“It is not every day you finally find the Holy Grail, but to those studying the history of St Nicholas Priory, it certainly feels like we have.
Miss Tothill was the curator of St Nicholas Priory from 1916 until 1938 and is well known as the lady who kept the ravens in the garden. However, what is not known to most is her constant striving to improve the Priory, from searching for relevant objects, to raising donations to have a statue of St Nicholas placed in the building.
She also kept a personal scrapbook containing a vast amount of information about what was happening at St Nicholas Priory during her 22 years there, with everything from dozens of unique photographs to letters written to her and even information on famous visitors such as Thomas Hardy.
The scrapbook first came to light in 2009 during a search through St Nicholas Priory documents at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum. Among those documents, some letters were found from Jacqueline Warren – the last curator of the Priory (1959-1973) to John Allan, then a curator at the museum from the late 1980s. In those letters there were a couple of references to a ‘scrapbook’ and two photocopied pages from it in rather poor state.
Knowing that this document, if it still existed, would be the single most important find of recent Priory history we were ever likely to get, I started searching. John Allan could not recall much about the book, which made me believe Jacqueline Warren’s family may have had it. But then, I had no way to contact them. Over time I feared it would never be found, or may have been lost forever.
By serendipity, I gave an online talk about St Nicholas Priory this spring, and by pure chance, Michele Berry, a daughter of Jacqueline Warren, attended the talk and afterwards started corresponding with me. Then I was put in contact with her sister Nicole, who had inherited the document. Thus, I was presented with copies of the Scrapbook, which has now been donated to the Devon Heritage Centre for all to see and study.
Sometimes even the longest searches turn up the best finds.”
Ben Clapp works at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, and is a trustee of Exeter Historic Buildings Trust.