Devon Radio Presenter Judi Spiers interviews Exeter's Famous Historian Dr Todd Gray
21:25 14 January 2010
Fascists and Pasties
Dr Todd Gray is an honorary Devonian who specialises in digging up facts about the county's past, some of which make the Cornish gnash their teeth. "I'm big in Beijing!" announced Dr Todd Gray, an Honorary Research Fellow of Exeter University, Chairman of the Devonshire Association and of Friends of Devon's Archives, and President of the Family History Society, when we met recently. I can't say that I was altogether surprised, as Todd is the author of over 40 books specialising in Devon and Cornwall. I assumed it had something to do with his most recent publication, Blackshirts in Devon, which reveals Devon's alarming association with the Fascist Party. I was wrong; it's all to do with the Cornish pasty... or rather, as his research has unearthed, the Devon pasty.
"Documents show that the earliest mention of a pasty existing in Devon is 1509-10. But actually I think we can push it back to the 1470s, if not the 1460s," he told me gleefully, generously conceding, "it may just be that the Cornish one was never recorded."
The Cornish didn't interpret it as generous, and coupled with the fact that Todd is American (and we all know what another American said a year or so back about a Padstow pasty), there's been a rare old brouhaha in the media that apparently got as far as China.
His book on the introduction, rise and collapse of fascism in Devon from 1923 to 1940 is an altogether more surprising and shocking tale which he stumbled upon three years ago.
"I had been told by a group of old boys here in Exeter that they had watched the fascists here and had thrown rotten fruit at them, and I couldn't find any corroborative evidence."
Research led him to previously confidential MI5 papers and a collection of fascist documents, local, national and fascist newspapers.
Apparently, in 1923, fascism in Britain began in a Somerset garden when a local woman decided to create a party based on Benito Mussolini's Fascisti. Branches were started throughout the Westcountry, including as far west as Penzance, but the movement really accelerated when Sir Oswald Moseley opened a branch of his own fascists at Plymouth in the summer of 1933. The headquarters were at Lockyer Street on The Hoe and from there operations were masterminded to bring fascism to Devon and Cornwall.
"One of the most interesting aspects of fascism in Plymouth related to the Duke of Cornwall Hotel. MI5 gathered intelligence on the manager and his wife, Joseph and Louise Welsh, who were committed fascists. During the war they, along with their son and daughter-in-law, were party members and suspected of gathering military intelligence from naval personnel. Bebe Welsh, the daughter-in-law, was accused of taking American military men to her bedroom where she would 'entertain' them and afterwards draw out sensitive military information from them."
The four family members were removed from Plymouth on the orders of the Home Office.
Exeter became the fascist capital of the region after the Plymouth Branch collapsed in 1935. The offices were in South and Queen Streets, and Sir Oswald Moseley spoke several times in Exeter, at the Civic Hall (now WH Smith's), and William Joyce, later Lord Haw Haw, also came here and gave a weekend course to local people in public speaking on the fascist policy.
Torquay also has an interesting fascist history. One Arthur Kenneth Chesterton had come to Torquay to edit the Torquay Times and the Torquay Directory, but at some point early on in 1933 he left for London and became a leading figure in the Union of British Fascists. In the late 1960s he helped to found the National Front. When he died there was no mention in his former newspaper of his political leanings, merely of him being a 'colourful character'.
What really surprised me was the support the fascists had in rural areas. Todd explained why this was: "Fascists helped the farmers trying to reform the tithe laws - the taxes the farmers had to pay to the church. In 1933 and 1934 Blackshirts barricaded farms in Devon and Cornwall with trenches and barbed wire to stop the bailiffs, but then they suddenly withdrew their help and left the farmers to face the law on their own."
Since writing the book Todd has heard from several family members who didn't know of their relatives' past. "The chief fascist in Exeter was sent to the Isle of Wight, and his mother spent the war in Holloway prison, and a nephew wrote to say: 'Well, we were told they were pacifists and they were arrested for their own good. I didn't realise they were arrested for our own good.'
"I've had letters from other family members saying: 'I'm pleased to have the truth, because we were always told something different - it makes more sense.' But letters on the pasties weren't as complimentary!"
Todd actually became a British citizen in 2006, and I think we can safely assume he has a great love for the county.
"The more you dig the more you understand. I'm fascinated by the culture and how different Devon is from other places. The more you look at one place you can see how different it is from another. Look at Budleigh Salterton, Devonport and Hartland, for example. They don't have an awful lot in common. I mean, in the 1850s a kangaroo escaped from a country house in Sidmouth and got all the way to Budleigh Salterton. It was feted by the people there, and people came from all around to see it, and then I think he must have started to eat some of the flowers in the shrubbery 'cos they shot him after a week! And in Plymouth," - and here he told me about a Devon tradition which hasn't yet been recorded, and which I must admit as a Plymouth maid is news to me - "they have these bizarre hen nights, which have been going on for a very long time, with unmentionable things dangling from their head-dresses! You wouldn't find that in Budleigh Salterton!"