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The History of Salcombe

Salcombe Hotels | guide to Salcombe

The name Salcombe first appears in written records in 1244, although man had settled in the area for many centuries prior to this. The remains of Stone age settlements exist on the cliff tops on both sides of the mouth of the estuary while a shipwreck discovered there suggests the existence of cross channel trade dating back some 3500 years.

Little is written about Salcombe after the 1244 reference, suggesting it was not much more than a fishing village inhabited by illiterate folk. In 1403 Salcombe was raided by French troops, the same ones who had previously sacked and burnt Plymouth . The town had previously awarded a grant in 1377 “in aid of fortification” for just such an instance but apparently no works had actually taken place. John Leland wrote about the harbour and settlement during the 1530s in his Travels in Tudor England, describing it as a fishing town.

The relations between England and Spain had deteriorated in the 1550s, eventually leading to the Spanish Armada campaign of 1588. This made Salcombe into a place of military importance and in July 1570 census of “mariners mustered in Devon” was made that listed 56 men with maritime connections in Salcombe. Two years later another survey shows that five ships under 60 tons belong to Salcombe with an aggregate tonnage of 150. When the Armada finally appeared in local waters on 29 July 1588 , the villages round the Salcombe Estuary had 16 small ships fitted out and ready to support the English fleet.

Young King Charles I wished to rebuild the Navy which was much run down after its earlier Elizabethan successes. His Lord High Admiral, the Duke of Buckingham, demanded a census of the all the men in the country involved in matters of the sea. In the parish of Malborough in 1619, which then included Salcombe, 104 mariners, 5 ship-wrights and 2 “coopers barrel makers for sea” were all listed, along with their names and ages.

Devon was bitterly fought over during the Civil War . Devon’s countryside was largely Royalist but the towns were for Parliament. The blockhouse at the entrance to Salcombe harbour, once one of Henry VIII ’s coastal defences, was repaired in 1644 by Sir Edmund Fortescue of Fallapit House and renamed Fort Charles. The harbour subsequently became a protected anchorage for the use of royalist privateers. By early 1646 it had become clear that the royalist cause was lost, but the Fort’s defenders refused to surrender and it was the last Royalist stronghold to survive in the county.

Between the 1650s and the 1750s there is little in the way of historical record for Salcombe. Perhaps the inhabitants were busy with fishing and smuggling and were happy to keep quiet about it! In the 1800s the trend to build holiday homes by the sea there was begun when a property built purely for pleasure, the Moult between North and South Sands, was erected in 1764 by John Hawkins .

Boats must have been built locally since pre-historic times and nearly 300 sailing vessels and a handful of steamers were built in Salcombe and around the Estuary during the nineteenth century. Trade also came in and out of the busy, but still comparatively small Devon port. The port and trades prospered until about 1875 when competition from iron and later steel steamers meant ships, ports and shipyards all grew much larger. This soon left the small Devonshire port of Salcombe
behind. Shipbuilding continued, but only on a small scale to provide fishing boats for local owners. The collapse of local ship building was not the end of the town, instead it began to develop as a fashionable resort. Increasingly it attracted the wealthy who built large houses there, usually purely for leisure rather than as their main accommodation.

The town’s biggest tragedy is probably the 1916 sinking of the Salcombe lifeboat in a furious south west gale when it tried to go to the aid of the schooner Western Lass. Fifteen men were drowned - a huge loss to a small and tightly-knit community such as Salcombe in the early 20th century. The names of the drowned lifeboatmen are
inscribed on the town’s war memorial in Cliff Road.

Despite the rise in tourism, Salcombe managed to avoid the ‘traditional’ delights of many seaside towns such as funfairs. Instead it developed as a ‘genteel’ resort, known for the quality of its beaches rather than a fair ride. The population continued to grow up until the 1960s but since then it has been falling. Many properties in the town are now converted to holiday homes and the population swells considerably each summer. The resort is also becoming increasingly ‘all-year-round’ as people take note of the maxim of the celebrated Victorian historian, James Froude, “Winter in Salcombe is winter only in name”.

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