Come and explore Barnstaple’s hidden underclass at the Barnstaple and North Devon Museum. Life was very hard for working-class people during the 19th century. This exhibition reveals how little indiscretions often led to harsh punishments if you were caught – even on the streets of a country town like Barnstaple.
A rare photograph album containing the images of local Victorian men, women and children, was discovered by the local historian and author Dr Sadru Bhanji in 2009, all of whom were named. Dr Bhanji’s research revealed that all of the individuals had had their images taken at the Barnstaple jail, with each person having been arrested and imprisoned for committing crimes; including theft, fraud and embezzlement. The majority of these crimes were committed on Barnstaple’s streets, in its pubs, shops and markets.
The hidden stories from the album have now come to light thanks to Dr Bhanji’s research, and this exhibition draws on their once-forgotten stories to explore Barnstaple’s Victorian underclass.
Dr Sadru Bhanji said ‘The exhibition owes much to the chance acquisition of an album of Victorian photographs which transpired to be of some of the inmates of Barnstaple Prison during the decade beginning 1867. As all but a handful of the 98 people depicted were named, curiosity was aroused. A fruitful exploration of contemporary sources then followed and made it possible to provide accounts of the subjects’ backgrounds and criminal lives and bring back into awareness forgotten members of one of Victorian Barnstaple’s underclasses.’
Dr Todd Gray, a historian of Devon, commented ‘This is an amazing discovery. It is the earliest collection of photos of members of North Devon’s working class. Each girl, boy, woman and man was photographed to provide a record in case they re-offended and a century and a half later they allow us today to gaze at their faces and begin to understand their lives. North Devon’s past has just become a little bit more accessible. I commend the museum for highlighting such a challenging collection with its exhibition. Another great contribution from the Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon!’