Thursday, 26 August 2010

Topsham Inns

Yesterday I went to the official launch of Topsham Inns: past and present by Colin Piper. Commissioned and published by the Topsham Museum Society, this booklet aims "to share knowledge about present and past times in Topsham as viewed from the public bar"; and "to provide a plug for the remaining Topsham pubs (perhaps an endangered species?)".

For those not familiar with the area: Topsham is unusual in having a high density of pubs in a village-sized area (the currently variable, "Topsham Ten") but it once, in its days as a thriving river port, had many more. The illustrated booklet documents the 9 remaining ones, 15 whose buildings are still extant in alternative use, and 14 known to exist historically.  It also includes some pub poems, and a local walk - or a "crawl" - that visits all the locations of past and present pubs listed.

Overall, this is an excellent little book for the informational content: I've been in Topsham 15 years and was unaware of many of these locations. It gives a very good feel for the connections between pubs, the town and its personalities, as well as the overall historical context of why pubs were so numerous in the past (and less so now).

But on the downside, I think it's spoiled in many areas by a lack of attention to aesthetics and detail. Aesthetically the cover is nice, but surely, for some of the modern images both on the cover and inside, it would have been possible to source ones not taken at the instant of cars driving in front of the building being photographed? The text formatting is really quite eccentric, with prominent names and locations in bold type; and the general impression is of a collection of historical soundbites with little attempt at linking narrative. The white spaces between these isolated paragraphs - often single sentences - also make the book look distinctly 'padded'.

Content-wise, the text freely mixes cited material with the uncited and often anecdotal. For example, the section on the (Lord) Nelson pub mentions Thomas Randle, who "is said to have served as a quartermaster on HMS Victory" (a factoid enshrined on his memorial by Topsham church). Randle did actually serve on the HMS Victory as a quartermaster, but not at the Battle of Trafalgar as claimed on his gravestone; he was demoted to Able Seaman two years before the battle. See Thomas Randle elucidated for full details.

Another example of insufficient research is the section concerning the old Steam Packet mural "said to depict HMS Persia ... a local maritime expert is adamant that there has been no Royal Navy ship with this name". Ten minutes with Google can get further than this non-story. I discussed it way back with the then landlord, Barry Stock, and we noted that there was an RMS Persia, but this had twin funnels). The depicted ship, however, matches any of Cunard's Clyde-built steam packets of the 1840s onward: the PS Britannia, PS Acadia, PS Caledonia and PS Columbia (see TheShipsList feature).

I appreciate that this is a booklet rather than a scholarly monograph, but as it's an official museum publication, I'd have liked to have seen less inclusion of the historically unverifiable ("it is said", "legend has it", and the like). Nor do I think the dual aims work: the promotional element for the current owners of pubs (for instance, lists of beer brands sold) doesn't sit entirely comfortably with a museum publication, and it's also detail that'll rapidly date (Addendum: October 2011 - for example, the Globe has just changed ownership, with a consequent change of ales on tap).

I stress that overall I still think it's an informative publication with a lot of good research about a little-known topic, and not at all bad value for the price, currently, of a pint and and half of beer. But I think the next edition needs better focus on a professional format, on tidying up loose ends, and on deciding what exactly it's trying to do (scholarly history vs. personal take vs. promotional booklet). The author cites Chips Barber, and the latter's works are a good example of how Devon history can be made highly readable, and enthusiastic about locations, without loss of historical rigour.

Topsham Inns: past and present, Colin Piper, Topsham Museum Society, 2010, 89 pages (ISBN 0 9524591 4 0 and 978 0 9524591 4 9). Price: £4.50, available from Topsham Museum.

- Ray

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