100 Years of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission

On this day in 1917, a Royal Charter was given establishing what is now known as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). The cemeteries and graves the Commission look after can found across the world.

The Commission was the brainchild of Sir Fabian Ware who, being too old to fight in World War One, commanded a British Red Cross mobile unit. Whilst serving in France he realised  the need to mark the places where the fallen were buried so they would not be forgotten. By 1915 his work and that of his unit were recognised by the War Office and in 1917 they were given a Royal Charter and the Commission was officially formed.

The Commission had identified around 587,000 graves by 1918 and nearly as many registered casualties whose graves were unknown. After the end of the war the Commission set about creating the cemeteries and memorials we most associate the Commission with today.

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Leading architects of the day were called upon to help design the cemeteries and gravestones and Rudyard Kipling was brought in as literary advisor for the inscriptions.

Twenty years after the Commission received it’s Charter, Ware wrote a book about its work called The Immortal Heritage – An Account of the Work and Policy of The Imperial War Graves Commission during the twenty years 1917-1937. The book includes a brief history of the Commission, alongside pictures of the cemeteries they created and a table showing the distribution of the cemeteries, graves and memorials in their care.

The cemeteries and memorials to the fallen can be found all over the world and include graves and memorials to servicemen and women from North Devon. Men like Jack Haysom (18) who died in India in 1915 whilst serving with the Devonshire Regiment; Serjeant Ernest George Symons of Landkey who was killed at Gallipoli and Lance Corporal Edward Brayley (31) who died during the Battle of Dujailah in Mesopotamia. All were buried in war cemeteries looked after by the Commission.

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The Commission, however, also look after graves much closer to home. In 1937 the Commission were looking after over 88,174 graves across 9,262 burial grounds within Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Barnstaple has 27 World War One graves, Bideford has 15 and Ilfracombe 21 and there are many others scattered across North Devon.

The cemeteries and graveyards of North Devon also contain the graves of those who fell in other conflicts. Barnstaple has another 22 World War Two war graves, including 2 civilian war dead. Wilfred Cater is one of those buried in Barnstaple after he died in training as an RAF Volunteer Reservist in 1941 aged 42. His Brother, Frank, had survived the First World War having seen action with the Royal North Devon Hussars at Gallipoli  before transferring to the Royal Flying Corps and subsequently the Royal Air Force.

13th January 1916 3 b-c RNDH At Gallipoli

Heanton Punchardon has the largest number of war graves in North Devon – 127 in total. The churchyard at St. Augustine is the burial-place for many of the men who were lost from RAF Chivenor during the war. Many of them were members of the Canadian and Australian Air Forces and they also include Czech servicemen who were part of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserves.

No matter where the graves and memorials are located the Commission are charged with their care.

Find Out More

Find out more about the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and Sir Fabian Ware by reading the following items we hold on our shelves

The Silent Cities by Sidney C Hurst [940.4411/HUR] is an illustrated guide to the war cemeteries and memorials in France and Flanders published in 1929

The Immortal Heritage by Fabian Ware [940.411/WAR] published in 1937 is an account of the first twenty years of the Commission

…Barum Athena


The North Devon Journal Archive

The largest collection we hold by far is the archive of the local newspaper the North Devon Journal. We hold some 133 volumes of the original newspapers which cover over 120 years of news and events in the North Devon area.

North Devon Journal

The Journal was first published in July 1824 and we hold the first full year in hard copy – the only known copy left in the country. We then have a complete run of the newspapers from 1853-1980. We also hold copies of the newspapers on microfilm from 1824-1988 which are available in the public area alongside the more current films which the local studies library look after.

We also hold 29 volumes of North Devon Herald newspapers which was a rival newspaper set up in 1870 and was merged with the Journal in 1941 to become the North Devon Journal-Herald. Some of these copies are the only ones known to have survived.

Journals in Stack

Bound volumes of the North Devon Journal on our shelves. Many of them are now too fragile to handle and so microfilm substitues are used so we can protect the originals for as long as possible.


In the 1980s a project under the auspices of the Manpower Service Commission saw a group of people index the newspapers by hand and create a subject index covering the years 1824/25 and 1853-1895. A surname index was later created by one of the librarians using the original index. While the index has been superseded by the online version of the newspapers, the subject and name index is still useful for finding articles within the newspapers by subject, parish and name.

North Devon Journal Index

More recently volunteers and staff have produced a separate index to the Birth, Marriage and Death notices in the Journal and we now have indexes covering the years 1824-1857, 1868-1876 & 1880-1949. The index is particularly useful when searching for elusive ancestors and possible reports for marriages and funerals which can provide a mine of information on both the person and their family.

The largest section of the archive is the images collection. We hold thousands of glass and film negatives from the Journal which provides a unique and fascinating window on the North Devon area. The Journal started publishing images in its pages in the early part of the 20th Century and used a local photographer to supply them. By the 1940s and 50s they were commonplace and the Journal had its own photographers.

The glass negative collection was given to us in 1983 and contains 5,774 negatives covering the years 1946-1959. In 2011 a grant from the Bideford Bridge Trust allowed us to have them digitsed. These images can be searched and viewed – in a low resolution format – on our online images and NDJ catalogues.


When the Journal moved from its old premises in Barnstaple High Street to Roundswell in the mid 2000s we were given thousands of film negatives covering the year 1963 – 2003. Further grants from the Bideford Bridge Trust allowed us to digitse all of the 1960s and 70s negatives and most of the 1980s and early 1990s negatives. In 2012 we released 2,545 images from the 1960s collection onto the catalogues and we are still in the process of indexing the 4,678 images from the 1970s. We also have some 11,346 individual images covering the 1980s waiting to be indexed and 3,633 images from 1990-1992 awaiting indexing!

In total we have some 27,885 digitised images as part of the North Devon Journal image collection with thousands more waiting to be done as part of a massive future project.

The negatives and digitised copies are all store in date order allowing us to search them by date even without a full index.

Find Out More:

You can find out more about the history of the North Devon Journal by reading our Brief History of the North Devon Journal post

Discover the images we hold via our online catalogue

Visit us to see the microfilm copies for free.

…Barum Athena


Dornat’s & the Bridewell

We received a slightly unusual item for our archive collection this week. It has, however,  a particular connection to the building we now occupy. In fact you could say the item has actually found its way home.

Soda Syphon

Dornat’s Soda Syphon dated 1942

The item in question was a soda water syphon from C.C. Dornat & Co. whose factory once stood on the site the library now stands. Dornat’s mineral waters company moved to the buildings which made up the factory in 1870 having been established in around 1860 in a smaller building on the corner if Holland Street and Paiges Lane a few hundred yards or so away. The buildings had originally been part of a much older institution, the Bridewell or Parish Poor House.

The Bridewell was established in the first half of the 17th Century and was designed to be a place to house the poor of the parish. It is believed there were just a few small buildings which served the purpose to begin with, but over the years these were added to.

The buildings housed spinning wheels and looms used by the inmates to produce serge which was sold on. Another of the buildings within the Bridewell was used to store and distribute coal to the poor who lived in the town paid for by the income from the poor rate.

By the early 19th Century a school run by Dr Bell was established within the complex of buildings which now made up the Bridewell. The school taught children from the poorer families in the town and could well have taught the children of the inmates. A master or caretaker of the Bridewell may also have lived in a building on site during this time.

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Aerial View of Castle House with Dornat’s just behind and the Castle Mound to the right [BSPF-A3-02-061]

It also housed a small number of prisoners by this time was well. In 1824 there were references in the North Devon Journal to a number of prisoners being kept in one of the buildings which comprised a few small rooms with no way of isolating them from one and other. This practice ended in 1829 when a new prison opened on the Square.

Under the Poor Law Act of 1834 the old parish poor law system was replaced and in 1835 a new Barnstaple Poor Law Union was created who oversaw the building and running of a new workhouse in Alexandra Road.

There are several references in the Barnstaple Borough records (now held by the North Devon Record Office) to the Bridewell. Many of the references concern repairs to the buildings and the payment of money to those charged with running the Bridewell. After the poorhouse was closed it was leased to Messers. Hiscock and Maunder who were wool-combers and serge makers and it is possible they used any spinning wheels and looms left behind.

The business ran into trouble and in 1867 a bank in Bristol repossessed the property and tried to sell it an auction without success allowing Charles Camille Dornat to purchase it in 1870 for a bargain price.

Dornat was originally from France and moved to England sometime in the 1850s. He was a chemist and apothecary and could speak up to 7 European languages. Other business were also based on the site including a blacksmiths which caught fire in 1879 causing severe damage to the property. The insurance, however, allowed Dornat to make improvements to both the building and equipment used to create their drinks  and by the end of the 19th Century they were producing an estimated 1,000 bottles per day.

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Dornat’s from Castle Green [Birchall Bx04-015]

Charles Dornat died in 1883 leaving his daughter Annie and son-in-law Charles Youings in charge of the business. The family originally lived on-site before moving to Litchdon House, just off the Square, and turned it into the Imperial Hotel, which they later sold. Following their deaths in 1922 the business passed to two of their sons Charles Camille Dornat Youings and Horace Youings.

During the first part of the twentieth century electricity was installed, machinery upgraded more than once and motor vehicles replaced the horse-drawn carts used to transport their goods. The Second World War saw Dornat’s do its part for the war effort. They produced soda water and fruit drinks for the hospitals and nursing homes and started to bottle beer from some of the London Brewer’s whose bottling plants had been damaged in the bombing. They also bottled Pepsi for the American troops stationed in the area.

After the war the machines were in need of some serious repairs and in 1951 they were replaced completely. The factory continued under Charles’ son Richard after his death in 1965 until 1980 when Richard Youings decided it was time to retire.

A few years after the closure of Dornat’s the building was demolished and in 1988 the new library building which now stands in its footprint was opened to the public.


The Library Building from Castle Green [BSPF-A4-07-0423]

Further Reading:

Rosemary Akers and Owen Friend: The Barnstaple Bridewell and Dornat’s Mineral Water Factory: North Devon Community Publications (Barnstaple, 1991) DP362/BAR/AKE

B.D. Pidgeon: Dornat’s Mineral Water Maunfacturers & Beer Bottlers: B D Pidgeon (Bideford, 2008) D663/BAR/PID

Thomas Wainwright & John Roberts Chanter: Reprint of the Barnstaple Records vols 1 & 2: JR Chanter & Thos Wainwright: (Barnstaple, 1900) D900/BAR/WAI

…Barum Athena

Chivenor & the Torrey Canyon

Today marks the 50th anniversary of RAF Chivenor’s involvement in the effort to prevent the oil pouring out of the stricken tanker, Torrey Canyon, drifting to land. In the days leading up to the Torrey Canyon’s grounding the local newspapers reported on several vessels being caught out in the rough seas and holes being punched in sea walls.

On the 18th March 1967 the Torrey Canyon ran aground near the Seven Stones off the Isles of Scilly after trying to take a short cut. The stranded ship then started to leak it’s 120,000 ton cargo of oil into the sea causing an environmental disaster.

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The editor of the North Devon Journal-Herald called it a nightmare as the councils of North Devon made plans to deal with any oil which came their way. The coastguards based at Hartland started an around-the-clock vigil looking for any sign that the oil may be heading for the North Devon coast.

On Tuesday 28th March some 26 Hawker Hunter jets from R.A.F. Chivenor were scrambled to help in a plan to sink the Torrey Canyon and deal with the oil by setting it alight. The Royal Navy had already bombed the stricken ship itself to set it alight and sink it, the jets from Chivenor were tasked with dropping 5,200 gallons of fuel on the tanker and surrounding area in a bid to keep the flames burning and burn off any oil in the area.

By the time the first pilots reached Hartland Point, they could see the flames from the Torrey Canyon in the distance. There were dozens of light aircraft and helicopters in the area around the ship, meaning their mission was in the full glare of the public eye.

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The hunters dropped their load on the already burning oil, Squadron Leader Peter Martin told the Journal-Herald “The smoke was fantastic. When we arrived it was rising to about five miles high and then leveling off. Our fuel attack seemed to be having its effect and the sea all around the tanker was on fire. But it did not spread to the oil slick further out to sea.”

On the way back from their mission they looked out for any signs the oil may be heading to the North Devon coast, but thankfully there was little or none past Newquay.

By the beginning of April the worst fears of the North Devon councils were eased as the weather station at Chivenor confirmed there had been a change in wind direction which pushed the oil away from the coast.

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The Torrey Canyon disaster was the first major oil spill from one of the new breed of oil tankers and changed the way the ships were regulated and the way in which oil was cleared up after such an incident. In a bid to return the beaches back to normal as quickly as possible before the tourist season started in earnest, detergent was used to clean the beaches in Cornwall. This, however, caused more damage to the local ecology than the oil itself. The beaches which were treated with detergent took over ten years to recover, whilst those which had the oil scraped off and/or were left just as they were to allow the oil to break down naturally took only 2 to 3 years to recover.

The councils of North Devon were prepared to use a combination of detergent in the sea to disperse the oil before it hit land and booms across harbours and river estuaries to prevent the oil from causing damage to both the local environment and the tourist trade the area depended upon. It must have come as a great relief when the wind changed, driving the oil away from North Devon.

The oil affected beaches all along the Cornish peninsula, northern France, the Islands of Scilly, Guernsey and even reached as far as Spain. There is still a reminder of the disaster in Guernsey where a quarry was used as holding tank for the oil that was cleared up from around their shores. The oil was still there in the early 2000s when attempts were made to break down the oil. Whilst it was a partial success, the oil which remains still acts as a lasting reminder of the disaster which has changed the way we deal with oil spills and inspired a generation of environmentalists.

You can find out more about the role played by RAF Chivenor and the impact the disaster had on the local area by looking through our Chivenor Collection and reading the articles published in the North Devon Journal at the time. Details of both can be found on our website.

…Barum Athena

Nancy Drew: An Investigation

We have had Indigo on work experience with us this week and she has been using both Ancestry and Find My Past, which can be accessed via our partner department (the North Devon Record Office) to find out about her ancestors in other parts of England, starting with her Great Grandmother Nancy Drew…

This week I have been looking into my family history, we started with the basic information that I already knew and tried to delve into my heritage.

We started with my Great-Grand parents, Nancy Drew (born in the Wandsworth area) and John W Woolston (born in St Albans) they married in 1941 in the Bishops Stortford area. Having three children Jennifer Woolston, Carol Ann Woolston and Anthony John Woolston (twins).

Nancy’s parents were Marian Milburn and William H F Drew, Marian was born in the June qrt of 1892 in st. Saviour, Southwark and William was born in the September qtr of 1881 in Greenwich, they got married in 1913 in Lambeth.

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St. Albans Abbey, Hertfordshire

John’s parents, Arthur Stanley Woolston (born 23rd November 1889 in Harpenden) and Daisy Wright (born 18th May 1888 in Watford), were not as easy to find. Despite their best efforts to elude us we did find out that they lived right next door to each other! Although we couldn’t find a marriage certificate for them we think this is how the two met, Arthur living at 141 Queen’s road (Watford) and Daisy living at 139 Queen’s road, Arthur was a grocer’s assistant and Daisy was a cash desk clerk in possibly the same grocer, falling in love over the counter!

Using the General Register of births, deaths and marriages we found out Arthur’s parents were Henry John Woolston, 1863 – 1931, and Kate Jordan, 1865 – 1960, who were married in 1887 in London. Arthur was one of five children we found using the census; Daisy Kate, John Douglas born 13th April 1892, Walter Lionel born 30th January 1897, George Leslie born 14th August 1899. Daisy Kate and John Douglas were both born in Middlesex whereas Walter Lionel, George Leslie and Arthur were born in Hertfordshire.

Daisy’s Parents were Charles Wright born 1846 in Aston Clinton, Buckinghamshire and Sarah Matilda Crawly born 1849 in Tring, Hertfordshire. Charles was a carpenter by trade, and was already a carpenter’s assistant by the age of 15! Charles and Sarah had nine children including Daisy, Min(n)ie Louisa (1882), Lilly Bertha (1885), Hilda May (1893), Annie Eliza (1870), Frances Sparkes (1876), Charles H (1876), Harry (1878) and Maud J (1880) and Daisy. All the children were born in Watford, Hertfordshire.

We also found out that Annie Eliza must have married a man with the surname Ellison as she had a least two children: Violet (Voielet) Edith Ellison (1896) and Charles Herbert (1899), while she was with her parents in the 1901 census who had both been born in Middlesex.

Charles parents were Thomas Wright (1822), born in Aston Clinton, Buckinghamshire and Eliza Wright (1824) also born in Aston Clinton, Charles was one of five (again) children these included: Henry Wright (1849), Rebekah (Rebecca) Wright (1851), George Wright (1853) and Ann C Wright (1858). Henry and Charles were born in Aston Clinton, Rebekah, George and Ann were all born in New Mill Tring Hertfordshire.

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Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire near Tring, where some of my Drew ancestors lived

Sarah’s, (who we think was known as Matilda when she was younger), parents were James (1815) born in Tring, Hertfordshire and Ann Crawley (1825) born in Awnes, Buckinghamshire. Sarah was one of  five children we found using the 1871 England and Wales census, Eliza (1843), Emma (1844), Charlotte (1846) and Jane (1850) all the children were born in Tring, Hertfordshire except for Eliza who was born in Luton, Buckinghamshire.

Having found out that many of my ancestors were from Hertfordshire I used some of the many books the Athenaeum has to find out some interesting facts about the area, one of which being William the Conqueror was crowned there by Fretheric, Abbot of St. Albans in 1066! I also found out that there is a possibility that Caesar may have been to the area and surrounds in B.C. 54. The area around Tring used to be one of the centres of the straw-plait industry, the plated straw was sent from Tring to Luton where it was used to make hats – this is why the Luton football team is called the Luton Hatters. The area of Watford had a population exceeding 20,000 by the time of the 1901 census, one of the biggest (if not THE biggest) town at the time. The third printing-press in England was set up in St. Albans which like Barnstaple has laid claim to being the oldest borough in England.

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Some of the books I used to find out more about where my family lived

To find out more about the resources available through both the North Devon Athenaeum and North Devon Record Offices visit our website and follow the links to the South West Heritage Trust and our catalogues

…Barum Athena

Behind the Scenes…Shelving Project part two

Monday was the big day for the shelving project as the installers arrived with the new shelving early in the morning.

By mid morning one side was completed and the other under way and looking very smart and by lunchtime it was all done!

All that was left for us to do was to clean the new shelving down and fill it with our document and newspaper collections.


It took a team of four to put everything onto the new shelves on Tuesday and the result was well worth it.


Our newspapers can now lie flat on their shelves, and the documents boxes are no longer piled on top of each other. There was also space for us to place the RAF Chivenor Collection onto individual shelves rather than storing them in boxes which were too large and heavy for one person to handle. This means the collection is now more accessible to both staff and users.


The work to improve the way we take care of our archival collections doesn’t stop with the shelving project. We can now start to plan and carry out a programme of replacing the old boxes with new archival ones, reducing the weight of the boxes (some of which are rather heavy!) and ensuring they items are just generally better stored. While we repackage the collections we will also be able to assess which items are in need of some tlc by conservationists and if there are any items which need more specialist storage.

Part of our Lethaby Collection is already in archive boxes and we hope the rest will be stored in archive boxes in the near future (Lethaby was a prolific writer and some of his boxes are amongst the heaviest on our shelves!)


This post wouldn’t be complete without a few before and after pictures side by side to really appreciate the changes, nor would it be complete without thanking those who were involved with the project. The staff of Rackline who provided the shelving , CDL Southwest our contractors who took away our old shelving and laid the groundwork for the new shelves, and last but not least, a huge thank you to the staff and volunteers who helped to move all the collections and newspapers.

…Barum Athena


Behind the Scenes…Shelving Project part one: It’ll get worse before it gets better

If you’ve been following us on social media you will have seen that we are closed to the public for a fortnight while we carry out some essential work in our stack.

For the last 29 years, our North Devon Journal newspapers have sat on the shelving unit which was built for us before we moved in. Over the years, however, the newspapers have shown signs of deterioration due to the conditions in which they were being kept and the document shelves surrounding them have become full.

So, over our closure period this year we are taking out the old, outdated shelving and replacing it with new archival shelving which will enable us to look after the items in our care much better.

Before we get started here are a few before images of the document area…

Before we could do anything, we had to move everything off the shelves and into other spaces within our stack. It took four of us half a day to move everything out of harm’s way and dismantle all the old metal shelving.

The following day, contractors came in to remove the old wooden storage unit which had housed the newspapers and discover what lurked behind it! This is the it’ll get worse before it gets better point of the project…

If you’re wondering what we did with all the newspapers and document boxes, they’ve been stored in the aisles between the book shelves!

The rest of this week has seen the floor and wall sorted out ready for our new shelving to arrive and be installed on Monday. Then the task of filling the new shelves can begin, visit us next week to find out how we get on….

…Barum Athena