29th March 2018
Ilfracombe’s very own warship:
Did you know that our little town raised enough money during the hardships of World War Two, to pay for a naval ship? This month, as we approach the 74th anniversary of D-Day on 6th June, we have a photo of HMS Ilfracombe for you, and here is her story.
HMS Ilfracombe was a minesweeper that carried out the essential but mundane work of clearing the seas of enemy mines. Cables were towed underwater behind these ships, trawling for mines that were then cut free and destroyed. Minesweepers and their crew were the unsung heroes of the navy, and it was dangerous work. HMS Ilfracombe’s sister ship HMS Clacton – a whole series of minesweepers bore the names of seaside towns – struck a mine in the Mediterranean in December 1943 and sank with all hands.
HMS Ilfracombe was launched in January 1941, having been built in Glasgow. She was a small minesweeper, 174 ft. long, with a typically shallow draught of less than 10 feet. At this time she hadn’t been adopted by Ilfracombe, so how did this come about?
By 1941, the British government was drastically short of weaponry and money. The imminent threat of German invasion from only a few miles across the Channel meant a massive program of arms manufacture, ship and aircraft building was urgently needed. A clever scheme was used to raise funds for the war chest – the British public were asked to ‘invest in the war’ by buying war bonds and National Savings certificates. Special fundraising weeks were organised for specific causes, such as War Weapons Week, where the slogan was ‘Lend to Win!’
National Warship Week took place on the 10th to 15th November 1941. Each region was allotted a fundraising target based on its population. A target of minesweeper was set for Ilfracombe and district, and if enough was raised then that ship could be adopted. The local War Savings Committee worked flat out in Ilfracombe and the villages to persuade residents to commit the little savings they had to the war effort. The target was daunting – £136,485 in just six days! Near the end of the week a desperate committee warned the readers of the Ilfracombe Chronicle that only £44,500 had been raised: ‘You are asked not to give but to INVEST. Your Country this week is awaiting your answer. You MUST act today or tomorrow.’
The warning worked – by the end of the week Ilfracombe district had raised £122,152, enough for the town to adopt HMS Ilfracombe. Incredibly, across the country, Warships Week amassed the equivalent today of £39 billion, enough to pay for over 700 new naval ships. In December 1941 a copy of HMS Ilfracombe’s ships crest was sent by the Admiralty to Ilfracombe, and the ship carried Ilfracombe’s towns’ crest on her Quarter Deck. Her actual duties during wartime were, of course, not revealed to the town for security reasons. But we know something about her service, from former crew member George Lunn, who lived in Woolacombe after the war. He had fond memories of serving on this rather cramped little ship, and was particularly proud of the part she played in D-Day.
HMS Ilfracombe was one of hundreds of minesweepers used just before the Normandy Landings. She was part of the 16th Minesweeping Flotilla, which cleared mines, under enemy fire at times, from 5-7 June 1944, so that landing craft could get onto the beaches, and Allied battleships could get close to the French coast to shell German defences. It was hazardous work, as the area was thick with mines, and had to be done in secrecy. But the success of the little minesweepers’ work meant that relatively few landing vessels were struck by mines, and this helped the greatest invasion force ever assembled to get a foot-hold on German territory.
For the rest of the war HMS Ilfracombe toured the North Sea area clearing mines and escorting ships, but in 1948 she was considered unsuitable for updating to a magnetic minesweeper and so was scrapped. All that remains of her, the ship’s crest, is now displayed in Ilfracombe Museum’s Maritime room.
14th December 2017
A recent donation to Ilfracombe museum gives us a new view of a vanished house:
We are often offered objects and photos that are still precious to people, but which they can no longer look after. Museums have an important role as custodians of local family history as well as places where curios and collections are looked after. We were donated some mementos of the Down family of Ilfracombe back in the summer, and the photos in this little collection have breathed new life into the family’s connection with Burrow House, a now-demolished grand residence that once stood in the midst of town.
The Ilfracombe architect Allen Hussell wrote in 1937 that Burrow House was one of the few fine early Georgian residences left in the town, standing on the high point of large grounds that were approached by imposing Bath stone pillars topped by boar’s heads, with a driveway that he thought was one of the most imposing in all of Devon. As you went up the carriage drive to the house at the top, you would pass on your left fish ponds and a grotto, with ornamental trees to the right screening a walled kitchen garden beyond. Next to this garden were tennis courts, and on the left of the drive, a summer house. Finally you would approach the house itself from across a carefully kept lawn and naturally landscaped gardens.
The boar’s heads on the gate pillars were probably installed by one of the earlier owners of Burrow House, Thomas Tordiffe. By 1844 Mr Tordiffe was in residence, and he lived here with his family for almost twenty years. We don’t know when the original house was built, but we do know that nearby Burrow Lodge- built by Admiral James Bowen for his daughters in 1816 – was probably a later building. In the 18th century this whole parcel of land was known as the Burrows, and was owned by the Bowen family until parts of it were gradually sold off over time.
In the 1840s, when Thomas Tordiffe arrived in Ilfracombe, the town was becoming a popular resort for the better-off, and social life for the upper classes in Ilfracombe society revolved around the church and social functions at the Assembly Rooms. Thomas was originally from Staffordshire, and got his income from land and investments, and in 1836 he married Joyce Chanter, the brother of Ilfracombe clergyman John Mill Chanter. The 1851 census shows him living here with Joyce and their four children. It is said that Mr Tordiffe kept a pack of hounds at the house, and the boar’s head design on the gates was probably his family emblem.
It seems that Thomas Tordiffe and his family left Ilfracombe by 1860, and in 1871 the house was bought by John Down, after he received a large inheritance. The Down family owned property elsewhere in Ilfracombe, and like the Bowens, had naval connections. John died in 1877 and his two unmarried daughters carried on living in Burrow House for many years. The photo above shows one of them, Arabella Down or ‘Bell’, with a friend, posing on the carriage drive 1912. Along with her sister Margaret, they became joint inheritors of the estate and lived together at the house, but they were very different characters. Margaret, who died in 1906, was a skilled woodcarver who made some of the roof bosses in Holy Trinity church, along with her friend Miss Gilbert. But Bell was headstrong, and is said to have spent some of her youth in California where she learned to ride on ranches and carry a pistol! She moved to London after the First World War, and lived as an eccentric recluse until finally returning to a nursing home in Ilfracombe, where she died in 1940.
By this time, Burrow House had been sold. In fact it was put up for auction in 1916 by Miss Down. It was then turned into the girls’ school Adelaide House with the grounds used for playing fields. In 1964 the school closed and was bought by Devon County Council, who decided to demolish it to make room for housing and an old peoples’ home, also known as Burrow House. So sadly, we lost a fine Regency building and its gardens, with no trace left of it, except it survives in photographs such as these.
31st Oct 2017
Two photos of 1920s Ilfracombe give a glimpse of police life in the town
From our extensive photo archives we have found 2 photos of policing in Ilfracombe in the 1920s. The photo on the right shows Ilfracombe ‘bobby’ PC Stuart on patrol in Wilder Road in 1929 – behind him it’s possible to just make out the Imperial hotel. He looks happy and relaxed and is carrying white gloves, so perhaps is on his way to a special function. The other photo is a group shot of the Ilfracombe Section of Devon Constabulary in 1927, and PC Stuart is also in this photo, seated in the front row second from right. The pictures themselves were both kindly donated to the museum by PC Stuart later in life.
Ilfracombe’s police force has a long history and has gone through many changes. The first mention of
policing in Ilfracombe that we can find comes in 1827, when 50 special constables were brought in to police the royal visit of the Duchess of Clarence. The role of the special constable was a very ancient one, dating back to Anglo-Saxon times and revived in the 17th century, whereby magistrates could swear in ‘specials’ from local townsfolk when they needed extra help to keep the peace. Agricultural unrest and rioting in North Devon in the 1830s meant that most towns had special constables on standby.
The usual system of policing in Ilfracombe when times were peaceful was to have a parish constable, and he was elected every year and given a small salary raised from the parish rates. The constable was largely untrained, had no uniform, and yet had the huge task of trying to deal with law and order in a growing town with its fair share of disorder. An amusing story from 1852 gives an insight into the constable’s lot: the Berrynarbor constable was escorting a thief into Ilfracombe – on foot, there was no transport for the lowly ‘plod’ – when coming up to Hillsborough Terrace the felon suddenly made a break for freedom: ‘’throwing off in his haste first his shoes and afterwards his coat. Thus lightened he sped on his way and successfully escaped the pursuing constable. The tricked officer made his appearance before the bench, minus his charge, for which he received due reprimand. He pleaded he had been constable for twenty years and never lost one before; indeed, “Who would a thought that the man would have taken off his shoes without untying them,” said the constable in his simplicity.’’ In another incident in 1855, constable Smith, on hearing cries of ‘murder!’ in Broad Street, discovered fighting there and plunged bravely into the melee, but, instead of creating order he was swallowed up in the fight and himself received a beating.
After the first professional police force was formed in London in 1829 under Robert Peel, English counties were asked to form their own police constabularies to control law and order, a particularly important issue in growing industrial towns. Devon was quite late in forming its constabulary in 1856, and even after this, Barnstaple borough was responsible for policing in our area until 1921. Ilfracombe had its first police station in the High St, next to the old Market Hall, and then in 1872 the station moved to 71 the High St. There were many complaints about disturbances in the High St at night time, especially from ‘hundreds of boys who parade the streets, yelling, and by their vulgar language are a great annoyance to the inhabitants’. Only a few years later in 1874, Ilfracombe opened its first purpose- built police station in Fore St, now the Gendarmerie restaurant. It had a charge-room, offices, accommodation and three cells, and is still an imposing building today. It was replaced as a station in 1926 when the growing force, now part of Devon Constabulary, needed much bigger premises and moved to Wilder Road, to the site still known to many as the ‘Bastille’, but sadly not the fine building it once was. In the 1970s the constabulary moved again, to modern premises in Princess Avenue, but police numbers are much reduced today.
In 1933 the Ilfracombe Chronicle reported on long-service medals being given to Ilfracombe’s special constables. Over 50 men received these awards, and in that year there were on average 90 specials in the town. The newspaper went on to say that policing problems for Ilfracombe were changing: in 1933 the most difficult issue was traffic congestion. No longer was drunkenness and disorder the greatest nuisance. Instead, the police were struggling to deal with our town’s streets being gridlocked by holiday traffic in the summer months. Wouldn’t that be a nice problem to have again?
12th August 2017
Ilfracombe’s Alexandra Theatre will soon be demolished, here is a bit more about its history during the second world war, and the entertainments laid on there
The photo comes from our wonderful archives and shows HMS Pinafore being performed at the Alexandra Theatre in 1946
This production was the first one put on by the Ilfracombe and District Amatuer Operatic Society since the end of the second world war – in the spring of 1939 they had staged ‘Country Girl’ but after the outbreak of hostilities with Germany the situation changed for every civilian in the country, and Ilfracombe Operatic Society had to re-think their annual programme.
The imposition of blackout restrictions from the 1st September 1939 meant that travelling after dark anywhere in Britain was very difficult, and this severely limited group rehearsals for the society, especially for those living in Woolacombe and Combe Martin. The blackout meant every window being sealed with heavy curtains to prevent any landmarks being seen by enemy aircraft, and also car and bus headlights reduced to a thin strip which made journeys in the dark evenings hazardous. Speed limits were reduced to 20mph, but fatalities still occurred, as all streetlamps were switched off and people groped about in the pitch black. White stripes were painted on kerbs, bollards and car bumpers to help them stand out. One farmer in Essex painted white striped on his cattle to make them more visible! Shops closed early in the winter to allow workers to get home in daylight, and there was a general feeling that it was safer to stay at home in the evening and gather around the radio, read books and take up home hobbies rather than try to go out and socialise.
Another wartime decision which affected the Operatic Society was the loss of the Alexandra theatre as a venue. Initially this was because the ARP (Air Raid Precaution) committee decided to choose the theatre as Ilfracombe’s gas decontamination centre in October 1939. Every town had to organise a place where civilians could be taken to be treated and cleansed from an airborne gas attack. This theatre, with its large capacity and central location, was an obvious choice. Then, from September 1940, with the arrival of the Pioneer Corps in Ilfracombe, the Alexandra theatre became the Garrison theatre and was used for providing entertainment to the forces billeted here, much of it laid on by professional musicians and entertainers who had fled Nazi Germany.
The Operatic Society had the option of using the Victoria Pavilion after war broke out, but the stage there was too small for its annual musical spectaculars, and, coupled with the practical difficulties of rehearsal during the blackout, it was decided to call a temporary halt to productions until the war was over. Up to this point the society had been having a very successful run since its formation in 1929. In April 1929 their first ever production was the nostalgic musical ‘Merrie England’, and with a cast of over 100 players and good reviews, they put on a musical every spring. No expense was spared in the hiring of costumes and scenery form London, and the photo albums and programmes we have in the museum show what a high professional standard this amateur group aimed for.
After the war was over and life returned to normality, it could have been difficult to resurrect the Operatic Society after a five year break. But undeterred, they re-formed and presented ‘HMS Pinafore’ back at the Alexandra theatre, and then went on to stage an annual production every season until the society was eventually wound up in 1989. One particular highlight for the society was in 1956, when it was chosen to take part in ‘Music in Limelight’, a live BBC radio programme broadcast from the Alexandra theatre, featuring the BBC West of England Light Orchestra and the chorus of the Operatic Society. Quite a coup!
As we wait for the demolition of the old Alexandra theatre, it is poignant to think of all the hard work and happy times that occurred there, and the many talented people, both local and from overseas, who trod her boards.
3rd August 2017
Ilfracombe men lost at Passhcendaele 1917
On the 31st July this year we commemorated a centenary since the terrible losses of the Third battle of Ypres, or the battle of Passchendaele, as it is often called. This campaign dragged on until the 6th November 1917, and led to around 260,000 casualties on both German and Allied sides.
This photo shows Private Jack Sanders, and it appeared in the Ilfracombe Chronicle in November 1917 with an article announcing he had been killed near Passchendaele. He is one of five Ilfracombe men that we know lost their lives there during the fighting.
More about him a bit later. The other men killed were: John Henry Barwick who was waiting for leave at the time of his death, and one of five Barwick brothers serving in the army; his twin brother had been killed in 1916. George Challacombe, aged just 19; he had only been at the front for just two weeks and had been a railway employee. Alfred Dadds, also 19, had worked for the Ilfracombe Gas Company before enlisting. Ernest Rogers had worked for his father’s motor works company in the town, and was recently married, he died aged 23.
They are all remembered on the Tyne Cot war memorial, which began as a small cemetery on the site of the battle but was enlarged to become the biggest cemetery for Commonwealth forces anywhere in the world. Here are buried almost 12,000 soldiers, and 80% of them are unidentified men. After visiting in 1922, King George reflected ‘’can there be more potent advocates of peace upon Earth through the years to come, than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war.’’
The Third Battle of Ypres was a controversial campaign before it began; Prime Minister Lloyd George opposed it, as did the French Chief of Staff. The aim was to defeat the Germans in Flanders and push through to the Belgian coast; it is said that Colonel Haig went ahead with it before the War Office gave approval. Poor weather and the resistance of the German 4th Army would lead to a gruelling campaign. The objective was to take the ridge of high ground at Passchendaele; this took months to achieve, and cost thousands of lives. Writing later in 1938, Lloyd George said that it was one of the greatest disasters of the war.
Our sad story continues with the tale of what happened to Jack Sanders. The newspaper article explains how Jack came to join the Australian Infantry. After leaving school in Ilfracombe he worked at sea for the Union Castle shipping company, and then took a job in Australia in 1916, enlisting there shortly afterwards. He was killed on the 12th October, serving with the Australian’s Lewis gun Team. Bogged down in the mud, the Australians were again attempting to capture Passchendaele on a wet October day. They tried to hold their ground in the mire, but were driven back by heavy fire and exhaustion. A letter sent back to Jack’s mother by his officer was printed with his photograph. It describes how Jack was killed by machine gun fire as they were trying to advance on Passchendaele. Unusually, the censors did not remove the bitter comments of the officer, who said ‘This war is terrible- to think of thousands of young men getting killed and crippled for life every day.’’
It seems appropriate to finish with a moving poem written by Ilfracombe’s Sergeant Fred Frost in 1917, in memory of his evening training at St Philip and St James School:
THE SATURDAY EVENING SOLDIERS
“Only a Territorial!” how often before this war
That’s been said by the regular soldiers, to men from a volunteer corps;
And our own particular people, mates at the shop, everywhere,
Whenever we donned our uniform and put on a martial air.
A fortnight a year in training, and a week-night or two at drill,
And a day now and then at manoeuvres when the workshops were idle and still.
But some people called us “Toy Soldiers,” and “England’s last hopes” as well,
But now their opinion has altered, as our casualty lists can tell.
So we played being soldiers in peace-time, and practised with bayonet and gun,
And paraded and route-marched some evenings, when our everyday’s labour was done,
Then packed up and went into training, a week or a fortnight in camp,
And we learnt how to grumble like regulars, when the weather was misty and damp.
And so when our land called for soldiers, to face Wilhelm’s hordes o’er the foam,
The “Terriers” put on their khaki, and left all their dear ones at home.
From John o’ Groats right down to Land’s End, and from Lincoln to Cardigan Bay,
The “Saturday evening soldiers” nobly answered the call that day.
And there’s many a grave in Flanders, and more at Suvla Bay,
And out on the burning desert, and up Mesopotamia way,
And they tell a silent story, that no man dare deny,
That the “Saturday evening soldier” wasn’t afraid to die.’’