Teignmouth is the second largest town within in the Teign catchment area, with a 2009 population of 15,300. It is situated on the north bank of the mouth of the river. Historically, towns grew up at the mouth of most rivers of any size, often because the meeting of river and sea provided a site for a harbour including quays and safe anchorages, with the river itself offering a route inland. In the case of Teignmouth the unusual layout, with a shifting sand bar at the point where the river flows into the sea, made for a difficult entrance to the harbour, particularly for a vessel relying on sail – although some sailing ships would have been towed into and out of the harbour by a rowing boat..
The same feature as seen from the promenade.
But once inside the harbour small ships could anchor safely in deep water or run themselves aground on sandy beaches for survey and repair, and there was space for quays on both sides of the estuary. Inland from the harbour the wide tidal estuary is mainly mud flats at low tide, but when water transport was the predominant means of moving heavy goods, shallow draught vessels could pass up the river as far as Newton Abbot, and there were some landing and loading places along the river banks.
Apparently the shape of the sand bars is subject to patterns which go through a repeating cycle every three to five years. This was first recorded by a local seaman, Captain Thomas Spratt, in 1856, and then confirmed in 1970 by research undertaken by the Hydraulic Research Station.
Teignmouth is now best known as a seaside resort. It was around the 1780s when sea bathing using a ‘bathing machine’ becoming popular as a pastime for the well-to-do, and the drinking of sea water was also (mistakenly) encouraged as a cure for various ailments. The sea bathing ritual often took place before 10 o’clock in the morning, presumably because few other people were about at that time. An attendant assisted bathers to get dressed for the ordeal inside the ‘machine’, and then wheeled it into the sea so that the bather didn’t have to suffer the indignity of being seen from the shore. After dipping their customer in the water, the attendant would then winch the machine back up the beach.
People with money to spend were encouraged to build property in Teignmouth as land owners and speculators commissioned articles extolling the virtues of the town in newspapers and magazines. When Fanny Burney, the diarist and playwright, stayed in Teignmouth in 1773 she noted that the prices of provisions had doubled in the last three years due to the popularity of the town. In her journal she also described the various uses The Den (the seafront area) was put to at the time: sheep grazing, mending fishing nets, cricket matches, and pig races. By 1821 a guide to local watering places described the leisure facilities at Teignmouth, which included bathing machines, sedan chairs, donkeys and pleasure boats.
Den House, which in the 1820s was an academy for young ladies of well-to-do families, one of several in the town. (March 2012) Today it houses holiday apartments.
According to an information panel in the Teign Heritage Centre, family records show that the novelist Jane Austen came to Teignmouth in 1802 and stayed at a house called the ‘Great Bella Vista’, which may be the same building as Den House. This was of course nine years before her first book, ‘Sense and Sensibility’, was published, although by 1802 Austen had already written completed versions of several of the novels that would subsequently be so successful.
In 1815 Edward Croydon, who was in business as a printer, engraver, publisher and bookseller, set up Library and Reading Room in the building now occupied by W.H. Smiths, and in 1829 a Regatta was started – it is now claimed to be the first in England.
The Royal Library building (December 2011). As well as a circulating library, it had billiard rooms and supplies of local and London newspapers. After the railway came, Croydon was able to announce that copies of the London papers were available in the reading room on the afternoon of the day they were published. The Teignmouth Dawlish and Torquay Guide book of 1828 reports that ‘items of fancy may be purchased here, the news of the day collected and discussed, and opportunities afforded of obtaining the pleasures of social and profitable intercourse’.
Once the Napoleonic Wars were over several naval officers made their home in Teignmouth or nearby, attracted by the activities of the harbour in which many of them shared. One was Sir Edward Pellew, who bought Bitton House in 1812 when he was Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet. (Bitton House is now the offices of Teignmouth Town Council.) Pellew had a remarkably successful naval career and four years later was awarded the title of Viscount Exmouth, after which he became Commander-in-Chief, Plymouth, and Vice-Admiral of the United Kingdom. (He couldn’t choose to be Viscount Teignmouth because that title – or more precisely, that of Baron Teignmouth – had been awarded in 1798 to John Shore, after his six year tenure as Governor-General of India. Shore took that title because his wife was from Teignmouth, but it seems unlikely that he spent any time in the town.)
Bitton House (March 2012). According to its Heritage Listing entry this south facing frontage with eleven windows was embellished in the mid-19th century, some time after it was owned by Admiral Pellew.
Thomas Luny, already a artist of maritime subjects, moved to Teignmouth in 1807, where he received commissions from members of the local gentry and ex-mariners, including Pellew. He built himself a magnificent house (now an upmarket B&B) in Teign Street, and continued painting until his death in 1837. In his later years he was pushed around the town in a wheelchair, painting with brushes attached to his wrists. It is estimated that he produced over 3,000 works in his lifetime, over two thirds of which were produced during his time in Teignmouth – which works out at an average of one every five days for 30 years. (He must have needed the money.)
A more famous artist, J.W.M. Turner, visited Teignmouth in 1811. He was preparing sketches for a series of ‘Picturesque Views on the Southern Coast of England’. His oil painting ‘Teignmouth’, produced in 1812 from one of these sketches, is on show at Petworth House in Sussex. It is a spectacular depiction of a sunset reflected off water, but could be set almost anywhere, there is nothing to associate it with Teignmouth.
The external appearance of Den Crescent and its centrepiece, the Assembly Rooms, built in the 1820s, is relatively unchanged today. The Assembly Rooms were the hub of the town’s social life in the 19th century and lavish balls took place in the 70ft long ballroom. It was converted to an exclusive gentleman’s club in the 1870s and then to a cinema in the 1930s. The cinema closed in 2000 and it has been converted into apartments, with a pub and restaurant in the ground floor.
In contrast, the seafront has been much changed, with a paved promenade and seawall raised well above the beach to protect the Den area and surrounding buildings from storm surges, with groynes along the beach to hold the sand in place.
Around the turn of the 20th century a paved promenade with a low vertical sea wall had been built. But until the higher, profiled seawall was built in 1977 waves, spray and sand often used to wash over the promenade. A section of the seawall (September 2013)
Unfortunately the seawall did not completely protect the promenade area during the fierce storms in January and February 2014.
The sea wall in this area was also damaged by storms in early 2016: the access ramp and adjacent section of the wall needed repair and strengthening.
Repair work underway on the sea wall (February 2016).
The Carlton Theatre was originally built as the Den Pavilion and opened in June 1930. It was improved with the installation of tiered seating and a bar when the Teignmouth Players acquired the lease in 1986. The Carlton Theatre (September 2013)
Never a thing of beauty, it became a bit of an eyesore in a prime location and expensive to maintain. Planning permission for a new multi-use community facility was granted in 2010, but it took a while for funding to be made available and the new building eventually opened in March 2016.
The pier was originally built in 1865 but suffered from structural difficulties almost immediately and had to be repaired, opening again in 1876 with a 260 foot pavilion at the shoreward end. Later a ballroom was built at the seaward end, and there was also a landing stage for excursion steamers. In the 1960s new steel piling was inserted under all the pier buildings, as many of the old wooden piles had become undermined. The ballroom closed in 1968.
Its name cannot be to distinguish it from other lesser piers in the town – it must therefore be aspirational. As well as the usual amusement arcade machines in the covered section, in the outdoor area there are some surprisingly entertaining games and rides for young children, including this ingenious weather-proof Alligator ride right at the end of the pier.
But perhaps its main attraction is the views it provides of the town and surrounding coastline. (Unfortunately both the indoor and outdoor games areas on the pier were badly damaged during the 2014 winter storms, and it isn’t clear whether they will all be repaired or replaced.) A view of the town looking north from the pier, with the tower of St Michaels church in the centre (September 2013)
The back of St Michaels is just behind the seafront at Den Promenade. This area is probably where some of the very first dwellings were built in what became East Teignmouth, by fishermen and salt workers. The church, and for that matter the whole settlement of East Teignmouth, was situated in a rather precarious position on a narrow ridge between the River Tame and the so-called Great Marsh that separated it from West Teignmouth. Before the modern seawall was built the sea used to come right up to the churchyard wall, and graves were in danger of being washed away in heavy storms. The Teign Corinthian Yacht Club building is a bit further along the promenade, from where there is a good view of the red sandstone cliffs at Hole Head. (September 2013)
Since 2005 there has been an exhibition on the seafront of artworks made from waste materials, organised by Teignbridge Recycled Art In Landscape (TRAIL). One of the best pieces in 2012 was this mermaid in a wheelchair entitled ‘Swept to Earth’. It was made by a group of disabled artists from CEDA, with a creative writing group providing a backstory for the mermaid ‘Serena’ – she had been washed shore due to the changing climate, and was shocked by what humans are doing to the earth and sea. The rubbish trailing her was collected from the beach.
Also from the 2012 collection, I particularly liked ‘The Ages of Man’, a highly innovative piece by the Bishopsteignton Outdoor Art Group. The pyramid had sections depicting eight ‘Ages’ in chronological order, starting on the right hand half of the first photo (inland side): Ice, Stone, followed by those on the seaward side in the second photo (left to right): Metal, Industrial, Mass Transport, Plastic; and then on the left side of the first photo again: the Digital and Future (Dark) Ages.
The information plaque explained that the design of the Metal (Iron and Bronze) Age fuses Inca and Ancient Chinese religious masks with Man’s desire for riches, the Industrial Age is inspired by 1940s Braque cubist collages, the Mass Transport Age has shades of Art Deco travel posters, the Plastic (Bag) Age shows plastic as a double-edged benefit, and the Future (Dark) Age shows the galaxy with familiar constellations but in an unfamiliar universe. The apex of the pyramid housed a photovoltaic panel powering solar powered lights.
Then in 2015 I admired this innovative figure of a hiker with most of his body missing.
The first train arrived at Teignmouth on the 21st of May, 1846. From September 1847 an experimental atmospheric-powered service commenced on the Exeter to Newton Abbot section of the line, and it went operational the following February. Brunel had high hopes for this method of propulsion. He rented a house near the beach in Teignmouth and took an interest in the town. Because of the hilly topography inland Brunel had decided to route the line right next to the sea. One of the key design issues with atmospheric propulsion was how to seal the slot in the top of the traction pipe through which the train was connected to the piston. At the time leather was the best material available for this purpose; Vulcanised rubber would have been better, but was not yet available. Brunel underestimated the extent to which the mechanism would be soaked by sea spray. The salty water interacted with residual tannin in the leather flaps and the lime soap used to seal the leather to the traction pipe. As a result the leather rapidly deteriorated and a new approach was needed. It was decided that a combination of varnish applied to the surface of the leather and lubrication by a mixture of whale oil and seal oil would produce the necessary weather resistance and pliability of the valve. But this had the unfortunate effect of attracting rats and mice overnight when the trains were not running. If the creatures were still there when the system was started up again they could get sucked into the tube through the slot, causing the piston to jam. And the first exhausting of the propulsion tube each morning often resulted in a mixture of dead rats, mice and rusty oily water being ejected into the pumping houses, which must have been unpleasant for the engine-men. Because of these and other operational problems the atmospheric power system was discontinued in September 1848, after which conventional steam locomotives were used.
The atmospheric railway in Dawlish, showing the pumping station and the propulsion pipes.
The railway line effectively cut Teignmouth into two. To avoid undesirable gradients it needed to be more or less at sea level through the town, and therefore runs in a cutting either side of the station.Originally this section of the line was inside a tunnel but it was uncovered by 1883. Within the town the railway is now crossed by eleven bridges, the easternmost of which is the attractive Cliff Bridge, which was clearly a very expensive undertaking, yet was only built to take a footpath over the track. Cliff Bridge (September 2013)
The bridge that carries Fore Street over the railway was completely rebuilt in 2012. From its name it might be assumed that this now insignificant road used to be one of the main streets of the town, and this was indeed the case – it used to lead downhill to where there was a sheltered anchorage in the harbour, and the crossroads with Bitton Park Road (the by-passed remnant of which is now called Bitton Park Road East) was an important junction between the roads north to Exeter and west to Newton Abbot.
The junction of Fore Street (on the right) with Bitton Park Road East (on the left). (November 2013) St James’ church can just be seen behind the yew tree.
When the station was rebuilt in 1893 the Great Western Railway’s favoured motif was ‘French chateau’, which included rooflines and chimneys slightly suggestive of French Renaissance style, and some decorative ironwork on the two small flat roof areas of the frontage. The station frontage viewed from Higher Brook St East, with a terrace of three storey houses on Glendaragh Road behind (October 2013) The railway line east of Teignmouth station, from Slocum’s Bridge. (December 2011). The three churches visible along Dawlish Street are (L to R) St Michael’s, the United Reformed Church and the Catholic Church.
The town was cut into two in an even more brutal way when the main through road was re-routed and widened in the 1960s, and several large blocks of flats built in the spaces created next to it. The dual carriageway section of Bitton Park Road (September 2013)
The flats were presumably to partly replace the housing lost when small streets in the way of the new road were demolished. One such road to escape was Bickford Lane (one side of it, anyway), originally built as workers’ cottages around the 1860s. Bickford Lane (September 2013)
The port and harbour
The port had a long history, but probably enjoyed its peak of prosperity from about 1840 to 1854. A second canal for the movement of clay down the estuary to the port, the so-called ‘Hackney Cut’ was completed in 1843, and this enabled barges to load within a short distance of the mines at Kingsteignton. In 1845 a lighthouse was erected at the entrance to the harbour.
The lighthouse seen from offshore (November 2013)
Historically the port of Teignmouth was legally administered from Exeter, which was inconvenient and tended to hinder operations. In 1852, after a long series of negotiations, the port obtained its independence from Exeter, which was cause for an elaborate celebration. This agreement still left Teignmouth having to pay duty on imports to Exeter Corporation, although Exeter declined to pay for any maintenance or improvement of the port. This was resolved the following year by a Parliamentary committee which freed Teignmouth from this obligation in exchange for a compensation payment of £3000. This sum was borrowed by the port authority, and the interest payments that had to be made on it were a cause of concern for the next 60 years.
There was also a peak in shipbuilding in the early 1850s and this generated an increase in trade for the materials needed. Railway sidings were constructed to the Old Quay in 1851, and this further stimulated trade. The main line railway was of course a faster way of getting to London than sailing up the Channel, especially when the winds were unfavourable, so some ships started stopping off at Teignmouth to drop off mail and passengers, to transfer to the railway.
In the 19th century a big proportion of the local population drew their livelihood from the port, and Teignmouth seamen went all over the world – there is evidence of this from gravestones in local churchyards – for example in the cemetery of St Nicholas, Ringmore there are graves of seamen who perished in such exotic places as Pernambuco (Brazil), Santa Anna (Gulf of Mexico) and Valparaiso (Chile) (see the Estuary webpage).
During the last 30 years of the 19th century changes in the scale of the economy and in the location of industry meant that the shortcomings of the harbour began to cause problems, and some merchants moved their business to larger ports. The last cargo of codfish from Newfoundland arrived in 1893. Minerals of various kinds moved through Teignmouth, but largely small cargoes in small ships to small ports. Lead had been the most important mineral, but the biggest local mine (Frank Mills Mine at Christow) closed in 1880. There was also some trade in imports of agricultural supplies such as fertiliser and oilcake (for animal feed) for local farmers. By the 1880s most of the shipyards in and around Teignmouth had closed, with the last merchant vessel built and owned in Teignmouth being launched in 1872. But Mansfield’s Strand Yard continued to thrive and was the largest employer in the town, as it was prepared to experiment with new types of powered ship.
Continuing north along Strand brings you to Northumberland Place, which opens out into one of the most pleasant spots in the town centre, with a mixture of buildings from different periods, including some survivors from the early 19th century.
Around the turn of the 20th century extensions to the quay were implemented. Sailing vessels were increasingly being replaced by steamers, and there was a regular monthly steamship service between Teignmouth and Liverpool carrying mixed cargoes. At this time the staple trade was in ball clay to the Staffordshire Potteries, which was shipped to Runcorn on the Mersey from where it went onwards by canal barge. The most important import was coal. There were also imports of: hides and oak for a local tannery, flints for the Bovey pottery, timber and slates for local builders. There was also some foreign trade – woodpulp from Norway and Sweden for paper production, and timber from Quebec, although this ceased once the World War started in 1914. Trade picked up again slightly in the mid-1920s, but in general, for the first forty years of the 20th century the port struggled to survive – the defects of the harbour for large ships remained, and the harbour entrance suffered from neglect, making it difficult to negotiate for the larger colliers (600 to 900 tons). Interestingly, Teignmouth was one of the few ports where sailing ships could still scrape a living in the late 1920s as they were cheaper to run than steamers, so could tolerate delays.
Sailing ships moored in the harbour © Dave Upton
In the 1930s the Morgan Giles boatyard built high quality yachts, racing yachts and lifeboats, and it remained in business during the Second World War making torpedo boats, which made it and the town generally a target for German bombing.
After the war trade returned gradually, with clay as the main growth business. But, compared to a hundred years earlier, as a community Teignmouth had much less involvement with maritime activities. For example, no merchant vessels were now registered in Teignmouth or owned locally, and few, if any, merchant seamen still lived in the town. By 1954 clay exports were 123,000 tons pa, greater than before the First World War – all of which was delivered to the port by road. They increased further to 300,000 tons in the early 1960s, and then levelled off at around 350,000 tons pa. The Morgan Giles shipyard closed in 1969; the site is now occupied by Morgans Quay apartments.
Interestingly, in the 1970s measures to improve access to the port were considered, including by building a wall to reduce the size of waves and stabilise the sand bar, and to create a channel for large ships between the wall and the sand bar. However, those familiar with the conditions around the harbour entrance felt it could do more harm than good, and this was dropped in favour of a policy of continuous dredging of the channel.
Since then modern vessels designed to carry large cargoes on a shallow draft have become commonplace, as they are expected to travel up rivers, pass under low bridges, and they don’t carry their own cargo handling equipment.
Trade with Europe increased as result of the UK’s entry into the EU, particularly imports of animal feed, chipboard, coal, paper reels and slate, and by the early 1980s the total trade had grown to about 600,000 tonnes.
The website of the port operator, Associated British Ports, lists the current trade tonnage as 400,000 p.a., down by a third since the 1980s, with clay now representing half of the total. The website also provides information about the largest ships the port can accommodate: up to 120 metres in length, with a maximum draught of 5 metres, and a deadweight (i.e. fully loaded weight) of about 5,000 tonnes. While such ships are very small compared to the largest modern cargo vessels (which are up to 400m long and up to 400,000t deadweight) they still look huge and unwieldy within the confines of Teignmouth harbour.
The dredged channel for ships of this size runs very close to the sand spit, as can be seen in this picture of the Hamburg-registered Stefan K (3,500 tonnes) turning to enter the harbour. (July 2016)
Teignmouth also hosts other river-based leisure activities including boating, rowing and fishing.
A fisherman on the harbour side of the sand bar (May 2011). Almost certainly he is hoping to catch bass. Several bass of over 10lbs are caught on the river each season. Presumably with a bit of luck bass fishing could be very profitable – retail prices for sea bass fillets were around £35 per pound in 2012.
There is also a small number of commercial fishing boats based at Teignmouth
The Teignmouth –based trawler ‘Girl Rona’ on the river beach having just been re-painted (July 2010). Recently this boat fished for sprats in Lyme Bay, catching 15-20 tonnes per day. In 2009 sprats fetched about £200 per ton and those caught by this vessel were processed and packed into spiced barrels for export to Denmark. Unfortunately, in January 2012 ‘Girl Rona’ ran aground on Spratt Sand at the entrance to the harbour and was stranded there on her side for a week until lifted off at a high tide by a salvage vessel. She was seen undergoing repairs a few weeks later. The crew were rescued unharmed by the Teignmouth lifeboat. This was a reminder that even with modern navigation aids, a local skipper can be fooled by the ever-changing conditions at the harbour entrance.
Clearly, fishing used to be a more significant activity here than now. This large, rather nondescript building just behind the commercial docks used to be a smoke house in which locally caught fish such as herring, haddock and salmon were split open, cleaned and smoked dry over a fire. (November 2013)
This produced a more appetising end product than salting (described later in this page). Apparently this building has also served as a prison at some time, as suggested by the bars on the windows. It is currently occupied by a funeral business and a bowling club.
Just across the road, at the bottom of Teign Street, is the Teign Brewery Inn, a no-frills local pub. The building was originally an 18th century house, with a rather elegant shop front added in the late 19th century. Presumably at one time it housed a small brewery.
The Teign Brewery Inn (November 2013)
The annual regatta is a big event in the town’s calendar. It features a single-handed rowing race (the Barham Cup) up the estuary from Teignmouth to Newton Abbot town quay, and seine boat racing in the harbour area, organised by the River Teign Rowing Club.
Traditionally, River Teign seine boats were 17 feet long, propelled by oars or sails, and clinker built of English elm bottoms and larch. They were used in the Teign estuary for working salmon seines, nets that were two hundred yards long and over half a ton in weight. A seine boat had a four man crew and was rowed by two fourteen-foot oars. They were designed for the shallow waters of the estuary, where they could carry a ton of shellfish and still float in less than eighteen inches of water. In the winter months they were used to catch herring and sprats. The seine boats used for racing are replicas made of fibreglass, with a crew of four rowers and a coxswain.
The same competitors rounding The Salty in front of the commercial docks (July 2010). These races start at Shaldon beach and end in front of the river beach – the boats turn at the orange buoy in the main channel, seen in the background.
Teignmouth has two churches of medieval origin. The first church on the site of St James, West Teignmouth, was dedicated in 1236. The medieval tower, made from sandstone blocks, has survived from the first church, and is probably now the oldest structure in the town. By the 1820s the original church was almost derelict and a new building was commissioned by Admiral Pellew. The unusual octagonal plan of the nave was designed with seating around the pulpit, with a gallery above. It was intended to be a reminder of his glorious victory at Algiers in 1816 through which he came to prominence at the end of his career - the octagonal plan intending to be reminiscent of buildings there. This was the climax of a campaign against the Barbary States, the semi-independent Muslim princedoms of North Africa, which for years had preyed on Mediterranean sea traffic, and held thousands of Christian prisoners in slavery for ransom. The action was unusual in that Pellew’s fleet of 23 ships attacked the fortified port of Algiers with its massed guns at close range – they were not opposed by any enemy ships. Pellew’s ships destroyed the fortifications, the local ruler was forced into a submissive treaty, and several thousand prisoners of many nationalities, were released from captivity. Pellew was a great friend of Thomas Luny, whose house is within sight of St James’, and it is said that he wanted to impress Luny with this somewhat extravagant design. Luny’s tomb is in the churchyard.
The tower of St. Michael’s church, situated close to the seafront, is a prominent feature of the town, and there was a church on this site from Saxon times, at the centre of the hamlet of East Teignmouth. But as a whole the modern building, substantially rebuilt in the 1880s, is a mixture of styles of ecclesiastical architecture, that has little to recommend it.
Another view of the tower of St Michael’s, taken from just off shore, with the pier and beach in the foreground. (November 2013)
Although much more recent, the Catholic church on Dawlish Road is a distinctive building in a prominent position on Dawlish Road. The Catholic Church (March 2012). Its correct title is The Church of Our Lady and St Patrick. It was built in 1854 and the architect was Charles Hansom,a well-known Roman Catholicwhose best known works are the main school building at Clifton College, and Plymouth Cathedral. He worked on the latter with his older brother Joseph, who in 1834 had designed the Hansom Cab, a two seat fast lightweight cab drawn by a single horse. (Hansom Cabs were the most popular such vehicles in London and many other cities around the world, until they were replaced by motorised taxis during the 1910s.) This view of the church shows the unusual porch and the octagonal belfry tower with lancet windows.
There are no records from which the date of the first permanent settlement on the land now occupied by modern Teignmouth can be determined, but the second half of the 7th century AD would be a good guess. Before that the thinly scattered native Celtic population – mainly small groups of peasant farmers – would have favoured higher ground to avoid flooding or waterlogging, although it’s reasonable to expect that people living in the vicinity of the Teign estuary would have regularly come to the mouth of the river to fish. But then the South coast began to be settled by Saxon incomers – most historians no longer think in terms of an ‘invasion’ as in most places there was probably no organised resistance and Saxons ended up living side by side with ‘natives’. However, R.R. Sellman, in his Aspects of Devon History says that it’s possible that Britons did resist the Saxons by holding the line of the river Teign for a time, maybe until about 710 AD, but coastal village sites were among the first to be colonised by Saxons, so it seems likely that there was a small settlement at Teignmouth by this time.
The site of modern Teignmouth was crossed by a small river called the Tame which ran from the Haldon Hills and swung round passing near where the railway station is now, joining the Teign at the site of what is now the New Quay.
Teign Street (December 2011). This street looks as if it has been here since the beginning, but its site was originally within the estuary of the Tame Brook and as such would have marshy, and flooded at high tide
The Tame separated what became the villages of West and East Teignmouth.The course of this river has now been built over and it has effectively disappeared.
Neither village is mentioned in the Domesday Book; but it isn’t known whether this was just an omission or because there weren’t sufficiently large settlements to justify inclusion. Teignmouth was first mentioned in a Saxon charter of 1044 as ‘Tegne-mutha’, meaning ‘mouth of the stream’, which presumably referred to the Tame, rather than what is now called the Teign.
By 1253, nearly two centuries after Domesday, East Teignmouth was substantial enough to be granted a market by charter, and West Teignmouth obtained a similar grant a few years later.
Probably the next earliest recorded historical event was in 1340 when Teignmouth was singled out among South West ports for attack by a French naval force, possibly because the bigger ports of Plymouth and Dartmouth were better defended. In response, seven years later Teignmouth sent seven ships and 120 men against the French at Calais.
If you’re wondering what was going on in 1340, it was the early stages of what became known as The Hundred Years War (1337-1453), in which France and England were on different sides. Within that long series of conflicts 1340 was special as it was the only time when France (briefly) achieved naval supremacy, augmenting their fleet with Genoese ships and crews armed with crossbows. Several places on the English coast were attacked, which disrupted valuable trade and created a fear that the French would mount a successful invasion. But in late June 1340 the French fleet was almost completely destroyed at the Battle of Sluys, just off the Flanders coast, which was a brutal affair involved about 200 ships on either side. After this, England was able to dominate the English Channel for the rest of the war, preventing any further French incursions.
A miniature of the Battle of Sluys from Jean Froissart’s ‘Chronicles’, 14th century
The relative importance of the port diminished in the Tudor period, probably because the harbour became silted up with debris deposited in the river as a result of mining on Dartmoor – all the larger estuaries in Devon and Cornwall were affected by this. In 1601 Sir Walter Raleigh spoke in Parliament of the need to raise money for the improvement of South coast harbours, and referred particularly to Teignmouth, of which presumably he had direct knowledge.
In 1975, while spear fishing, a 13 year old boy found a ship’s bronze cannon 20 feet underwater about 100 yards from the beach, near St Michael’s church and the yacht club building. It was identified as a ‘saker’, and its inscriptions indicated it was of Venetian origin. Other artefacts from the shipwreck, including more cannon, metalwork and pottery, were found during subsequent dives. Then in 1995 the site at Church Rocks attracted the attentions of archaeologists from Channel 4′s ‘Time Team’. The team aimed to carry out a thorough survey of the wreck, but they underestimated the difficulties of first locating it, and then clearing away several feet of sand covering what was left. Within the three day period dictated by the structure of the TV programme, they did eventually uncover some timber planking, but made no new finds. However, examination of the artefacts found earlier enabled them to confirm that it was a Venetian galley involved in trading along the Channel sometime in the late 16th century. It would have been a substantial sea-going vessel, powered by sail and a large number of oars, manned by slaves. The cannon were intended to protect the ship against pirates. This design was probably better suited to the Mediterranean than the heavier seas of the Channel, and if it had run aground it would easily have become unstable, with water breaking through the many oarports, swamping the vessel and probably drowning many of the oarsmen. A sketch of the type of vessel wrecked at Church Rocks.
One theory was that it might have been captured by and under the control of the Spanish, and that possibly the wreck took place when the Armada was making its way along the Channel in 1588. But this seems unlikely, as the coast was being watched closely at a time when invasion was threatened, and wrecks resulting from the Armada are generally well documented. But, given it happened so close to the town, it is curious that there are no contemporary references to the wreck, and that its valuable contents were apparently not recovered by locals. It was therefore suggested that it had come to grief in a storm when trying to find the harbour entrance at night, but even then one wonders what happened to the crew, as there are no records of burials of the large number of men who would have lost their lives.
In the first half of the 17th century all West Country ports were also adversely affected by the activities of privateers. There was a small trade in culm, pitch and tar, and in materials for limeburners and shipbuilders based in the estuary. However, smuggling was rife at this time and it’s possible that this was more lucrative than any legitimate activity.
In the latter part of the 17th century the port came to depend on the cod fishery of Newfoundland – which was one of the richest in the world until it completely collapsed in the early 1990s due to extreme over-fishing for the preceding forty years. But in the 1600s catches were plentiful and sustainable and West Country fishermen were in charge – the master of the first fishing ship to arrive each May had absolute authority over British and foreign fishermen for that season. Fishing vessels sailing to Newfoundland from Teignmouth were mostly small ships of up to 100 tons with a crew of up to 50. They brought some of their catch home and sold the rest to bigger trading ships that were in attendance at the fishing grounds, which then transported fish to Spain, Italy and elsewhere.
‘Green fishery’ involved the fisherman standing in one of the barrels fastened to the ship’s side, with his leather apron hanging outside to keep him dry. As he pulled in fish all day from his line, he threw them up over his shoulder for processing – de-gutting, de-heading and initial stowage with some salt to let the juices flow out. (This must have been a really unpleasant, exhausting job – but so much work then was extremely physically demanding.) A couple of days after being caught the fish were repacked with some more salt. Then, when the hold is full, the ship sailed back to Europe to sell the catch. With ‘dry fishery’ the ship returned to dock every night to get the fish processed, and they were split up the middle. The split fish were brushed with brine and left to cure for a couple of days, after which they were washed and laid out on drying tables, known as flakes. The cod was ready in a few weeks provided they were kept as dry as possible, exposed to sun and air, and flipped over regularly.
There was rather a strange incident in June 1625 when four Dutch ships pursued four local ships into Teignmouth harbour. Each claimed that they believed the others were pirates. About 50 men armed with muskets and swords landed from the Dutch ships and were resisted by men from the local ships, which they attempted to board. The story goes that Sir George Chudleigh, the lord of the manor, intervened and told the Dutch that the coastal beacons had been fired and that 2000 armed men would be there within the hour. This was clearly highly optimistic, but it seems the Dutch decided not to chance it and left without doing any damage.
The town was not so lucky 65 years later. In 1690 East Teignmouth was attacked by a French fleet, the last successful foreign ‘invasion’ in England.
At the time the French were angry by the recent defeat of James II at the Battle of the Boyne, and flushed with a recent naval victory over British and Dutch fleets off Beachy Head. They anchored in Torquay and then on July 26th sailed back along the coast and East Teignmouth was the first place they came to – although they may have mistaken it for Plymouth. It was claimed that the raiding party was about 700 strong: they sacked the church, burned fishing boats, looted and set fire to, and otherwise destroyed, much of the town and Shaldon too. The inhabitants sensibly took to the hills. Warning beacons were lit and there was nationwide alarm about the possibility of a greater invasion. Very soon all the roads from Exeter were crowded with soldiery; by the following morning 500 armed and mounted men had assembled on Haldon Hill and the militia were being mobilised throughout Devon. But by this time the raiders had re-embarked, although their ships remained close to and continued to threaten the south coast for some weeks afterwards.
In the wake of the destruction an appeal by the townspeople raised money to build temporary timber dwellings, later replaced by more permanent ones with lath and plaster frames. One of the streets completely destroyed and rebuilt was renamed ‘French Street’ and the raid is commemorated in a notice on a wall next to the recently rebuilt Teign Heritage Centre.
By some accounts, the only building that survived the 1690 fire was the ‘Jolly Sailor’ public house near to the docks.
The western end of French Street. (March 2012) The notice is a quote from a petition to the Lord Lieutenant and reads ‘On the 26th day of this instant July 1690 by foure of the clock in the morning, your poor petitioners were invaded by the French to the number of 1000 or thereabouts, who in the space of three hours burnt down the dwelling houses of 240 persons of this parish …’ The document continued ‘… 240 persons and upwards, plundered and carried away all our goods, defaced our churches, burnt ten of our ships in the harbour, besides fishing boats, netts and other fishing craft …’ The damage was independently assessed at 116 houses destroyed, a further 172 rifled and plundered, two churches much ruined, plundered and defaced, and ten sailing ships burnt together with their furniture and the merchandise they were carrying. As a result a nationwide church collection was undertaken to raise £11,000 for rebuilding.
There was some long-term benefit from the raid – once the burnt cottages were rebuilt, the town had a relatively neat, clean appearance which, combined with its picturesque natural setting, enabled it to present itself as a healthy place to live or visit, and when wealthy people were prevented from venturing abroad by the Napoleonic Wars, it was dubbed ‘the Montpellier of England’. When I encountered this I was puzzled, as at this time Montpellier, an ancient city set back from the Mediterranean coast, was known mainly for its centres of learning, particularly its school of medicine. However it seems that, for the British, the dominant association with Montpellier became that of somewhere with a particularly healthy and attractive setting, even if many other towns and cities on the Continent would have been better exemplars – and several places in Britain and elsewhere were named after it.
The initials TDT TT stand for Teignmouth and Dawlish Turnpike Trust Terminus; the Trust was responsible for the eleven miles of road from Powderham to Teignmouth; the terminus stone at the other end is at Red Lodge, Powderham. By 1838 they had extended the roads under their care to include connections to Ashcombe, Mamhead, Kenn, Chudleigh and Bishopsteignton, a total of over 26 miles. Of course, users of these roads were obliged to pay tolls – there were tollhouses and gates set up at all the access points. The 1830s was the peak of the turnpike era: by then over 1,000 trusts administered around 30,000 miles of turnpike road in England and Wales. However, the turnpike system still only covered perhaps a fifth of the roads in Britain; the majority were maintained by parish councils.
The old toll house at the junction of Dawlish Road and Oak Hill Cross Road
Where railways provided an alternative, turnpike roads began to lose revenue and many trusts were wound up in the 1870s and 1880s, and the legal responsibility for maintaining main roads was transferred to county and borough councils in 1888.
An engraving of a stagecoach on a turnpike road near Oxford sometime in the first half of the 19th century; the dust is being thrown up by the Macadamised road surface, invented by John McAdam. This consisted of two layers of stones, the lower 8 inch deep layer consisting of stones no larger than 3ins in diameter, the top 2 inch layer of stones no larger than 0.8 inches. Thus the stones in the top layer were much smaller than the width of iron treads on carriage wheels of the time, and so tended to merge together in use to give a smooth running surface. However, this didn’t work so well when motor vehicles arrived, and it was found necessary to bind the surface – a mixture of coal tar and ironworks slag, named ‘tarmac’ by its inventor, became widely adopted.
Coming back to maritime matters, the Newfoundland-related trade continued to flourish in the 18th century. A ship might sail direct to Newfoundland with stores, equipment and exports on speculation, possibly calling at a Southern Irish port en route. Or it might sail first to Brittany, Spain or Portugal and there load salt for the fishery. Having reloaded in Newfoundland with dried codfish and other local products the return might be to a British or Mediterranean port – ironically there was little demand for salt fish in Britain, but cod oil for soap and leather industries, and spars for shipbuilding were brought here. By the second half of the 18thcentury among Devon seaports only Dartmouth was more important than Teignmouth.
The harbour from Shaldon Bridge (November 2013).
Life was hard for the women left behind during the six months of the year the Newfoundland fishermen were away. They needed to be strong and resilient. They had to grow or gather what food they could to feed their families, including crewing fishing boats.
Until the mid-18th century much of what is now the town centre was marsh or beachy mud, and there was a deep, filthy ditch running down the main road into town from Dawlish.
The bottom end of Dawlish Street, the old main road into Teignmouth from Dawlish. (December 2011) This narrow stretch had two way traffic, sometimes controlled by a man in a white coat, until the 1960s.
Then efforts were made to reclaim this area, initially by partially channelling the Tame and raising the level of the marshes using ballast from ships entering the port empty and leaving laden. At that time most Teignmouth men worked in the Newfoundland trade, and women were employed gathering shellfish and spinning ‘jadoo’ thread.
During the 18th century there was also a coastal marine trade in coal, culm, building supplies (especially bricks), sugar, barrels of beef and pork, oak bark for tanning, staves and bottles for small cider factories around the Teign estuary, timber, sailcloth, rope, pitch, tar, and oakum for shipbuilding and repair. The ships mainly went to and from south coast and West Country ports e.g. Portsmouth, Lymington, Dartmouth, Plymouth, and occasionally London and Liverpool. Exports of clay began in the early 1700s, but was not significant until around 1770, when it had grown to 4,000 tons p.a. Twenty years later James Templer built his canal to transport clay out, and sea sand and limestone in for improvement of his relatively infertile land (see the Stover Canal page). The canal caused a further sharp expansion of clay exports, which reached 20,000 tons p.a. by the 1820s.
In the latter part of the 18th century the port suffered from a general mood of lawlessness fuelled by privateering, which was legal during periods of war and particularly rife during the most bitterly contested stages of the American War of Independence. Then, during the French Wars, up to Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815, many Teignmouth-based ships, both fishing and trading vessels, were captured by enemy privateers or warships, some from positions close in to shore. Although Teignmouth had little direct trade with Europe and so was not greatly affected by the French blockade, the port did suffer from the loss of both coastal and Newfoundland trade. However, Teign shipyards profited from war – between 1793 and 1815 no less than 68 vessels of varying sizes were completed by six shipbuilding yards – three in Teignmouth: owned by William Rendle, William Curtis and James Heath, plus John Stephens’ yard in Ringmore, and Thomas Sutton and Thomas Tucker on Shaldon Green.
The New Quay Inn (December 2011) was formerly called “The Newfoundland Fishery”. This was where sailors wishing to work in Newfoundland used to be registered. On the back wall of the building there is a panel with the first five verses of the poem ‘Teignmouth’ by John Keats.
For there’s Bishop’s teign
And King’s teign
And Coomb at the clear Teign head -
Where close by the stream
You may have your cream
All spread upon barley bread.
There’s arch Brook
And there’s larch Brook
Both turning many a mill;
And cooling the drouth
Of the salmon’s mouth,
And fattening his silver gill.
There is Wild wood,
A Mild hood
To the sheep on the lea o’ the down,
Where the golden furze,
With its green, thin spurs,
Doth catch at the maiden’s gown.
There is Newton Marsh
With its spear grass harsh -
A pleasant summer level
Where the maidens sweet
Of the Market Street,
Do meet in the dusk to revel.
There’s the Barton rich
With dyke and ditch
And hedge for the thrush to live in
And the hollow tree
For the buzzing bee
And a bank for the wasp to hive in.
The final two verses, not on the panel are:
And O, and O
The daisies blow
And the primroses are waken’d,
And violets white
Sit in silver plight,
And the green bud’s as long as the spike end.
Then who would go
Into dark Soho,
And chatter with dack’d-hair’d critics,
When he can stay
For the new-mown hay,
And startle the dappled prickets?
John Keats had come to Teignmouth in March 1818. A few months earlier his two younger brothers, George and Tom, had rented a house in Northumberland Place (now called Keats House), and he came to join them. Tom Keats was already seriously affected by tuberculosis, and it was thought that the mild Devonshire climate, plus specialist care from a well-known local doctor, would help his condition. However, it was a particularly bad winter and spring, with cold winds, mist rolling up the estuary meeting fog coming in from the sea, and persistent rain.
Keats House in Northumberland Place (December 2011)
By early May, the weather was improving but it was plain that Tom was much worse, being feverish and finding it hard to sleep. John had been writing poetry all the time he was in the town and was beginning to enjoy his visit. The above piece, which he described as ‘some doggerel’ was enclosed in a letter to a friend, in which he added ‘Here all the summer could I stay’. However, the brothers left Teignmouth soon after, and Tom died in December 1818. The following year John himself was diagnosed with TB, which he had probably caught from his brother. He travelled to Rome in the hope that a warmer climate would ameliorate his condition as it worsened. He died there in February 1821, aged 25.
When the French wars were over clay and granite exports increased, the latter aided by the tramway linking the quarries to the Stover canal. George Templer, James’ son, funded the building of New Quay, which was ready for use in 1821 – contemporary prints show deep draught vessels alongside loading by means of a crane – now the channel next to the quay almost dries out at low water.
These nearby sandstone buildings, on the corner of Quay Road and Gales Hill, which used to be fish stores, were once situated on a small sandy island in the middle of the Tame just before it joined the Teign. It was called Rat Island, presumably because it supported a colony of these creatures; it must have been a constant battle to keep them out of the fish stores.
A year earlier than the New Quay came into operation, the ingenious tramway made of rails carved from granite opened for the transport of granite blocks from Hay Tor quarries to the head of the canal. The granite was used in the construction of several major London buildings including London Bridge. In 1831 fourteen large barges with blocks of granite for London Bridge were towed out by a powerful steam vessel, which at the time was the largest ever to visit the port of Teignmouth.
Finally, to round off the Teignmouth page, these delightful tiles, now rather battered, are to be found on the front of an Indian take-away in Teign Street, which presumably was once a fishmongers.