Sunday, 28 November 2010


In the British Library the other day, waiting for my books to turn up, I reached for a Devonshire volume of the Victorian County Studies published in 1906 and found therein a wonderful account of the birds of Victorian South Devon. (Yes, I know the volume was published in Edwardian times.) Most fascinating of all is the attention given there to the local names for birds.

For example the Herring Gull is said to have been known on the Exe as the Ladram Gull because it nests or nested on the stacks in Ladram Cove.

The Fulmar was called in South Devon the Mollymew or the Mollymauk and the Great Shearwater was called the Hackbolt .

The local name for the Great Northern Diver was, interestingly I thought, the Loon which, as every schoolboy knows, is how it is called in Canada and New England . Presumably the North American name was the gift of Westcountrymen.

The Great Skua was for some reason known locally as Tom Harry.

The Knot, on the Exe had the name Silver Plover and the Cormorant, so says the good book, was once known here as the Topsham Pilot.

One day I mean to go back and make a complete list.

What is sad is that the list makes it clear that the Victorians' attitude to birds was to hunt them and kill them. Killing was the only way they knew to make scientific observations of the birds. A typical reading is this about the Fulmar: "One killed with an oar on the Exe had a calcereous concretion in the vent. Very interesting but what a shame! And how on earth does anyone get close enough to a Fulmar to kill it with an oar?

There are some comprehensive lists of the old North Devon names for birds here.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010


In the year 1909 a Mr Joseph Reeves held a position of responsiblity at the New Avonmouth Dock. He and his family lived comfortably at Avon Villa, Avonmouth. That year he planned to take his family to Exmouth for a fortnight's holiday and one of his workmen suggested to him he should get in touch with a brother of his who lived there and who was Charles Carnell, one of the Exmouth pilots. Charles, said the brother, would be pleased to take the family sailing in his boat, the 'Bona' if they so wished.

The family came to Exmouth and lodged in Bicton Place. There were four children but the oldest, a boy of ten, stayed in Avonmouth with his aunt, Miss Reeves. He could not go on holiday because he had to finish his school term. He must have been disappointed to see his family leave for the golden beaches.

Throughout the first week the children played happily on the beach. There was Harold, aged 6, and Bryan, a 'sturdy little chap' aged 4, and 3 year old Gwenneth who had long golden hair and who, said Mrs Green, their landlady, 'was like a little angel. '

On the Tuesday of the second week Mr Carnell sailed the family in the 'Bona' up the Estuary to the Turf Hotel . The trip pleased them all , except for young Bryan. On the Wednesday they set sail for Teignmouth. Little Bryan wanted to stay at home with Mrs Green but his mother persuaded him to sail with them.

On the return journey the boat capsized. The family was trapped beneath the sail and all were drowned. Charles Carnell and a friend of his, a solicitor's clerk, Henry Norton, were also drowned.

The little boy who had been left behind in Avonmouth had lost his father,his mother, his two brothers and his pretty sister.

Sunday, 21 November 2010


It's goodbye to our summer suns.
Farewell, the skies of blue.
The balmy nights have left us.
The birds are far and few.

The boats have left their moorings.
The fish are God knows where.
A sigh of loss sings in the breeze.
There's sorrow in the air.

But beauty has not left us.
I trust she never will.
Along the fiery banks of Exe
her glories glimmer still.

There's beauty in our blackest cloud
and in our coldest light,
in all the winter waves that chase
from Topsham to the Bight.

Friday, 19 November 2010


A Sheffield History site refers to a "curious theory expressed by experts when in February 1912 Sheffield, Derby and Leicester were afflicted by a scourge of typhoid." These experts concluded that the typhoid fever was caused by the mussels that were being eaten by the hundred in the happy homes of these towns. The mussels in question came from the estuaries of the Teign and the Exe.

It is an alarming thought that mussel fanciers, men women and children, were retching and suffering and no doubt dying because they had eaten mussels gathered on the Exe.

By 17th February the matter had come to the attention of the General Purposes Committee of Devon County Council and Lympstone had been pinpointed as the main offender. Under the heading: EXE SHELLFISH CONDEMNED, the Exeter Flying Post reported that:

"As a result of complaints from Derby of typhoid supposed to be due to mussels collected at Lympstone, Dr Adkins has reported... that the mussels and the river water contain large quantities of the micro organisms found in sewage."

It seems odd though that there was no typhoid in Lympstone at a time where every second family had mussels for tea and often for breakfast as well. I wonder if the supposed connection between mussels and typhoid was ever proved. The typhoid in distant Derby was to have dire consequences for the fisherfolk of this village.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010


On 23rd February 1918 the ever investigative Exmouth Journal sent its 'representive' to the Imperial Hotel to interview the wealthy and somewhat eccentric Australian inventor, Thomas Mills, then resident in Exmouth. He spoke about his plans to 'train' seagulls to detect submarines. "I have been at work," said Mr Mills, "for the last few months, with my invention at Exmouth."

What Mr Mills was doing was trailing a 'dummy' submarine behind his own boat all around Exmouth Bay. His cunning apparatus was so devised that it rose from the depths and showed its dummy periscope to the seagulls while at the same time distributing food to them.

In time, it was Mr Mill's belief, the birds would associate periscopes with free and easy food and any German submarine breaking the surface would be immediately identified by the flock of gulls that would descend on it.

All that was necessary to beat the submarine threat was to have a thousand or so of these dummies being towed around the coasts of Britain and very soon the seagulls would be doing their bit in the Great War for Civilization.

Mr Mills spent some time observing the coming and going of ships in the Docks here. From his observations he concluded: "... seagulls can be trained in the same way as a sportsman would train a dog or any other animal or in the same way that a St Bernard might be trained to find people lost in the snow."

Somehow the BBC recently made Mr Mill's acquaintance and somebody called Neil Oliver who is famous, spent a few licence fees replicating the experiment in Scotland. I don't know if the Exe got a mention on TV but here is where it all happened first. (or maybe second. See Comment below!)