Devon is famous for many reasons and one of those is the surprising number of famous people, both past and present, with connections to the region.
They include Charles Babbage, considered by some to be “father of the computer”, famous crime novelist Agatha Christie, Sir Francis Drake – best known for his circumnavigation of the world in a single expedition, from 1577 to 1580, John Gay – one of London’s most renowned dramatists, and Nancy Astor, the first woman MP to take her seat in the House of Commons.
Victorian explorer, writer and translator Sir Richard Francis Burton had a particular interest in eastern erotica and translated and printed the Kama Sutra in 1883.
More current celebrities with family and home ties to the region include England captain Harry Kane, comedian Miranda Hart, and TV presenter Gregg Wallace.
Leading family history website Findmypast and their partners at the Devon Family History Society have reported a significant increase in the number of people exploring their family’s roots in the county.
When Covid restrictions were announced in March 2020, both saw interest in family history research skyrocket.
Findmypast saw the number of new users double and the number of searches performed across their vast collection of historical records rise by 60 per cent.
What is happening where you live? Find out by adding your postcode or visit InYourArea here
Genealogy used to be a laborious process, requiring careful study, cross country trips to local archives and hours spent pouring over dusty tomes.
But now, with millions of records easily accessible online along with free family tree builders, automatic hints and a wide variety of other clever tools and features, our ancestors and their incredible stories are often just a few clicks away.
Janet Few, Chairman of Devon Family History Society said: “Devon has a rich maritime heritage with shipbuilding and fishing key local industries. There is a significant Devon diaspora with many leaving the county for overseas destinations, notably Canada.
“There has been a worldwide interest in family history, as people seek to reconnect with the rich maritime and rural heritage that is a feature of Devonian ancestry.”
Here is list of just a small number of famous people with a connection to Devon:
Agatha Christie was an English crime novelist, short story writer and playwright. She is best known for her detective novels and short story collections, particularly those revolving around her fictional detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple.
She was born in Torquay in 1890, and was baptised locally.
Torquay Museum has a gallery dedicated solely to the life, novels and plays of Agatha.
Greenway House and Gardens was her beloved holiday home. It is now owned by the National Trust.
Burgh Island is well-known as the setting for Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None. The famous Hercule Poirot mystery Evil Under The Sun was filmed there. Agatha stayed at the luxurious Burgh Island Hotel.
Elberry Cove was was said to be one of her favourite little bathing spots and featured as the setting for the untimely death of one of her characters Sir Carmichael Clarke, in her famous novel The ABC Murders.
Babbage’s parents were from Totnes, his first school was in Exeter and he lived in Teignmouth. His son insisted that he was born in Teignmouth.
In the latest book on The Father of the Computer, Lucy Simister writes that while studying mathematics at Cambridge, Babbage was inspired to build a computer to aid shipping.
He kept a yacht in Teignmouth harbour and had studied navigation and knew the calculations needed to get shipping in and out of the dangerous port.
He also knew that on board every ship was a person called the computer, responsible for calculating tide times, wind speed and ships’ draft laden and in ballast, the ships position whilst on passage and other computations.
They relied on a logarithm table which was appallingly inaccurate.
Charles wrote “what a breakthrough the corrections of these tables would mean to the safety of tens of thousands of ships”.
For the rest of his life he worked to perfect a ‘difference engine’ which was the basis for today’s computer technology. Sadly, engineering was not ready for the leap forward in science.
Babbage was friends with Darwin and told the author of The Origin of Species that he saw God as a deity that was constantly changing and updating species, like a programmer allowing for the evolution of nature to replace itself with a stronger species.
Darwin agreed, saying he was coming to the same conclusion – which predates Darwin’s own theory on natural selection.
Both men were born before their time.
The Coleridge family moved to Ottery St Mary in 1760 when John Coleridge became headmaster of The King’s School.
Here he settled his ‘Tribe’ – the nickname he gave his four daughters and eight sons – who went on to enjoy distinguished careers in the Army, law, and as poets, artists, judges, bishops, and Naval, military and NATO commanders.
But it was John’s youngest son, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, born in 1772, who went on to earn his place in the history books with famous poetry works including The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
Coleridge was born in the School House in Ottery. His father John was the vicar of the parish.
Samuel was a poet, literary critic and philosopher.
An ancestor of Winston Churchill was John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, who was born at Ashe House in Devon, and baptised in 1650 in Musbury.
His father was Sir Winston Churchill of Dorset, who was an English soldier, nobleman, historian and politician, and a direct ancestor of his namesake Winston, who served as British prime minister in the 20th Century.
John was an English soldier and statesman whose career spanned the reigns of five monarchs.
From a gentry family, he served first as a page at the court of the House of Stuart under James, Duke of York, through the 1670s and early 1680s, earning military and political advancement through his courage and diplomatic skill.
He is often remembered by military historians as much for his organisational and logistic skills as tactical abilities.
However, he was also instrumental in moving away from the siege warfare that dominated the Nine Years’ War, arguing one battle was worth 10 sieges.
Originally from Barnstaple, John Gay (1685-1732) became one of London’s most renowned dramatists.
His satirical ballad opera, The Beggar’s Opera, opened at Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre on January 29, 1728, and ran for 62 nights.
Gay’s assault on the topsy-turvy morals, double-standards and self-interests of 18th Century politics and aristocratic society remains one of the few plays from that period still performed today.
Sir Redvers Buller
He was born at Downes House in Crediton on December 7, 1839. He died at the property aged 68 on June 2, 1908, of carcinoma of the gall bladder and liver. He was buried at Holy Cross Churchyard in Crediton.
His family, who originally hailed from Cornwall – were wealthy, meaning Redvers (pronounced Reevers) so he had something of a privileged upbringing.
After being schooled at Eton, he purchased a commission as an officer in the army and served with distinction in Canada and Africa.
He then won his Victoria Cross in the Zulu War, rescuing a number of comrades while under fire.
It was during this conflict that he caught the eye of his superiors.
Further promotions and service in Egypt, Sudan and Ireland followed, before eventually becoming a general in 1896 and being appointed head of troops stationed at Aldershot in 1898.
At this stage it looked as if Buller’s successful military career was winding down, so it came as something of a surprise when he was appointed head of the army being sent by Britain to what is now South Africa at the outbreak of the Second Boer War in 1899.
Not only was he 60 years of age, but many – potentially even Buller himself – thought his 10 years spent behind a desk had blunted his fighting instincts.
Nevertheless, he was soon steaming for South Africa ahead of a force which would soon number well over 50,000 men – the largest Britain had ever sent abroad at that stage.
Buller tried to cross the Tugela River with 21,000 men, but the Boers were well dug-in and well concealed. Not only did they drive the British back, but they inflicted heavy casualties.
To add to Buller’s humiliation, he was forced to abandon 10 artillery pieces which had strayed too far forwards – something for which he would never be forgiven by many.
Following further episodes at war, Buller returned home to a hero’s welcome, his early setbacks largely forgotten – or so it seemed.
He was given the freedom of Exeter and the county of Devon gave him a bejewelled sword which now hangs in the Guildhall.
Sir Richard Francis Burton
Burton was a Victorian explorer, writer and translator, known for his travels in Asia and Africa.
He was born in Devon on March 19, 1821. His father was an army officer. Burton accompanied his parents on their frequent trips abroad and showed an early talent for languages.
Burton was thrown out of Oxford University in 1842 and joined the army of the East India Company where his knowledge of local languages helped his work in surveying and in intelligence.
In 1853, taking leave from the company, he undertook a ‘Hajj’ or pilgrimage to Mecca, in disguise, and his account of this trip made him famous. The following year he explored what is now Somalia with a number of other officers, including John Speke.
In 1857, Burton and Speke embarked on a Royal Geographical Society funded expedition to explore inland from the east African coast, with the hope of finding the source of the Nile. It was a difficult trip.
When they arrived at Lake Tanganyika, Speke was almost blind and Burton could hardly walk.
Speke travelled on alone and discovered Lake Victoria, which he was convinced was the Nile’s source.
Burton disagreed and this contributed to a long and bitter public quarrel between the two men which ended in September 1864 when Speke died in a shooting which was either suicide or an accident.
Burton now joined the Foreign Office, and was appointed consul in Fernando Po, an island off the coast of West Africa.
His wife Isabel, who he had married in 1861, was unable to join him as the climate was considered too unhealthy. They were reunited when he was transferred to Brazil and then, in 1869, to Damascus.
In 1871, he was moved to Trieste, where his position gave him plenty of time to write. He was knighted in 1886.
Burton was a prolific author, mainly on travel and ethnography. He also translated classical and Renaissance literature, with a particular interest in eastern erotica – he translated and printed the Kama Sutra (1883) and The Perfumed Garden (1886). He also published a complete edition of the Arabian Nights (1885 – 1888).
Burton died in Trieste on October 20, 1890. He and Isabel are buried in a tomb in the shape of a Bedouin tent in Mortlake, south west London.
The MasterChef presenter took part in the series Who Do You Think You Are?, it turned out to be an emotional experience with tragedy surrounding different branches of his maternal ancestry, plus a mystery to solve regarding his great grandfather.
During the episode, Gregg discovered that his maternal 2x great grandmother Selina Leythorn spent time in a Devon Asylum, where she later died in 1901.
She became the first woman MP to take her seat in the House of Commons, when she was elected Plymouth Sutton MP in 1919.
Glamorous, fashionable, generous, witty, clever, and hugely wealthy – Astor (1879-1964) had it all.
She was born in Virginia, USA, but she became an honorary Plymothian.
Born into a rich family in 1879, she moved to England in 1904 after a failed first marriage.
In 1906, she met and married someone else blessed with wealth – politician Waldorf Astor.
He became the Conservative MP for Plymouth Sutton in 1910, but he had to relinquish his seat when his father died, because he inherited his title of Viscount Astor.
With Waldorf having to move ‘upstairs’ to the House of Lords, his wife decided to stand in Plymouth Sutton in his place.
She won the election in November 1919, beating her main rival, Liberal Isaac Foot – the father of Michael Foot, who of course went on to lead the Labour Party.
Her maiden speech was about the perils of drinking and in 1923, she introduced a Private Member’s Bill which raised to 18 the age qualification for buying alcohol.
Nancy died in May 1964, but is believed to still have relatives who live in South Devon.
Sir Francis Drake
Sir Francis Drake carried out the second circumnavigation of the world in a single expedition from 1577 to 1580.
Having been born in Tavistock he made his first voyage in the Americas in 1563.
In 1568 Drake was on his third expedition with the Hawkins fleet when, whilst negotiating to resupply and repair at a Spanish port in Mexico, the fleet was attacked by Spanish warships, with all but two of the English ships lost.
He escaped along with John Hawkins, surviving the attack by swimming.
Drake’s exploits made him a hero to the English, but his privateering led the Spanish to brand him a pirate, known to them as El Draque.
In 1580 he sailed the Golden Hind into Plymouth with 59 remaining crew aboard, along with a rich cargo of spices and captured Spanish treasures.
One of Britain’s best comediennes, Miranda Hart was born and grew up in Torquay where she descends from a highly aristocratic background, although she hates to admit it!
She is a fourth cousin, twice removed, of Diana, Princess of Wales.
Her father was commanding officer of HMS Coventry which was sunk by the Argentinians in the 1982 Falklands conflict, and he was badly burned in trying to escape the stricken warship.
As well as starring in a number of comedy shows including Hyperdrive and Not Going Out, Miranda is also famous for her role in her self-titled BBC sitcom, which won four British Comedy Awards.
She is also a straight actress and starred in the early series of Call the Midwife.
England and Tottenham striker Harry Kane can partly be claimed as being “one of Devon’s own” after his family tree has revealed a connection to the county.
According to Findmypast, his three times maternal great grandmother Louisa Deacon, née Damerell, was born in Exeter in 1838.
The 1920 US census shows at the age of 82 she was living with her daughter’s family in Lynn City.
With her husband, Henry, Louisa had nine children.
Harry grew up in Chingford on the East London/Essex border. The 27-year-old’s parents Patrick and Kim married in London in 1986 and come from different family backgrounds.
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