Wednesday, 29 August 2012


What if it were to be decreed
by our all powerful Mother of Parliaments no less
that the Exe Estuary should become an Area of Outstanding Wildness
with not a dwelling within a mile of the tideline,
the distance to be carefully measured by government officials,
and all the people, simple and gentle, to be humanely removed,
as,  I am told, happened in the South Hams in World War Two,
and the buildings,  the beautiful with the tatty,  to be pulled down stone by stone and brick by brick
and the railways to be broken and all those rails and sleepers dragged away
and the cycle paths to be taken elsewhere and recycled
and all things plastic, concrete, tarmacadamed to be hunted down and rubbished
and stiff penalties to be strictly imposed on trespass,
especially on anyone who introduced any kind of electrical device or petrol engine
with death by hanging to be the fate of any one found sneaking in and driving an offroad vehicle
or carrying a shotgun
and the tides to be left to fight back into the ancient inlets
and the birds and the beasts to be given dominion
and the flora be given permission to flourish
and only a very few privileged people, but not their dogs,
of whom I would be one and, okay, you can be one too,
would have all the fun of walking and boating about here?

Well, I only ask what if?

Saturday, 25 August 2012


"To the Editor of the Western Times,  November 26th 1836.

Sir - If further proof now is wanting of the necessity of a steamer to tow up vessels from Exmouth Bar,  the fact of seven vessels now detained in the bight- in consequence of the present northerly winds is quite sufficient.  The whole of those vessels would have been at Exeter Quay discharging their cargoes, if a steam tug had been ready to assist them - why it is calculated that every trading vessel would make an additional trip, if taken in tow by a steamer immediately as she arrived at the bar -  the necessity of this accommodation to your post,  will be apparent to the most incredulous.   I hear the Exeter Steam Navigation list is rapidly filling,  to which I most cordially wish success,  and I do not doubt it will be a very profitable investment."

The Estuary was behind the times.  Steam tugs with paddle wheels had been operating elsewhere and making a profit since 1802. The year before this letter was written a Kent farmer had invented the screw propeller, which invention would greatly improve the performance of steamboats. Only two years after, in 1838,  Brunel's steam ocean liner,  the Great Western,  crossed the Atlantic in a mere 15 days.   A new age was dawning  and there was money to be made.

One suspects that the writer of this curiously composed letter, whose name is not given in the paper, had no small interest in subscribers being found to the Exeter Steam Navigation.

Sunday, 19 August 2012


In 1911 a book by Lady Elliott Drake who then lived at Nutwell Court entitled 'The Family and Heirs of Sir Francis Drake' was published.   It quotes from many interesting letters among which is one from the year 1755 in which Mr Rowe, the Drake's faithful agent, returns to Nutwell from Buckland and reports that there has been a bomb ketch and tender lying off Starcross and that 'pressing' had frightened away all the workmen from the harbour, and that for some weeks neither carpenters nor joiners could be induced to come out of hiding to work on the alterations at Nutwell Court, lest they should be caught by the press gang.  'The neighbourhood,' he adds  'had become very melancholy'  as a consequence.  'The harbour' he means is Lympstone, which place, he goes on to say, he fears the war will lower.

Impressment was a serious threat if you were a man 'of seafaring habits' between the ages of 18 and 45.  More than a quarter of the men serving in the Navy in 1755 were pressed men.  The fact that, even on this side of the Estuary, working men hid away for weeks in order to avoid being scrobbled for service means that a press gang must have been expected to leap out at you at any time in any place.  The Impressers must have been a sneaky bunch and it is perhaps curious that their heinous practice survived so long in our avowed land of liberty.

The glorious painting above of a bomb ketch  is by Charles Brooking (1723 - 1759) who produced so many beautiful pictures in such a short life.  The ketch that visited Starcross in 1755 had its bomb tender with it.  This was normal.  The munitions were so dangerous they were stored away from the mortars and everywhere a bomb ketch went her tender was sure to go.

The whole neighbourhood must have rejoiced when the ships weighed anchor and sailed with the tide to hunt for men elsewhere.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012


At Exmouth, in the June of the year 1865, while 'sturdy fellows' were busy 'burrowing in the sand' building the dock,  Captain George Gardner, master of the schooner Eleanor of Portsmouth, brought his ship laden with timber over the bar and into the sheltered water landwards of the Warren which then served as harbour to Exmouth.  

A boy called Henry Hearn in the employ of Mr Redway was engaged to haul timber ashore and found himself alongside the schooner and in the same boat as Captain Gardner's boy.   For whatever reason the two boys quarrelled and Captain George Gardner  in the tradition of mad Victorian masters,  leapt from his ship into the boat and dramatically intervened. He picked up Henry Hearn by the heels and threw him overboard and afterwards deliberately forced his head under the water until the poor boy nearly drowned.  Henry was taken home senseless.  

Mr Redway charged Captain Gardner with the assault and he was summoned before the magistrate, the Reverend J F Boles, on  Tuesday 6th June.  The matter, however, seems subsequently to have been settled out of court.

It would seem from this account that up until 1865 timber was being offloaded from ships into the river and hauled ashore by little lads in rowing boats.  The new dock would change all that.

The source of this story is Woolmer's Gazette of 9th June, 1865.  


Friday, 10 August 2012


On Tuesday 2nd August 1836,  Exmouth held its annual regatta.  This was the usual beano with funfair on the beaches and sailing and rowing races up and down the Channel and round the Warren but this year there was to be an extra treat in store for the Exmothians thanks to the opportune arrival from the sea in his yacht of a local worthy.  The Western Times of 6th August reported:

"During the day the "Lady of Saint Kilda" arrived having on board Sir T D Acland and family who had just come from Lisbon.   On her entering the harbour she saluted with eleven guns; she took her station in the Bight  where she speedily appeared splendidly attired in all her numerous colours, forming a most prominent feature in the attractions of the day."

The "Lady of Saint Kilda" was built in Dartmouth as a trading schooner but was bought by Sir Thomas (new?)  in 1834.   Certainly it was the Aclands who gave her her name and who reconstructed the interior of vessel so that she became a luxury yacht.   Some years before the family had made a voyage in another yacht to the remote Hebridean island of Saint Kilda,  hence the name.   Her salute of eleven guns  (What kind of gentleman's yacht carried guns and what kind of guns would they have been?)  must have made the locals jump.

She was a famous ship and lives in history not least because Saint Kilda, the sprawling suburb of Melbourne, Australia,  was named after her.   There can't be many places in the world that are named after a boat but such is Saint Kilda.  The Aclands sailed her from 1834 to 1840 and she was well known on the Estuary.  Where she was moored or berthed I do not know.

Friday, 3 August 2012


In 1883 that wonderful series of 'Ingatherings'  Arber's "English Garner" reprinted Robert Lyde's 1693 "Account of the Retaking of a ship called the Friends' Adventure of Topsham, from the French; after She had been taken six days, and they were on the coast of France with it four days.   When one Englishman and a Boy set upon seven Frenchmen,  and brought the said Ship and them safe to England &c."   With a title like that the story is more or less already told!

Stevenson,s "Kidnapped" was first published in 1885 and I'm wondering if he had been reading "An English Garner"  and the account of this bloody battle on board ship between one man and a boy and a ship's company before he dreamed up his famous Battle of the Round House.

Lyde was a great adventurer and in 1693 was, "a lusty young man aged about twenty three years".  The boy, John Wright, was "about sixteen years" and they were both from Topsham.    Their adventures on the high seas are worth reading but they take place far from the Estuary.   Lyde, however, after meeting many challenges, brought his ship, almost single handed and with prisoners battened down below decks to the mouth of the Exe.

"After three, I bore away for the bar of Topsham,  thinking to go in over the bar in the morning tide; but by five the wind lynned.   At six, I sent up the boy to loose the maintopsail.  At seven,  I let out the reefs of both topsails, and made all the sail I could:  but the wind dying away so, I did not fetch the bar before ten of the clock; which was too late for that tide.  At which time,  the Pilot was coming;  but seeing no colours, nor no men on deck but myself and the boy,  they were afraid:  and were rowing away from me.  But I being in hail of them,  I asked them,  "What they were afraid of?   and why they should not come on board?"  They hearing me call to them in English, they lay still upon their oars till I came up with them:  and seeing me and the boy, whom they knew; they inquired for the Master.  I told them,  "He might be carried into France by this time,"

And after they came on board,  I gave them an account of all the proceedings,  which made them all in a maze;  and they would hardly believe it:  but to put them out of doubt,  I showed them the five prisoners.  Whom the Pilots would have had me let them out to work:  but I refused to do that till the ship was over the bar.  Because they should not see how the bar did lie;  for fear they might become pilots, and go in with their boats hereafter,  and so burn or carry away our ships.   This discourse being ended,  the Pilots would have me sleep,  for they perceived by my countenance, that I stood in need of it:  but the joy of having six Englishmen on board banished all sleepiness from me.

Half an hour after ten,  I sent two of the Pilot's ashore.  One to bring me some help on board.  And the other to ride to Exeter with a letter which I wrote to the owners of the ship....

I stayed without the bar till four in the afternoon;  and then we went for the bar.  After I was got over in safety and landlocked,  and there were many people on board,  who were desirous to see the Frenchmen:  I ript off the plank which was nailed over the hold;  and the prisoners came up,  to the confirmation of the truth of this Relation.  By five,  I was at anchor at Stair cross;  and there were as many people on board as could well stand.  Immediately I sent the prisoners to Topsham, in the Custom House wherry,  that the doctors might take care of their wounds.   At six I put all the people ashore except the boy and Their Majesties' Officers; whom I left on board.

I went to Topsham ...."

And there let us leave him, at least for tonight.