FORTY YEARS OF LOCAL HISTORY :

PETER THOMAS

Wednesday, 10 April 2019 at Jurys Inn

Peter told us he came from a humble background and started work at 14 in a lumber yard in Melbourne Street.   His luck was his mentor/godmother, Doris Aldridge, a very cultured woman, who taught English folk songs and dance and then went to teach them in America.  There she bought a camera and in 1950 brought back photos which she displayed in villages all over Devon.  She also had her own radio programme “Auntie Dorie of the BBC”.

 

Inspired by her, Peter bought a camera for £41 and became obsessed with photography.  He also developed an interest in natural history and used to rush home from work to watch the Natural History documentaries by Peter Scott of the World Wildlife Fund. Peter remained all his life greatly enthusiastic about natural history and very concerned about danger to animals, birds etc.

 

After five years he moved to the Devon Camera Centre and worked in the photographic trade for many years developing a passion for the history of photography.  He created a museum on the top floor, with 1,500 cameras and related equipment.  His biggest camera measured 6’x3’x6’.  This he bought for £5 from a printer who was about to smash it up as obsolete!

 

He was fascinated by magic lantern slides and came across one of Captain Scott which

presented to Peter Scott of Slimbridge who had not seen it before.

 

In 1974 the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (now called RAMM) invited Peter to put on an exhibition of photographic equipment in the large ground floor gallery.  He felt images were needed on the walls so asked a client in the shop, Henry Wykes, if he would lend photos for the exhibition.   He found 42,000 glass plates in boxes in Wykes’s basement photographic studio and he realized this was a history of Exeter that no one had ever seen.  In due course he acquired the whole collection.  This became  the basis of the Isca Historic Photographic Collection, covering Exeter’s history from 1850 to 1974.

 

Also in 1974 Exeter University asked him to mount an exhibition and the then Mayor asked to use one for his Christmas cards in 1975.   The collection now includes paintings, photos etc with 300-500,000 items.  

 

In 1976, then 29, he went to Mexico to visit WWF projects.   He actually organize staying alone for ten days on an uninhabited island, sleeping in a hammock, eating barracuda, drinking coconut milk – and swimming with turtles.  He took masses of photos (in those days one had carry all the gear and up to 50 rolls of film!).

 

Returning home he started writing articles in the newspapers about how the Council were destroying Exeter.  He was labelled “an angry young man”!

 

“ASPECTS OF EXETER” contained historic photographs showing changes in Exeter from medieval times to the post-war era, with a text written by Jaqueline Warren.  A copy was sent to Prince Charles and was subsequently exhibited in London.   The official book-signing was the biggest ever seen in Exeter and showed how interested people were in the history of their city.  This contradicted what Exeter Council was doing – pulling down old buildings!

 

A Dutch publisher asked him to produce a book of picture postcards of Exeter.   These can be very special as often only about 12 prints would be produced by the photographer himself.    Then, in 1984, “Exe Estuary and its Wild Life” was published with text written by Peter’s friend Stan from the RSPB.

 

In 1986 Peter was asked to be Exeter’s first Tourism Promotion Officer.  He met with businessmen to discuss tourism development but was lambasted by 120 people who all hated the City Council!  He then made individual appointments with many and after about a year they became helpful.  Peter had previously created the Exeter Guides and given them very strict and careful training as everything they said had to be impossible to criticize!  There were 40 guides and were called “Red Coats”.

 

In 1987 was the great walk-through “Exeter Exhibition” at the Rougemont covering 2,000 years of Exeter and a local history gallery was created in the Museum called “Exeter In Old Photographs”.  This was visited by 20,000 people.   Meanwhile the Exeter Ship Canal had not been forgotten.  “River Exe Cruising” gave five-hour trips with commentary by Peter with 200 people on board. 

 

But Exeter had no major historical event then so the “Exeter Heritage Weekend” covering 2,000 years was created.  Red coat guides in real costumes were dressed as characters from history.  The pageant proceeded through the city and in the Exeter Castle and Rougemont gardens were tournaments and craft exhibitions.

 

Forty different tours of Exeter were created.  The catacombs were defunct then, but Peter organized a one-day visit to them.  Thousands queued to get in, so it was turned into a regular event and the fees were used to improve the catacombs with new railings etc.

 

In 1982 official war-time records turned up, so Peter produced a book based on these.  At that time, he also worked for magazines with pictures of Dartmoor etc.   Then WHSmith wanted a book on “100 years of Exeter”.  This led to a commission to produce “Images of Devon” – he travelled 10,000 miles around the county for it.  Subsequently he produced one for Dorset called “Dorset Moods”.  He also worked on “ Devon Today”, and recently “Cadhay Today and Yesterday”.

 

Peter was amazed to find how many people knew nothing of the war effects on Exeter so he gave a talk on “The Bombing of Exeter” with video of the Blitz.  At the end the audience were totally silent and unmoving and when people did get up to go, he noticed that many were in tears!

 

He discovered the studios of John Shapland and produced a book and an exhibition on Shapland and then came across the fine lantern slides from the Tremlett brothers – another book.

 

Peter decided to publish his own books and created ExeterBooks.com.  He also produced drawings in a book with Characters & Personalities and then in 2011, a book “Topsham- Historic Port Photos” (from Topsham Museum’s archive) with scenes around the estuary.  This led to a DVD which was shown in the open air in Exeter. The whole of Princesshay was taken over for “Photography World”, which included a display of “John Shapland, Exeter’s Last Artist” and a diverted Lamas Fair procession, as well as a mention in “Flog It".

All talks are on the second Wednesday of alternate months (February, April, June, August, October & December).                                          All meetings start at 7 pm and are held at JURYS INN, Western Way, Exeter EX1 2DB.                                                                  Free parking is available from 6pm in the Triangle Car Park at the rear of Jurys.                                                                                Walks/visits are usually on the second Wednesday of alternate months (January, March, May, July, September November). 

Print Print | Sitemap
© exeter local history society