The following is reproduced by kind
permission of Ilfracombe Museum
The Story of
T. R. L. GREEN,
Hon. Secretary Ilfracombe Branch R.N.L.I.
This book is sold for the benefit of the Royal National Life-boat Institution.
It is a privilege to be allowed to write a Foreword to this charming account
of Ilfracombe harbour, which will be enjoyed by the many who I hope will read
The author has given three years of devoted service to his country during this
war, in the surroundings of which he writes, and which he knows so well.
In these times of great stress and great change, it is refreshing to look back
into the unhurried life of earlier days and to steep oneself in the once familiar
atmosphere of tar and hemp and canvas. The old sailing ship days, with their
hardships and hazards, bred a race of men who calmly looked those dangers in
the face and laid the foundation of that sea sense in its people without which
an island empire cannot survive, and which has manifested itself a thousand
times in the epics of the sea that have been written on the pages of the present
Ilfracombe is one of the nurseries which has cradled seamen throughout its long
history, and the author has given a clear and most readable account of that
H. G. C. FRANKLIN
Rear Admiral (Retd.).
Endycross, Northam, North Devon. September, 1943
It was a chosen plot of fertile land,
Amongst `wide waves set like a little nest,
As if it had by Nature's cunning hand
Been choicely picked out from all the rest."
THE port of Ilfracombe is of such antiquity that we may well imagine the small
harbour being used by a few primitive craft as early as the tenth century, at
the time the Norse-men, in their long ships, were making raids on the coasts
of Devon and Somerset and. had seized the islands in the Bristol Channel which
still bear Scandinavian names.
It would be interesting if we could regard the base of the tower of Holy Trinity
Parish Church, which has walls four and a half feet thick and occupies an excellent
strategic position commanding the entrance to two valleys with views over the
sea beyond the entrance to the harbour, as having been built at about that time,
as it antedates the church and was evidently originally intended as a refuge
and lookout, but experts ascribe it to the early Norman period and will not
concede anything older. This tower, and the little church built beneath its
shadow and subsequently extended until both became one building, has been for
many centuries the focal point in the lives of the dwellers in the combe. Towards
it led the narrow lanes from old farmhouses and the one little street from the
harbour strand lined by simple cottages, built from time to time as the number
of inhabitants increased. In the churchyard they held their revels and wrestling
matches and there, when the time came, they were laid to rest. :'Many of them
were mariners, some master mariners, and these descriptions are to be seen after
the names on many of the oldest tombstones.
For many years, even after it was regularly being used by small ships, we must
imagine the harbour as merely a natural haven protected by the " chevn
" or ridge of rocks and stones extending from Compass Hill to Lantern Hill.
At high spring tides the sea would cover the lower parts of this ridge and turn
Lantern Hill into a temporary island. Gradually the gaps between the rocks were
filled in with boulders and stonework until a causeway was created which was
practically free from flooding and provided additional protection to the harbour.
The larger rocks forming this causeway may still he seen in the yards of some
of the houses on the Quay Road, and from Cheyne Beach, and were visible in the
harbour also until the road was widened about seventy years ago. A deep layer
of pebbles and shingle beneath SS. Philip and James Church and a deposit of
washed gravel extending from Albert Court to Water Street indicate that, until
comparatively recent times, the area lying between St. James Place and Fore
Street was part of the harbour strand and that the Wilder Stream originally
entered the sea at the harbour.
Even since the sea walls have been built the waves from Wildersmouth Beach have
been known in times of storm, notably in 1896 and 1910, to sweep along this
low-lying part, so it is evident that in its original state it must have been
subject to constant flooding. From this it may be inferred that the earliest
houses to be built near the harbour were erected on and near Compass Hill, on
the one side, and the rising ground extending from Fore Street to the Cove,
on the other. Some old houses which stood on Compass Hill were pulled down about
the year 1900 and, at the same time, the opening leading to the sea through
the rock by the Crown Hotel was cut. The oldest houses now standing in Fore
Street date from about the latter half of the seventeenth century and one of
them, No. 78, has a fine iron-studded door bearing the date 1665. The back walls
and fireplaces of some of the cottages which stood on the Cove may be seen in
the face of the cliff beneath Quayfield Lane. The building of the lower town
mill, in Mill Head Road, is now used as a garage, and the site of the leat,
which had its outlet in the harbour near Rodney Lane, may be traced behind the
Promenade shops and the Collingwood Hotel. The iron bridge, which formerly spanned
the leat by the Crescent Hotel, is re-erected across the stream at Bicclescombe
" Rude as their Ships was navigation then
No useful Compass or Meridian known:
Coasting they kept the land within their ken,
And knew no North but when the Pole-star shone".
By the twelfth century Ilfracombe harbour was being used by Ships trading with
Wales and Ireland and by 1302 the port had attained sufficient note to be called
upon, with Barnstaple, to provide one ship to assist Edward I in his war against
Scotland. Nine years later, with Bridgwater and Barnstaple, it had to help in
supplying his successor Edward II with three ships to continue the same war,
but despite this assistance the Scots, under their leader Robert the Bruce,
succeeded, in 1314, in winning the Battle of Bannockburn.
The early maritime importance of Ilfracombe is further shown by the facts that
the port sent representatives to the Shipping Council in 1344 and two years
later provided Edward Ill with six ships and ninety-six men to assist in the
siege of Calais.
It was the custom for seamen, before setting out on their voyages, to assemble
for mass in the little fishermen's chapel of St. Nicholas, on Lantern
Hill, which we may assume on good authority, including that of Mr. A. T.
Russell, F.R.I.B.A., was built early in the fourteenth century. This little
chapel is mentioned in the Bishops' Registers of 1416 and 1439, when the Rectors
of Ilfracombe were authorized to conduct divine service there, and again in
1522 as a place of pilgrimage. At some subsequent (late, probably between 1534
and 1553 during the Reformation, it ceased to be used for religious purposes
and for many years, until 1871, was occupied as a dwelling-house. The chapel
is now deserted but, despite all the vicissitudes through which the building
has passed, the light has continued, excepting in times of war, to shine out
on winter nights " welcoming the homecoming fishermen and guiding many
a vessel into a port of safety."
In the latter half of the fifteenth century strange tales began to circulate
amongst the seamen who lounged on the quayside ; of how the Portuguese had sailed
round Africa to India of how ships from Bristol, which could be seen passing
by, were making longer and longer voyages westward in search of some strange
land which a navigator named Cabot believed would be found far out across the
Atlantic At times of contrary winds some of these ships, even perhaps the celebrated
Matthew herself, may have anchored off Ilfracombe and their crew come
ashore to spread more yarns. Then came the news that ships which had sailed
in 1497 had at last found the strange land and, what was of more importance
to fishermen, a wonderful new fishing ground here fish could be " dipped
out of the water in a basket." At once great activity developed amongst
shipwrights, sail-makers and rope-makers, and for many years, from 1501 onwards,
ships set out from West Country ports for the Newfoundland fisheries. Towns
on the Atlantic coast of North America with names such as "Hillsborough,"
Hartland," and " Bideford," show that Devon men did not forget
their old homes when founding settlements in the new country.
The sailors of Ilfracombe naturally played their part in the stirring events
of the reign of Queen Elizabeth when the port was used extensively for shipping
troops and horses to quell the rebellions in Ireland. On one occasion, in 1585
Ilfracombe was called upon to provide victuals and shipping for eight hundred
troops, which must have been a severe strain on the resources of the inhabitants.
Although there appears to be no actual record of Ilfracombe having sent ships
against the Spanish Armada in 1588 we may be pretty certain that there were
some local sailors amongst the crews of those that set out from Barnstaple and
The close association of this port with Ireland continued for many-years and
no doubt accounts for the name " Rapparee given to the bathing cove opposite
the pier. A rapparee was an Irish irregular pikeman or freebooter "who
carried a rapaire or short pike. It is interesting to note also that beneath
the name " Larkstone " or " Laston," given to the adjoining
cove we discern that this was the lasting cove where vessels discharged or loaded
their ballast before entering, or after leaving, the inner harbour.
On 12th October 1591, the barque White Hart arrived at Ilfracombe carrying
some " Elifant's teeth " and three years later the reprisal ship,
or privateer, Gifte belonging to W. Morcombe brought a valuable prize
into the harbour.
During the Civil Wars of the Commonwealth eleven people were killed,
on 20th August 1644, in a fight in which the townsmen and sailors of Ilfracombe
beat off a Royalist force. This fight appears to have taken place at a spot
called the " War Field" at the summit of the rising ground on the
south side of the harbour. Part of such rising ground known as Castle Hill
apparently derived its name from a small fort which originally stood on the
lower slope for the defence of the harbour. The register of Holy Trinity Parish
Church records the burial on 31st October 1653 of " Bryant Tooker and
two french men part of a shipps Companie called ye John who were dround at
our Harbours mouth." The tragic story which led to this brief entry will
never be known. Did Tooker (or Tucker) go to the help of the Frenchmen and
meet with a similar fate, or did he die a natural death and merely happen
to be buried on the same day
" Thereto he could endite, and make a thing,
There coude no man blame aught of his writying.
And every statute coude he pleyn by rote."
ILFRACOMBF was originally divided into two manors, one was entirely
dismembered some years ago but the other, which included the harbour and was
a member of the barony of Barnstaple, passed from the Audleys to the Bourchiers,
thence to the Wreys and lastly to the Welds who have continued to own property
in the town until quite recently.
A tablet surmounted by a coat-of - arms and let into the wall of the stone
jetty states that " This extensive Pier built some Ages since by the
Munificence of the Bourchiers Barons of Fitswarine Earls of Bathe and Vice
Admirals of this Place was in the year 1760 partly rebuilt lengthened and
enlarged by Sr Bourchier Wrey Bart the present Lord & inheritor of this
Pier and Manor. A further enlargement of this Pier was commenced by Sr Bourchier
Wrev Bart in the year 1824 & completed in 1829 by Sir Bourchier Palk Wrey
Bart the present Lord of the Manor."
The last enlargement mentioned followed a severe storm in I823 which did considerable
damage. The ownership of the harbour was not an unmixed blessing and the collection
of the dues was evidently attended at times by difficulty and ill-feeling.
We therefore fund that, before embarking on further rebuilding and enlarging
of the harbour walls and jetty, the Sir Bourchier Wrey who was Lord of the
Manor and owner of the harbour in the early part of the eighteenth century,
made application to Parliament for and obtained, in 1730, an Act for defining
various matters affecting his ownership and establishing the harbour dues
payable. The preamble to this Act states that
" WHEREAS the Harbour of Ilfordcombe, in the County of Devon, hath by
long Experience been found to be of great Use and Benefit to the Western Parts
of this Kingdom, and to all Seafaring men, who by the Stress of Weather have
been driven upon that Coast, AND WHEREAS the Key or Pier of the said Port
or Harbour, which contains 856 Feet in Length or thereabouts & about 42
Feet in Height, and the Warp-house, Light-house, and Pilot-boats, and the
Taw-boats belonging to the said Port or Harbour, were at first founded and
built, and have constantly been repaired and maintained at the private Expense
of the Ancestors of Sir Bourchier Wrey Baronet, Lords of the Manor of Ilfordcombe
aforesaid, without any Assistance, except only some small Acknowledgments
which have been paid to them, as Lords of the said Manor of Ilfordcombe. AND
WHEREAS by Length of Time, and Violence of the Sea, the Key Or Pier of the
Port or Harbour aforesaid is very much sunk and decayed, the Warp and Warp-house
by long usage gone to decay, and the Light-house, and the said Boats for piloting
and tawing of Vessels much out of repair, to the great prejudice of His Majesty's
Revenue, and the trade of the said Town of Ilfordcombe, and the parts adjacent
; so that unless some speedy Care be taken to repair the said Key or Pier,
Light-house, Warp-house and Boats for piloting and tawing of Vessels, the
said Harbour will become useless to the Kingdom, and dangerous to Navigation,
and the charges of repairing and maintaining the same will be too great to
be borne by the said Sir Bourchier Wrey and his Heirs, although the ancient
Duties and Acknowledgments should be duly paid and answered ; which of late
years have been Much sunk and lost, for want of a power to recover the same
Following the preamble it was enacted
" that from and after the 24th day of June which shall be in the Year
of Our Lord 1731 the several sums, Duties and Acknow ledgments following,
shall be paid to the said Sir Bourchier Wrey and his Heirs & Assigns,
Lords of the said Manor, for the Purposes aforesaid
For all " woollen " and hay yarn and flock, 1/2d. per stone each
to contain 18 pounds.
For every " tun " of other goods and merchandise imported landed
or discharged the sum of 8d.
For ever- ship, hoy, or vessel driven by stress of weather or otherwise coming
into harbour for security, keelage as follows: Coasters belonging to the port
6d., coasters not belonging to the port 1/6d. Ships or vessels coming from
any of H.M. plantations in Asia, Africa or America or bound thither 2/ 6d.
Over and above keelage dues " 6d. for each top which such vessel beareth."
Keelage for every boat or vessel belonging to any other port or place 4d.
" For the Support and Maintenance of the Light-house and light therein
(which Light shall begin to he set up at Michaelmas 1731, and continue till
the first day of March in every Year) there shall be paid, during such Season
by the respective Masters of every Ship, bark or vessel belonging to the said
Port or Harbour, Six Pence; and by the respective Master of every other Ship,
Bark or Vessel, not belonging to the said Port Or Harbour One Shilling."
For laying up of ships, " barks " or vessels belonging to the harbour
4/4d., to other ports 6/8d.
Herring boats belonging to the port or otherwise 4/4d. Boats fishing for "
mackrelI " 4/4d. For every barrel of herrings exported, landed, or brought
to be exported 1d.
For every horse-load of goods imported, or exported, 3d. Next are set out
the duties and orders for " keeping and maintaining of a Taw-boat there
and for the better preserving of Order in regulating the said Boat . . . and
that the keeper of the said Taw-boat shall appoint a fit and convenient Number
of Men to go therein and . . , shall diligently attend and keep or cause to
be kept the said Boat and Warp always in readiness."
Payments for the warp were Ilfracombe
vessels 6/8d. others 1 3/4d. For keeping proper and lawful weights the Lord
of the Manor was to be paid for every " tun weighed 2d
Further payments were:-
For goods landed. Every " dicker " of leather 3d., Hogshead of tobacco
3d., Wey of coals Or culm 6d., Horse 1d., Bullock1/2d., Score of sheep 4d.,
Dozen of earthenware 1/2d., " Meale" of herrings unsalted "
carried out of the port " 3d., " Tun " of ballast taken on
board 2d, " Tun " of lime stones landed 1d., " Tun " of
groceries or saltery wares 1/6d., Hundred of barrel staves 4d. For liefing
or laying up of every such fishing boat as shall not pay any duty 2/2d
A dicker of leather is a bundle of ten hides, and a meale must, I think, be
a maze of herrings, an expression still used for 620.
Under the further provisions in the Act a fine of 6/8d could be imposed on
anyone removing stones or gravel from the harbour; customs' officers (referred
to as " customers ") were not to take entries or grant discharges
until the duties were paid, sums of money raised by the duties were to be
laid out in repairing and maintaining the pier, " key," light-House,
warp, warp-house, boats and harbour and power was given to the Lords of the
Manor to charge the duties and to appoint and choose a Water Bailiff for managing
the harbour. Books were to be kept shewing receipts and disbursements and
an account on oath was to be given "yearly and every year to the, Court
Leet to be held for the said Port and Burrough of Ilfordcombe."
Towards the end there is a proviso " that nothing in this Act shall extend
to take away or diminish any of the ancient Rights, Privileges or Immunities
which the Freemen and Burgesses of Bridgeswater have always enjoyed, by virtue
of 'a Charter granted to them by King John " from which it may be deduced
that the burgesses of Bridgwater had obtained from that king some fairly wide
privileges in return for services they had rendered. It will be recalled that
Ilfracombe, Barnstaple and Bridgwater were together ordered to provide ships
for Edward ll.
Throughout the Act the spelling of the name of the town appears as "
IIfordcombe " which accords with deeds and documents affecting local
properties of the 17th and 18th centuries.
The old Harbour Act "as repealed by the Pier & Harbour Orders Confirmation
Act 1870, under which powers were
obtained for widening the Quay Road, constructing a quay or pier from the
Golden Lion Hotel to the end of the Warp House point and erecting a wooden
pier from there in a half circle to the Benrick Rock. The work involved by
these alterations and extensions occupied several years and during its progress,
on the night of Sunday, 14th January 1872, a large fall of rock occurred on
the south side of Lantern Hill. A further widening Of the roadway near the
entrance to the pier was made between 1893 and 1895 when the Golden Lion Hotel
was pulled down and the present Pier Hotel erected.
The pier and harbour remained in the ownership of the Lords of the Manor until
the spring of 1908 at which time the whole was acquired for the town by the
Ilfracombe Urban District Council. Although selected and specially prepared
timber was used in constructing the wooden pier the ravages of storms and
marine parasites necessitated constant renewal of the piles and in the winter
of 1939-40 the north-east section had to be entirely rebuilt in reinforced
The red-brick manor house, in Quayfield Lane, which was built in the early
part of the eighteenth century, is now divided into tenements and a later
mansion is incorporated in the Cliffe hotel.
The Court Leets, at which tenants attended to pay their rents and dues to
the Lord of the Manor, were held for many years at the Britannia Hotel, and,
as a certain amount of free refreshment was provided, they were regarded as
enjoyable social events.
Modern legislation, in particular the Law of Property Act 1922, has gradually
shorn the English manors of their ancient glories and privileges but the Weld
family, retained certain Consentionary rents, payable out of local properties,
and some land in the district until quite recently.
The conventionary rents, along with any existing right to the title "
lord of the Manor of Ilfracombe," were sold in 1929 to Alderman R. M.
Rowe, and the remaining land, consisting of several fields, called "Yellands
Farm ," in and near Chambercombe Valley, was sold in 1942 to the Devon
County Council. These transactions completed the dismemberment of the manor.
That he which hath no stomach to this
Let him depart ; his passport shall be made"
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
A ship captured by Admiral Rodney in an engagement with the French off the
West Indies "was wrecked in 1782 at Rapparee Cove, and this incident
may account for the Admiral's name haying been given to the old inn which
existed until 1915 in the narrow lane, between Broad Street and the Strand,
still known as Rodney Lane.
The legend of the red petticoats, which Ilfracombe shares with one or two
other places, arose out of a very futile invasion attempt in 1797, when some
French ships appeared off Ilfracombe and, after sinking several coasters,
crossed to South Wales where they landed about 1,400 men, who immediately
surrendered to a force of militia.
Following this threatened attack two cannon were placed on Lantern Hill for
the defence of the port. In later years the local Artillery Volunteers had
two cannon on the North-east side of Hillsborough, where the remains of the
emplacement may still be seen, and in 1940 threat of invasion again necessitated
During the Napoleonic Wars at least fifty Ilfracombe men served in the Navy,
of whom three arc particularly notable, namely, the brothers Richard and James
Bowen and Edward Augustus Down.
Richard Bowen was serving in 1782 on H.M.S. Foudryant, when she captured the
Pegase off Ushant, and in 1714, he took part in the attack on Martinique.
Soon after this he was appointed commander, and later became captain, of H.M.S.
Terpsichore, a thirty-two gun frigate which he commanded until his death.
After further operations in the West Indies he, returned to Europe and in
October 1796, off Cartagena, captured the Spanish frigate Mahonesa. In this
action against a stronger vessel, which had 275 men against Bowen's 182, the
Terpsichore "was greatly damaged,
but, despite this, she was again in action the following December against
the French thirty-six gun frigate Vestale, off Cadiz. Richard Bowen's eventful
career ended during the unfortunate attack on Santa Cruz (Tenerife) in July
1797 when he was shot in storming the mole with a landing party, at the same
time that Nelson lost his arm.
James Bowen, who was born in 1751 , served as Master on the Queen Charlotte,
Under Lord Howe, in the naval battle off Ushant, on 1st June 1794. For his
services on that occasion he was granted his commission as lieutenant, and
was subsequently, promoted captain on 2nd September 1791. When in command
of the Argo he captured the Santa Teresa, a Spanish frigate of forty-two guns,
in the Mediterranean, on 6th February 1799. For convoying the last India Company's
fleet of China ships safely from St. Helena to England, he received from the
Company, in 1801, a piece of plate valued at £400. As a Commissioner
of the Transport Board he superintended, in 1809, the re-embarkation of the
British Army after the Battle of Corunna, and, in 1816, he was appointed one
of the Commissioners of the Navy. He retired in July 1825, with the rank of
Rear-admiral, and died on 27th April 1835.
Memorials to various members of this family, which was connected with Ilfracombe
for many years and is said to have originated in Wales under the name of Ap
Owen, are to be seen in Holy Trinity Parish Church.
Edward Augustus Down was the son of Lieutenant Edward Down, R.N. who came
to Ilfracombe about 1770, as Government officer to suppress smuggling. His
mother was Mary Sommers, after whose family the road known as Sommers Crescent
is named. He entered the Navy on 30th April 1793, at the age of seventeen,
and was serving as midshipman on the Barfleur, in Lord Howe's action off Ushant,
on 1st June 1794, at the same time that James Bowen was Master on the Queen
Charlotte. On 14th February 1797, as Master's Mate of the Excellent, Down
took part in Sir John Jervis' action against the Spanish Fleet off Cape St.
Vincent and was wounded. In this action, Nelson, who was then a Commodore,
captured two ships and, from his constant association with them, it may be
assumed that he was well acquainted with the Bowens and Down. In fact this
association may have led to the visit which the famous Admiral paid to Ilfracombe
when he stayed at the Britannia Hotel, where there is a tradition that he
had a favourite, room overlooking the harbour. Down was promoted Commander
on 12th January 1805, and at the time. of the Battle of Trafalgar was in command
of the Adelphi. On his retirement he was advanced to War-Admiral and, after
having been blind for the latter part of his life, he died on 23rd January1855.
Whilst some Ilfracombe men served in the. Navy others served on ships fitted
out in the port as privateers and provided with Letters of Marque to prey
on French shipping. One of these ships, commanded by Captain John Cooke, was
captured by the French and the crew was imprisoned in France until after the
Battle of Waterloo. One member of the crew, named Vellacott, was an ancestor
of a well-known local dairyman. Captain Cooke, who was born in 1760 and lived
until 1557, was uncle of Mr. William Cooke Dallin, who died so recently as
1934 and the great-uncle of Lieutenant H. L. Vicary, R.N.R., who commanded
a naval vessel in the 1914-18 war and was afterwards, for a time, harbour-master
My own great-grandfather, Richard Lovering, an Ilfracombe seaman, who was
nineteen at the time of the Battle of Trafalgar, quite possibly saw some service
in those stirring times, but the only record I have relating to him is that
he was drowned off Lundy,
on 21st December 1821, at the age of thirty-five.
The men required for fighting our country's battles did not always go willingly
and evidence to this effect was provided a few years ago when a cottage standing
near the harbour was pulled down. So that the inmates should not be caught
unawares the doors of the cottage had sliding peep-holes, the floors were
stuffed to make them sound-proof and there was a large opening in the main
wall at the back of the upper story through which a man could escape down
a ladder or perhaps over the roofs of the adjoining houses. It is probable
that this old cottage was also used by the smugglers whose exploits in this
neighbourhood are responsible for some of the place-names such as Brandy Cove,
a beach below the Torrs, and Samson's Cove, an inlet between RiIlage Point
and Watermouth Harbour. A cave on the east side of Rillage Point is said to
have been used by Samson for storing contraband goods and he may well have
been in league with the occupiers of Chambercombe Farm, where the so-called
" haunted room " was another hiding-place.
The importance of Ilfracombe
as a harbour for sailing ships appears to have reached its height about the
year 1800, when, out of a population of approximately two thousand persons,
over two hundred were actual seamen and many more were engaged as shipbuilders,
fitters and rope-makers to maintain the fifty-seven ships, of an aggregate
of 2850 tons, belonging to the port, and others coming into the harbour and
needing supplies. From then onwards, however, the great increase, in the size
of sea-going vessels began to have its effect and, in common with many similar
harbours round our coasts, the port gradually declined until it came to be
regarded as only suitable for coastal shipping.
The last craft to be built in the boat-building yard, which originally occupied
part of the south side of the harbour, was a thirty-two ton cutter named Hero.
The builder was John PoIlard whose cottage, with a ship's figurehead built
into the wall, stood near Broad Street on part of the present site of Messrs.
Hancock's garage. Rope-making was carried on, until late in the nineteenth
century, in the lane, called Ropers Road and Lee Place, adjoining SS. Philip
and James Church.
The naval tradition of the Down family was continued to recent years in William
Leighton Down, great-grandson of Edward Down and great-nephew of Rear-Admiral
Down. He entered the Navy in 1871 and in H.M.S. Triumph assisted in the suppression
of the African slave-trade. After a term as Acting Captain of Ascension Island,
and haying commanded H.M.S. Unicorn, he retired with the rank of Commander
in 1898. On the outbreak of the Boer War he enlisted as a trooper in Paget's
Horse, and reached the rank of Captain. During the 1914-18 war he returned
to the Navy and was ultimately appointed Senior Naval Officer for the Bristol
Channel area with rank of Post Captain. His adventurous career ended in 1931.
" I would feel the salt winds blow
Turbulent and sweet,
Feel the lift of wave-swept decks
Underneath my feet
Yacht or liner, yawl or tramp
It's all the same to me.''
BY 1850 the population of Ilfracombe
had increased to about 4,000 and amongst those connected with the seafaring
life of the port, Were:-
J. Dallin, Sailmaker
John Davie, Lighthouse Keeper
Charles Dennis, Shipbuilder
John Martin, Steam-packet Agent
William Rodgman, Harbourmaster
William Webster, Commander of the Revenue
William Lewis, Proprietor of the Admiral Rodney Inn
Hugh Curie, Proprietor of the Golden Lion Hotel
and the following twenty-five Master Mariners, many of whom lived in Fore
Richard, Nicholas and William Barnes (or Barns), G. Challacombe, Moses Cole,
William C. Dallin, Thomas and James Eastaway, John Edwards, John, Robert and
Richard Harding, Richard Hernaman, Thomas Huxtable, Richard Lawrence, Henry
Marshall, William Mayne, Richard Redmore, William Rumson, William Stephens,
William Street, James Tucker, Thomas Walters, John Williams, George White.
Many of the above persons were members of families which had resided in the
town for several generations and are still represented by well-known inhabitants.
Some of the families have maintained a seafaring tradition to date which can
be traced back quite easily for at least four generations. The Dallin family
has been already mentioned in the previous chapter, another is the Dennis
family. Charles Dennis, the Shipbuilder, was also a Master Mariner, and in
his time had commanded a Naval transport. His son, John Crockford Dennis,
commanded the barque Coronella, and was Harbour Master at Ilfracombe at the
time of the: alterations and extensions to the pier in the 1870's. Three of
Captain Charles Dennis' grandsons, Charles, Philip and William, were Master
Mariners. A contemporary painting of the barque Orchid, which Charles commanded,
hangs before me in my study as I write. William Dennis died at sea and was
buried on Perim Island (Red Sea), where a memorial stone, specially transported
by his brother Philip, marks the grave. William Crockford Dennis, a great-grandson
of the original Charles Dennis, served as a naval engineer in the 1914-18
war and was present at the Battle of Jutland on board H.M.S. Duke of Edinburgh.
He is again serving in this war and has been torpedoed and rescued from a
That others of the Master Mariners mentioned were deep sea sailors, accustomed
to make extensive voyages, is shewn by the following extract, relating to
one of them, taken from an edition, dated 14th August 1852, of The Morton
Bay Courier, an Australian newspaper published at Brisbane:-
" Arrival August 11 Meridian ship 579 tons. Capt. Hernaman from Plymouth
1st May Passengers Rev. Mr. Walsh, Mrs. Walsh, Miss Day, Dr. Rowland Surgeon-Superintendent
and 234 emigrants. The Meridian has made an excellent run of 99 days to Cape
Moreton, having left Plymouth on 1st May and arrived off this port on 9th
inst. after touching at Port Jackson. Capt. Hernaman reports that he was for
three days off this port, firing guns for a pilot, and at last he had to bring
the ship in himself."
It is interesting to note that the cargo included 564 casks of beer and 4
cases of Holloway's ointment. On 24th August the following year, the Meridian,
whilst sailing again for Australia, was wrecked on the uninhabited island
of Amsterdam, off the coast of South Africa. Captain Hernaman was drowned,
but his wife and daughter, who were traveling with him with the intention
of settling in Australia, succeeded in reaching the island with some of the
crew, where they lived for two weeks until rescued by a passing vessel, the
Monmouth, which took them to Mauritius.
Mrs. Hernaman and her daughter Patience (afterwards Mrs. Shakerley) returned
to Ilfracombe, and the latter lived for many years at No. 2 Belmont Villas,
where she died so recently as 3rd December 1936, at the age of ninety.
Two later well-known Ilfracombe deep sea sailors who made their careers in
sail, were Captain Thomas Birmingham, who commanded the barque Aberlemno,
and Captain James Bale, who commanded the barque Ambassador, a converted
Captain Birmingham acted for some years as Harbour Master. Captain Bale had
sailed more than twenty times round Cape Horn. Both served for several years
as honoured members of the local Life-Boat Committee.
John Davie, the Lighthouse Keeper, lived in the chapel (which is as, of course,
also the lighthouse), on Lantern Hill, and members
of his family continued to live there until it ceased to be used as a dwelling
house in 1871. They had to leave then owing to danger from blasting operations
during the extensions to the pier. He had thirteen
children, one of whom was the mother of Mr. J. D. Summerwill, the well-known
manager of the local office of the Ministry of Labour. Mr. Summerwill's elder
brother, William, was the last person born in the chapel.
One of the inconveniences connected with living in the chapel was the lack
of a water supply on the hill, as all the water required for domestic purposes
had to be brought from a pump in Pump Court off Broad Street.
What might be regarded as the last episode at Ilfracombe of the old sailing-ship
days took place at Christmas 1911, ,when thirty-two schooners and ketches
of the Bar fleet, ships from Barnstaple, Bideford, Braunton and Appledore
ports inside the bar of the Taw and Torridge Rivers, took refuge in the harbour
owing to contrary winds which prevented them from reaching their home ports
in time for the holiday. Many of these vessels have since been broken up but
some have been fitted with auxiliary engines and are still in service. Up
to the outbreak of war in 1939 French topsail schooners, making voyages from
Normandy and Brittany to ports in the Bristol Channel, occasionally put in
at Ilfracombe and were some of the last commercial vessels making full use
The situation of Ilfracombe harbour, near the entrance to the Bristol Channel,
made it for many years a convenient haven from Which pilots set out to guide
vessels to Bristol and, subsequently, to the newer ports of Cardiff, Newport
and Barry. In the old days much of this pilotage was undertaken by the Ilfracombe
sailors, and an old sketch in the local museum shows pilots being embarked
from a flight of stone steps leading to the water opposite the old Golden
Lion Hotel. The channel pilotage later passed into the hands of a number of
seamen who specialized in the work and made their headquarters at Pill, near
Until about the rear 1919, when the channel pilotage was pooled, the sturdy
sailing cutters used by these pilots, with distinguishing letters such as
" Cf " " N," or " By," on the mainsails to indicate
their special ports, were a familiar sight in the harbour whilst they lay
in wait for their customers or took on Stores.
In the latter half of the nineteenth and the early part of this century, several
small sailing cutters, including the Teazer, owned by William H.
Barbeary, the Saucy Lass, built by William Lewis at Hele and owned
by Nicholas Barbeary, the Foam, owned for many years by Samuel Ley
and afterwards by Jack Barbeary, and the Polly, owned by Tom Williams,
were popular with visitors to Ilfracombe. As a young man my father spent many
happy hours sailing in the Teazer and the Foam, and it was
in Sam Ley's strong arms that I was first lifted into a sailing boat. Sam
is remembered as a noble and gentle character and his handsome bearded face
reminded one of pictures of those fishermen of Galilee who followed in the
flesh the same Master that he followed so earnestly in spirit. Of these local
cutters only the Foam remains at Ilfracombe. In the 1880's a tragedy
occurred which is still remembered by the older boatmen. A small yawl-rigged
sailing vessel, the Monarch, when cruising off the Torrs, was caught
by a gust of wind off the land and thrown on to her beam ends. The sudden
Heel over threw all the passengers on to one side of the boat and she capsized
and sank in a few moments. Most of those on board were drowned, including
a local seaman named Charles Buckingham, but the owner and skipper, William
Rumson, who could not swim, and a little girl who also could not swim but
had the presence of mind to lie perfectly still in the water, were saved.
I understand that the little girl " has recently re-visited Ilfracombe
to view the scene where her life might so easily have ended many years ago.
" To their known Stations chearfully
And all at once, disdaining to be last."
A LIFE-BOAT station was established at Ilfracombe in 1828, and the Royal National
Life-boat Institution (founded four years earlier by Sir William Hilliary),
contributed to the first boat. This life-boat was housed in a building which
originally stood on part of the present site of Hierns Lane, adjoining the
Devon Trading Company's store yard.
The old boathouse was demolished when the lane was widened, and the present
life-boat is actually launched over the spot on which it stood.
The first Ilfracombe life-boat is said to have been presented by the wife
of the great explorer, Sir John Franklin, and named after her, the Lade Franklin,
but as no records appear to exist relating to it I have not been able to verify
this statement nor to obtain particulars of any rescues effected.
In 1866 the station was formally taken over by the Institution When the life-boat
Broadwater, the gift of Mr. R. Broadwater of London, was placed at
Ilfracombe. For this life-boat a new stone boathouse was built, at the foot
of Lantern Hill, with a slipway leading from it to the water near Warp House
Point. This boathouse is still in use but the slipway was closed in when the
wooden pier was built.
The Broadwater was not long in justifying her existence for, on 20th April
1867, she rescued five lives from the American ship Nor' Wester.
Of the nine effective services performed by this life-boat one of the most
notable was that of 20th March 1869, for which the Life-Boat Institution awarded
an inscribed vellum to Mr. G. N. Maule, a member of the local Committee, for
helping to get the crew together and going with them in the boat, and a special
letter of thanks to Lieutenant F. Williams, R.N., the Coastguard Officer,
who took an active share in organizing the rescue.
On this occasion a heavy storm was sweeping along the North Devon coast from
the North North-West, when the news was brought to Ilfracombe, in the afternoon,
that a large vessel was in a dangerous position off the dreaded reef of Morte
Point. A later report by the Coastguard Officer, said that the vessel, a barque
with her masts carried away, had anchored and was in danger of being driven
on to the rocks. Various unsuccessful attempts were made during the night
to get the life-boat launched, but it was not until about 10-3o the following
morning that she was able to put to sea with a crew which had been got together
by the efforts of Mr. Maule and Lifeboatman Richard Lovering (son of the Richard
Lovering, mentioned in Chapter IV), who both volunteered to go to the rescue,
despite all difficulties and danger, if a sufficient number would join them
to man the life-boat. After a hard struggle, lasting four hours, the life-boat
succeeded in reaching the wreck and, despite the mass of spars and wreckage
floating around her, took off the crew of fifteen and the pilot and landed
them at Ilfracombe. The life-boat lost her anchor under the keel of the barque
and had two oars broken.
On 16th December 1874, there were two rescues. In the morning a brigantine,
afterwards found to be the Annie Arby, on voyage from Swansea to
Belfast, was seen from Ilfracombe driving before a strong easterly gale, with
a distress signal flying. The life-boat set out under sail and reached the
distressed vessel as she was approaching the cliffs of Baggy Point on the
west of Woolacombe Bay. Some of the life-boatmen boarded the vessel and, having
cut away some of the wreckage aloft, succeeded in wearing her away from the
clips at the critical moment, then, aided by their local knowledge, they piloted
her inside some rocks and anchored her safely to the leeward of the cape.
The Annie Arby carried a crew of seven men, all of whom were thus
On the same day the life-boat rescued the crew of five men from the brig Utility,
which had drifted ashore near the spot where the. life-boatmen had boarded
the Annie Arby.
The Broadwater remained at Ilfracombe for twenty years and during
that time was launched on service eighteen times and rescued, or assisted
in the rescue of, forty-five lives. As the closing episode in her career she
was hauled through the streets of London as part of the pageant of a Lord
On 18th June 1886, a new life-boat, the Co-operator No. 2, the gift
of the Central Co-operative Board, Manchester, was installed and a photograph,
hanging in the boathouse, shews that at that time the crew consisted of' Coxswain
W. H. Barbeary, Second Coxwain William Tucker, John Tucker, Richard Souch,
Richard Lovering, Daniel Lovering (father and son), Charles Buckingham, Thomas
Rudd, Roderick Brooks, John Comer, George Comer, John Bushen and Bowman Samuel
Of these, Thomas Rudd, John Comer (afterwards Coxswain) and John Bushen were
alive in July 1943, all three being then approximately- ninety years of age.
- Richard Lovering, who had figured so prominently in the service performed
by the Broadwater on 20th March 1869, continued as one of the crew
of the new life-boat, despite his being sixty-nine years old, but, on 25th
November- of the following year, he was drowned off Rillagc Point. His body
was eventually found wedged in the rocks, and the following appropriate lines
appear in the epitaph on his tombstone in the parish churchyard:
,,The stormy winds and swelling waves
Have toss'd me oft times o'er
Yet 'twas you see, the Lords decree
My grave should be on shore."
The Co-operator No. 2, which was launched on service nine times and
is credited with the rescue of four lives, remained at Ilfracombe until 1893,
when another Co-operator No. 2, presented by the same donors, was
sent to the station. This life-boat had already performed three effective
services when, early in the morning of 8th April 1899, she set out, under
close-reefed lug and mizen sails, to the assistance of the Brixham trawler
Olive and Mary, which had been sighted, drifting in an almost helpless
condition with all her sails, excepting one jib, blown away. She had been
struck by a heavy sea which stove in her bulwarks, smashed the compass and
carried away the boom of the mainsail and her boat. Despite the heavy seas
the vessel was taken in tow. The first tow-rope snapped but a stouter warp
was passed across and eventually, after a hard struggle, the life-boat and
her charge reached Ilfracombe.
Short particulars of all the effective services which have been rendered by
Ilfracombe life-boats, since the station was taken over by the Royal National
Life-boat Institution, are shown on boards hung in the boathouse, but in addition
to these, there have been many other service launches when, after enduring
as great, or even greater, hardships, the life-boat has returned without having
accomplished anything definite. Perhaps, after hours of searching, nothing
can be found; a passing steamer has taken the distressed vessel in tow, or
the crew of a vessel, stranded on the rocks, have been rescued by rocket apparatus
from the shore.
A typical example of one of these cases occurred on 29th December 1900, following
one of the heaviest gales which had been experienced for some time past. Two
life-boatmen, who had remained on watch throughout the night, received information
from the Coastguard that a distress flare could be seen about nine miles off
Bull Point. This was confirmed by the acting Coxswain and the life-boat was
launched in darkness, at low tide, with a heavy sea running. These conditions
meant that, out of over fifty men employed, nineteen went into the water,
with the waves breaking over them, in order to get the boat out. After two
hours rowing and sailing, over a big ground sea, the life-boat reached the
distressed vessel, a steamer of about two thousand tons, in time to see her
being taken in tow by another steamer which had gone to her assistance. it
took the life-boat another five hours to get home again!
Following a stormy night, during which life-boatmen had again been on duty
keeping watch, a schooner was sighted, in the early morning of 7th March 1908,
in distress off Bull Point. The life-boat, accompanied by the tug-boat Hercules,
which happened to be in the harbour at the time, set out to the rescue, and,
after several hours, returned with the French schooner Gracieuse,
of Granville, and her crew of five, one of whom, a lad of nineteen, had died
from injuries and exposure. The sight of the schooner, with her tattered sails
and stove-in bulwarks, and the pathetic little procession as the dead lad
was carried ashore, still remain fixed in my mind. The kindly treatment which
the survivors received at the hands of the local representative of the Shipwrecked
Mariners' Society and other inhabitants of the town, was always afterwards
acknowledged by friendly signals from the Gracieuse as, repaired
and refitted, she sailed past Ilfracombe on future voyages. I was again one
of those, watching from the shore on 7th March, 1915, who saw the steamship
Bengrove of Liverpool slowly sink opposite Ilfracombe, following
an explosion, and the crew of thirty-three being brought in by the life-boat.
After covering the period of the 1914-18 war and performing many other rescues,
this life-boat, the second Co-operator No. 2, retired in 1921 with
the honourablerecord of forty service launches, thirty-nine
lives rescued and assistance given in landing a further fifty-five persons.
She was replaced by the Richard Crawley, a life-boat provided out
of a legacy to the Institution by Mr. Richard Crawley, which remained until
1936 and was launched on service ten times. The Richard Crawley is
credited with having rescued five lives and assisted in landing fifty-four
persons, including fifty passengers from the steamer Cambria,
when she ran ashore on Rillage Point, in fog, on 1 2th July, 1926. All the
life-boats so far mentioned were of' the pulling and sailing type but, although
they had done good service, events had proved that in certain circumstances,
such as the wreck of the Ilfracombe motor fishing boat Lee Bar, near Woolacombe,
on 11th January 1935, when John and William Irwin and Clifford Comer had been
rescued by the Appledore motor life-boat from close to a lee shore, a motor
life-boat could be even more useful. There was accordingly great satisfaction
locally when, in March 1936, the motor life-boat Rosabella, provided out of
a legacy by Mr. John Hogg, was placed at Ilfracombe.
Owing to the great rise and fall in the tides and other
peculiar local conditions the life-boat at Ilfracombe has to be of a light
type which can be launched into the sea from a carriage, so that the Rosabella
with a length of thirty-two feet and a beam of approximately nine feet is
one of the smallest life-boats in the R. N.L.I. fleet. Her two 12 h.p. petrol
engines give her a speed of seven knots and a radius of ninety miles. The
Rosabella had her first service call on 16th September 1936, when
the Barnstaple ketch Dido C ran ashore on Morte Point and, with a
quickly ebbing tide, was soon left stranded on the reef. She first rescued
the crew of three and then returned, later in the day, and towed the ketch
off the rocks on the flood tide. In October 1936, I became Hon. Secretary
of the Ilfracombe Life-boat Station and, at the same time, my wife assumed
the duties of Hon. Secretary of the local Ladies' Life-boat Guild, the holding
of the two positions by husband and wife being, I understand, unique in the
annals of the Life-boat Institution. On 8th February 1937, came my first experience
of the anxieties attending my appointment. The wind had veered from South,
in the morning, to North-West, in the early afternoon, and was rising to a
gale bringing a heavy sea on to the coast.
Already anxiety was being felt for two of our small motor fishing boats which
had not returned, when a report came from the coastguard that one, the Rowena,
had put in at Combe Martin, with her mizen sail carried away, after the crew
had been seen dragging an apparently injured man into the boat. No-one knew
in which direction to search for the other boat, but enquiries were made along
the coast and it was learned that she had been seen earlier in the day off
Lynmouth. Then came a report from the coastguard that the boat could be seen
far away to the eastward and the Life-boat at once set out to her assistance.
At length the motor fishing boat Vivian came into view, fighting
her way home through the seas, escorted by the life-boat until finally both
vessels entered the harbour in safety. As her skipper, George Irwin, stepped
ashore, he received the news that the man who had been swept overboard from
the other boat was his brother John, and that he had since died.
With a subsequent rescue of two small fishing boats and their crews to her
credit, in addition to some other services, the Rosabella passed from days
of peace into war conditions.
In the afternoon of 3rd September i939, the day on which war was declared,
information was received through the police, that a man and two boys were
in difficulties in a small boat in Woolacombe Bay.
Promptly the life-boat went to the spot and making her is way into the breakers,
the three very wet and weary occupants of the small boat were hauled aboard.
They were brought to Ilfracombe harbour and after having been dried and fed,
returned overland to their homes at Woolacombe. An amusing incident arising
out of this rescue occurred three years later. I was concluding a short lecture
to the local company of Sea Cadets, during which I had mentioned the Woolacombe
rescue, when a lad asked to be allowed to speak. He was told to carry on and
then, cry quietly and simply, he said: " If you please I was one of the
boys who were rescued."
Since that service was performed the life-boat has
answered many more calls, mostly on matters arising out of the war, and her
record to the end of July 1943, was twenty-four launches on service and twelve
Until November 1939, when a "Roadless " 47 h.p. caterpillar tractor
was installed, anything from forty to seventy men were required for launching
the life-boat by hand and at low tide about half of these had to wade into
the sea with the hauling ropes. The tractor now does the hauling, with complete
indifference to mud and sand, but about a dozen men, in addition to the crew,
are still required to handle the launching equipment and couplings, and some
of them get pretty wet and cold in bad weather. The equipment of the life-boat
has recently been brought further up to date br the addition of a Shermuly
Pistol Rocket Apparatus, a gift by the President of the , local Committee.
The following persons have been connected with the local administration of
the Ilfracombe life-boats:
George Williams, 1866 to 1871
William H. Barbeary, 1871 to 1888
William Williams, 1888 to 1895
John Comer, 1895 to 1923
Sydney Williams, 1923 to date
The present Second Coxswain George C. lrwin, is serving as a Petty Officer
in the Navy.
Recent Presidents of Committee:
Mr. C. Darbyshire, 1916 to 1929
Alderman R. M. Rowe, 1930 to 1937
'Mr. F. C. Pilley, 1937 to date
Mr. N. Vye, 1866 to 1883
Mr. J. G. Naish, 1883 to 1887
Mr. H. M. Gardner, 1887 to 1890
Mr. William Cole, 1890 to 1922
Mr. N. Stephens, 1922 to 1933 (assisted from 1930 to 1932 by Commander E.
J. J. Southby, R.N,)
Lieut. W. H. Chamberlain, R.N., 1933 to 1936
T. R. L. Green, October 1936, to date (assisted by Mr. C. H. Marston, who
-was appointed Assistant Hon. Secretary in May, 1934)
A memorial stone in the parish churchyard
bears the following inscription
" To the memory of George Williams aged 40 years, Coxwain of the Ilfracombe
life-boat, who was accidentally drowned off Hillsborough, on the 26th July
1871, this stone was erected by a visitor as a tribute of respect for an honest
skilful and brave seaman, who counted not his life dear unto Himself if by
any means he might save some from the awful death which he himself suffered
by the will of God in the waters of the great deep."
The railings along the Quay serve to perpetuate the memory of Mr. N. Stephens,
as it was through his inspiration and efforts as a Councillor that they were
erected. They enable the whole width of the roadway to be used, and provide
a convenient lounging place for the many people who like to lean on them and
watch the shipping in the harbour.
The truth is I indulge myself a little the more in
knowing that this is the proper age of my life to do it.''
The first steamship to visit Ilfracombe appears to have been
the steam packet Duke of Lancaster which made the voyage from Bristol
on 24th March 1823. In June of the same year a twice weekly service from Swansea
to Ilfracombe was inaugurated by the steam packets Glamorgan and Bristol.
It is these little vessels, with clipper bows and immense funnels, which appear
in early pictures and engravings of the harbour made before the era of photography.
Other steamers, including the Palmerston, County of Pembroke, Torridge,
Superb and Princess Royal (a screw steamer), followed between then and
27th June 1851, when the first regular day trip was made from Bristol by the
Swift. According to some handbills still in existence, in the summer
of 1852, the Bristol General Steam Navigation Company's steamer Dart
was making two direct sailings a week from Bristol to Ilfracombe, and the
Star (Capt. Will. Parfitt) and Phoenix (Capt. T. Jackson),
belonging to the same company, were calling regularly every few days. A few
years later Messrs. Pocketts of Swansea were running the Prince of' Wales
and Velindra, and several steamers, including the Eclaire, Juno
and ,Alexandra, belonging to other firms, were also to be seen at
the harbour, before the wooden pier was built, landing and embarking passengers
either at the end of the stone jetty or by means of small boats. These early
steamers, which were of various types, were followed by the Bonnie
Doone, run by a Bristol syndicate, in 1886, the Lorna
Doone, owned and run by Messrs. Edwards Robertson & Co. from
1891 to 1896, and also the Scotia, Lady
Margaret and Earl of Dunraven, at about the same period.
PS Lorna Doone
That some of these early steamers were quite comfortable to travel on is evidenced
by the letter from a correspondent signing himself " D.A. " in the
Ilfracombe Chronicle of 1st June 1872. He described with enthusiasm a voyage
which he had made a few days previously on the new- steamer Eclair,
and said that they did the journey from Cumberland Basin, Bristol, to Ilfracombe,
in four and three-quarter hours, including calls at Portishead and Clevedon,
and that the catering was excellent, the menu for breakfast comprising Grilled
chops in addition to bacon and eggs and other items.
The long association of the Campbells with Ilfracombe started in 1888, when
Captain Alec Campbell took over the Waverley, which had already been
run for one season under charter by a Bristol syndicate. For the 1891 summer
season, Captain Alec Campbell assumed the command of a new steamer, the Ravenswood,
whilst his brother, Captain Peter Campbell, who had joined him, took over
the Waverley. The Company of P. & A. Campbell Ltd. was formed
in 1893, and in the same year a new steamer, the Westward Ho ! was
built, which was the first in the fleet to have a forward saloon and a promenade
deck running the full length of the ship. The Cambria, built in 1895
was the fastest steamer of her size then afloat, and for many years afterwards
remained the fastest passenger steamer in the Bristol Channel. Although other
and larger steamers were from time to time added to Messrs. Campbells' fleet,
the Cambria and her sister-ship the
Britannia, always seemed to be the favourite ships of the Company
and of the general public.
For several years the Barry Railway Company ran the three steamers Devonia,
Gwalia and Barry in opposition to Campbells, and there was keen
rivalry between the companies, but ultimately these vessels were absorbed
into Campbells' fleet and with their other ships, played an honourable part
as minesweepers in the war of 1914-18.
On 7th December 1914, the Cambria,
and Lady Ismay,
appeared at Ilfracombe in their ,war paint, and, together with the others,
were afterwards engaged in sweeping the entrance to the Bristol Channel, the
North Sea, the Thames Estuary and other areas. The Westward Ho! Cambria
and Glen Avon, helped to sweep a way for the attack on Zeebrugge,
and the Barry
was actually the last ship to leave Suvla Beach, carrying the rearguard,
in the evacuation of Gallipoli.
On the Swansea service the Velindra
was followed by the Brighton,
a steamer which had previously operated on the cross-channel service between
England and the Continent. She was a sturdy comfortable ship with two raking
yellow and black funnels, a hurricane foredeck, and, until the saloon was
later extended to the sides, narrow covered decks aft of the paddles.
Owing to the various levels of the decks it was always possible,
even in the roughest weather, to find a sheltered corner on the Brighton
and she was a great favourite with a large circle of regular passengers. Many
would stay on board for the round trip without going ashore, and on trips
to Lundy it was quite usual for several of the passengers to spend the time
whilst she was at anchor, fishing from the sponsons. Captain Reed, who had
commanded the Velindra continued on the Brighton and both he and
Captain Fryer, a later commander, were popular with the passengers. On one
very proud occasion, as a small boy, I was Captain Reed's guest on the bridge.
The Brighton was sunk in the Aegean Sea during the Dardanelles campaign. On
the resumption of sailings after the war, the Swansea service was taken over
by Campbells and Mr. A.E. Smyth, who had acted as Pocketts' agent at Ilfracombe
(a position previously held for many years by his father), transferred to
Swansea and continued from there to assist in operating the service with Campbells.
Some of their steamers, reconditioned and re-painted, were already again in
use on the Bristol Channel passenger services before the end of the 1919 summer
season, and a new one, the Glen
Gower, was subsequently added to the fleet.
Once more for a time, we were able gladly to respond to the imitation sung
by the ship's minstrel
" Come with me, come with me,
For a trip on the bright blue sea,
Come with me and have a spree
On a P. & A. Campbell steamer:"
until, in September 1939, another war brought the pleasure sailings to an
abrupt end. That season was also to be the last on which the familiar figure
of Mr. Fred Birmingham, Campbells' popular local agent, and a son of the late
Captain Thomas Birmingham, was to be seen on the pier, pipe in mouth and rose
in buttonhole, greeting literally thousands of passengers, who, for many years,
had regarded his cheery smile as a first welcome on their arrival at Ilfracombe.
We know that the steamers are again performing valiant services in the present
war, and that some will not return, but not until hostilities cease will the
full story of their exploits be revealed, and there will then be every reason
to be proud of the part they have played.
As the number of commercial sailing vessels decreased, their places ,were
taken by steam coasters, three of which, the Snowflake, Florence
and Ben Rein, made their headquarters at Ilfracombe. The Snowflake,
built in 1893, and owned by members of the Irwin family of Combe Martin, carried
hundreds of cargoes of coal for the Ilfracombe Gas Company and local coal
merchants, and George, Claud and James Irwin, in turn, acted as her skippers.
The Florence, owned by the Ilfracombe Coal and Salvage Co. Ltd.,
also brought many tons of coal to Ilfracombe under skippers J. Thomas and
W Fisher, but she and her skilled crew were mostly engaged in savage work.
One of their most spectacular jobs was the saving, at Lundy, of the Greek
steamer Taxiorkis, of 8,000 tons, which they afterwards brought to Ilfracombe,
the largest steamer ever to enter the harbour. In August 1936, they helped
to re float their companion ship, Snowflake, at the entrance to Watermouth
Harbour, where she had sunk after striking a rock further along the coast.
One after another these three steamers have been taken over for Government
work during the present war, and only the Florence is now seen occasionally
in harbour. Most of the coal now being brought to Ilfracombe is carried by
the auxiliary schooner Eilian.
During recent years, in going over from sail to power-driven craft, our local
fishermen have gradually evolved a useful type of open motor boat, averaging
about 30 feet long, carrying lug and mizen sails, and with the engine well
covered in by a hatch aft of amidships. Most of these boats, which could be
used for fishing in the winter and for taking visitors for trips along the
coast in the summer, including the Rowena, Devonia, Mary
and Vivian, were requisitioned soon after the outbreak of war, but the
Forget-me-Not and the new motor boat Spitfire, are to be seen
in the harbour along with the two former Cornish motor trawlers, Maggie
and Ocean Gift, all engaged in commercial fishing.
The period between the two wars also saw a new development in the increasing
use of the harbour, during summer months, by small craft navigated by amateur
yachtsmen. In past years there had been one or two local yachtsmen who had
owned and sailed their own boats, including Mr. G. N. Maule (already mentioned
in the chapter dealing with the life-boats), Mr. C. E. Dew (pioneer local
motor boat owner) and Mr. R. J. Burton, but it was not until the 1920's that
amateurs came along in any numbers.
From then onwards a succession of privately owned boats were
kept at the harbour, including Mr. Hutchings' Roma, Mr. T. E. Smart',Ravenswood,
Mr. S. J. White's Bull Dog, Mr. Peter Fairchild's Greyhound
and my own Cigale and Dilsic. There were also many regular visitors
to the harbour, such as Mr G. Fery's Wanderer1, and Wanderer
11, Captain Porter's Elvira, .Mr. D. Lewis' Grey- Dawn,
Mr. Woodward's Kittiwake and Mr. A. D. Staite's Ruffles,
Ardena, Caloo and ,Acco, which came so often and remained
for such long periods that they might almost be regarded as local craft.
Little remains to be said, or can be said, about shipping seen in the harbour
during the present war, and we look forward to the time when dismal grey hulls
will be replaced by white and more cheerful colours, and the happy laughter
of little parties on their own yachts and of larger crowds on the trim white
funnel steamers will once again be heard in the ancient but modernized port
Reproduced with kind permission of our museum
From the BBC
Gold and silver coins found along the coastline near Ilfracombe, Devon, during
the past 20 years, eventually lead to the treasure ship London sunk 200 years
ago. It also contained the remains of 60 black slaves.
Skeletons believed to be the remains of Africans on
their way to be sold as slaves
in Bristol were found on
the ship The London, wrecked off the coast near Ilfracombe in 1796. Courtesy
Bristol Record Office.