Plymouth and District Branch report: Oct 2019 to Mar 2020


This update covers unreported lectures given from the end of 2019 to March 2020, commencing with an October 2019 presentation by Dr Simon Pittman about the Plymouth Sound National Marine Park. The official launch of the UK’s first National Marine Park had occurred about a month previously making this talk especially topical.

Simon outlined the pathway to National Marine Park designation and stressed that it is not a replacement for existing statutory marine protection designations like SAC, SPA, SSSI, AONB, and MCZ. Mention was made that Prof Martin Atrill and Monty Hall started advocating National Marine Parks about 2005 and among the criteria that marked Plymouth Sound for such designation are that it is a biodiversity hotspot (with more than 1,000 species), its numerous wrecks, and Plymouth’s distinguished record for marine science research. Aims of the designation include encouraging people to use water more for the therapeutic or health value of exercise, to deal with plastic pollution and help nurture the marine environment.

In his December talk, entitled The picture of Plymouth 1812, Ted Luscombe gave a fascinating overview of a rare book of that title published in1812 and possibly the earliest guide book to ‘The Three Towns’. Its author was probably Henry Woolcombe – lawyer, Mayor of Plymouth and one of the instigators of the Plymouth Institution (forerunner of the Plymouth Athenaeum). Curiously, the only map in the volume depicts Plymouth Dock which became Devonport in 1824. Much of the book’s interest resides in the fact that it predates a number of fine buildings; also the railway which didn’t reach Plymouth until 1849. By delving into the book Ted covered water supply, lighting, press gangs, important inhabitants and their occupations, principal houses and seats such as Kitley, Puslinch and Hemerdon and much more besides. All rather delightful and very enlightening!

Our 2020 AGM held in January was followed by three short talks: Devon footstones (markers at the foot of graves) by Dr Helen Wilson, the Dreadnought Hoax (Ted Luscombe) and unveiling the William Pengelly Blue Plaque at Torquay (Prof. Malcolm Hart).

The following month Dr Helen Wilson spoke on the subject of her paper entitled From ‘lady woodcarvers’ to professionals: the remarkable Pinwill sisters (TDA 2019, volume 151). Starting at Ermington Church where their father Edmund was Vicar from 1880, they have come to be regarded as some of the most skilled woodcarvers in the West Country, with work in over 185 churches in Devon and Cornwall. Edmund’s seven children were all daughters and most started woodcarving, but three (Mary, Ethel and Violet) took to it particularly well and stuck with it! Woodcarving for ladies was not uncommon at the time the daughters were young girls and it was during restoration of the dilapidated church which began in1885 that mother Elizabeth asked the head woodcarver to teach them to carve. The acquired skills enabled them to produce work based on designs by architect Edmund Sedding. After 1889 the three sisters set up their own woodcarving business with a workshop in Ermington and a workshop and offices in Plymouth. Violet Pinwill employed a number of carvers and joiners and taught woodcarving at the technical college. She was active as proprietor from 1908 to her death in 1957. During the pandemic lockdowns Helen has finished writing her Pinwill book and it is now going to press.

Geographer Clive Charlton gave our March talk A very useful river: a history of shipping, trade and shipbuilding on the Tamar. Carrying goods comprised a big part of this thorough overview which began with reference to Tamar barges and sea-going trade, river quays and ports, passenger traffic, steamers and ferries. Carrying 40 to 60 tons the heyday of single masted barges was 1850 –1914. An appreciation the drowned valley (ria) system included navigable reaches of the Tamar, Tavy and Lynher Rivers plus several shallow tidal creeks with associated quays, hards, lime kilns and commodious warehouses. Historically, the rivers were a logical way to move and mention was made of the excavated Roman fort above Calstock, also Anglo Saxon, Viking and Medieval sea-going trade (Morwellham being Tavistock Abbey’s port from the 13th century). Available commodities / assets included metal ores (Cu, Sn, As, Pb, Ag), stone (granite, slate, elvan), clays (bricks, tiles), timber (oak, bark, poles), horticultural land, water power, and scenery. A lecture packed with fascinating details.

Colin Kilvington, Secretary