by Pat Keenor
READERS have been sending letters for publication in the North Devon Journal since it was founded in 1824.
All human life can be viewed on those letters pages – the political wrangling, the pleas for help and thanks for help given, the complaints and praise, the gentle reminders and strident messages, and all manner of comments on life as it is lived in North Devon.
Some may make you wonder if the writer is actually sane, some make you nod in sympathy, some are heart-wrenching, others anger-inducing.
And it has been the same for 190 years. Of course, topics change. The Journal doesn’t get many letters these days about the Charge of the Light Brigade or the need to remove piggeries from suburban streets.
But substitute the campaign in Afghanistan for the Crimean War or the blight of litter for the blight of piggeries and the sentiments are very similar.
Now Peter Christie – local historian, Journal columnist and compiler of the Journal’s Yesteryear page – has selected and commented upon letters written to the newspaper between 1824 and 1874.
Sir – Letters To The Editor Of The North Devon Journal 1824-1874 is a fascinating insight into the subjects that exercised the minds of our ancestors.
The book is divided into sections covering topics as diverse as work, poverty, crime, the railway, religion, punishment and education.
Then there’s the section titled The Demon Drink. In 1832 a W Clinton, of Torrington, opined: “Intoxication is insanity from choice; there is little difference between the insane man let loose for a while from his chains, and the pretender to reason rioting in the temporary madness of debauchery.”
Strong words, but written at a time when beer houses, many extremely rowdy, were springing up in towns and villages throughout North Devon.
A WD Clinton, of Torrington – possibly the same man as above – wrote in the same year to complain about cock-fighting in the town at the Vernon Inn. He bemoaned the fact that the parish sexton had lent the inn some church benches for the charity school children to sit on for the event.
Prostitution was another crime that stirred up the letter writers. “A Tradesman” wrote to complain about the number of prostitutes who gathered on the platform of Barnstaple station to meet the 11pm train.
Education was on the minds of many readers. One correspondent was upset at the syllabus of the Barnstaple Girls’ Blue Coat School.
“It appears that these girls, instead of being allowed to learn what they can while at school, are employed every day, and all day long, except half an hour, in making the clothing for the 60 boys of the adjoining Blue School, as well as their own.” Imagine the furore if anything similar happened today!
These are just four examples of a host of letters, made all the more interesting by the background information given by Peter Christie.
Here we learn about the wrangling over a site for the new Barnstaple Pannier Market, disagreements over the proposed new railways for North Devon and the need for workhouses.
The book is a history lesson in its most entertaining form.
Sir – Letters To The Editor Of The North Devon Journal 1824-1874 by Peter Christie. Published by Edward Gaskell Publishers. £12.