Great Torrington Heritage Museum

Great Torrington Heritage Museum

The history and heritage centre of Torrington

Featured exhibits and histories

Glove making

The glove making industry around Great Torrington dates back to the early 16th century and developed amid thriving wool and leather industries in the 17th century, increasing through to the 19th century as the town’s major source of employment. Cutting was originally done by hand using shears while much of the stitching was done by women and girls at home, the cutting, checking and selling being done by the owner.

Rolle Canal

In the late eighteenth century, various alternative routes were under construction for a canal to carry coal and limestone inland from the port of Bideford to improve the productivity of the acidic agricultural land. Eventually John Rolle engaged the engineer James Green to build a canal and in 1823 work commenced, cutting a route up the west side of the Torridge valley towards Great Torrington.


Pottery has a long history in Great Torrington  as illustrated by the discovery of a post-medieval pottery kiln at Castle Hill during the construction of houses in 1989. Stacked towards the back of the kiln were quantities of broken pottery, a near-complete jug and three complete saggers. The finds from this discovery have since been on display in Museum along with more recent pots and jugs.

Local inventor Thomas Fowler and his early computer

In 1840 Thomas Fowler produced a mechanical calculating machine, which could possibly be described as an early computer, using balanced ternary arithmetic for the calculations. The machine has not survived to the present day, however using a 2 page description written by the prominent mathematician Augustus de Morgan at the time, a replica was constructed by a team consisting of Mark Glusker, Pamela Vass, and David Hogan. The completed model was presented to the Great Torrington Museum in August 2000.

Click to visit BFI and see the film

Exhibit of the week 7

Silent film of the Great Torrington May Fair 1953, from the BFI (British Film Institute) archive. 

This exhibit is a bit of a cheat as it’s not our property. I found this in the process of researching another topic for the town and thought I would share it with you. Perhaps you will recognise your younger mum, dad, grandma or grandad in this film. They certainly seemed to go faster in those days. 

Great Torrington’s May Fair is an annual folk festival dating back to 1554. On the first Thursday in May, the children dance around the maypole set up in Market Square at the heart of the town. A May Queen is elected and a procession with attendants ensues. A banner with Us Be Plaised To Zee ‘Ee welcomes one and all. The town is traditionally decked in bunting and decorated with sprays of yellow gorse flowers. 

Fairs cease during the Second World War but come back with more enthusiasm than ever in the post-war rationing period and into the 1950s. 1954 marks the end of rationing in Britain.

(Text from BFI website)

See past Exhibits on this page