B - Beside the Sea at Brixham and Budleigh Salterton

At Brixham
'The merry boats of Brixham
Go out to search the seas;
A staunch and sturdy fleet are they,
Who love a swinging breeze;
And before the woods of Devon,
And the silver cliffs of Wales,
You may see, when summer evenings fall,
The light upon their sails'.
(The Wives of Brixham
by Menella Bute Smedley)

      A to Z of Devon places and Devon women writers - B

Excerpt from my poem about Flora Thompson in Brixham

B for Brixham
Page from Miss Green's Journals 1841
It's unlikely that you reading this don't know of Brixham, in Torbay in the south of Devon. Chances are you may have been there. Brixham is one of the county's prime tourist places as well as one of Devon's most famous fishing towns, In my first post in this A-Z of Devon places and women writers I noted that, as I've trawled the county in search of places associated with various authors, it has often happened that my quest to find one or other writer has coincided with individuals from my own family history. The coincidence has happened enough times to make it appropriate here to include snippets of our own family genealogy as a kind of sub-text for some of the posts you'll find on this blog. Sometimes for examples a writer was living in the place during the same time as certain people in my own family; occasionally the author lived at a house or home nearby where a branch of the family lived. In either case, for me the coexistence is often intriguing. My dual research subject fields meet up with one another and each has helped in some way with the other (if that makes sense). 

    Here, at Brixham, the resonance is especially meaningful. My late mother's paternal family, fisherfolk, the Greens, were from the parish; or, at least, were in Brixham for a couple of generations, after a great grandfather ran away to sea, to escape an unhappy childhood in Suffolk.

     Though, as I've since discovered there were other women writers connected with the town (including Menella Bute Smedley, who wrote The Wives of Brixham quoted above), two women authors with direct Brixham links stand out and in each case, as I've explored their respective lives and writings I've also stumbled upon insights about my family; and vice versa. One of the writers was the C19 diarist Miss Green who I'll introduce shortly. The mysterious unknown C19 lady diarist is not exactly remembered for her writings or for her links with the famous fishing town. In contrast, everyone knows about Flora Thompson, especially since the BBC's production of Lark Rise to Candleford. Perhaps though, you reading this may not have known that Thompson spent the last years of her life in Devon. Much has been written about this popular author, including the recent biography, Dreams of the Good Life: The Life of Flora Thompson and the Creation of Lark Rise to Candleford by Richard Mabey, which is available from Kindle.  Flora does  make an appearance in my own work, and there is an excellent Flora Thompson website devoted to her. Here, I'd like to comment a little more about her Brixham and Devon links.

      I am fascinated with the way some writers such as Thompson swop real places  with one another; a beloved home is written about only when the writer has moved to another location. It seems as though often there is need to put space and distance between one's real life and one's imagined life, before the former can be written about. Such is the case with Flora Thompson. whose  Lark Rise to Candleford, (the first book of which was written 1938-9 and the one that made her a household name) was not set in Devon; yet Thompson, as 'exile', admitted that unless influenced by the nearby Devon moorland: '[she] might never have felt driven to record her inland childhood as she did exiled in Devon'. It's as though Dartmoor revivified a lost memory trace for the writer; the landscape transformed into a beautiful interior landscape recalled from her childhood in Oxfordshire, which allowed the vista of tors and moorland space to set the writer free to travel to other inner regions. 

    Thompson's fascination with moor and its impact on the writing of her own work intrigues me, as does her close association with Brixham itself. Flora's home in the town, called Lauriston (see the plaque to Thompson and photos of the house) in New Road, is in Higher Town:

This is the same part of the parish in which my grandmother met my grandfather in her grandma's parents dairy, Tregembo and where my mother was born and brought up, at Polhearne, the farm round the corner from the Pound House where according to my mother my grandparents had first moved as a married couple, in 1912. The street called Dashpers is nearby. One of Thompson's unfinished fictional works is titled Dashpers, (see manuscript draft here), so I have always assumed she took the name from the nearby Brixham road.

       In her later years my mother wrote about her own love of the fishing-village, a home which she left when she was eleven:
We never ceased to be excited by the sight of seagulls, which flew in by the hundreds, catching and swallowing large fish whole. The smaller fish would be discarded and then the auctioning would take place. No large co-operatives in those days. All this took place under the watchful eye of William, Prince of Orange whose statue was and still is a landmark on the quay in Brixham ...
... On bank holidays or in the school holidays we would walk to Broadsands from Higher Brixham where we lived on the farm. In those days the beaches were practically deserted and we spent long, happy hours playing in the seaside pools or picking buckets full of winkles which our mother cooked for tea. Mansands was out of bounds to us, being considered far too lonely and desolate. Another secluded beach we used to play on was called Mudstone. Walking down to it with warm sand trickling through my bare toes was wonderful.
          Her childhood in the town was spent many years before Flora Thompson moved there, in 1940, but my mother's own memoirs about her years in Brixham are detailed and poignant, in a way reminiscent of the style of the well-known Thompson.

         I had the criss-crossing meeting-points and places of personal family and well-known writer in Brixham in mind when I drafted a poem about Flora Thompson. I decided to create a layered text, with the poem about the author superimposed on a description of my family in the town. The poem reflects the multilayerings of life and text. Here is an extract from the under-layer of Flora and the Family, reinventing my own family in the town:

Brixham home of my maternal forbearers, whose lives and bodies are now shadows weaving in & out of Burton Street up across to Bolton Street - shapes coming from doors - they're waving back up to us - feet stepping towards the harbour - linking houses and family lines across time  - some lost & forgotten for ever -   a few resurrected here and given space-in-print to exist in this text-in-time. Walk the streets of this their seaside town and walk into the margins of darkened lanes, merge lines of  text into the C21 virtual version where fisher and farming folk live again - throw the fishing net and catch them against a background of brimming Brixham red skies and silver seas. the fleet coming in skimming the waves and preening glorious sails.
       Brixham's mysterious C19 personal journalist/diarist, Miss Green, in complete contrast to the well-known C20 Flora Thompson, has not left any published works and remains obscure and unknown. She is one of the invisible woman writers of Devon who I wanted to include in this blog.

       Miss Green was probably born and lived most of her life in Brixham, whereas Thompson only spent the latter part of her life there but the chances you have heard of Miss Green are remote. (I call her Miss because as yet I have not been able to identify the diarist's christian name and because the manuscripts that do exist by her are in that name. Happening through serendipity on the existence of the manuscript of Miss Green's journals in an archive far away from Devon (Birmingham University - also see Diaries for detailed commentary on Green's writings), was a real discovery, for my grandfather was a Brixham 'Green' and to begin with I thought the two families might be related. Concerning the journalist's identity, the Birmingham archive notes:
From internal evidence, it is likely that the writer is a Miss Green, daughter of Joseph Green of Parkham Cottage, Brixham, Devon. A record of the marriage of Joseph Green nd Elizabeth Adams at Brixham on 23 January 1791 is listed in the International Genealogical Index. The writer spends several months with her uncle Robert Adams, of Brompton, near Chatham, Kent who is possibly her mother's brother.
       Sometimes, the complications re establishing writer identity and my other co-passion for family history research, as with Miss Green, took me off on tangents into the mires of online genealogical sites, away from the main thread of this project. Apropos Miss Green, I'm afraid I'm still floundering amongst the C19 higher Brixham lanes, up in Burton Street with Parkahm Villas, or New Road, St Mary's church and surrounding area, with various C19 censuses details laid out on my desk concerning the various branches of Green families, rope-makers, ship-owners, bankers and other fisher-folk kith and kin. If and when I establish exactly how Miss Green fitted into the Brixham Green family trees I will update this later. Meanwhile, if any of you finding this blog can bring any fresh insights, please do let me know.

         Before we depart from Brixham and Miss Green I must briefly comment on her writing and its importance to the area in which she lived. For although, yes, her journals are for the most part intensely religious and parochial, focusing on the immediate locality of her home parish, the specifics of Green's writing provide the C21 reader with a social history of the mid C19 in that town and indeed, probably the whole country. She conjures a contrasting world to the one we are now familiar with, a world in which families left their homes every day to walk, rather than drive, out and about their locality, to go to church, to church and other social meetings, to meet with neighbours, family and friends for walks into the surrounding countryside and then shared tea and meals; a world in which death was a persistent concern and experience in an individual's life, not a topic to be avoided; a world in which church, caring, community and charity were accepted as the norm of life. 

    Miss Green's diaries also tell us about the topography of the local landscape and illustrate the huge differences in the locality between then and now. Miss Green knew a few of the local leading lights of her time, including particularly Revd. Henry Francis Lyte, famous writer of the now popular hymn Abide with Me. Green, who seems to have been a Sunday school teacher, evidently knew him well as she attended many of Lyte's services and provides descriptive commentary about each sermon or lecture she heard. Miss Green's church was St Mary's at Higher Brixham.

    Here's just a couple of excerpts from her journals:
'We took a walk to Parkham just before dinner in the evening went to see John's wife   after that to church they sang the 55 psalms 2 versions  poor Elizabeth's favorites the music was to me beautiful and the words brought many things to my mind which I cannot forget, Mr Lyte's lecture was very good on the Epistles for Trinity Sunday.' (26 May 1841) 
After looking at the old church we proceeded to the iron mines the view from there was very good. William accompanied us now and then we passed Mudstone but did not go down on the beach we reached home just before dark not a little tired with our long walks. (28 May 18410. 
      The journal entry that stays with me is Miss Green’s affecting farewell to a beloved cousin, and Uncle and Aunt, in June 1841, as they left Devon on the Steamer to return to their Kent home after a holiday  with Green's family, in Brixham. To our fast-paced C21 minds the woman's intense gaze over the water, watching the steamer pass across the bay seems tedious and slow,  How could it have been like this? Yet perhaps she was the lucky one, experiencing a luxury we, with the rush of our C21 lives, do not now have.

… after tea Harriet Fogwell kindly went up on Parkham with Priscilla and I to see the Steamer come out. We saw her pass across the bay at a little before 6 in the evening we waited until nearly ten past 7 when she came out and glided very quickly along we had he glass but could not distinguish one person from another the distance being considerable, we tied a white pocket handkerchief on a pole that was our flag but I can hardly think they saw it … all seems very lonely. (Extracts from Miss Green, Journals of Miss Green, from Brixham, 1840-1: Special Collections, Birmingham).

B for Budleigh Salterton
At Budleigh Salterton
Photo Julie Sampson

         Now we're going to zip along the south Devon coast to the east of the county and meet up with another C19 woman writer who in her life-time seems to have become a well-known figure in the town of Budleigh Salterton, or in the nearby village of East Budleigh. Just as with Brixham this east Devon district harbours the bones of a branch of my own ancestors, so similarly to the south Devon resort finding this writer has provided me rich research material. But that belongs to another story (blog).
        Maria Susannah Gibbons wrote novels and travel books about Devon. She was apparently born in Middlesex, in 1841 (the same year in which Miss Green was writing most of her Brixham journals), but by the 1880s had moved to Vicarsmead, in East Budleigh. Gibbon died in 1900. The main texts which are associated with the author are We Donkeys in Devon and Travels in a Donkey, 1887. Maria Susanna Gibbons makes a brief appearance in SouthWestWomenWriters and there was mention of her in an old Devon and Cornwall Notes and Queries (3:2 1904 49-52).  There is not much information easily available about the author on the internet, except that The OVA (a civic society founded in 1979 to interest residents and visitors in the history, geography, natural history and architecture of this area of Devon), contains a wealth of material on the Otter valley, which includes some valuable snippets about Maria Gibbons. My comments on the writer are indebted to that site. The author is described thus:
A most delightful character who epitomised the Victorian scene in this town was the writer Maria Gibbons who, with her mother, moved from East Budleigh to live at the top of Victoria Place. Her charming reminiscences of Salterton have already been quoted in this chapter. She drove a donkey tandem, and was quite eccentric in her attitude towards animals. She once had a wooden leg fitted on her broken-legged cow. Maria was the author of 'We Donkeys in Devon', and several novels, now forgotten. When past middle age she took up nursing. There have always been 'characters' in Salterton (See Ova)
Maria was evidently not without eccentricity for we learn that
In 1886 the old vicarage was the home of two ladies of great character; Mrs. Gibbons, who allowed her hens to roost on her drawing room chairs, and her daughter Maria. (ibid.)
       I also learn that Maria Gibbons wrote an account titled Budleigh Salterton in 1809, a transcript of which is in Fairlynch Museum.

      Before I leave Budleigh and Maria Gibbons I must just mention another Budleigh woman writer who I would not have known about if Roger Lendon (TheOva) had not written about her on their website. Miss Jane Louisa Willyams (1786-18780 was apparently born in Cornwall and moved to Budleigh forty years before her death, where in 1841, 'she lived at Prospect (now East Terrace). Willyams with her sister wrote a three volume novel called Coquetry which was published in 1818'. (See Ova for more about Willyams). This is yet another writer from the south west who has disappeared from the radar, but one to watch out for.
By the sea at Budleigh

For introduction to this blog see Women Writing on the Devon Land


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