Our History

Our History

The South Hams Society was founded in 1961, shortly after the South Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) was originally designated.

Our first Annual General Meeting was held on Monday 12th March 1962 at the Kings Arms Hotel in Kingsbridge. The 1961-62 Annual Report gives a brief account of how we came in to being.
“Almost a year ago a meeting was held at the home of Mrs Stone to discuss the advantage of forming a society for the preservation of amenities in the South Hams. There followed some weeks of further inquiries, contact was made with the Civic Trust, CPRE and Men of the Trees, and the newly formed Dartmouth Society. On 14th June a meeting was held in the KUDC office, with Mrs Stone in the chair and Mrs Morton as acting secretary. After unanimous voting in favour of a society being formed, and called the South Hams Society, a steering committee was formed with Mr. Tobey as chairman”.

Burton Tobey was a farmer from the East Prawle area who had fought in the Great War. His family had been wealthy Liverpool merchants and he originally settled in Bedfordshire before moving to Devon. His house there, Middletown, has since been demolished and replaced by the Secular Retreat, an outstanding example of modern architecture, designed by the architect Peter Zumthor.

Shortly after that first meeting on 14 June 1961, a report in the Kingsbridge Gazette dated 21 July mentions “the vigorous action that the young society has taken in its first few weeks” and mentioned an issue that will sound very familiar: “The South Hams Society has lost little time in taking action on several current planning problems”.

There was no shortage of planning issues to contend with even in those early days, and the Society was in constant contact with the local Planning Committee. Every Society committee meeting discussed such questions as inappropriate development in the shape of large caravan sites, the use of historic buildings, tree preservation orders and unnecessary felling.

There were initiatives to improve the area as well. The Society ran a tree planting scheme for several years, and provided trees from its own small tree nursery on request. The Scots Pines still standing at Curlew Point are a case in point. Primrose planting was also carried out annually on the grass banks where road widening had taken place, and many of these still bloom every year. Meetings and outings were arranged, there was regular comment on the various plans for development of the district, and contacts with other local amenity societies on matters of common interest. Membership continued to increase steadily.

Before the end of the decade the Society was to be found campaigning vigorously in opposition to a proposed airport at California Cross, near Modbury, and a formal statement was sent to the local press in September 1968. It read:
“The Committee of the South Hams Society have discussed the proposal for an airport at California Cross. The Committee unanimously agreed that as an amenity society pledged
to protect the unspoiled rural character of the district they must oppose the proposal as totally unacceptable. An airport implies large buildings, runways, added population, increased traffic and noise nuisance over a wide area. The general amenities of this fringe of Dartmoor and of the South Hams generally would be seriously injured.”

Vigorous discussions were to continue through the rest of 1968 and into 1969, and there was further correspondence with Devon County and Kingsbridge Rural District Council. Then, in the October 1970 newsletter, it could be announced:
“The decision has now been taken to develop Exeter Airport, rather than build a new one at California Cross. This is most satisfactory from the point of view of the amenities of the South Hams. It would also seem to be a triumph of common sense. Public interest in the choice of site for the airport has been high, and this has ensured that the problem has been discussed from every possible angle. We certainly did our best to point out the likely consequences of building at California Cross. Can we claim a share in a “victory”, or would reason have prevailed without us?”

Over the years such uncertainty has often continued to be the case. We cannot always confidently claim sole responsibility for preventing inappropriate development. But we can invariably ask whether reason would have prevailed without us?

However what is not in dispute is the knowledge that, for more than 60 years, the Society has succeeded in making a significant difference.