A new exhibition at Crediton Museum this summer will explore life in Crediton in the mid 18th century before, during and after the Great Fire of 1743 which destroyed much of the town centre. One of the central exhibits will be an unusual map of the town, completed just before the fire, as project leader Tony Gale explains.
Everybody loves maps. And there’s an exceptionally detailed map of Crediton dating from 1743. Not only is it very detailed: it’s unusual in other ways, too.
This map shows all the buildings as they would have appeared from across the street – giving us an amazing opportunity to see what the town looked like at that time. There are grand Georgian townhouses standing alongside rambling old cob-and-thatch buildings, market stalls straggling along the High Street and fine details like sundials and weathervanes on some of the houses. And as you can see from the snippet shown below, several personal names appear on the map – giving us extra information about people living here then.
The map was completed a few months before the Great Fire of Crediton. So, it’s a time capsule. What’s more, annotations about the fire were then added to the map. When two sheets of the map were rediscovered some years ago, local historians thought it had been drawn up as a record of the fire.
But - why would anyone have gone to so much trouble mapping what had been destroyed? How would they have remembered all those amazing details about each building? When another sheet of the map was discovered about fifteen years ago, the penny dropped. The map had been made for a totally different purpose earlier in 1743, and it had originally covered the whole of the town, not just the area affected by the fire.
Sadly, two sheets of the map – covering the East Town – are still missing. But the sheets we do have are, arguably, among the best 18th century maps of Devon.
The map is not the only source of first-hand information about the Great Fire. There were newspapers in 1743, and they carried dramatic reports of the fire and news about how the community worked to get back on its feet.
Another novel feature of the times was fire insurance – local policies give us lots of details about the properties which were insured and the occupations of people who lived and worked in them, along with occasional glimpses into the world of poor families living in the courts lying behind the main streets.
Our exhibition pulls together information from all these sources and more, presenting a picture of life in Crediton before, during and after the fire. We’re working with local schools who have been studying different aspects of the story; their work will form an important part of the exhibition.
We will have some interactive exhibits – including a zoomable copy of the map, and an opportunity to listen to tales of how local people might have experienced these difficult times. And we have unearthed some fascinating and unexpected stories about people, places and events which might surprise you.
You will see Crediton in a different light.
We’ve published a book which will tell some of these stories in more detail, along with some extra features on life in 18th century Crediton.
The book costs £15 in paperback or £25 in hardback and can be bought at the museum or by emailing the museum.
The exhibition opens on Wednesday 19th April and will run until October.
The museum is open from 10am to 4pm on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and 11am to 1pm on Saturdays.