On Saturday, October 17th, a small working group of volunteers cleared the grave of Albert Best, located just to the rear of the surviving chapel in the Old Cemetery.
Albert Best was born in Teignmouth in 1840 only 25 years after the Battle of Waterloo and lived here his whole life, the final 20 years being at 32 Bitton Street.
He started work on his 14th birthday, serving a seven year apprenticeship to become a plumber, and later set up on his own, establishing a family business. His firm became a major employer in the town in his lifetime and a testament to this is an extract from the Teignmouth Post in 1919:
“At the supper to demobilised and discharged men last week, 28 of the men that sat down are employed by the firm of A Best Ltd., Plumbers, Builders & Contractors of Somerset Place”.
The firm later became J.G. Best and Sons, Builders and Ironmongers at 11 to 15 Somerset Place. That business finally closed down in the late 1970’s.
Although he started as a plumber it is clear from the range of activities he undertook that that profession had a much broader meaning at that time. His plumbing origins are still in evidence in Teignmouth. If you walk around looking at the ground beneath your feet you will occasionally find cast-iron drain or manhole covers with the mark of “A.Best Ltd”.
But he would also make lead coffins and perhaps this part of his business benefitted from being located close to the mortuary at Gales Hill. There is an interesting anecdote in the book “The Benedictine Nuns of Dunkirk” which involves Albert Best taking part in nocturnal activities at St Scholastica’s Abbey off Dawlish Road, helping with the coffin of the Abbess.
Hi firm also built the Shaldon memorial clock tower, erected in 1921 to commemorate the twenty-six local men who had lost their lives during the First World War.
However, probably the pinnacle of his professional career showed a transition into large scale engineering. As the 20th century got underway, his firm won a significant contract in conjunction with W Hawking of Dawlish. The project was to create Venford Reservoir in a beautiful segment of Dartmoor, just above the village of Holne.
The project started in 1901 and formally opened in 1907. It holds approximately 198 million gallons of water, covers around 33 acres and provides Paignton’s water supply. It must have been a proud day when a granite plaque bearing the name of A Best & Co was fixed up and the reservoir officially opened.
If Albert Best were just a plumber and engineer his contribution to Teignmouth’s life and development would have been worthy of historic note in its own right. However, he also had outside interests which occupied much of his spare time.
He spent much of that spare time on voluntary work for the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a Friendly Society formed to provide members of the working classes with a form of insurance against sickness and unemployment. Weekly contributions were paid by members into the Lodge and benefits paid out when required.
He was also a member of the Yeomanry Volunteers from 1860 to 1884, coming out as a Sergeant. He was in the Devonshire contingent that marched past Queen Victoria at the Windsor Review in 1881.
Finally, inadvertently perhaps, he became an amateur social historian. He did this through keeping a diary from 1865 until a week before his death in 1920. The diaries have been collated and published in three volumes by his great-great nephew Alan Best who has commented: “When he started writing there were people who could still remember the Battle of Waterloo, when he died there were people born who are still alive today.”
Part I of the Diaries covered the period from December 1865 to the end of the century. It is in A4 format size, 128 pages long and contains supplementary notes taken from newspapers of the time, and a list of some 150 recorded deaths. Part II is similar in construction and covers the period from 1900 to 1913. Possibly the most interesting volume though is the third which captures Teignmouth during the pre-war period through to the Great War’s conclusion and its immediate aftermath.
As a personal observation, the entries in his diaries tend to be quite a succinct and pragmatic, or factual record of his day-to-day activities. It is interesting that he didn’t take the opportunity to offer much by way of opinion about the events taking place, such as the bread riots in Teignmouth for example or his nocturnal adventure at St Scholastica’s Abbey. Perhaps local running clubs would like to take up the challenge of the race he described from the Teignmouth Inn in Dawlish to the Dawlish Inn in Teignmouth! I was also intrigued that he wasn’t married. As a successful businessman you would think that he would be quite a catch in the Teignmouth of his day.
Plumber, reservoir builder, businessman, philanthropist, social historian – that was Albert Best.
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