University of Exeter: Stunning renovation of Teignmouth’s seaside heritage brings cinematic history alive

The sentry boxes previously in disrepair standing guard outside Teignmouth Grand Pier have now both been restored, with one now transformed into a “peepbox” showing old and new images of the town.

Peepshows were a hugely popular form of entertainment before moving images were invented. This is the latest part of a project led by Dr Tony Lidington from the University of Exeter to bring traditional seaside entertainment back to resorts in Devon.

Dr Lidington is an expert in theatre history. This summer he will again put on shows in Teignmouth, Dawlish, Torquay and Exeter with slapstick, variety skills, songs and Punch and Judy. For the past two years Dr Lidington has been training young people so these skills can be seen again, and passed down to future generations. This year two new apprentices – who are just about to start training funded by the Helen Foundation and Exeter City council Community Grants – will perform with professionals during the free performances throughout August.

The origins of the sentry boxes, which are made of wood and mounted on concrete plinths, are unclear. They may date from the 1920s or later, and their purpose is unknown. The pair in Teignmouth needed major renovations to replace rotten wood and parts of the roof.

The new peepbox shows different views of Teignmouth at the press of a button, with peepholes at heights for adults and children. The six pictures inside – which will be illuminated at the press of a button – are inspired by Dr Lidington’s research and collaborations with Teignmouth Museum and the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum into pre-cinematic storytelling devices such as peepshows and raree men. They include a picture of a Bank Holiday in Teignmouth in the 1950s, a poster for a concert in the town by local band Muse and views of the seafront. The pictures can be changed in the future, and the peepbox also has a noticeboard for events in Teignmouth..

The renovations have been organised by Cllr David Cox through funding from his Devon County Council and Teignbridge District Council councillor community fund. The specially commissioned steel viewing peepholes were manufactured by a metal sculptor in Yorkshire. The seaside entertainment is sponsored by Teignmouth Town Council and local traders.

Cllr Cox said: “Tony Lidington is a brilliant entertainer and we are very pleased to work with him again this year. The new sentry box will be a fantastic asset to the town.”

This is the second sentry box to be renovated in Teignmouth – another was painted and renovated last year, and was used during seaside entertainment shows, but doesn’t have peepbox features.

Dr Lidington said: “It is so exciting to provide lasting infrastructural changes to animate the seafront, alongside our usual, more transient entertainments. We are demonstrating that art, technology and research can combine powerfully to unite political and social agencies, as well providing accessible and joyful fun.

“We hope people enjoy the renovations and using our new peepbox, and it will become a real community asset for all ages. I think it looks brilliant. It would be brilliant if the renovations led to more information becoming available about the history and origins of the sentry boxes, if anyone has any further information please get in touch with me.”