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Visit to Topsham Archives

I have been taking trips to Topsham for as long as i’ve lived in Devon and to my shame never been to the Topsham museum before.

Later this year the museum will host us for a performance of Clare Hollingworth and the Scoop of the Century, either in the cafe space or if the weather holds in their beautiful garden overlooking the estuary.

The museum is a testament to Topsham's maritime history - an old merchants house furnished with period rooms and crammed full of exhibits, ranging from rivercraft, river Exe wildlife, and memorabilia of the film star Vivien Leigh.

I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with Jan Betteridge and Glynis Bebb, two of the volunteers at the museum who are helping us coordinate the event. After our first visit to discuss the possibility of a performance they were both very keen to hear more on our research project into the life of Clare Hollingworth, the South West in the war years, and untold stories of women in the war. They said that we absolutely must come back and have a look in their archives upstairs. They couldn’t promise they had anything of interest but it would be worth a look - and worth a look it was!

When we returned we were led all the way to the attic space to a room stacked full of boxes. From these two were placed on the table and like children opening a stocking we were told we could have a look through to see if anything was relevant.

The boxes proved to be a treasure trove of ​​information pertaining to the Exeter and its surrounding villages in the war years.

We spent hours pouring over the content.

One of my personal favourite stories about Polish pilots signing their names on a ceiling at the Georges Arm in Clyst St Mary, before going off to give their lives in the Battle of Britain. A ceiling of such historic significance - GONE MISSING! The piece of ceiling went missing during a refurb a few years ago and it’s where about remain unknown!

(It wasn’t until much further down in the box that I found a second news article stating that it had been found in someone’s attic - much to everyone’s relief)

They even let us try dress up like the old policemen on raid watches (I think it’s a good look for me).

This term we are working in schools again, working with children on gathering and presenting local stories.

From this visit to the archives I know exactly what my term of focus is going to be.

Firstly with Southbrook School, I found a selection of amazing "HOW TO PREPARE" booklets in the museum that would have been posted around the country.

  • How to prepare your family for war

  • How to prepare your home

  • How to use your gas mask

  • What to do in a bombing emergency

Taking these into schools we are going to look at making our own infomercials alerting the public on how to prepare for the impending dangers of the war.

Then with Clyst St Mary, I found a beautiful book written by John Willing “A River at my Gardens End - some tales of Topsham”. There is a chapter recounting the experience of the Topsham Home Guard, or as they were known back then “The L.D.V’s (Look Duck and Vanish), a rag tag group of men who were prepared to fight tooth and nail to defend their town in case of invasion.

It is a lovely piece of text and one a very much look forward to watching this group explore.

Topsham Museum is keen for more people to know about its archive collection as it really is an incredible tool that is begging to be used! I can’t wait to invite the volunteers from the museum to our final sharing, so they can watch children from around Devon staging Topsham's rich war time histories!

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