Moretonhampstead History Society Chairman’s report 2010-11

Ian Mortimer concluded last year’s report & his term as chairman thus: ‘I am confident that my successor takes charge of a healthy and lively Society’.

After a year in the job my response in the modern vernacular has to be ‘absolutely!’ This year’s tremendous array of speakers & topics have attracted very good audiences and both fieldtrips were enormously informative & enjoyable. So a big thank you to Wendy Coombes and Judy Hardiman, former and current Programme Secretaries, for all their hard work and imagination in putting that together. Also may I thank Sian and Dave Coleridge on your behalf for providing such a convivial meeting-place. It has been very favourably commented on by visiting speakers & I certainly prefer talking with them & members rather than worrying about setting up & putting away for which I am also very grateful to Steve and Jim.

In November I gave a talk on ‘Moreton at war’ covering the Boer, First & Second World Wars. It became a bit of a marathon & like the fabled Greek messenger Pheidippides, when I finally reached my Athens (i.e. 1945) I felt like exclaiming ‘We have won’ before collapsing and dying! I suspect that some of the audience did too! More seriously, the material from the talk & the results of some further research will be made available as a booklet next year at the Heritage Centre of which more later. Thank you to Gary Cox for his evocative readings from the Parish Council minutes & for the fascinating extracts from them which he has supplied since for the newsletter.

Our Christmas Dinner at the White Horse was a great success. This was particularly brought home to me when I heard that two of the more sceptical members about the venue booking themselves in a for a meal the following week. Thank you to Melaina, Nigel & their staff.

The President’s Address in January was entitled ‘The President’s Tale – a personal contact with Dartmoor’. Indeed it proved the Chaucerian maxim that “full wise is he that can him selven knowe” as Ian Mercer reflected in a self-deprecating & witty way on his pioneering career as a custodian & conserver of our natural heritage in Yorkshire & Wales as well as Dartmoor. There was an array of briliant anecdotes such as when Harold Macmillan was terrified by Lady Sayer, the formidable Chair of the Dartmoor Preservation Society, & begged his secretary ‘don’t leave me alone in the room with that woman’! Finally, we were treated to an evocative set of slides from his recent book ‘Dartmoor’, published by Collins, that illustrated his beloved ‘wild and rugged landscape’ in all it various guises.

John Risdon made a popular return in February with a well polished & inspiring talk about his neighbour, the Greenway estate & house near Dartmouth. In a seamless manner he outlined it history from the original 16th century builder Otho Gilbert & his famous sons, Humphrey Gilbert Walter Raleigh through to Agatha Christie who bought it for £6000 (c£250,000 today) just before the war. The house is now owned by the National Trust who have made extensive restorations to the house & gardens where visitors can still appreciate the beautiful vistas seen by Walter Raleigh and Humphrey Gilbert over 500 years ago.

At our March meeting one of our members, Brian Spittles, gave the ideal illustrated talk on Thomas Hardy: Wessex Man. It was informative, entertaining & thought provoking. He challenged a number of popularly held notions about Hardy: his origins & upbringing were far from humble; his love of rural Dorset did not stop him spending quite a lot of time in London & Continental cities; & his ‘difficult wife’ had also to put up with him being lionised by aristocratic ladies. Brian’s declaration of his favourite Hardy novels to be ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ & ‘Jude the Obscure’ provoked some interesting debate with the audience just as a 100 years ago the attempts to censor them caused Hardy to cease writing novels & to concentrate on poetry. It certainly led me to enjoy reading some Hardy again in a new light. Thank you Brian & we look forward to your next foray into history from a literary perspective.

in April we filled the Parish Hall was for a presentation by the South West Archive & Film Association. The films shown included some 1930s home made film of Dartmoor, Clive Gunnell Westward T.V. clips and some local film of Moreton featuring events such as carnivals, a swimming gala and the 1967 hold up of the Post Office which took place in spite of the presence of a sergeant & 3 constables at that time in the town! Local personalities appearing included among many were Christine Walton, Arthur Harvey, Harry White and Peter Morgan. The cider-making & drinking scenes have inspired our programme Secretary to arrange a visit to Brimblecombes at Dunsford in November. We bought a DVD of the presentation to be shown at the Heritage Centre & I am hoping that SWFTA will help us to digitise some of the home movies which have been promised to our archives.

For our May meeting, Derek Gore (Exeter University) clearly & cogently re-assessed the reputation of King Alfred the Great. With a strong inheritance from his father & grandfather, there has sometimes been an exaggeration of Alfred’s pioneering achievements. Nevertheless his abilities as war & political leader, development of written law and promotion of culture and learning, did lead Dr Gore to conclude that he deserves his unique title among English rulers. All this was illustrated with some very stunning illustrations such as the Fuller brooch (British Museum) and the Wiltshire aestel (Ashmolean Museum Oxford) that is inscribed "AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN" - "Alfred ordered me made".

For our June trip we toured Devonport dockyard – the largest in the Western world covering 970 acres. No wonder we needed to go around in the minibus! Construction of the yard began in 1692 & we followed the stages of dockyard development through to the present day facilities, built to service the nuclear submarines. Considerable damage was done during the bombing raids of WW2 & many ‘treasures’ were lost but we were delighted to find that the museum displays the regalia of Lt. John Hampsheir DSO who lived at Heathercrest by North Kingwell & his widow Winifred worked in Moretonia on Cross St for many years. Coincidentally, we saw the gallows at Devonport where a number of Napoleonic prisoners were hanged after escaping from the Parole towns such as Ashburton & Moreton – the subject of our September talk.

But before that a large group had a fascinating tour in July with Dr Tom Greeves who explained the development of tin mining in the area below the Warren House Inn. A landscape that might appear natural was in fact the result of intensive industrial activity. Much of the tin was first obtained by open working, by digging the great holes & gullies we see there today. In the 19th Century they explored underground for further deposits & adits & shafts were dug at Vitifer & Golden Dagger. Entire communities of up to 150 lived there in cottages & a ‘blockhouse’ for ’6 day a week ’miners who walked long distances to & from there each week-end. Leats, running for miles over the moor provided the power for the giant water wheels to operate pumps to keep the workings relatively dry & crush the tin ore until final closure in 1931.

Our September meeting covered one of the most fascinating periods of Moreton’s history. Barbie Thompson, drawing on both newly realeased national records and our local archives, looked at the impact of putting hundreds of parole prisoners here & at Ashburton during the Napoleonic wars. They were on their word of honour (‘parole’) not to go more than a mile from the town centre. Of course some tried to escape and often a blind eye was turned to visits to Exeter. General Rochambeau caused a stir when he insisted on parading down Court St in full uniform on Napoleon’s birthday. Otherwise they were popular with Moretonians, especially when they gave lessons in French and dancing to young ladies. Indeed one of their black servants married a local girl & some prisoners stayed on after their release, notably the ancestor of the late Harry Rihll who ran the pharmacies here & at Chagford for many years.

Two other achievements must be recorded. Firstly, two very well attended photographic exhibitions mounted in the Parish Hall provoked much interest, resulted in a number of donations to our archives & have helped to develop closer links with our community.

Even more significantly, we secured an HLF of grant of £49,500 in a joint venture with the Development Trust to make part of the old primary school an Archive & Heritage Centre to be called Green Hill. A group of volunteers (including some non-MHS members) are working with a professional designer, Chris Reed, to create a permanent display. The over-arching theme attempts to answer the key question about our heritage. We know that Moreton has a different feel and character to anywhere else but how do we explain that by reference to its past? There will be display panels, a large touch-screen & follow-up booklets while the old internal playgound (more latterly the library area) has been transfomed into an exhibition gallery space. The first will feature photos of the old schools, photos of the redundant building by Carole Harvey & some reflective ‘instant history’ work MED theatre have done with the last group of pupils to attend the old primary school. Finally, the gallery leads on to our archive room & I am pleased to say that we have appointed one of our members, Jackie Paxman, to lead a team of volunteers in setting up the archives to make them available for present & future generations of Moretonians & visitors. The opening date of Green Hill is December 10th. My thanks to all those who have contributed to its development so far & I hope that many more will help us to ensure its success.

Lastly, I would like to thank all those who have served on the committee this year, especially to Wendy Coombes & Chris Pilkington who are retiring after 6 years of front-line service. Our President Ian Mercer has given his invaluable support, especially to the HLF bid. Thank you to him & to all of you for keeping us during these challenging times as Ian Mortimer also rightly claimed ‘a credit to the community’.


Bill Hardiman 







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