History of Dartmouth
From time immemorial, the river Dart estuary has been known for its excellent deep water harbour. It seems likely from recent archaeological finds in Southtown that even in the Mesolithic period (c.10,000-4,000 BC.) there was a settlement here, and in Neolithic times and later in Celtic and Saxon periods there was trading with Europe using small boats, beached on the mudbanks. The Saxons reached the Dart from the west by 705 AD., and while there are no surviving Saxon buildings there are many Saxon place-names in the area. The first documented reference to a haven and landing place at the mouth of the Dart appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which refers to the burial there of a Dane named Beorn in 1049. However, during this period there were probably many Viking raids, inhibiting development of permanent settlements beside the river.
The earliest settlement nearby, mentioned in the 1089 Domesday Book, was at Townstal (then called Dunestal meaning homestead on the hill), high above the muddy river bank. Later two fishing hamlets sprang up below the two ridges that led from Townstal to the river:- Clifton (‘by the cliff’ below Waterpool Road and Crowthers Hill) and Hardness (a ‘firm beach by the headland’ below Townstal Hill and Clarence Hill). These were separated by a deep tidal inlet which then extended inland as far as Ford Cross. The two hamlets were included in the manor of Townstal, presided over in the 12th and 13th centuries by William Fitzstephen who in 1198 gave St. Clement’s Church to the newly founded Torre Abbey in Torquay.
Meanwhile Dartmouth Harbour was becoming well known in Europe, and was chosen in 1147 as the assembly-point for 164 ships departing on the Second Crusade. It was also the starting-point for 37 ships joining Richard I on the Third Crusade in 1190.
Both the hamlets of Clifton and Hardness clung perilously to the steep ground above the tide line and were very small in area. They became known together as Clifton-Dartmouth-Hardness, which is still the full name of the town. All the flat land in Dartmouth has been won from the river by successive programmes of reclamation.
This process began early in the 13th century. One of the first steps was the damming of the inlet between Hardness and Clifton. The tidal pool that was created generated enough power to drive two water wheels. The bounds of this pool, which remained in being until the 19th century, are marked approximately by the course of North Ford and South Ford Roads. These meet at the head of the pool at Ford Cross. The mill-dam was on the line of Foss Street (fossa = ditch or bank). The existence of the dam caused a build-up of mud on both sides at an early stage. Houses were built on the west side of the street and wharves and warehouses on the east during the middle ages. Other medieval reclamation was in the form of piecemeal nibbling at the river bank. This was gradually pushed back all along the line of Bayards Cove, Lower Street, Fairfax Place and Mayor's Avenue (see Figure 1).
The prosperity of Tudor and Stuart times, when England found its feet as a great trading nation, was reflected in the town’s prosperity and the houses and buildings of this period still standing in Dartmouth. Further expansion and reclamation was undertaken in the 1580s with the embanking of the New Quay and Spithead. At the beginning of the 17th century Duke Street was reclaimed and the Butterwalk built on it. In 1684 more quays were opened with the completion of the New Ground, on the site of the present Royal Avenue Gardens and bandstand by the Boat Float. This Ground was an island, linked to Duke Street by a bridge, and remained so for nearly 200 years. Nothing was ever built on it and it has always been used as a pleasure ground, a place to unload and load ships and as a venue for markets and fairs.
No more reclamation was undertaken until the 19th century. By this time, although the town had spread out towards the south, the limit to the number of people who could live on the steep and tightly packed slopes above the river was being reached. There was, furthermore, a severe problem of sanitation and public health as the mill-pool and areas near the river bank became more unhealthy and offensive. The first remedy was to fill in the mill-pool, a task which was completed in 1825. On the new land thus obtained, Market Square and then New Road (renamed Victoria Road in 1897) were laid out. The Pannier Market was opened on the Square in 1828. The New Road was continued up the hill to Townstal by the Kingsbridge and Dartmouth Turnpike Trust, and offered a wider, more convenient and more gradual climb than the old roads up Clarence Hill, Ridge Hill or Crowther’s Hill. These old approaches were too narrow and steep for wheeled traffic, and goods had to be transported by pack-horse or by the river.
The next improvement was also one of road construction. Higher Street and Lower Street were the oldest parts of the town; the houses were crammed together; the alleys were unclean and so narrow that it was barely possible to get a wheeled vehicle through them. In 1864 many of the houses between the two streets were demolished to make way for a great stone ramp leading to the cliff road through Southtown. This ramp was called Newcomen Road after the famous inventor Thomas Newcomen, whose house was knocked down in the course of the improvements. Thomas Newcomen developed here the first practical steam engines, used widely to pump out water from mines; the first engine was installed in 1712.
By the early 19th century the town was in need of much reconstruction, and so was the harbour. Most of the slips and wharves were too small and unable to take ships during low water. The Harbour Commissioners proposed building a new waterfront from the Lower Ferry slip as far as Hardness. After much resistance from influential ship-builders with businesses along Mayor’s Avenue, led by Francis Simpson, the North and South Embankments were opened in 1885. They cut off the New Quay and the pool by Mayor's Avenue from the river. The New Quay was given access by a passage under the Embankment, so creating the Boat Float; the pool was filled in, giving much needed open space to the town used for fairs and, nowadays, car parking. The new embankments were never greatly used by shipping, as after the railway came to Kingswear in 1864 it was more convenient to dock on that side of the river, but they allowed much needed property redevelopment along the waterfront; and now afford a great attraction for tourists. The North Embankment was extended in the 1930s as far as the Floating Bridge, cutting off Coombe Mud. The new space gained was turned into Coronation Park, completed in 1937. The most recent improvement to the Embankment was in 1985-6, when it was widened by six metres and the edge raised to prevent flooding from spring tides, at least for the present.
In order to relieve the rapidly increasing traffic congestion in Victoria Road and Duke Street, a new relief road, College Way, was built in the 1970s. More recently the ‘Park and Ride’ in Townstal was instituted to try to relieve Dartmouth’s chronic parking problems.
Dartmouth was until 1974 a municipal borough with its own Mayor and Corporation. In centuries before our own this was a valuable privilege. It conferred a certain status on the town; it made it virtually self-governing in matters of local justice and regulation. In the Middle Ages it marked the town as one of commercial standing and ambition.
The first step towards becoming a borough was made in 1231 when Richard Fitzstephen, lord of Townstal was permitted to hold a weekly market and annual fair. In 1270 Henry III recognized the burgesses of Dartmouth and by 1281 they had their own seal, showing a high-prowed ship called a ‘cog’ with single mast and sail. In 1286 Edward III visited the town and gave permission to build a church, later called St. Saviour’s, to save townsfolk the long walk up to Townstal.
In 1298 two burgesses from Dartmouth were summoned to a parliament held at York. Parliaments were held at this time to extract money to fund royal schemes. Obviously, Dartmouth was believed to be rich enough to be worth asking. Official borough status was given to Dartmouth by Edward III’s royal charter in 1341. He granted it for two reasons: firstly because he had already obtained help in the prosecution of his war with France from the ships and sailors of the town and secondly because the burgesses offered him the free service of two fully manned warships of up to 120 tons for forty days each year. In return he granted considerable judicial independence and the right to elect a Mayor and bailiffs. The names of Dartmouth Mayors have been recorded ever since 1340 with very few gaps. The first Guildhall was in the present Anzac Street, but from 1494 to 1864 it was in Higher Street. Then the Corporation moved to the Assembly Rooms in Duke Street, on the site of the present NatWest Bank, and later to Victoria Road, first using the Bible Christians’ chapel and then from 1901 the British School and Subscription Rooms nearby.
Until 1463 the borough limits did not extend much further south than Bayards Cove where they met the parish of Stoke Fleming. In that year, Edward IV authorised the transfer to the borough of Southtown, Warfleet and a strip of land down the river bank to the first castle built about 1388. This was so that the town could better maintain and provision the castle.
When Clifton-Dartmouth-Hardness became a borough, Townstal remained a rural estate connected with the town only because St.Saviour’s was a dependant chapel to St.Clement’s Church at Townstal. This separation of the two settlements continued until Townstal was taken into the borough in 1891, although Townstal remained a separate Parish until 1931. Dartmouth Corporation continued until 1974 when it was absorbed into the South Hams District Council. There is now a Town Council and a mayor, but they only have the powers of a Parish Council and cannot decide on planning matters.
Members of parliament from Dartmouth are first mentioned in 1298, but they were not summoned again until 1351. The town then sent two members to most sessions until 1832 when the number was reduced to one by the Reform Act. After the 1859 election the member first elected was unseated after he had been discovered distributing £1,400 among the voters. The town was finally merged with a larger constituency in 1868.
The town played an important part in national politics during the Civil War. Dartmouth was strongly for Parliament, and gained a reputation for the stout resistance it put up against Prince Maurice when he came into Devon for the King in 1643. Dartmouth and Kingswear castles, ships in the harbour and church towers were manned and armed, and Dartmouth held out for four weeks, delaying a Royalist attack on Plymouth, which failed and was an important factor in Parliament’s eventual success. Dartmouth was then held by the Royalists until recaptured by General Fairfax in 1646 by a three-pronged attack from the north, west and south. The castle and Royalist forts at Gallants Bower and Mount Ridley, Kingswear were the last to surrender.
The present population of the town is 5,841 (2001), subject to great expansion during summer months. In 1801 there were 3,412 inhabitants. The largest number ever living here was in 1921 when 7,219 people were counted.
While there is strong evidence of trading in earlier times, it was probably the Normans after 1066 who first developed Dartmouth as a port, and for centuries the town’s prosperity has depended on the sea. In the Middle Ages, Dartmouth's trade was largely with the Atlantic seaboard of Europe, especially Brittany, Gascony and Spain. The chief commodities exported were wool and grain and the most important import was wine.The position of the harbour in relation to the sea route to the Mediterranean and the Holy Land also led to its adoption as the port of embarkation for expeditionary forces for the second crusade of 1147 and the third crusade in 1190. There was also much military and official transport between Dartmouth and the English dominions in France before the loss of Aquitaine in 1453.
These comings and goings made Dartmouth an important place. In the 14th century it was reckoned to be the fourth richest town in Devon after Exeter, Plymouth and Barnstaple. In 1347 it supplied 760 men and 30 ships, the third largest contingent of any port in the country, at the siege of Calais.
This, and the raids on French ships and ports by Dartmouth’s ‘shipmen’ led by mayor John Hawley (c.1340-1408), made the town an object of French attack during the Hundred Years War. In 1374 Edward III, concerned about this, ordered John Hawley to construct a fort at the river mouth. After a French attack on Dartmouth in 1377, Hawley’s ‘fortalice’, the first castle, was duly built between 1388-1400 and later a protective chain arranged across the river to a small fort at Godmerock. In 1404 a Breton force of 2,000 knights and 300 ships again attacked Dartmouth, circumventing the fortifications by attacking from the land via Slapton. However Hawley and his army of countrymen defeated them at the Battle of Blackpool in Stoke Fleming. Dartmouth’s seamen, and notably John Hawley, often acted as privateers with royal authority to seize French ships, and have been portrayed by Chaucer in his description of the ‘Shipman of Dertemouth’ in his Prologue to The Canterbury Tales.
In the 1540s John Leland visited Dartmouth from Totnes, and described it as “inhabited most by fishermen and some good merchants”. He crossed the Foss where he described the ruins of ‘Hawley’s Hoe’, as well as St.Saviour’s Church and the Castles with their chain.
Dartmouth was in the forefront, with other West Country ports, when America was discovered and Atlantic trade and new colonies were first sought in the 16th century. This trade more than compensated for the decline in the Aquitaine traffic during the previous century and the town became very prosperous in the period 1580-1643. Dartmouth was the point of departure for the famous voyages of discovery of Sir Humphrey Gilbert and John Davis between 1578 and 1605. Other Elizabethan sea-dogs such as Sir Walter Raleigh also used it as a base, bringing back the Spanish treasure ships that they captured. Dartmouth ships helped to defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588, and the captured Spanish ship Madre de Dios was sent to Dartmouth where townsfolk profited from its valuable cargo. Later in 1620 the Pilgrim Fathers stopped here for repairs on their way with the Mayflower and Speedwell to religious freedom in the New World.
Newcomen's Steam Engine
Following the colonization of Newfoundland by Sir Humphrey Gilbert in 1583, much effort was expended on the steady work of developing the Newfoundland fisheries, in which the Newman family were prominent. Dartmouth contributed more ships to this new fishing ground than almost any other port; it was the basis of her fortunes and many rich merchants built houses in the town. A fleet of up to 150 ships sailed for Newfoundland at the beginning of the season. The catch was dried and salted on the beaches over there and returned to Europe to be traded for wine and luxuries in the markets of Spain, Portugal and Italy. Ships were built and repaired in various yards along the river-banks. There was also a brisk export traffic in the cloth manufactured inland at towns such as Ashburton.
The Newfoundland fishery suffered a decline during the second half of the 17th century, mainly as a result of competition from the French and interception of the fishing fleets by Dutch privateers. However, in the 18th century a flourishing trade again grew up in supplying the colony of Newfoundland with clothing, ironware and other necessities, mostly Devon-made. These were exchanged for salt fish, in turn sold for wine and fruit in Europe, making a profitable triangular voyage. A number of large Georgian houses in Clarence Hill and Southtown reflect the tastes of the merchants of this time. Daniel Defoe wrote about Dartmouth after a visit in 1724 (see page 27). After the Napoleonic wars, most of this trade was lost to ports such as Liverpool, closer to the new industrial centres, and Dartmouth’s prosperity again declined.
There were attempts during the mid-19th century to develop the port for passenger and mail services. The Royal Dart Hotel at Kingswear, then called the Plume of Feathers, was used as a staging point for those waiting for a ship. In 1840 the Admiralty recommended Dartmouth as a possible station for mail packet steamers to the West Indies, but this contract finally went to Southampton. There was a short-lived service to Calcutta in 1856 and the Cape & Natal Steamship Company ran a South African and Australian route from here between 1871 and 1891. These schemes failed (and others were not attracted to Dartmouth) because communications with the rest of the country were so poor, even after the coming of the railway to Kingswear in 1864. However the fortunes of the port looked up again with its adoption as a coaling station in 1878. Hulks were anchored in the river and a large number of men were employed in bunkering ships—more than 740 vessels were fuelled in the peak year, 1890. The prowess of the men of the town in rowing is historically founded on this trade for the various teams of coal heavers or 'lumpers' would race out to sea to be the first to meet an incoming ship and thus obtain the contract to bunker it. While shipbuilding remained Dartmouth’s biggest employer, coaling later declined in the 20th century as merchant fleets converted to oil, a process accelerated by the destruction of many steam-ships in the two world wars.
Pleasure trips up the river have been a major tourist attraction since the 19th century, and together with the Paignton and Dartmouth Steam Railway which now owns River Link, attract a continuous source of visitors in the summer months. Most of the staff on the river boats work on refurbishing them in the winter at River Link’s boatyard in Old Mill Creek.
Dartmouth has always been a naval port; it was even considered as a possible site for a naval dockyard before the Admiralty chose Plymouth. Instead they decided on Dartmouth as the site for training naval officers. The College was first established in wooden-hulled warships (Britannia and Hindustan) moored off Sandquay in 1863 and 1865. The shore buildings were erected from 1899-1905 to the designs of Sir Aston Webb, the architect of the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Admiralty Arch. King Edward VII laid the foundation stone of the main building in 1902, and since then many ‘Royals’ have been trained there. Queen (then Princess) Elizabeth first met Prince Philip at the College. Apart from making an impressive back-drop to the town, it continues to ensure the presence of a number of naval vessels during the year and offers considerable employment to the civilian population.
During the Second World War Dartmouth was again an important centre of naval effort, when the Americans used Coronation Park to repair landing craft for the invasion of France, and the Allied Navies made good use of the harbour. From here a fleet of 480 vessels sailed for the beaches of Normandy in June 1944.
Coronation Park 1944
In 1944 Coronation Park, only recently grassed, was covered in Nissen huts used to repair the landing ships after damage in exercises.
The port's administration extended to Totnes, Torquay, Brixham and Kingsbridge until reorganisation in the 19th century. All registration of vessels, customs and other formalities were conducted through Dartmouth Harbour. Ownership of the rights to the control of the river and the foreshore fell into the hands of the Crown in 1327, but were permanently transferred to the royal Duchy of Cornwall in 1333. The borough Corporation leased them from the Duchy for the period 1508-1860. An independent Harbour Commission with representatives from all interested bodies was established in 1863. This was superseded in 1975 by the Dart Harbour and Navigation Authority which controls the river up as far as Totnes.
The town has for centuries depended on the sea for its livelihood. Shipbuilding has been a major industry here at various times until recently, with yards at Hardness, Coombe Mud, Sandquay and Noss. John Seale built the first shipyard at Sandquay in 1795, and this yard built several men-of-war including HMS Dartmouth in 1813, a 952 ton frigate of 36 guns. Later Francis Simpson started building steam launches in the 1870’s and Simpson and Strickland had an important yard at Noss. Meanwhile George Philip had taken over Sandquay, and Philips soon became the main shipbuilder on the Dart, taking over the Noss yard in 1919. They thrived during World War II, building many naval and commercial ships. Sadly however shipbuilding soon became less profitable, and ceased in 1965. Philips continued to build a few yachts, including the 59 ft. ketch British Steel with which Sir Chay Blyth was the first to sail westward non-stop around the world in 1970/71, and to repair the local fishing fleet. The shipyard closed completely in 1999 after the site had been sold, and the site is now used as a yacht marina although it is possible that some marine uses may be revived at Noss. The decline of the commercial use of the port has led to a loss of young people to other areas, but it is hoped that new employment opportunities will arise in leisure and information technology industries. Use of the harbour by cruise ships and leisure sailors has greatly increased in recent years.
Dartmouth in the 21st century
In recent years Dartmouth has come more and more to depend on tourism, thanks to its beautiful environment, facilities for leisure sailing and cruise ships, hotels, restaurants and other attractions.
One tourist attraction for which Dartmouth is pre-eminent in the South West is the annual Regatta. The first Regatta took place in 1834, and in recent years has become a week-long fete involving competitions and entertainments for everybody.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries wealthy gentlemen enjoyed sailing large yachts, and many built villas in the town. Later sailing became a popular leisure activity in Dartmouth for many, and remains so. Cruising up the river is also a major attraction, and a great many tourists enjoy the ‘round robin’ tour from Torbay via the railway, the passenger ferry, the Dart Pleasure Craft to Totnes and return by road to Torbay. Other attractions recently instituted include the Dartmouth Music Festival, the Arts exhibitions and Food Festival.
There is now a thriving crabbing industry with fresh seafood being off-loaded in Dartmouth and Kingswear, and the quality of food in Dartmouth restaurants is becoming widely known.
Three important community facilities have been built in the last few years:- the Flavel, the Leisure Centre at Townstal and the Townstal Community Centre. These facilities, long demanded by the residents, offer theatre and cinema shows, meeting rooms, arts exhibitions, sports and recreation and are proving most valuable for local people and visitors. The Leisure Centre and a new supermarket have replaced the former BRNC helicopter station, of which the control tower still remains.
Some important dates in Dartmouth's history
- 1049 First mention of 'mouth of Dart' as a haven and landing place in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
- 1147 & 1190 Second and Third Crusades – ships assembled in harbour.
- c. 1243 Foss dam built across tidal creek.
- 1286 Edward I visited the town, and permitted the building St. Saviour's Church.
- 1341 Official Borough status granted by Edward III.
- 1377 Town raided by French-led force.
- c.1388 Hawley's 'fortalice' built at the river mouth.
- 1404 Bretons prevented from sacking Dartmouth by defeat at Battle of Blackpool Sands.
- 1488-94 Dartmouth Castle built.
- 1583 Sir Humphrey Gilbert colonised Newfoundland.
- 1588 Dartmouth ships helped defeat Spanish Armada.
- 1620 Pilgrim Fathers called at Dartmouth.
- 1646 Fairfax recaptured Dartmouth for Parliament.
- 1712 Newcomen built first full-scale steam engine.
- 1775 Poorhouse built on site of St. Clare's Chapel.
- 1822 First recorded Dartmouth Regatta.
- 1823-26 New Road to Townstal built, allowing wheeled vehicles into town. Later renamed Victoria Road.
- 1831 Opening of Floating Bridge (Higher Ferry).
- 1846 Visit of Queen Victoria and family in royal yachts.
- 1863 HMS Britannia, training ship, moored of Sandquay.
- 1905 Britannia Royal Naval College completed.
- 1937 Coronation Park opened on reclaimed land.
- 1944 480 Allied ships left the Dart to join the D-Day invasion.
Written by Eric Preston for the Dartmouth and Kingswear Society