Book review: The Little History of Devon

Beneath its placid, seaside resort, areas of outstanding beauty exterior, the county of Devon has had a livelier history than many.

Don’t believe me? Then pick a century at random. Try, the 16th: The heyday of many Devon-born explorers such as Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake. Piracy and smuggling were rife. The county also played major roles in the Wyatt and Prayer Book Rebellions. The 20th? Remember the wartime devastation of the air raids on Plymouth and Exeter? The booming seaside of Regency Exmouth in the early 19th century. The ten sieges of Exeter. Perkin Warbeck’s march on Devon. The critical role played by the county in the Civil War. The trials of the Bideford ‘witches.’ The history of England is fascinating and Devon has certainly played an essential role in making it so.

This new book by Suze Gardner avoids jumping around all over the place as I just did. It tells the story of Devon in 21 easily absorbable little chapters, starting with details on the county’s geology (fun fact: only a small amount of the so-called ‘Jurassic coast’ is actually from the Jurassic era) and stretching right up to the lowdown on the early 21st century sitcom, Jam and Jerusalem.

With so much potential information to impart, there are potential dangers here, of course. Any history risks being overly dense as it seeks to burden the reader with too many facts. At the other extreme, a writer might go too far to avoid doing this and end up producing something so lightweight it ends up not really telling the reader anything substantial at all.

Happily, as in her previous book, The Little Book of Devon, Suze Gardner avoids both of these traps. Whether discussing the Honiton lace trade, sinister occultist, Aleister Crowley or the Battle of Jutland, she achieves the perfect balance between being highly readable and accessible while also remaining substantial and informative. There is also plenty of good history to be learned here generally too, not just about Devon. The next time anyone says to you they want to come to see Devon’s famous ‘Jurassic Park’ or tries to claim crime writer, Jessica Fletcher lived in Greenway, toss over a copy of this book.

I should declare an interest here. I do not know Suze Gardner myself and have not met her. I have, however written the book, Secret Exeter (2018) with Tim Isaac and also wrote A-Z of Exeter: Places – People – History (2019) myself. I regularly write features on local history for the magazines, Exeter Life and Devon Life and write a weekly history column which runs in the Sidmouth Herald, Midweek Herald and Exmouth Journal. I have definitely used Suze Gardner’s works to inform my own writing. I will doubtless do the same again in the future.

I do have one or two minor niggles with the book, however. For one thing, it occasionally, just sounds a bit wrong. Consider this, on James II: “The new king was a Catholic (the last Catholic in England). Worse still, he was intent on making the country Catholic again too.” I don’t think Suze Gardner means this to sound as if it’s bad to be Catholic. But it does rather come out sounding that way. She also doesn’t mention General Buller’s youthful bravery during the Zulu Wars: the heroic side of his reputation rests entirely on this, not on his later, rather more dubious record as a General during the Boer War.

Some of the sub-headings do sound a bit Horrible History-esqe too: ‘Awful Antarctic,’ ‘Hooray Henry!’ and ‘Awful Arsenic and Monstrous Manganese’. My worst criticism would be the excessive overuse of exclamation marks throughout the entire book. Often, they just seem inappropriate: “Remarkably, many Saxon government methods are still in use today!” “Often services had to be held outside to accommodate all the worshippers!” and ‘The people of Victorian Exeter had very bad luck with their theatres as three of them burnt down!” None of these sentences needs an exclamation mark, particularly as one of the fires referred to in the last one was actually a terrible tragedy. There are many more examples of this throughout the book.

But I didn’t spot any real factual errors. And ultimately as a concise and highly accessible guide to England’s third largest county, this is basically unmissable.

Book review: The Little History of Devon, by Suze Gardner. Published by: The History Press, 2021

200 years of Queen Victoria

There is now not a single person on the entire planet who was alive at the same time as Queen Victoria.

She was born two hundred years ago in May 1819. It was a different world then. Napoleon  Bonaparte and Beethoven were both still alive. The Peterloo massacre occurred in Manchester that summer.

Victoria died in January 1901. By that time her funeral procession was able to be filmed and thus seen by more people than any who had witnessed the funerals of all previous English kings and queens combined. There were 1.6 billion people alive on the Earth then. Every one of them has since died, the last of which probably in 2017. 7.7 billion others have now replaced them.

Princess Alexandrina Victoria was born in the last year of the reign of her grandfather, George III, who despite being incapacitated by madness by that point, was the longest reigning king in English history. Victoria would herself exceed his record of sixty years on the throne by the end of the century. Some of her subjects such as the composer Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan), Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stephenson and the playwright Oscar Wilde lived their lives entirely within her reign. In 1819, however, her own succession looked uncertain.

With fourteen grown-up children, George III’s legacy should have been secure. But following the sudden death of his granddaughter, the Prince Regent’s daughter, Princess Charlotte in 1817, it became apparent not one of his children had produced a legitimate heir to succeed them. Victoria, the daughter of Edward, Duke of Kent, was the result of the subsequent “baby race.” She was fifth in line to the throne at the time of her birth, but by 1837, when her uncle William IV died, Victoria became Queen at the age of eighteen.

Perceptions of the Victorian era have changed steadily as society has gradually transformed in the years since 1901. Arguably,  little really changed until 1914, but the trauma of the First World War did much to undermine the Empire and accelerate social change. One day in January 1924, the King, George V wrote in his diary. “Today 23 years ago dear Grandmama died,” he wrote. “I wonder what she would have thought of a Labour Government”. By the 1920s, women could vote, and motor cars were becoming more prevalent. In 1926, the General Strike occurred. Old traditions persisted, however. George V enjoyed a warm public response to his Silver Jubilee in 1935, an event that doubtless evoked nostalgic memories of Victoria’s Golden and Diamond Jubilee celebrations in anyone then older than their forties or fifties and thus able to remember them. Victoria, herself, had in fact, not celebrated her own Silver Jubilee, there being no tradition of celebrating them in 1862. She had at any rate been grief-stricken following the death of her beloved Prince Albert in December 1861.

November 1936 saw the destruction by fire of the Crystal Palace constructed for the Great Exhibition in 1851. The timing seemed apt: the monarchy was now in its most serious crisis of the post-Victorian era. George V had died in January, his son Edward VIII abdicated in December: a major trauma for the Royal Family, the wounds of which would not heal for decades.

1937 was thus a coronation year with the reluctant George VI being crowned, a century after his great-grandmother had started her long reign. The line of succession now strongly suggested, Britain would have a new Queen one day. That was assuming the King’s wife, Queen Elizabeth didn’t now give birth to a son. This was quite possible: she was only 36 at the time of the coronation and until the 21st century, a son always overtook a daughter (in this case, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret) in the line of succession. But this didn’t happen.

Incidentally, the year 1937 also saw the release of Victoria the Great starring Anna Neagle. Although very reverent in its portrayal of the monarch’s early years, the Lord Chamberlain initially banned the play it was based upon as it used a member of the Royal Family for its subject matter.

The years ahead would see more change. Although the war, reinforced notions of patriotism and led to a rise in support for the monarchy, by the half way point of the century with the empire fast unravelling, Britain’s Victorian heritage was increasing looking like a thing of the past, perhaps unsurprisingly fifty years after Queen Victoria’s death.

But then in 1952, her great-great granddaughter succeeded to the throne, accompanied by her husband, himself one of Victoria’s great-great-grandsons. Elizabeth II was only the sixth ruling female monarch in English history. Any Briton in his fifties or over would have seen five new kings or queens come to the throne in the previous fifty years. As we know, this has not happened again in the nearly seventy years since. At the start of the Queen’s reign, both the Prime Minister and Opposition leaders, Churchill and Attlee had been young men at the time of Victoria’s death.

Harold Macmillan who was Prime Minister at the start of the sixties, was the last PM to be born during Victoria’s reign. The Sixties, more than any other decade, for good or ill, would see much of the residual spirit of the Victorian age vanish forever.

Probably, it was inevitable. Even by the early Sixties, only people of retirement age could remember the closing years of Victoria’s reign at all. Even then, these memories were likely to have been eclipsed by memories of bigger events since, such as the two World Wars and Great Depression.  But even allowing for that, with the rise of tower blocks, the Beatles, free love, the contraceptive pill, decolonisation and the liberalisation of laws on divorce, and homosexuality – the pace of change was too great for any Victorian sensibility to survive.

Today, we view the Victorian age with mixed feelings: a golden age of literature and change undoubtedly although our other opinions might well be determined by our political outlook, However, what cannot be denied is that it was a decisive, transformative and crucial period in British history.

We would not be the same people without it.