Spinster Bequeaths £1.5m To Tiny Museum In Devon Village

By Caroline Lewis | 05 September 2007
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photo of an old painted building with arched windows

Bishopsteignton Museum of Rural Life is found on the top floor of the village community centre. Courtesy Devon Museums Group

Staff at a tiny village museum that only opens on Sundays and Bank Holidays have described their surprise on finding that a reclusive villager has left the museum £1.5million in her will.

Molly Combe lived in Bishopsteignton, Devon, all her life, and occasionally visited the village’s Museum of Rural Life. However, no one at the museum expected her to bequeath nearly all of her estate to the trustees. She also requested that the museum move from the top floor of the community centre to her four bedroom house.

Curator Anne Evans found out a little bit about Miss Combe, who died earlier this year at the age of 77, when she visited her home to talk about Miss Combe donating some items to the museum. Miss Combe’s father served in the First World War, and she gave the museum his medals, diaries and letters.

“She was a very private person,” she explained. “Very few people knew much about her. She never married. To look at her in the street you wouldn’t have known she was any different from anyone else.”

Miss Combe owned several properties in the village that her father had built, and was reputed to look after her tenants very well. She stipulated in her will that the museum money had to be used for the good of the community.

a relief map depicting a village amid a patchwork of fields

A relief map of the village in 1891 that features in the museum. Courtesy Devon Museums Group

Bishopteignton Museum of Rural Life was established in two rooms of the village community centre (formerly the village school) in the early 1980s.

Anne was one of the founders, and most of the items on display were either loaned or given by locals. Artefacts range from a ploughshare to paraphernalia from both World Wars, in addition to detailed displays on local history and geography.

“I literally knocked on doors asking, ‘if it’s going to go in the bin, can we have a look at it first?’” reminisced Anne. Before a small grant was awarded for bespoke display cases, the museum made do with ones donated from shops, and it still relies almost entirely on donations for its upkeep.

One of the most unusual exhibits is a 4.5-metre (15-foot) long python skin, given to a local Reverend when he was working for a charity in Biafra.

The bequeathed money doesn’t yet belong to the museum trustees, although probate was granted in August. The museum’s Chair, Dr Roger Avery, explained that legal problems mean that the museum is unlikely to have the money for quite some time.

“We haven’t started thinking seriously about the future yet,” he said. “My feeling is that the museum would have to expand in size and scope, and I’d like to see it acting as a focus for local history in South Devon.”

Bishopsteignton Museum of Rural Life is in the Old School House, Shute Hill, Bishopsteignton, Devon. It is currently open Sundays and Bank Holidays from Easter to end of September, 2.30pm-4.30pm.

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