Ray Freeman

Ray Freeman, founder and first chair of the Dartmouth History Research Group

This page is dedicated to the memory of Ray Freeman, who died peacefully on 19 September 2023 at Lincombe Manor in Torquay, where she had been looked after for the past few years. She died just a few weeks before her 100th birthday. Ray was the founder and first chair of the Group and we give here an account of her life and work, including some of Ray’s own early memories. We would like to thank the Freeman family for making this material available.

Effie Ray Wild was born on 17 October 1923 in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, where her father, William Wild, was a mechanical engineer working for the Ceylon Government Railway. Ray was the younger of two children; her brother Arthur was several years older.

In Ray’s early childhood the family lived at Anaradjapura (Apa), an important railway junction in the north of Sri Lanka, in a two-storey villa next to the station where her father worked. Ray remembered that “Water in Apa came up on the train by the Water Wagon, and was carried to the house by servants, of whom there were many … the jungle came right up to our back door. At night I remember hearing the animals – mainly monkeys – and birds crying out. There were … elephants and the odd tiger … we all had to learn to live with the wild life around us. This included tarantulas and scorpions … I learnt never to touch one. There were also snakes … my daily walk with my Ayah took me along the banks of a large reservoir, which we called a tank, built by the ancient people of the island to store water … there were crocodiles living in it, who sometimes were sunning themselves on the path. My Ayah showed me how to walk round the tail of one without disturbing it … sometimes there was a huge python six inches in width on the path; it was not looking to eat me, so we just stepped over it.”

The family returned regularly to England. Ray had “very happy memories of these journeys, which took three weeks as we always disembarked at Marseilles and went by train north through France … I followed our whole journey on a Globe set up on deck, with lights showing where we were at any moment”. Her schooling began in Gateshead during one of the family’s trips home, and then continued at an English boarding school in the tea-growing area of Sri Lanka.

Her father progressed rapidly in his career, and the family had a comfortable life in Colombo until 1930, when he retired and they returned to Gateshead. From 1935-1939 she “was at school in Gateshead, noted at the time for its high rate of unemployment in the slump in shipbuilding … it was an ordinary mixed secondary school which took all the children above the age of 11. My headmaster had started in 1935 to bring the current age group up to the Higher Certificate standard – the main qualification for entry to university … we all knew we were the first lot of children to have such a good chance to go to university …”

With the outbreak of war in September 1939, Ray was evacuated to Bishop Auckland, in Co. Durham, but the arrangements were not ideal and the school returned to Gateshead two months later. All continued much as normal until the Germans invaded Norway in April 1940 and Tyneside was in the front line. Ray’s father volunteered and was sent to work in Woolwich Arsenal; with her parents living in London, Ray went to live with her aunt in Gateshead to finish her education. Whilst she was in the midst of preparing for her Higher Certificate examinations her school was again evacuated, this time to Thirsk in Yorkshire. Despite this considerable disruption she gained entry to Durham University, only to be told she was 17 days too young to be admitted the next academic year. So she moved to London to live with her parents for a year, surviving the Blitz in the basement of the house. However, as she said, “I did learn to type, an invaluable skill for the rest of my life.”

Ray graduated from Durham with a degree in history, and married David Freeman, an architect, in 1949. He was the son of Peter Freeman, Labour MP for Newport 1945-1956, and his wife Ella Torrance. David’s speciality was designing and building low-cost houses, to which he devoted his career. They set up home first in London and then in Bracknell New Town. Ray and David had four children: Michael, Carol, Alix and Tim. David died in 2008.

In 1964 the family came to Dartmouth and Ray soon started teaching in local schools, first King Edward VI Community College in Totnes (KEVICCs) and then becoming Head of History at Torquay Girls Grammar School. As she put it: “I first had the ambition to write a history book when I was about 13. This was because I knew I was not scientific, mathematical or poetical, but thought I could assemble facts and arguments to produce a history book. However, it was not until I was 60 and had retired from full time teaching that I found the time to actually write about it.”

Ray had become involved with Dartington Rural Archive and partly due to resources collected for them about Dartmouth, decided that Dartmouth would be the subject of her first history book. Interviewed by the Torbay Express (13 August 1982), she said: “I love Dartmouth and felt it was something I had to do. It’s a fascinating place … I did not want the past to get forgotten.” Dartmouth: A New History was published in 1983 by Harbour Books – it was the first history of the town since Percy Russell’s Dartmouth had appeared in 1950.

She next produced a wider and more comprehensive history entitled Dartmouth and its Neighbours, published in 1990 by Phillimore & Co Ltd; an updated edition was published as Dartmouth and its Neighbours: A History of the Port and its People by Richard Webb in 2007. In her foreword to the updated edition she described the many different types of source material she had used, drawing attention to oral history as well as documentary records. She concluded: “Once history books only told us about the upper and ruling classes. However, the aim of this book has been to show how everyone lived and worked, in both town and village.”

In 1991 she brought together a group of friends and colleagues who shared her passion for exploring and researching local history, setting up the Dartmouth History Research Group and becoming the first chair. Under her leadership the Group made rapid progress – Ray wrote several books for the Group on a wide range of topics and was involved in preparing and editing several others. A bibliography is below (see also the DHRG Books section). She also wrote many articles for local newspapers and journals, and gave many talks. After she stepped down as Chair in 2003 she continued to contribute, and when the Group’s website was first set up she made much of her extensive collection of research material freely available.

Ray has left a tremendous legacy in her extensive published work and in all her painstaking and careful research conducted over many years. Everyone interested in the rich history and heritage of Dartmouth and the surrounding area will continue to benefit from her passion for history, her hard work and her very considerable achievement.


    • Dartmouth: A New History, Harbour Books, 1983
    • Dartmouth and its Neighbours: A History of the Port and its People, 1990, Phillimore & Co, 2007, Richard Webb
    • The Holdsworth and Newman Families in Dartmouth, DHRG Paper 1, 1992 (first published by Devon History Society in 1985
    • Brownstone, A Devon farm through seven centuries, DHRG Paper 4, 1993
    • The Story of Warfleet, DHRG Paper 8, 1993
    • We Remember D-day, DHRG Paper 11, 1994
    • A Wrens-Eye View of Wartime Dartmouth, DHRG Paper 12, 1994
    • The History of the Castle Hotel, DHRG Paper 14 (first edition), DHRG Paper 25 (updated edition), 1995
    • Memories of War, by Local People at home and abroad 1939-1946, DHRG Paper 16, 1995
    • John Flavel, A Famous Dartmouth Puritan, DHRG Paper 29, 2001
    • John Davis, Master Navigator, DHRG Paper 33, jointly with Eric Preston, 2007

    She edited and produced, or co-edited and co-produced, several books:

    • Sir Thomas Wilton JP CA 1861-1929 A Biography, by Dr T N P Wilton, DHRG paper 19, 1996
    • Operation Fahrenheit: The Story of a Small-Scale Commando Raid, by Michel Guillou, DHRG paper 20, 1996
    • A Dittisham Boy’s Story, by Ewart Hutchings, DHRG paper 22, 1997
    • The Secret War from the River Dart, by Lloyd Bott CBE, DSC, DHRG paper 23, 1997
    • The Life and Times of William Veale, Master Mariner, 1791-1867, DHRG paper 26, 1999