When asked to write a book with ‘Secret’ in the title (Secret Barnstaple in this case), one of my first thoughts was to wonder what ‘secret’ meant in this context. Obviously if an event was really ‘secret’ neither I nor anyone else would know about, so it would be rather difficult to write a book on the subject!

The war memorial located in Rock Park, erected in 1922

In the context of history, however, ‘secret’ presumably means all the history you do not know, which is inevitably rather a lot and varies from person to person. Many people are not interested in history at all, so for them it is all a secret and many others are only interested in particular periods, people or places. My colleague, Denise Holton, and I were asked to write ‘Secret Barnstaple’ a book about local history. Many people are interested in their local and family history (especially people who buy history books!), but we knew from previous writing and from leading town tours, that there are many facts and even some physical remains of the past that are not well known. There are also well-known ‘facts’ and assumptions that are wrong. So, although we knew, or could find out, these things they were still ‘secret’ from many in the local area. We, therefore, went ahead and wrote Secret Barnstaple, hoping that enough of our information was ‘secret’ to make it an interesting read.

One fascinating aspect of these ‘secrets’ is how many are ‘in plain sight’ but not noticed. There is a tree in our local park which has a plaque in its roots from 1919 when it was planted to commemorate the end of the First World War. Despite walking through the park many, many times over the years I had not noticed it and I suspect very few other residents have.

The bust of Charles Sweet Willshire, erected after his death

Then there are the forgotten people – and even those famous in their day are soon forgotten. There is the bust of a Victorian gentleman in the Square at Barnstaple and it is usually assumed that it is of William Frederick Rock, a nineteenth-century benefactor who is still remembered because he gave the town a park, still called Rock Park in his honour. But the bust is of Charles Sweet Willshire. It was erected, along with the nearby fountain, after his death in 1889. At the time the local paper reported that it was the largest funeral North Devon had ever seen. He had been a well-like local councillor for many years, a magistrate and a leading light in the local Liberal Party. He was known to the Liberal leader, Gladstone, and had been deeply involved in the organisation of the party.   He had no children and there are now very few in the local area who have heard of him. But at least there is a permanent reminder of him for those who discover why the bust and fountain are there. There are no doubt many who were just as famous in their time, especially if they lived before the publication of local newspapers, who are now completely forgotten. It seems quite likely, with so many records easily available due to modern technology and the enormous interest in family history, that many of these forgotten men and women will now be discovered and remembered once again.


Denise Holton and Elizabeth Hammett's new book Secret Barnstaple is available for purchase now.