Town History

Photos Reproduced courtesy of Francis Frith.

Old Salcombe

Salcombe : a brief history

Until about 100 years ago Salcombe earned its living from the estuary and the sea. Fishing, seafaring, boat and later shipbuilding with smuggling and probably some piracy were the principal occupations. The oldest local settlements were not built at the water’s edge but at some distance inland. The reason was that danger came from the sea. Long after the invasions which some of us learned about at school – Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Viking and Norman – it still remained a source of danger. Some of these dangers are mentioned in the following paragraphs. Others include pirates seeking temporary shelter and supplies and, in the case of those from the Barbary States of North Africa, slaves. Hundreds of Devon people were kidnapped in the 1600s and taken to the slave markets of Algiers and Sallee on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. Some were eventually ransomed but others never returned home.

The name Salcombe first appears in writing in 1244, centuries after most of the other neighbouring settlements were identified. It fell within the boundaries of the parish of Malborough on the edges of two ‘manors’, Batson and West Portlemouth. The manor was the smallest of the administrative units into which England was divided by William I after he conquered the country in 1066. We know about these because their names and assets figure in the Domesday book, William’s comprehensive survey of his new kingdom published in 1083. While Salcombe itself may be a latecomer, man has lived around the area from time immemorial. Archaeologists have identified stone age settlements on the cliff tops on both sides of the mouth of the estuary and a recently discovered shipwreck has demonstrated the existence of cross channel trade some 3,500 years ago.

References to Salcombe are limited for several centuries after 1244, perhaps because of a lack of literate inhabitants (the illiterate leave no records). Maybe it was little more than a fishing hamlet with a few ‘cellars’, simple buildings where farmers living a mile or two inland kept their nets and gear. However, ships of some size were already based in the harbour, referred to by 1342 as ‘Portlemouth’. Twelve “barges” and a “ballinger” were hired to transport troops to Brittany at the start of the Hundred Years War. In 1403 Salcombe was raided by a force from France which had previously sacked and burnt Plymouth. The town had been awarded a grant in 1377 “in aid of fortification” but apparently nothing had been done. John Leland described the harbour and settlement in the 1530s in his Travels in Tudor England as “…sumwat barrid and having a Rok at the entering into it … and aboute half a Mile within the Mouth of the Haven … is Saultcombe, a Fisshar Towne”.

As relations between England and Spain deteriorated in the 1550s, culminating in the ‘Spanish Armada’ campaign of 1588, new records of town and harbour become available. In July 1570 a census of “mariners mustered in Devon” was taken – 56 are listed for Salcombe and 12 for Portlemouth. Two years later another survey shows that 5 ships under 60 tons belong to Salcombe with an aggregate tonnage of 150. It has been stated, but not confirmed, that when the Armada finally appeared in local waters on 31 July 1588 the villages round the Salcombe Estuary had fitted out 16 small ships to support the English fleet. The only Spanish ship to be wrecked in England, as distinct from Scotland and Ireland, was the hulk San Pedro Mayor, which served as a hospital ship. She came ashore on Bolt Tail near Hope Cove on 6 November with 158 survivors, all of whose names are known. The war with Spain dragged on until 1603 but appears not to have affected Salcombe again.

Unusually, we know something of the common people of the town a few years later. Most history until recently has been that of great men and their deeds but the maritime surveys of Devon of the early 1600s tell us a very different story. The ambitions of the young King Charles I required the rebuilding of a navy much run down after its Elizabethan successes. His Lord High Admiral, the Duke of Buckingham, demanded of his county subordinates comprehensive parish lists of all those men with maritime skills. In the parish of Malborough in 1619, which then included Salcombe, lived 104 mariners, 5 shipwrights and 2 “coopers barrel makers for sea”. All are named with their ages. Similar details are recorded for all the other parishes around the Estuary and along the south coast of Devon. About half the names would be familiar to today’s town residents showing that many families have been settled here for centuries.

Devon was much fought over in the Civil War. Devon’s countryside, led by the landowners, was largely Royalist, but the towns were for Parliament. The blockhouse at the entrance to Salcombe harbour, which is believed to have been one of Henry VIII’s coastal defences, had become much decayed by the 1640s. In 1644 Sir Edmund Fortescue of Fallapit House near Kingsbridge was commissioned to restore and garrison the fortification which was renamed Fort Charles. The harbour became a protected anchorage for Royalist privateers. By early 1646 it had become clear that the Royalist cause was lost, but the Fort’s defenders refused to surrender when a Parliamentary army arrived from Dartmouth. A battery was set up on Rickham common across the harbour and the siege began. It lasted for 4 months until the Parliamentarians persuaded the garrison to surrender on favourable terms on 7 May. It was the last Royalist stronghold to survive in the county.

Few if any published references to Salcombe can be found between the 1650s and the 1750s. It must be presumed that the inhabitants continued to live by fishing and smuggling and kept quiet about it. However, change came in the second half of the 18th century. The first “holiday home”, the Moult, between North and South Sands, was built in 1764 by John Hawkins and is described as a “mere pleasure box”. By the end of the century the house had been much enlarged by a succession of owners and began to approximate its present appearance. It seems that the gradual enlargement of Salcombe properties by holiday home owners has a respectable precedent!

Boats must have been built locally since pre-historic times. Presumably at some time boats became small ships but in the 1790s the town began to develop into a more significant ship-building and ship owning centre. By 1819 a writer could refer to “three yards for shipwrights” at a time when the town had about fifty stone houses. Most of these were “low mean structures”. Nearly 300 sailing vessels and a handful of steamers were built in Salcombe and around the Estuary during the nineteenth century, almost all for local owners. Early trades were coastal – salt to Newfoundland and salted fish back to Europe. At the end of the great wars of the French Revolution and Empire (1792 – 1815, with a short break in 1802), the fruit trade developed and with it the superb and speedy ‘fruit schooners’. Speed was necessary to carry the perishable cargoes of fresh fruit from Spain and the Azores back to home ports before it started to deteriorate. Passages were also made to the Mediterranean for dried fruit. The port and trades prospered until about 1875 when competition from iron and later steel steamers began in earnest. Lack of capital, limitations of space and a shortage of locally available materials made it quite impracticable for Salcombe to compete with the yards of Northern England and Scotland in the building of iron and steel ships. The last sizeable wooden ship was launched in the Estuary in the 1880s. Thereafter Salcombe reverted to boatbuilding for fishermen and leisure use.
The collapse of ship building and owning was not the end of the town. Visitors in small numbers had been attracted to the neighbourhood since the late 1700s. Large houses were gradually built at the various viewpoints along the cliffs and foreshore to the south of the town. Woodville (now Woodcot) in the prime position in Cliff Road dates from 1797. Ringrone House followed in 1839. It still exists, now totally invisible within the structure of the Salcombe Harbour Hotel to which it was converted in the 1890s. The removal of the noisy and smelly shipyards from the waterfront and the redevelopment of a prime site by the building of the York Hotel at about the same time improved facilities for the visitor. This was later renamed Salcombe Hotel and was in the 1980s converted yet again into apartments for sale to visitors. The arrival of the railway at Kingsbridge in 1893, connection to Salcombe by steam ferries and, in 1909, by motor buses made the town more accessible to visitors.
In 1895 roads were laid out on the higher ground to the west of the present town centre by the newly established South Devon Land Company and building plots for development were gradually sold off.

What is arguably the town’s greatest disaster occurred in October 1916 at the height of the Great War of 1914 – 1918 when many of the townsmen were serving in the army and Royal Navy, and some had already been lost. Salcombe’s lifeboat station had been established in 1869 with the donation of the lifeboat ‘Rescue’ and the building of the boathouse at South Sands in 1877. The ‘William and Emma’, Salcombe’s third lifeboat, came on station in 1904. She carried out one service in 1910 and was next launched in earnest in 1916 in a furious south west gale to go to the aid of the schooner ‘Western Lass’ which was aground in Lannacombe Bay near Prawle Point. The lifeboat’s crew managed to row her out over the breaking seas of the Bar and then hoisted sail and soon reached the ship. There was no sign of life aboard and it soon became clear that the ship’s crew had been saved from the shore. The lifeboat then had to sail back to Salcombe against the gale and regain the harbour by crossing the Bar. Sail was lowered for the crossing but as the run in started the boat was capsized “end over end” by a huge “rogue wave” and soon broke up. Only two members of the fifteen strong crew were saved, cast ashore on the rocks at the eastern side of the harbour entrance. The loss of fifteen Salcombe men, in a small community where everyone knew everyone else and many were related, cast a dark cloud over the town for years. The names of the drowned lifeboatmen are inscribed on the town’s war memorial in Cliff Road.

When a new lifeboat arrived in April 1917, despite the tragic events of the previous October, there was no shortage of volunteers to reform the crew. The coxswain appointed was young Eddie Distin, still in his twenties and one of the two survivors from the ‘William and Emma’. He remained coxswain until his retirement in 1951, taking part in many services and being awarded a silver medal for his part in the rescue of crew and passengers from the Belgian ship ‘Louis Sheid’, torpedoed by a German submarine in the early days of World War II.

Between the two World Wars the town gradually developed as an exclusive holiday resort for those who enjoyed the benign climate, the beautiful scenery, sea fishing and sailing. No attempt was made by developers or the local authority to introduce attractions like those of the popular holiday centres. The town had started to attract wealthy retirees in the early years of the twentieth century and this trend continued in the 1920s and ’30s. Salcombe Sailing Club was founded in 1922 for the town’s artisans. The annual subscription was 5 shillings (25p). The Yacht Club, dating from the 1890s, was exclusively for gentlemen. Ladies were grudgingly admitted in 1939. No ‘working man’ would ever have been elected to membership even if he had been willing to pay the £2.10 subscription.

Much evidence of World War II remains in the town. It was the target of many ‘hit and run’ bombing raids undertaken by fast fighter/bombers. It has been said that civilian casualties in Salcombe as a proportion of the total population were as high as anywhere in the country. Several of the new buildings in Fore Street replace those destroyed in the raids. Cook’s boatyard at the east end of Island Street was completely destroyed, fortunately in the lunch hour, so there were no casualties. It was speedily rebuilt to allow work to continue on Admiralty contracts building boats for small warships. The new yard eventually succumbed when glass fibre replaced wood as the material of choice for pleasure boats and an apartment block was built on the site. British warships arrived in the harbour at the start of the war in the shape of air/sea rescue launches and an army service corps water transport company. Then in 1943 came the advance party of a substantial United States naval force which eventually reached a strength of almost 2000. The present Whitestrand Quay with its slipway was constructed following the demolition of two streets of decaying cottages. A concrete slipway was built on the beach at Millbay, the remains of which can still be seen, and a fuel depot was constructed on the end of Snapes Point. The armada sailed on 4 June 1944 for the Normandy beaches to take part in the Allied assault on enemy occupied Europe leaving Salcombe almost deserted and strangely quiet.

Old SalcombeThe town took some time to readjust to peace after the long war years. Travel was difficult in the period of post-war austerity with food and petrol rationing both continuing for some years. When the summer visitors eventually returned things seemed much the same as before. The resident population continued to grow until the 1960s but since then it has been falling, despite the building of a residential estate on the town’s outskirts, as more and more properties in the town are converted to holiday homes. Many small hotels have closed though the market in self-catering accommodation flourishes as never before. The yacht and sailing clubs eventually merged in 1964. The former had to forego its exclusivity in the face of a falling membership and accept all comers. The town and beaches remain as busy as ever in the summer holidays and there are welcome signs that the season lengthens each year as holiday home owners make more use of their properties and visitors learn to enjoy the quiet town. More people are taking note of the maxim of the celebrated Victorian historian, James Froude, “Winter in Salcombe is winter only in name”.

Prepared by Tim Bass, of Salcombe Museum

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