Kingsley Museum

Charles Kingsley Museum Charles Kingsley Museum

The great Victorian writer who loved Clovelly

As you walk down the cobbled street, watch out for the signboard of the New Inn, one of Clovelly’s two hotels. A short distance beyond it is the Kingsley Museum.

The writer and social reformer Charles Kingsley (1819-1875), author of ‘The Water Babies’ and ‘Westward Ho!’ came to the village in 1831 at the age of 11. His father was curate and then rector until 1836, and Charles and his two brothers enjoyed an idyllic boyhood in and around the village. Clovelly and North Devon were a powerful and lifelong influence on Kingsley, and he returned here time and again for literary inspiration.

Until the middle of the 19th century this region of the West Country was still remote and unknown to the outside world.  It was partly as a result of ‘Westward Ho!, set in and around the village, that visitors began to come for holidays in North Devon and to see the places Kingsley described so powerfully. This is how he pictured Clovelly as it was over 150 years ago:

"Suddenly a hot gleam of sunlight fell upon the white cottages, with their grey steaming roofs and little scraps of garden courtyard, and lighting up the wings of the gorgeous butterflies which fluttered from the woodland down to the garden."

A moving recital by actor Joss Ackland

Enter the museum and you’ll see Kingsley sitting at his desk in his study composing a letter to his bride-to-be. Listen to the celebrated actor and Clovelly resident Joss Ackland recite one of Kingsley’s most famous and moving poems, the story of three fishermen’s wives waiting in vain for their husbands to return during a terrible storm in Bideford Bay (the full text is given below). It is a stark reminder of the harsh realities faced by fishing communities. There are also two rooms with informative displays about Clovelly’s history and Charles Kingsley’s links with Devon, and a shop where you can buy a souvenir of your visit.

If you detour down the side of the Kingsley Museum to visit Fisherman's Cottage, you will see how basic life was, even in the 20th century.

'The Three Fishers' (1851), by Charles Kingsley

‘Three fishers went sailing away to the West,
Away to the West as the sun went down;
Each thought on the woman who loved him the best
And children stood watching them out of the town.
For men must work and women must weep
And there’s little to earn and many to keep
Tho’ the harbour bar be moaning.
‘Three wives sat up in the lighthouse tower,
And they trimmed the lamps as the sun went down.
They looked at the squall, and they looked at the shower,
And the night-rack came rolling up ragged and brown
But men must work and women must weep
Tho’ storms be sudden and waters deep
And the harbour bar be moaning.
 
‘Three corpses lay out on the shining sands,
In the morning gleam as the tide went down,
And the women are weeping and wringing their hands
For those who will never come home to the town.
For men must work and women must weep
And the sooner it’s over, the sooner to sleep,
And good-bye to the bar and its moaning.’