The Characters Who Made Topsham What It Is Today

For residents and visitors alike, Topsham is so much more than its beautiful estuary setting, historic architecture and maritime past – it’s about characters too.
What is the story behind Nello’s Longest Table? Who is Dorothy Holman? Did you know a famous footballer lived his whole life in Topsham?

This list has been compiled and written by our friends at Topsham Museum

(1851 – 1890)

Tryphena Sparks was born in Dorset and was the cousin and sweetheart of the young Thomas Hardy. After attending Stockwell Training College she became headmistress of Plymouth Day School. She married Charles Frederick Gale, a Topsham publican, in 1877. They lived at the South Western Tavern (now the Co-op) and owned other Topsham businesses. Charles and Tryphena had four children and sadly died in childbirth in 1890. Tryphena was known for her charitable work on behalf of local fishermen, who asked to carry her coffin at her funeral. Thomas Hardy visited her grave in Topsham Cemetery, leaving a note “In loving memory – Tom Hardy.” Tryphena was the inspiration for several of Hardy’s works.


Daniel Charles Trout trained as a shipwright in the Holman shipyards in Topsham. In 1902 he was appointed Harbourmaster and his work involved berthing ships, keeping records of cargoes and overseeing the transfer of those cargoes to waiting railway trucks. In his spare time he repaired and fitted out small schooners, barges and fishing boats from his workshop on the Quay (now the Lighter Inn). In 1918, he was mortally injured when he fell into the hold of a coal barge. His workshop grew into Trouts Boatyard, still a family business a hundred years later.


Henry (Harry) Gould was a local builder. His father had been a builder before him, and it was natural that young Harry should take over the business. But that’s not all – he was a one-man dynamo, making things happen in the town. He owned several garages and ran a taxi service, served as a local councillor, was in charge of the Topsham fire brigade, opened and ran the Cosy Cinema, and helped with several local charities. He even ran an orchestra for local children!


Dorothy grew up in London. During World War I she served as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse in Paris, Malta and Alexandria and became a pacifist and Quaker. Aged 50, she moved to Topsham from London in 1939. She had roots here – her great grandfather was John Holman, the famous shipbuilder. She bought a house on Strand and after the war ran a Youth Club in the old Sail Loft attached to the back of her home. After 10 years, and ‘feeling too old and tired’ to be a youth leader, she filled the sail loft with historical memorabilia and opened a museum recording Topsham history. When she died, she left her house ‘to be the Museum for Topsham’ and it is now run as a charity with over 200 local volunteers.


Dick (Pincher) Pym was born into a Topsham fishing family and lived here for most of his life.  He joined the local football club as a centre-forward and transferred to Exeter City, where he first played as goalkeeper.  In 1923, as Bolton Wanderers’ goalkeeper, he appeared in the ‘White Horse Final’, the first cup final to be played at Wembley. He was a nationally-known figure, playing in two more cup finals and being capped for England three times.  In 1931 he retired from professional football and opened a men’s outfitters in Topsham. He fished throughout his life and loved time on and around the river.


Morice (Morrie) Parsons was born in Topsham where his parents ran the Ship Aground bakery at the bottom of Fore Street. He worked for them as delivery boy and later in a larger bakery, then at the brickworks. He is best known for his public life, initially as secretary to TAGS and later as a larger-than-life Exeter City councillor, serving for 14 years. He always saw this as an active role, and would often be seen clearing litter, planting bulbs or raising funds for local charities.


Roy Wheeler was born and lived his whole life in Topsham. He has a been called ‘a true Topsham gentleman’ and was heavily involved in local life. He was a pupil at Topsham School and later a governor. He trained as a carpenter and worked as a school woodwork teacher. In his spare time he served as a local councillor and was a Trustee of Topsham Museum and member of Estuary Players. He founded the Guided Walks and in 1988, together with his friend Morice Parsons, recorded a series of walks round Topsham, selections from which can be heard in Topsham Museum.


Eric Voysey was born in Topsham, the grandson of ship and property owner ‘Bannen’ Voysey. He had a regular Topsham upbringing as a schoolboy during World War II – fishing, fruit picking at Pynes market gardens, and membership of Miss Holman’s Youth Club. He left school at 14 and trained as a boatbuilder and carpenter and later became Clerk of Works at Exeter City Council. He was a passionate salmon fisherman until the age of 80. He knew everything there was to know about Topsham and its history. He was a talented amateur artist and a founder member of the Topsham Art Group, working in oils and specialising in scenes of the river and its ships.


Gryff Thomas was lucky to have lived at all. When his mother was seven months pregnant she was blown across the floor while attending a fuse box, and Gryff has a place in Welsh medical journals as ‘A Welsh miracle baby’. He grew up in South Wales but become a legendary history teacher in Exmouth. He lived in Topsham for almost 50 years and wrote books and poems, often recalling his Welsh childhood. His home was a treasure trove of historical artefacts and artworks acquired over a lifetime of collecting and the bane of his cleaner’s life! He loved Devon, Exe estuary views, sunsets viewed from the Goat Walk, his home in Monmouth Street and the company of friends.


Nello Ghezzo was an inspirational restaurateur, the owner of Ristorante Italiano in Fore Street (now Marcellos). He came from Milan to London and in 1986 moved to Devon. Nello’s Ristorante opened the following year, soon scooping an important national award. In 1997, Nello cycled to Venice to raise money for Force, a local cancer charity. Two years later, he sadly died of cancer. In his memory, two magical community events are held today: one is The Nello: a mass cycle ride through 100 miles of Devon countryside, ending at Topsham; and the second is Nello’s Longest Table where every other year tables stretch throughout Topsham’s streets. People pile out of their houses with chairs and picnic baskets to feast together. These events have raised tens of thousands of pounds for cancer charities.


Geoff Bowen was part of a small cooperative of 11 local families who started a community vineyard in 1999, just for fun. He realised the potential of English sparking wine and went on to run the commercial Pebblebed Vineyard, with its restaurant and wine cellar in the town. In 2010 Geoff appeared on Dragon’s Den and entrepreneur Duncan Bannatyne became a partner in the business. Pebblebed went on to produce award-winning still and sparkling wines. In 2018, at the age of just 53, Geoff died of an aggressive brain tumour, an enormous loss to the Topsham community. Ownership of the vineyard has now passed to Darts Farm but Geoff’s wife Anna operates the Topsham Cellar, a venue for relaxed eating and drinking – including Pebblebed wine, of course.

There’s plenty more to learn about Topsham’s history from the Topsham Museum website. Please do click here to email us and suggest another Topsham character to be added.

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