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The Devon village that made itself into a museum

an old photograph of rad with a old tree in the centre of it

Church Road, Bishopsteignton, circa 1907. Courtesy Bishopsteignton Heritage Trust

Bishopsteignton Heritage on how an unexpected legacy transformed a local museum into a bustling village heritage hub

Bishopsteignton Heritage in Devon is only just beginning to piece together the story of their mysterious benefactor, Molly Coombe.

A quiet and retiring individual, Molly lived in the South Devon village all of her life and bequeathed her house and wealth in order to transform the village’s Museum of Rural Life, a collection of mainly farming implements, which since 1980 had occupied a the first floor of a former school building which still serves as a community centre.

Molly’s idea was to create a new museum in her house – but her will stipulated that the money, which amounted to £1.5m, should be used for the good of the community.

Since her death in 2007, several attempts were made to realise her vision – including a novel plan to build a surgery in the grounds of her former home and use the rent to support a museum. But the vagaries of probate, planning and the museum’s lack of legal status meant that the house/museum idea never came to fruition.

Photograph of Molly Coombe as a young girl in a garden

Photograph of Molly Coombe as a young girl in Bishopsteignton. Courtesy Bishopsteignton Heritage Trust

a photo of a pony and trap driven by two men

G Wills pony & trap milk delivery. Courtesy Bishopsteignton Heritage Trust

a photo of a large grop of boys in uniform and hats in a band

The school band, early 20th century. Courtesy Bishopsteignton Heritage Trust

After years of legal wrangling, the old Rural Life Museum had increasingly come to rely on a very small number of volunteers and, with almost no visitors, it closed in 2014.

By 2018, 10 or so years after the death of Molly Coombe, Bishopsteignton Heritage Charitable Trust took the bold decision to create a digital, online archive and make the village itself, together with its residents, the museum.

The legacy that Molly left has enabled Bishopsteignton Heritage to build two houses and use the rent to engage specialists to lead the creation of a unique digitised archive which tells the story of the village and its people and through a local history centre at the community centre known as “the HUB”, together with a website and social media accounts which are available for anyone to contribute to and access for information.

The HUB operates as a drop-in facility and archive repository for the village’s stories. People come in to share and research their histories, and many of them then get published on the Bishopsteighton Heritage website, which is now a growing treasure trove of local stories and sometimes international stories.

“When we floated the idea, we had a meeting and people came along with their photographs and stories, “says Yvonne Hellin-Hobbs who has been driving the project since its inception. “We wanted to keep these digitally so the website has become like a virtual village museum. But I was surprised when they went for the idea to be honest.”

a black and white photo of a football team

Bishopsteignton Football Team mid 1930s. Courtesy Bishopsteignton Heritage Trust

black and white photo of people riding on a horse and cart

Going to the Polls 1945. Courtesy Bishopsteignton Heritage Trust

As villages go, Bishopsteignton is quite a lively place of about 2,500 people, on a hillside with the river Teign flowing through it to the sea. It boasts four pubs, lots of musicians and upwards of 80 different societies – from quilting to an outside art group. The village also has a history that stretches back beyond the medieval period with connections to the Bishops of Exeter.

“It’s a really active village,” adds Yvonne. “It’s a fun place for all generations; we have a village festival every two years that takes over the village green for two days. And I can honestly say the whole village has taken the HUB on board.”

It was Yvonne’s idea to explore how the vast paper archive of the museum could be brought alive and used as a vibrant resource that people could actively use to develop their own stories and contribute to its history.

“What we did was separate everything into subjects and as we found photographs and deeds we put them into relevant boxes – there was a lot of stuff about historic houses, the football team, the bowls team, the Gourd family who had the transport business.

“There are maps, loads of photographs, photos of the village carnival, which started mid last century, and we started making connections between all of it.”

For the last year people have been accessing this information and contributing to it in the HUB. “I don’t know of anything like this anywhere” adds Yvonne of the innovative facility which is not only proving a hit with villagers but forging connections with people throughout the world with links to Bishopsteignton.

“A woman from Australia who came to the HUB with her family last year has now written several articles for the website about her family who were Blacksmiths (their forge is now the local public toilet),” she adds. “We need more stories like this because it’s a project for the local community and so far it’s worked – it’s happening.”

two men in boxing ring mounted on a trailer pulled by a tractor

A boxing match on the back of a tractor pulled float courtesy of the Ring of Bells Boxing Club. Courtesy Bishopsteignton Heritage Trust

a photo of a bunch of people in fancy dress holding flowers

WI carnival winners. Courtesy Bishopsteignton Heritage Trust

Prior to Covid-19 the HUB was a buzzing space, but the enforced break has allowed work to begin on remodelling the centre and the addition of new facilities and research tools. The British Newspaper Archive is one of the organisations BH subscribes to, and Yvonne says they are seeing a spike in interest in local architecture.

“A lot of people are interested in the buildings – we have a couple of John Nash houses, and that history still runs through the village. There are a lot of young families in the village now who live in old houses.”

As well as being an initiator for research and website stories for this vibrant and active Devon village, the HUB is also the source for information boards that share photographs and stories for visitors and villagers alike. They are also now looking into the possibility of a phone app so that when people walk around Bishopsteignton or into a building, they will be able to access the stories digitally.

Another current project is the digital mapping of the 1939 census against a map of the village as it is now, so people can see who lived in their house on the cusp of wartime. A further wartime project explores the story of HMS Argonaut – a WWII battleship with local connections that played a role in D-Day, and there have been digital projects for VE Day as well.

“There’s a lady who I talk to regularly, who is now in her eighties who remembers all the boys coming back from Dunkirk and her mother making pots of tea for them,” adds Yvonne of another wartime connection.

“Her grandfather was a church warden who had 16 children who have gone all over the world – and some of them send stuff over to us. Bishopsteignton has many widespread families with interlinked stories. Robert Graves’ sister lived here for a while as the local doctor, which we discovered because the local museum at Teignmouth sent us a picture that her sister painted and we started researching.”

As to Molly Coombe, the reclusive benefactor whose generosity led to this innovative experiment in local museum-community engagement, her story is slowly being revealed in the Hub too.

a photo of two women at a window with lots of cats

Molly Coombe (right) with cats and an unidentified woman. Courtesy Bishopsteignton Heritage Trust

black and white full length first world war portrait of a man in soldiers uniform

Molly’s father, Philip Coombe, during the First World War. Courtesy Bishopsteignton Heritage Trust

photo of a dispay case made out of wood holding cap badges, photos and medals

Philip Coombe Military Memorabilia Display

Molly had kept a collection of letters, postcards and photographs, among them letters from families that her father Philip Coombe had written to as an officer during the First World War to tell them their son had died in the war.

“They will leave you in tears,” says Yvonne, “they are handwritten letters from the families who had written back to him and they are just heart breaking. There is also a case of badges from her dad and we have his medals, but the archive is mostly paper.”

Their archivist, Imogen has now catalogued about 800 of approximately 1600 items in the Molly Coombe archive. Her father Philip became a local builder who constructed the first new homes outside the village – a series of detached bungalows on the outskirts. He became a rich man and head of the Parish Council.

But thanks to her legacy it’s his shy and reserved daughter, Molly, who will go down as one of the village’s most illustrious residents – and the person who allowed the story of the Bishopsteignton to be unlocked and shared. Thanks to her the HUB has now been running for over a year and Yvone feels that Bishopsteignton Heritage has now confirmed its presence in the village.

“Many of the older residents of the village remember Molly Coombe and were very concerned about the eventual outcome of her legacy,” adds Yvonne. “We were pleased that several of them have commented that she would be very pleased and proud of what we have achieved in the past two years, and we hope it is a fitting memorial to Molly and the rest of the Coombe family.”

a photo of a teddy bear in a knitted green outfit

Molly’s teddy bear. Courtesy Bishopsteignton Heritage Trust

Explore the Bishopsteignton Heritage website and get involved at www.bishopsteigntonheritage.co.uk

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