Highampton Local History Group


In January, our members joined with the Hatherleigh History Society, and the Old School was full to capacity as David Ramsden gave a most interesting illustrated talk on how the Barn Owl Trust based in Ashburton was set up and is working to halt the decline in barn owl numbers.

Afterwards, both groups had the opportunity to chat to David over a cup of tea and refreshments, kindly provided by Hatherleigh History Society.


Liz Shakespeare, a Devon author, was our speaker on 26th March.  She gave a very interesting talk on her book, “Fever: Story from a Devon Churchyard”.

Liz lives in Littleham near Bideford and was intrigued by gravestones in the village churchyard of a number of children who all died in 1871.  She decided to find out what happened that year and to write a book, comparing life at that time and life in the village in the present day.  Her searches through the parish registers, the census and local maps and newspapers of the time revealed that in 1871 an epidemic of Scarlet Fever had swept through Littleham.  Due to poor hygiene, a meagre diet and large families, the epidemic took its toll on the children; the annual mortality rate at that time was around six children, but in 1871 this rose to 21 deaths.

Liz read several extracts from her book, and also added she had been moved to find out what became of a mother and son where three daughters and the father of the family had died within a few weeks of one another.  Much to her surprise she found that in the 1881 census this mother and son were shown as living in Bideford and were lodging with Liz’s great grandfather.

Liz finished her talk by reading the epilogue to the book and answering questions posed by members.  Copies of her four books were available for purchase.

The meeting closed with the usual refreshments.


The Annual General Meeting was held on Wednesday 23rd April.

The chairman gave his Annual Report in which he was full of praise for the work of the officers, and all those who have contributed to the history group over the past twelve months.

In addition, he also thanked all those who had kindly presented historical documents and photographs for the archives.  Our guest speaker for the evening, Dennis Bater (who also happens to be the Chairman of our neighbouring Hatherleigh History Society) kindly took the chair for the election of Officers, who were all unanimously re-elected en-bloc for the coming year.

Dennis then went on to give a most fascinating and entertaining illustrated talk looking at a number of monuments and gravestones he had visited over the years in many countries throughout the world, and the interesting stories that lie behind them.

The meeting closed with the usual refreshments.


Our speaker for the February meeting was Mr Bob Nelson who gave a very interesting and amusing talk about the British Legion from its early beginnings as individual local groups caring for injured servicemen returning home after the end of the Boer War.  These groups then amalgamated into four associations before becoming the national organisation known as The British Legion.  The British Legion did not become The Royal British Legion until 1971.

Bob entertained us with tales of his experiences in competitions as a standard bearer and explained the significance of all parts of the standard.  He also told of visits to war graves throughout Europe, accompanying groups of war widows on pilgrimage and of the hard work that is needed to make sure that the march past at the Cenotaph and the Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall both run smoothly.

Bob concluded his talk with the history of the Poppy that was inspired by the wartime poem ‘In Flanders Fields’, written in 1915 by the Canadian military doctor and artillery commander Major John McCrae.


In June, our Group was joined by members of the Hatherleigh History Society for a second visit to the historic Buckland House, Buckland Filleigh, by invitation of the owners Ralph and Suzanne Nicholson.

Ralph gave a presentation on the history of the estate before those present were invited to explore the magnificent Grade II* mansion, the former stable block and, as a bonus, the many buildings that surround the ancient cobbled courtyard.

This proved a most enjoyable and interesting experience and afterwards Ralph and his wife Suzanne kindly provided tea and biscuits for us.  During the visit, the chairman presented the couple with two framed copies of the house, from watercolours painted by a member of the Highampton Art Group, to mark their appreciation of the occasion.

Going back in time it is interesting to note that Buckland House was offered for sale in London on Tuesday, 12th August 1834, by the auctioneer Mr George Robins.  His particulars of sale, which were circulated widely at the time, describe the property as “The Splendid Seat called Buckland Filleigh.”  The mansion house was further described as a “magnificent stone structure, erected at an expense of £40,000.”  The property had its own ornamental waters and island, hot and succession houses, green houses, pinery and melon ground, as well as an icehouse and hermitage. The estate extended to some 3,000 acres and included the Manor of Shebbear, as well as the estates of Kennecott, Littlecott and Lake.


In July our members spent a very pleasant private afternoon at Beara Court, Black Torrington, by kind invitation of Mr and Mrs Albert Feast.

Beara Court is a hidden gem with an interesting history of its own dating back to earlier times. During the reign of Queen Victoria, the architect Lucius Reichel, who was a keen antiquarian and horticulturist, acquired Beara and set about restoring the old farmhouse into the splendour that we see today.

The architect was also involved with re-building works within the local community; these works included the remodelling of local schools, as well as the important building works and improvements relating to the church of St Mary at Black Torrington. He became a churchwarden of St Mary’s in 1896.

The front elevation of Beara Court from a recent drawing by Maurice Thomas


In August, our guest speaker was Rosemay Wedlake, a well-known local character who has amassed a large collection of artefacts, clothing and accessories, hence the title of her talk “Rosemary’s Attic”.

She gave a fascinating talk, showing items that she had collected or that had been given to her by friends and acquaintances over the years. These included, amongst other things, a WWI child’s gas mask and a wooden pencil box, beaded bags and horse brasses and tack, farm implements and her mother’s beautiful wedding shoes. She had stories that she related about all the items on display and she gave us a insight into life in her younger days at a farm in Shebbear.

Everyone agreed that we had spent a most enjoyable and amusing evening with her.   

The meeting closed with the usual refreshments.


Our guest speaker in September was local historian Dennis Bater who brought along some fascinating home movies that he had made during the days of Charlie Trace and his private aeroplane, which he kept at his farm at Sheepwash.

We heard that Mr Trace would later invite fellow pilots along with their light aircraft for a week-end stay.

This eventually led to the much acclaimed charitable “flying weekends” that brought in crowds to watch the many varied aircraft which were to take off and return to the grass airstrip situated on the outskirts of the village.

Unfortunately, Charlie Trace became ill with a terminal illness and the displays had to cease but the memories of those days linger on among the local population.

Our guest speaker at the October meeting, historian Paul Rendell, illustrated how the town has changed over the years using his vast collection of old photographs.

He gave us a fascinating insight into the history of Okehampton, the influence of the military on Dartmoor, the town’s development since the coming of the railway, the origins of Simmons Park and the changing nature of commerce in the town, including the workings of Meldon Quarry.  Also of note was the impressive mansion, Oaklands House (pictured above), situated along Oaklands Drive.  This was once the seat of Squire Albany Saville, foxhunting companion to Black Torrington’s celebrated parson, the Revd Jack Russell, whose terriers are named after him.  

The meeting closed with the usual refreshments.

Replica of the Red Baron’s aircraft DRi425 at the Sheepwash display c.1991

“Insignificant as Okehampton has been for many a long year, deriving its sole importance since the days of the Stuarts from its position on the high-road into Cornwall, and losing even that when the construction of the Great Western Railway diverted the course of traffic, there are few towns in Devon associated with more distinguished names” so wrote the nineteenth century historian R.N.Worth, in 1886.  


Oaklands House, Okehampton


The well known police historian, Simon Dell MBE, made a welcome return for our November meeting and entertained our members with another highly amusing and informative illustrated talk on ‘Devon Murders’ covering a number of local murders over many years.

We heard of his first professional encounter with death at Winkleigh in which three people had died from severe head injuries from a shotgun on the same farm.  As a young constable, this was his first involvement with an investigation into a strange tragedy relating to the demise of two elderly men and a lady of the same family and whose local roots could be traced back to the 12th century.  This sad event was investigated by a journalist and later turned into a best selling book called ‘Earth to Earth’ that was awarded the Crime Writers Association Gold Digger Award for Non-fiction.  Another murder was told of a husband who had tired of his wife and ‘bumped’ her off on Dartmoor after luring her out one night.  These were just two occurrences that have touched Simon’s long police career that covered a span of four eventful decades.

The meeting closed with the usual refreshments.


For the last meeting of the year, our members enjoyed a combined Social evening with Highampton Community Group at the Golden Inn where a Christmas buffet was provided.

The convivial evening ended with a collection being taken and the £50 raised was handed over to the Highampton Local History Group to add to their coffers to help with future local research and ongoing costs.

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