: I have not done a fraction of the historical research necessary for the website that I planned to do six years ago. We still have no permanent location for our archives. Nor did we ever manage the inventory of archival material in the community that I suggested many years ago. Although our membership did rise to ninety-eight members, we never reached one hundred; and we have fallen back a bit this year so we are where we were when I took over as chair, at just over eighty. We have not managed to extort any further photocopies of manorial documents out of the WH Smith archive at Swindon. Looking back at my first chairman’s report, I see that I suggested more exhibitions and even a History Society carnival float. I can’t actually remember offering to dress up as Henry VIII but needless to say, we have not seen these things happen.

I mention these regrets not to be hard on myself as chairman but with a purpose in mind: for the sake of perspective on what this organisation is, and what it can do, and how the chairman can help the organisation build. I very much hope my successor will remedy all the things I have let slip, for one reason and another. And, I hope he will not deem me patronising if I add that I hope he will bear in mind all the things that have not been allowed to slip. We are considerably more financially secure than we were at the start of 2005; and I would like to commend Jeanette Webster – our Treasurer throughout the period – on that. We no longer need to go cap in hand to the parish council for help with the website costs. The new constitution that I drew up in 2006 seems to have proved robust and adequate. Our committee meetings are more formally minuted than before. We have a regular newsletter, thanks first to Peter Collier and more recently to Chris Pilkington. We have managed the shift to electronic communications relatively painlessly, and the majority of members regularly receive their newsletters by email. Although we do not have a home for our archive, we still have not lost anything. And most of all, we have continued to have an excellent range of speakers – thanks to Wendy Coombes throughout. This is what keeps the Society going strong, and is the reason why we have remained the pre-eminent Society in the area, even if our membership has fluctuated a little.

Lastly, I would like to thank all those who have served on the committee over the last five and a half years, and our President Ian Mercer. And I would like to thank the members who chose me as chairman. It has been an honour to occupy that position, and even if I have a few regrets at the things I have not done, I am confident that my successor takes charge of a healthy and lively Society which is a credit to the community. Thank you.



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