Totnes Museum

This museum is housed in a wonderful old Elisabethan merchant’s shop and the sense of the passing centuries inside it is powerful: the flooring is wide oak planks, it has a Devon Pole Staircase, that is, a spiral stair winding round a central pole that is thought to have come from a Man-o’-war ship in the great days of sail. One room features dark, heavy Jacobean furniture which includes a tester bed – just imagine trying to lift it! And there is a mediaeval kitchen, while outside at the rear of the museum there is a compact, charming and well-stocked herb garden which features some of the plants that would have been used in the kitchen: parsley, thyme, rosemary being the chief of these. 

But what fascinates me most is the Charles Babbage room at the top of the building. Totnes claims the brilliant mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage as a ‘son’ since he spent some parts of his youth being educated in Totnes. Charles invented the ‘difference engine’ a machine designed to do accurate calculations as he had noticed many errors in hand-written accounts. And later he designed the ‘analytical machine’ as an aid to analysis. His young friend Ada Lovelace - and she is not a Totnes resident but the only legitimate daughter of the poet Lord Byron, and whose mother had forced her to study mathematics and science - met Charles Babbage when she was 17. Ada was extremely bright and realised that the analytical machine could probably do more than analyse; she made algebraic calculations and saw that it could possibly be programmed for other functions. She was thinking especially of musical composition, but because she understood it could be programmed to do specific tasks she is now considered to be the ‘mother of programming’ where as Charles is considered to be the ‘father of the computer’.

Many years later the wartime code-breaker Alan Turing came across Ada’s extensive notes and possibly they may have helped him break the German encryption as he did at Bletchley park. I mention this only as an example of how one thing can lead to another!

The museum also gives credit to Totnes’ historical prowess in Ship-building and engineering: the former firm of J.L.Larrad, engineers, produced the Larrad Lock Nut which was used in the construction of Brooklyn Bridge.

This is one of the delights of visiting museums, finding out about the way things relate not only to a defined locality but also to the wider world. Like most small museums Totnes museum depends a great deal on volunteers to run it and also like many small museums it is only open from spring to the autumn. But if you happen to be lucky enough to find yourself near Totnes in those seasons do visit this marvellous small museum. It’s well worth it, and as an extra bonus you might just encounter the resident ghost which is claimed to haunt the building…

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Gill McEvoy

Gill McEvoy moved from Chester to Devon in 2017. Three pamphlets from Happenstance Press: “Uncertain Days”; 2006, “A Sampler”, 2008; and “The First Telling” 2014 which won the 2015 Michael Marks Award.Two collections from Cinnamon Press: “The Plucking Shed”, 2010 and “Rise”, 2013.
She is a Hawthornden Fellow, has appeared on Sky Arts TV speaking about free verse as opposed to formal verse; was Artistic Director twice for “Chester Oyez!” the spoken word section of Chester Literature Festival, and is now a member of Company of Poets in Devon.