Modbury in the 1900’s

Kelly’s Directory in 1914 described Modbury as ‘a small but important market town and large parish. Built on the slopes of a rivulet which runs into the river Erme, the town consists of four streets, intersecting at right angles; it is 5 miles south-east from Ivybridge station on the South Devon section of the Great Western railway, 5 miles east from Yealmpton station from which a service of motor omnibuses run in connection with the trains for Plymouth.

The town is supplied with water by conduits from several springs, and has been lighted with gas since 1865. The church of St. George stands on an eminence, and is a fine embattled structure in a Gothic style of the 13th and 14th centuries with a spire 134 feet in height, and containing a clock and six bells.

Near the church once stood the ancient priory of Modbury, founded by the Champernowne family as a cell to the Abbey of St. Pierre Sur Dives, in Normandy, and dedicated to St. Gregory. There is a Baptist chapel, founded in 1791, with sittings for 260 persons, and a Wesleyan chapel. The Literary and Scientific Institute, in Brownston street, founded by Richard King in 1840, is a building of stone, with Doric columns and portico, and has a good sized billiard room.

The cattle market is held on the second Monday in every month, and is largely attended. The stock fair is on 4th May (old St George’s Day). Woollen serge was formerly manufactured here, but the trade is wholly discontinued; agricultural pursuits now form the chief employment of the inhabitants’.

Modbury was a vibrant town of 1200 people supporting over 60 businesses and shops catering for most of people’s needs – boot maker, baker, butcher, draper, grocer, as well as providing essential services – wheelwright, saddler, agricultural implement maker.

213 men from Modbury answered the call to arms and served during the First World War. Many of those who served would have been educated at the Modbury School in the late 1890s and early 1900s. A history of the school complied by Gordon Waterhouse in 1981 when he was Headmaster, gives a good account of school life in the early 1900s and shows how the hardship of life at the time helped to prepare them for the demands of the front line a decade later.

In the Victorian era, school was until the age of 14 and divided into separate boys and girls schools with approximately 70 in each school in 1912. However, by 1919 the numbers had dropped to a total of 98. Daily attendance was affected by many issues, such as a father being out of work and unable to afford the ‘school pence’, harvest and haymaking being of greater importance and the usual bout of epidemics of scarlet fever, measles, whooping cough and diphtheria. In 1891 the school was closed for 2 weeks in mid-March because of heavy snow. Later that year, School Payment was stopped under the Free Education Act. In 1901, 2 girls went to an orphanage in Bristol as both their parents died and 3 boys went with their mother to the Kingsbridge workhouse.

Some boys worked regularly before going to school, starting at 6 am and struggled to stay awake during lessons – ‘He is so tired that I cannot get him to do any good work’ wrote one teacher about George Fox in 1903. Some were injured at work, most notably Sydney Tall, who in 1892 had part of his foot off in a hay- making machine and missed 6 months of schooling. Discipline was strict and the school punishment book records frequent use of the cane for disobedience, insubordination and misbehaving.

Fred Toms, who served in WW1 and died in WW2, is possibly in front row