Edwardian Society in Sidmouth

From ‘The South Devon Coast’ by Charles G. Harper. 1907. (Abridged)

Before Torquay, Teignmouth, Exmouth, and other places had begun to develop, Sidmouth was a place of fashion, and the signs of that early favour are still abundantly evident in the town, which is largely a place of those prim-frontaged, white-faced houses we associate with the early years of the nineteenth century. It belongs, in fact, to the next period following that of Lyme Regis, and has just reached the point of being very quaint and old-world and interesting, as we and ours will have become in the course of another century.

Sidmouth

And now, in this town which ought to be jealously preserved as a precious specimen of what the watering place of close upon a century ago was like, the restless evidences of our own time are becoming plentiful; older houses giving way to new, of the pretentious character so well suited to the age, and in red brick and terra-cotta.

Why, confound the purblind, batlike stupidity of it ! red brick is not wanted at Sidmouth, where the cliffs are the very reddest of all Devon. We need not give the old builders of white-faced Sidmouth any credit for artistic perceptions, for they could not choose but build in the fashion of their age, but, by chance, they did exactly the right thing here, and in midst of this richest red of the cliffs, this emerald green of the exquisite foliage, this yellow of the beach, deep blue of the sea, and cerulean blue above, planted their terraces and isolated squares of cool, contrasting whiteness. It was a white period, if you come to consider it, a time of book-muslin and simplicity, both natural and affected, and although Sidmouth was fashionable it was not flamboyant.

Sidmouth is in these days recovering something of its own. Not perhaps precisely in the same way, for the days of early nineteenth-century aristocratic fashion can never again be repeated on this earth. But a new vogue has come to it, and it is as exclusive in its new way as it was in the old; if not, indeed, more exclusive. More exclusive, more moneyed, not at all well-born, jewelled up to the eyes, and only wanting the final touch of being ringed through the nose. Oddly enough, it is a world quite apart from the little town; hidden from it, for the most part, in the hotels of the place. Most gorgeous and expensive hotels, standing in extensive grounds of their own, and all linked together in a business amalgamation, with the object of keeping up prices and shutting out competition.

It is not easy to see for what purpose the patrons of these places come to Sidmouth, unless to come down to breakfast dressed as though one were going to a ball, and dressing thrice a day and sitting in the grounds all day long be objects sufficient. From this point of view, Sidmouth town is a kind of dependence to the hotels, an accidental, little known, unessential hem or fringe, where one cannot wear ball-dresses and tiaras without exciting unpleasant criticism.

Bullion without birth, money without manners are in process of revolutionising some aspects of Sidmouth, and it is quite in accord with the general trend of things that the newest, the largest, the reddest, and the most insistent of the hotels should have shoved a great hulking shoulder up against the pretty, rambling, white-faced cottage in Woolacombe Glen*, where some earliest infant months of Queen Victoria were passed, and that it should have exploited the association by calling itself the “Victoria.”

Sidmouth_Ladram

Ladram Bay is reached either by cliff-top or along that tiring beach; or, greatly to be recommended above all other courses, by boat from Sidmouth, one of whose boatmen, with the pachydermatous hands that would scarce feel any effect from rowing fifty miles, will take you there if you give him a chance.

Ladram Bay was undoubtedly made expressly for picnics. There cannot be the least question of it. Geologists write profound things about the raised beach and the pebbles Triassic, Silurian, or what not jargon that compose it, but Nature most certainly in prophetic mood designed beach, natural arch, and caves for lunch and laughter, and as a romantic background for flirtations.

*Harper frequently referred to “Woolacombe” Glen and cottage in chapter 6 but the actual name was Woolbrook, after the stream, or brook, that flows through the glen. Curiously, he got that name almost right as “Woolabrook”. There is a Woolacombe Bay on the North Devon coast and a Woolcombe Lane off present-day Temple Street in another part of Sidmouth. Was it there in 1907?

Whatever the reason for his confusion, “Woolacombe” took root in Harper’s mind and made it all the way to print. Perhaps nobody else in the production line knew enough about Sidmouth to stop it. Woolbrook cottage, with additions, is now the Royal Glen Hotel.

The postcard of Sidmouth Esplanade probably dates from around the time it was sent – 1908 – but the registration number in the left corner shows the photograph was taken in 1887. The cream coloured York Hotel at left was built in 1807 and has since annexed neighbouring buildings to become today’s Royal York and Faulkner.

The senders of both cards gave their impressions of local weather.
From Sidmouth in January 1908 “We must be nearing the North Pole”.
From Ladram Bay in August 1907 (late summer) “The wind is a bit cold, but the waves are lovely”.

 

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Crossing the Tamar

I recently acquired an interesting old letter card featuring eight photographs of Devonport, England. It was published by “W.B.P.” and my best guess for a date would be 1904 to 1907. Printed on semi-matt paper with a fairly course screen and a little faded with age, it doesn’t provide the best quality but I think these two images are good enough (after a little tweaking) to be posted for their historic interest.

Torpoint ferry

The ferry service across the Tamar estuary between what was then Plymouth, in Devon, and Torpoint, in Cornwall, was established in 1791 by the first Earl of Mount Edgcumbe. It’s still running – with three much bigger ferries. This image was also published by W.B.P. as a hand-coloured postcard.

Image from a letter card c. 1904-1907 published by "W.B.P."

Farther upstream, at Saltash, is the Royal Albert railway bridge opened by Prince Albert in May 1859. Still in use today, after periodic strengthening to take heavier trains, it is literally a monument to the brilliant Victorian engineer I. K. Brunel. He died four months after his creation opened and the railway company added his name, in large letters, to each end of the bridge as a memorial. A road bridge was built alongside it in 1962.

Appledore, North Devon.

Earlier this month (7th) I posted a short item about the Old Tower at Lynmouth and quoted from a book called The North Devon Coast by Edwardian travel writer Charles G. Harper. This is such an interesting book, written in a comparatively ‘modern’ style for the period, that I’ll dip into it from time to time as matching images are added to ‘the collection’.

Appledore

Appledore, situated on rising and woody ground on the banks of the Torridge, is a pretty and picturesque old hamlet, with a considerable coasting trade of its own. Salmon-fishing is to be had here from May to September, and plenty of barges are still built in the old shipyards at the water’s edge.
[Tuck’s Oilette postcard c.1906. From a painting by H.B. Wimbush]

Harper wasn’t in the business of selling postcards, or picturesque old hamlets, so he told it as he saw it.

Appledore (whose name has really nothing to do with apples, but derives from two words meaning “water-pool”) stands at the very entrance to the Torridge estuary. On the opposite side is Instow.
Appledore is a decayed port; a fishing village long past its prime. Time was when its ship-owners waxed rich in what the natives still call the “Noofunlan’ Trade,” but that was long ago, and it is scarce possible even the hoariest inhabitant recollects those times. But the buildings, the quays are reminiscent; the whole place mumbles, quite plainly in the imaginative ear, “Has Been.”
This is, however, by no means to hint that Appledore is poor, or moribund. Vessels are repaired in its docks, a quarry is in full blast on the hillside, and the fishermen fare out to sea in pursuit of the salmon and cod. The less adventurous gather the edible seaweed known to epicures as “laver,” or at low water ravish the tenacious cockle and mussel from their lairs.
But, in general, Appledore has resignedly stood still since the “Noofunlan'” trade ceased, and remains very much what it was at the time of its ceasing: only something the worse for wear. Bideford may exchange cobbles for macadam, and even, in choice spots, wood pavement, but Appledore’s lanes, which are of the dirtiest, the steepest and most rugged description, still retain their ancient knobbly character. In short Appledore is a curiosity, and one not in any immediate likelihood of being reformed out of that status, for it is at the very end of things. So its white-washed cottages will long, no doubt, continue to give a specious and illusory character for cleanliness to it, as seen across the river from Instow; and “Factory Ope,” “Drang,” and other queerly named lanes will survive for generations yet to come.
‘The North Devon Coast’, Charles G. Harper. Chapman & Hall Ltd., 1908.

Here’s a link to modern Appledore.

The Old Tower, Lynmouth, Devon.

Tucks postcard of the old tower at Lynmouth, Devon, England.

The Old Tower, Lynmouth. This is a “modern antique,” but unlike most of its kindred it is both ornamental to the quay it stands on and comely to the eye, and when the tide is up in the little harbour to sit in its shadow is one of the pleasantest idlenesses in the world. [Artist – E.D. Percival]

When this postcard was issued by Raphael Tuck and Sons in 1908, the tower was less than 70 years old. It had been built around 1860 by a General Rawdon. Web pages without number copy and repeat this name but not one can tell you who he was. Not even his first name. Accepted wisdom, and almost every site, says the General built the tower as a folly to hide seawater storage tanks that supplied a salt water bath at his house. Charles G. Harper, in a book printed at the same time as the postcard, has a similar but slightly different version.

…. an inspection of old prints leads one to believe that, though there are more houses now [in Lynmouth], the enclosing hills are more abundantly and softly wooded than then. And, with the exception of the Rhenish tower built on the stone pier, every-thing has been added legitimately, without any idea of being picturesque.
That quaint tower, a deliberate copy of one on the Drachenfels, owes its being to General Rawdon, who resided here from about 1840, and, finding his aesthetic taste outraged by a naked iron water-tank erected on posts, built this pleasing feature to harmonise with the scenery. An iron basket, still remaining, was provided to serve for a beacon, and now that Lynmouth is lighted by an installation of electric glow-lamps, a light is shown from it every night.
‘The North Devon Coast’, Charles G. Harper. Chapman & Hall Ltd., 1908.

This tower was swept away in a terrifying flood on August 15, 1952 that destroyed homes and took many lives in Lynmouth. Read this incredible eyewitness account by retired policeman Derek Harper who was awarded the George Medal for his bravery on that disastrous night.

A faithful replica of the tower was built on a lengthened pier in 1954.