Days off–and nights out

Above: Rodgman family picnic.
See The Rodgman family, under Individual families 2
Many thanks to Nancy Frey for this photograph


From the Churchwardens' accounts 1541-42

3s 4d was paid to a man 'as a reward for bear-baiting,' with 2s paid to players on Epiphany.

Churchwardens' accounts of Ashburton 1479-1580 Alison Hanham, Devon and Cornwall Record Society 1970, p109


                                                                     Bull baiting

'Bull-baiting had been dropped before my time; but I have seen many a badger baiting there...' [He goes on to suggest that he and a Methodist parson in the town have a similar baiting contest, but the statement suggests that actual bull-baiting did once take place]
The Republican Vol 9, 1824, R. Carlile, 84 Fleet Street, p74

'In the alterations recently carried out in the Ashburton Market the workmen found, whilst excavating in the fish market, a block of stone with a massive iron ring securely fixed to it. Old people well remember such a ring existing in the open space between the market and the house where the Capital and Counties Bank now stands. It disappeared in 1850, when the old Market was demolished, and the roadway levelled, and as it now appears, was used in filling in the foundation of the new building, then in course of erection.'
P.F.S.A. (Peter Fabyan Sparke Amery), Devon Notes and Queries, Vol 1, 1901 p26ff

In 1851 the Western Times reported that a gas light, supported by an iron pillar, was to be placed in the centre of the bull ring, 'near where the front of the Old Market stood.'
Western Times 27 September 1851, p3 col6

The area of town where the old market stood - the junction between North, East and West Street, is still called the Bullring.

Above: After Henry Thomas Alken 1785-1851
Image from my own collection

                                                                    Cock fighting

When Mr B B Baker took members of the Devonshire Association to his house in September 1950 he showed them a cock barn where cock fighting once took place. [So far this is the only reference I have]. This house has been identified by his daughter as Sparnham House, 36 West Street.
Western Morning News 25th September 1950 p5 col4
Above: Cockfight in London circa 1808 Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827) & Augustus Charles Pugin (1762–1832) published by J. Hill, & Harraden.
In the public domain.
In 1874 John Whiddon was charged with cruelty to two game cocks. John Sandercock saw Whiddon and others in a garden behind the Globe Inn, watching the birds fighting, and drawing a lot of blood. Albert Husson was called for the defence, and he denied that there was any illtreatment.
The case was dismissed.
Western Daily Mercury, 17 June 1874, p2 col6


1840 Mssrs. Gyngells held a firework display in a field at the top of East Street. There were globes, wheels, rockets, snakes and roman candles, which 'drew forth shouts of admiration.' Later Jerome Gyngell gave demonstrations of mechanical experiments etc. at Barron's Golden Lion.

Western Times 11 April 1840 p3 col5

The spectators at Ashburton were lucky. In 1845 Mr. Gyngell walked up a tightrope in Northampton Market Square whilst holding two lighted fireworks. He threw one of the fireworks into the crowd, 'killing Mrs. E. Smith'. - accessed 24-05-2015

In August of the same year Mr Wells brought his equestrian circus from Astley's Circus, London, to perform in the field adjoining the Gas Works. The crowd were amazed by the tiny Burmese ponies, the smallest only 32 inches high

Western Times 8 August 1840 p3 col5

In 1842 the Masters Grossmith provided entertainment to a large audience at Bates' Golden Lion Assembly Room.

Exeter Flying Post 17 November 1842 p2 col7

The Grossmiths were brothers who had been to Ashburton before in 1834, when the younger one, B. Grossmith, was 7 years old. When they played at the Theatre Royal, Exeter, prices ranged from 6d for children in the gallery, to 2/6d for adults in the first circle.

Western Times 8 November 1834

Mr. Wynne's company, comedians, had been entertaining the townspeople at Foaden's London Inn for a fortnight in 1843.

Western Times 5 August 1843 p5 col3


Womb(w)ell's Menagerie arrived in the town in March, and could be seen in the 'spacious area' at the end of East Street, where the animals and state of the menagerie 'gave general satisfaction'. An elephant and two horses pulled one of the waggons when the menagerie left for Plymouth.

Western Times 29 March 1845 p3 col4


                                                                         William Dowton

In the middle of the 19th century the House of Commons had a Dramatic Committee, and at one stage were considering the optimum size for theatres. Dowton, a comic actor, 'emphatically' endorsed buildings of a moderate size. This is presumably the William Dowton below.

The Edinburgh Review July-October 1843 vol 78, Edinburgh 1843, p394

In 1847 Mr Dowton was asked by the Dramatic Committee where he gave his first public performance. 'In a barn at Ashburton, in Devonshire, or a cow-house, I believe; it was not so good as a barn.'

Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 3 July 1847 p6 col2

Above: By Blood, T., active early 19th cent., printmaker [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

William Dowton, born in Exeter in 1766*, was articled to an architect at the age of 16. However, he ran away and joined some strolling players at Ashburton. The Monthly Mirror said that his first role with the players was as Carlos, in 'Revenge'.

The Georgian Era, vol4, London, 1834, p415

The Monthly Mirror, vol17, London 1804, p291

*Other accounts suggest 1764, and a William Dowton was baptised at St Sidwell, Exeter, in February 1755 

Later he spent 36 years at Drury Lane

The Rise of the  Victorian Actor, Michael Baker, Routledge, Oxon and New York, 1978, rep 2016, p110                                                                                                                  

In 1848 Mary Dyer Arscott, of Buckfastleigh, took out an affiliation order against Thomas Trist, also of Buckfastleigh. James Pethybridge testified that they were a couple, visiting 'Cooke's Circus, at Ashburton, the Totnes races, and other places of amusement.'
Western Times 10 June 1848, p6 col4


September 1851 Several Ashburton people took the excursion train from Newton Abbot to London (to visit the Great Exhibition?) Passengers were 'much dissatisfied' by a delay on the South Devon Railway.

Western Times 20 September 1851 p7 col3


1853. The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette speculated that businesses in Ashburton would follow the example of other towns and allow their workers 'a day's recreation' on the day following Christmas Day.

Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 17 December 1853 p4 col2


Mr Love, 'The celebrated ventriloquist', was to perform in the Market Hall in June 1860.
Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 9 June 1860, p7 col3

At the 1872 Petty Sessions P C Sampson complained to the bench about 'Shows' obstructing North Street. Recently a menagerie, some lesser shows and a shooting gallery had completely blocked the street, causing both aggrevation and danger to the inhabitants.
Western Times 22 April 1872 p3 col2

Tayleur's 'Great American Circus' arrived in Ashburton in June 1884. There was a procession through the town, and an afternoon and evening performance, held in Mr Mann's field at top of North Street.
Totnes Weekly Times 28 June 1884, p4 col4

Harry Liston, an entertainer, gave two performances in the Market Hall in early 1887. There were 'fairly large audiences on each occasion.'
Totnes Weekly Times 5 February 1887, p6 col3
Harry Liston, 1843-1929, was a 'character' comedian, singer and dancer. In the second half of the 19th century he was one of the 'Lions Comiques', a group of flamboyant men-about-town who inhabited the new opulent music halls.
Barry Anthony, The King's Jester: The Life of Dan Leno, London, 2010


                                            The Edwardian Era
Above: Postcard sent to Miss Hodge, East Street, Ashburton, in 1905. It looks as though it is Haytor.
From my own collection
'For some years before the first World War, an excellent concert party known as The Walford Family visited the town each year. They hailed from Wales, and there were some beautiful voices amongst them. I well remember their advance notices which would acclaim, "Come and hear the beautiful HYDRODACTYLOPSICHIC-HARMONICA". This consisted of a number of glasses fixed to a board into which would be poured various amounts of water. A lady would pass her moistened hands over the rims of the glasses and produce the most beautiful music, and at times in harmony.'
From the memories of Reg Andrews, born 1893.
With thanks to Dave Hodge-Brooks and Ernie Smerdon


Unidentified member(s) of the Rodgman family performing in a pantomime, 1920s
With many thanks to Nancy Frey for this photograph
for more on the Rodgman family see under Individual families 2, and under Tailors and Drapers under Banks and Businesses 3


                                                                      The 1920s

'Life was not very eventful but was enlivened by fêtes in the recreation ground or vicarage gardens, and in the winter concerts in the Town Hall. There was an amateur dramatic society which performed Charley's Aunt and some of J B Priestley's plays. The actors came from the more affluent people in the town: it was a community very much divided by the 'haves' and the 'have-nots'.

Later an amateur operatic society was formed in the town and this opened up a new dimension – Gilbert and Sullivan operas were performed. The music, the singing and the colourful costumes opened up, in a modest way, the world of theatre.

Whist drives were held frequently and in the run-up to Christmas people grew excited at the thought of perhaps winning the goose, which was the star prize. These events were held to raise money for good causes and people contributed with a generosity of spirit to help those who were in greater need.

Saturday nights were alas noisy occasions. When the thirteen pubs in the town closed fights were common events, especially in North Street. A police sergeant and a constable endeavoured to keep order but often men were brought up before the magistrate at the Town Hall the following week, and fined or bound over to keep the peace. Their names appeared in the local paper 'The Guardian' but did little to stop the trouble. Life was hard for labouring men, money scarce, and there was little respite from the daily round: so no wonder once a week they got drunk, and brawls would follow.

'Whit Monday was in those days a bank holiday and 'bottom town' would be lined with people watching the traffic coming back from the Buckfastleigh races. The lives of so many inhabitants were dull and humdrum - after the necessities were paid for there was no money left over for outings, so the stream of traffic coming from the races provided quite an entertainment. People waved and cheered at the unusual vehicles and horns were tooted to acknowledge the greetings: the shouts were especially vociferous for the dashing young men in open topped racing cars, who waved gaily and shouted in return. During the late 1920s coaches, known then as charabancs, appeared and parked in North Street. The popular trip was to Buckfast, where they could see the monks building the Abbey. Then on to Dartmeet and back to Ashburton for tea. Barnes Café did a good trace and the Card House Café was popular.'
Many thanks to Hazel Bray for the above
'As an example, in July 1927 both the Plymouth Co-operative Fleet and Embankment Motor Coach Tours were offering excursions. Plymouth Co-operative Fleet would take you to Princetown, Dartmeet, Ashburton and Buckfast Abbey for 7s, and with Embankment Motor Coach Tours you could go across the moors to the Abbey via Dartmeet, Holne Chase and Ashburton for 7s6d.'
Western Morning News, 21 July 1927 p1 col3
Above: Greenslades' 'Silent Guide' excursions.
Undated. From my own collection

'We unravel as we travel.......Never before, while travelling, could so many know so much about our country in so short a time.'

A 'Locator' fitted onto Greenslades' coaches, displayed a sequence of numbers. Each number corresponded to a brief description in the booklet of a place on the tour–'It may be found helpful to read about the next place on interest after leaving the previous point.'

14 Ahead C6 says: 'Following the long descent of Hazell Hill, we approach Ashburton, an old market-town (and one of the 'Stannary' towns of the Moorland mines) possessing a fine old Church. The River Yeo is crossed and we enter by North Street. Here, at No. 10, we pass the quaintly-slated house decorated with the 'pips' of a pack of cards, aptly named 'Card House.' Ashburton saw stirring times during the Civil War, and was captured by General Fairfax. Here also is a fine old grammar school with a tower like that of a church.'                                                                           

Left: The Card House Café
From my own collection

Below: Detail from 10, North Street, showing the design of suits of cards in the upright slating.
My own photograph 2015


                                                              Going to the cinema 

In 1919 at the Petty Sessions Mr S E Walford was granted a 12 month license for cinema shows at the Market Hall (now known as The Town Hall).

Western Times 28 February 1919 p9 col4


When The Market Hall was sold at The Globe Hotel, Newton Abbot in 1927, the sale particulars stated 'The Council Hall is at present let as a cinema to Mr. H Burrows at a weekly rental of £2'.

See the 1920s section of the Virtual museum

At a meeting of Ashburton Urban District Council, Mr Shellard complained about the opening of a cinema at the top of East Street,
Western Times 11 January 1935, p12 col7

In 1936 Mr Newlands was the proprietor of the cinema at the Town Hall
Western Times 26 June 1936, p7 col5

In 1938 Mr Johnson enquired about hiring the Hall for cinema shows 3 times a week
Western Times 11 November 1938, p8, col6

Above: Later this building in Mill Meadow was used as a cinema*
*Labelled as The Ritz on the Ashburton Town Scheme map
Grants for the restoration of Historic Buildings, Dartmoor National Park Authority and Teignbridge District Council, undated but circa 1970

                                                                     A Grand Ball

'My Nan was Joan Pearson, who was born in 1931.
I know that she was not allowed to go to a ball at the Golden Lion, which had a glass ceiling somewhere in the building. She put either syrup or treacle on the toilet seats, and then watched the ladies attending the ball in their big gowns get stuck to the seats! Apparently she got into a lot of trouble for that.'
Many thanks to Rachael Knox for the above.



In 1946 Ashburton held a horse show and gymkhana, at Mr Tuckett's Higher Headborough Farm.

There were prizes, including a silver cup, sideshows and refreshments - but owing to bread rationing, there were no teas on the field.

Schedules were available from Mr G B Soper of 42 East Street.

Western Morning News 3 August 1946 p1 col4


                                                                     The Studio Theatre  

In 1949 the Western Morning News printed an article about the creation of the Studio Theatre by Moyra Babington. For a year it had been the home of the Buckfast Players, a group that had been formed during the war to entertain the troops.

The theatre, which opened in June 1948, had taken 12 months to complete. It was converted from a barn cum carpenter's shop, situated on a road leading from West Street to Moyra's house. Measuring 20 by 55 feet, it was 25 feet high.

Next to the barn, and adjoining the stage, was the garage for the house – a clue to the fact that it was not only used as a garage came from the words on the entrance, 'Stage door'. When there was a performance, the car was moved out, and the garage became dressing rooms, complete with partitions and mirror-covered walls. An old beach hut served as the box office.

 Above: Advertisement from the Official Guide of Ashburton, undated but 1950s

The theatre boasted a lighting panel, and spotlights attached to the beams. At least one spotlight was constructed from an old oven and bull's eye glass from a car headlight. The exit light, which was demanded by regulations, was housed in a box which had been used for transporting poultry – it had been labelled 'Live chicks, with care'.

The green curtains, which were made of hessian, had been dyed piece by piece in a dustbin.

The theatre could seat 110, and 72 of the seats were tip-ups.

Western Morning News 26 October 1949, p2 cols 4-6

Moyra Babington, full name Eileen Moyra W. Babington, was born in 1913, the daughter of Ernest O. Babington and Audrey (nee Tanner). In addition to teaching, and setting up the Studio Theatre with her husband Arnold Parker, she was also a Westward TV presenter, had a cookery programme, and wrote a book, 'West Country Cooking' in 1971. In latter years she lived at Rothley, West Street, and died in 1980.

Many thanks to Brian Jones, who has a family connection to the Babingtons, for the above information. He would be interested in contacting living relatives - please contact me in the first instance.

Marriage of Ernest O. Babington and Audrey H. Tanner, birth of Eileen M. and marriage to Arnold Parker in 1945 -

For more on Ernest O. Babington see the Virtual museum, 1910s section.

Left: The old Studio Theatre. Originally a thatched barn, it was constructed with two foot thick walls, and enormous beams that had been cut by hand.

My own photograph 2013
A story from the 1980s, if true, suggests that theatre going became less popular in Ashburton with the passing of the decades.
Allegedly The Plymouth Theatre Company toured the area with a production of The Golden Pathway Annual. It was quite an undertaking: six actors took on twenty parts, and the scenery took 10 hours to erect. Free tickets were offered, and posters were put up in a publicity campaign. The venue seated 200, but only one man arrived to watch the performance. This was an improvement on a previous performance of The Winslow Boy, where nobody had turned up at all.

The Mammoth Book of Losers, Karl Shaw, Constable and Robinson Ltd., 2014, under 'Least Successful Opening.'
The Pleasures and Treasures of Britain, A Discerning Traveller's Companion, Daivd Kemp, Toronto and Oxford, 1992, p48