Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Topsham: The Historic Port of Exeter

Fishermen on Topsham Quay, 1907
Cover image, reproduced with author's permission
The Topsham Bookshop has copies of the new photographic archive book Topsham: The Historic Port of Exeter (Peter D Thomas, Thomas Castle Books, pb 27cmx20cm, ISBN 978-0-95168207-4, £19.95).

I have to admit that my heart sank on hearing that there was to be another Topsham photo collection. Historical photographs of Topsham tend to focus on endless retreads of particular picturesque scenes and folksy local character shots. My particular pet hate is the omnipresent image of "old Dick", "Urchard" and "Noll" holding up the largest salmon caught on the Exe. It combines maximum folksiness - the working people of the past stereotyped as gurning rustics - with the traditional bias of viewing local history via superlatives: focusing on the biggest / best / most famous about a place, rather than what was a typical picture of life there.

However, I was very pleasantly surprised. The largest salmon and its minders do make an appearance in Topsham: The Historic Port of Exeter, but this book is far wider-ranging. The 250+ photos - many newly-restored - draw partly on the author's own collection, and partly on largely unseen images from the collections of Topsham Museum, the Westcountry Studies Library, and private collections, to give a broad picture of the activities, trades, and changing environment of the town.

While many of the images are picturesque, the author doesn't shy away from showing Topsham "warts and all"; alongside wonderful pictures of sailing ships on the Exe, long-closed shops, haymaking, and the usual shots of local working people and Topsham-associated celebrities such as Vivien Leigh, it also documents the more mundane aspects of the town's history and even the grimmer ones.

The opening of Topsham Water Works, bottled lager being loaded on the quay in the 1950s, and the building of the motorway bridge are there. And the past gets even more gritty, with Odams' Manure and Chemical Factory, the shabbiness of Ferry Road in the 1930s, a dancing bear as street entertainment, and flooding on the Underway in 1974. The picture of the gruesome display at White's Family Butchers - pigs propped up looking at the camera, heaps of giant ribs, and a row of carcases with the organs hanging out and decorated with twists of fat - is a powerful illustration that "the past is another country".

This makes all the difference between nostalgic past, and balanced documentation of social history through images: and this book impresses me as the latter.

Sections include: Aerial Views, The Estuary & Foreshore, Exeter Ship Canal, The Quay, Ferry Road, The Ferry, Local fishermen, Strand and Dry Dock, Fore Street, High Street, The Station, Around Topsham, People, Business and Shops, The Holman Family, Miss Dorothy Holman, Vivien Leigh, and Topsham Museum.

Topsham: The Historic Port of Exeter is available from Topsham Museum, The Topsham Bookshop, Darts Farm, the Turf Hotel and Waterstones, or direct from Thomas Castle Books (

- Ray

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