Sunday, 9 February 2014

Hoping for yet another museum with a maritime link

Fairlynch Museum and Arts Centre: its Local History Group meets in the picturesque 19th century building 

Not surprisingly Devon has many local history societies - I’ve counted about 60 mentioned online - and that figure doesn’t include useful aids to research like Fairlynch Museum’s Local History Group or the Otter Valley Association's wonderful Ovapedia which you can consult at


Fairlynch’s Local History Group has the privilege of meeting in one of East Devon’s historic buildings, first owned by 19th century shipowner Matthew Lee Yeates whose supposed silhouette can be seen above.   

This Exmouth and Devon General Bank document dated 1 July 1809 bears Matthew Lee Yeates' signature

That seems appropriate, given Budleigh Salterton’s coastal location. In fact Mr Yeates was really a businessman who took one risk too many.  With commercial partner William Good he launched the Exmouth and Devon General Bank on 12 October 1809, moving to Budleigh Salterton and the splendid home which he had built and which we now know as Fairlynch Museum and Arts Centre. Sadly, his enterprise failed in 1815 and Yeates ended up as a Unitarian minister. You can read about him at  

Over in our sister-town of Brewster on Cape Cod I hear that the local historical society has the opportunity of making its base in an equally historic building which belonged to just as interesting a character as Mr Yeates.  

Brewster is renowned for the splendid houses built by its 18th and 19th century sea captains, formidable characters whose ocean-going careers led them into extraordinary adventures.

Take Captain Elijah Cobb for example, pictured above. Born in Harwich, Massachusetts, on 4 July 1768 he first commanded the ship Brewster, and is arguably the Cape Cod town’s most famous sea captain. His first voyage as ship’s master to Europe coincided unfortunately with the French Revolution of 1789. The vessel was seized by a French privateer and its cargo of  rice and flour was looted to feed the starving populace. Cobb successfully bargained with Robespierre for release of his impounded ship and cargo and then stayed in France long enough to witness the politician’s execution, one of 1,000 guillotinings that he watched.
 Further tricky situations arose during his voyages around the world, involving bribery and on one occasion rum-smuggling between Ireland and the Scilly Isles. And of course there were the difficulties caused by the Napoleonic War and the 1812 conflict between the US and Britain.

The Preedy window in All Saints' Church, East Budleigh, commemorates the heroism of Admiral Preedy
Here in East Devon he is matched only by our own Admiral George William Preedy (1817-94), who settled at Knowle on the outskirts of Budleigh after a naval career in which he captained HMS Agamemnon, one of the two ships involved in laying the first successful transatlantic telegraph cable. Read about him at  
Sadly, unlike Brewster’s historians, we have not managed to locate a portrait of the Admiral, the centenary of whose birth I’ll be celebrating in a few years’ time, on 9 March 2017. 

After his eventful life at sea Captain Cobb retired to Brewster in 1820. He took on various administrative posts in the town, serving as a JP, as state Representative and Senator. He was even awarded a military rank as a Brigadier General.
His house on Lower Road, Brewster, was built around 1799 in the classicising Federal-style architecture popular in North America between 1780 and 1830 and often referred to locally as a 'square-rigger' or 'captain's house.'


Its features include a ‘widow’s walk’, where the captain’s wife might watch for her husband’s return from sea.  Just like the thatched belvedere that you see here on Budleigh Salterton’s Fairlynch, built just a little later but in a rather different style! 
And it’s the Elijah Cobb House which is now on the market in Brewster and which my friends in Cape Cod believe would make the perfect museum. Coordinator of The Brewster Historical Society’s New Home Acquisition Committee is author Sally Gunning. “Brewster, the Sea Captain's Town, doesn't currently offer a single sea captain's home that is accessible to the public,” she writes. “The Brewster Historical Society would like to change that, while at the same time assuring the preservation of this historic property and securing a permanent home - at long last - for our museum and our collections.”
I wish them every success in their project. You can read all about it at

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