Margaret Cunninghame Bonar

Margaret Cunninghame Bonar was an unsung heroine of Babbacombe who worked tirelessly to provide a Babbacombe village school.

She was born in Edinburgh, Scotland and was the only child of William and Lilias.  William and Lilias Bonar with their daughter Margaret moved to Babbacombe in the early 1860’s.  Like many other people, at the time, they were attracted to the area because of its reputation as a health resort.  At first they rented a small house called The Cliff at the top of the steep hill rising from Babbacombe beach and later bought it.  The family were profoundly religious and Margaret appears to have had a conversion experience at Tavistock in 1857.  She held Bible meetings at The Cliff for women and after her father died continued with meetings for men as well.  She did a great deal of benevolent visiting throughout the village with promises of meat, groceries and milk to various people for diverse lengths of time.

Margaret and her father, William, were particularly interested in providing a proper education for the children of the village.  The original building they used for this purpose was located on Walls Hill Road and appears to have been the stable of The Cliff.  Their vision was to get permission to use this piece of land to build a more permanent site; but this proved to be unsuitable.

With the death of her parents, Margaret continued with her mission to press for a school to be built in the area.  She was a very determined lady who through the force of her personality strove to find a suitable site, gain funding and get the school built.

She was instrumental in lobbing and persuading Mr Cary to grant a suitable piece of land, consulted with the Architect, Mr. Appleton and also with the various local businessmen and associated religious dignitaries.  After much persistence and tenacity she achieved her end and in 1867 Margaret laid the foundation stone of Babbacombe School.  The school opened in 1868 on the corner of Portland and Babbacombe Roads.

All Saints Babbacombe Primary School

Margaret Bonar kept a diary and here are extracts of her some of her entries of both the school and The Cliff.   (reproduced by kind permission of the Devon Record Office)

Saturday 18 January: I worked at the school alone all morning and finished all the texts & hanging of the maps etc; had the room washed in the afternoon – the wildest day of wind & rain we have had for long time.
Monday 27 January:The children took possession of the new school today & began work! how pleased dear Papa would have been with the success of our little plan. Oh dear how long he has been away.
Monday 30 March: Went up to School in the afternoon, and took a boys reading class for an hour.

For the rest of the year until Christmas time, Margaret visited Leamington, Ireland and Scotland.

Monday 5 April: Went up to school and introduced myself to the new master, Mr Collier.
Tuesday 15 June: Girls school examined…..95 percentage passed !!!

In 1871 she married Gerald Agnew from Wigtownshire, Scotland, a professional soldier who gained the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in the service of the 90th Light Infantry [The Perthshire Volunteers].  They were married at the newly opened All Saints Church in Babbacombe.  Unfortunately the catholic worship at All Saints did not suit Gerald Agnew, he was inclined towards the Baptist Church and had a very Evangelistic turn of mind.  After their marriage they tried various Churches to find one where they could worship together, Furrough Cross and then the Scottish Presbyterian Church of St Andrew.  They also took an active part in an Evangelistic Mission in Babbacombe in 1875.

Margaret and Gerald Agnew continued to live in Babbacombe at The Cliff until a Mr Cowper Temple made an offer for the house much to the dismay of Margaret.

The diary entries follow:

Friday 1 December
Received a startling telegram from Lear that Mr Cowper Temple decides to purchase the Cliff – what shall we decide?
Wednesday 6 December: Got Lear’s telegram that it is settled about the Cliff & Mr Cowper Temple takes it.

The offer was accepted and the Agnew family finally moved out on 31 March 1877


Sunday 11 March  Went up with Gerald to the flagstaff after prayers and hoisted our flag for the last time.

Saturday 31 march  Today the sweet Cliff ceases to be ours – alas! alas! shall I ever cease to regret that dear home.

The Cliff


It is interesting to note that both Margaret Bonar and her contemporary, Mr William Potts Chatto, the benefactor of ‘Our Lady Help of Christians & St. Denis, Roman Catholic Church, both had their roots in Scotland and although their stay in the area was comparatively short, they were to have a profoundly beneficial and lasting effect on the lives of successive generations of the inhabitants Babbacombe & St Marychurch.

All Saints Babbacombe Primary School closed in 1980 and moved to the new school building in Quinta Road.  Shops with  flats over, now stand in the old buildings place.