A Brief History of Dawlish

Taken from an essay by David Force, of Force & Sons, Estate Agents, Queen Street, Dawlish

It is possible that there was a community living here for centuries beforehand during the times of the Saxon invasions in the 5th and 6th centuries A.D. However there is no written or physical evidence to support this except that dedications to St. Gregory are usually associated with early Saxon foundations and the parish church of Dawlish was originally dedicated to St. Gregory the Great.

The first written evidence of a settlement comes in 1044 when King Edward the Confessor granted the manor of Dawlish to his chaplain a man by the name of Leofric, he was a highly important and learned man, equivalent to a Secretary of State today. Soon afterwards, he also became bishop of Crediton and Exeter, with jurisdiction over Devon and Cornwall.

The manor of Dawlish extended from east Teignmouth in the south to Cofton and Cockwood in the north, and the top of Haldon in the west. This was quite a sizeable area but largely uninhabited at this time. And what was this land like? Much of England was covered by forest at this time and the area around Dawlish was no exception. Indeed, the name Haldon Forest exists to this day, although the conifer plantations which now cover much of it bear little resemblance to the oak and beech forests which covered the land then.

The earliest Celtic settlers, pre-Christ, would have lived in clearings on the highest ground. The trees would gradually have been chopped down to enable sheep to be grazed in the clearings. The higher ground was not really suitable for cultivation. Even now, gorse, heather, bracken and tussock grass are the only plants able to exist on the poor soil.

So why would settlers have chosen Dawlish to establish a village? It is sheltered on 3 sides by hills and protected from attack by the sea on the 4th side. The sea provided fish, the woods provided meat, fuel for heating and cooking, building materials, weapons and boats. The river provided fresh water. The salt marshes provided salt for preserving food and trading. Indeed it was the production of salt which would have first attracted the settlers. It was also a remote area, away from the larger settlements and trading routes, so free from outside interference.

The sea was also to be feared. Storms came from the sea; the horizon was the edge of the world; monsters lurked in the deep. It also brought floods and winds. Hence, the settlement was founded half a mile inland. Our love of the sea and beaches did not come for several centuries.

The name Dawlish has had many derivations over the centuries. The earliest spelling was Deawlisc, or ‘Devil Water’, from the reddish coloured water which flows from the hills after heavy rain.

To put the timescale into some sort of perspective, remember that this was before the Battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest in 1066.

Communications were naturally very poor. Dawlish was not easily accessible, nor would it be until the beginning of the 19th century. The only routes in and out would have been rough tracks up on to Haldon, one towards Teignmouth up Luscombe Hill and one up through Ashcombe towards Exeter. These would have connected to a main route following the ridge of Haldon, which linked the ports of Exeter and Teignmouth, as does the main road to this day.

The pace of change was very slow and life was one of existence rather than improvement. Education was minimal; children learned to survive. That was enough. Life expectancy was probably between 30 and 40 years. Children would be working on the land from an early age and breeding at an early age, to ensure continuity of the settlement. The only medication came from natural herbal remedies.

When Leofric died in 1072, he bequeathed the Manor of Dawlish to the Dean and Chapter of Exeter Cathedral. It remained in Church hands until 1807.

And so life remained, on the edge of existence, for hundreds of years. The population of a few hundred would have gradually increased as the land was improved and food became more plentiful.

But illness and disease were commonplace and remedies very few. Living to a ripe old age was almost unheard of. The Black Death, or Bubonic Plague, in the 1340’s and 1350’s decimated the population. At this time 4 vicars died within a few years so the lowly population must have been very badly affected.

Only the gentry were able to escape the worst effects of the plague; on their large estates they did not need to come into contact with the poorer folk.

The plague was to strike again in 1629 and 1630.Dawlish was still isolated in its little valley and probably fared rather better than the larger villages and towns, where outsiders and travelers would have been more commonplace, thus spreading the disease to all parts.

Written records up to the end of the 18th century were scarce. Dawlish was not an important trading centre and little of note happened either to improve or upset the natural rhythm of life. The town remained unscathed by French raiders in the 17th century when Teignmouth was nearly razed to the ground. Smuggling and wrecking undoubtedly supplemented the incomes of many.

The effects of the Industrial Revolution did not leave Dawlish untouched. Two flour mills, turned by water wheels, fed from the Newhay leat, were built. One in the late 1600’s at Brunswick Place and the other, in 1733, known as Town Mill, in Church Street. A third operated at Weston, near Ashcombe. All have long closed, although the building, machinery and waterwheel can still be seen in Brunswick Place.

Towards the end of the 18th century, this sleepy and isolated way of life was about to change for ever. And this was mainly due to one person’s belief in the beneficial qualities of the seaside. George III, in one of his less mad moments, extolled the virtues of fresh sea air and the healing qualities of the sea itself.

At a time when Britain was losing control of north America and then going to war with France, Dawlish suddenly found itself becoming fashionable with the gentry. They were, after all, the only class who could afford to travel. Remember, there was still no train service and, until about 1810, no regular stagecoach.

The visitors who resorted to Dawlish were not day trippers or even here for a week or fortnight’s holiday. They arrived with family, friends and servants for the summer season. Many of them liked what they found, bought land and built smart houses for themselves.

The existing cottages, dating from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, built of cob, with lime washed rendering and thatched roofs, were not the kind of property which these new residents expected. The village had spread further along Park Road and High Street, both at a higher level than the unpredictable Brook.

During the late Georgian and Regency period, a number of fine houses and villas were built. The improvement in building materials and methods meant that houses near the sea were no longer avoided indeed, a sea view was an undoubted asset, just as it is today.

When George III introduced sea bathing to the gentry as a healthy and pleasurable diversion, it was very much a gentleman’s pursuit. Bathing did not befit a lady at this time, although the ladies undoubtedly benefited. Hygiene was not a great priority for any of the social classes and ladies’ fans were not only to keep them cool. They were also to disperse the odours of their less than fragrant menfolk. A bathe in the sea no doubt removed the worst of the problem, albeit temporarily. Ladies were not encouraged to bathe until the latter part of the 19th century.

In 1803, a local businessman, John Manning, decided that the interests of the village could best be served by improving the land either side of the Brook, thus enabling smarter houses to be built nearer the beach. He straightened the stream, built up the banks and drained the still marshy land. Thus the houses on the Strand (or Pleasant Row as it was then known) were developed.
It was the fear of floods from rain and high tides which led to the distance between the Strand and Brunswick being so great. Indeed, in 1810 severe flooding washed away the newly created lawns, banks and 2 newly built houses in Brook Street, as well as 8 bridges. John Manning was poorer by some £11,000. However, the Brook was once again channeled, this time with weirs to prevent a recurrence. The Pleasure Gardens with their ducks, geese and black swans which we know so well today would have been much less ornate and still grazed by sheep, adding to the quaint tranquility which drew visitors to Dawlish in the first place. There was, however, still no sea wall or railway at this time to hold back the stormy seas of winter.

As the Regency period gave way to Queen Victoria, the first plans were drawn up for an event which would change the face and character of the town forever the coming of the railway.

There were various and complex plans drawn up in the 1830’s, leading to the building and opening of Brunel’s Atmospheric Railway in 1846.

The excitement in the town was immense. Hundreds of ‘navvies’ had been working on the line and digging the tunnels. They had all been spending money in the town, particularly in the pubs, and no doubt getting to know many of the female population.
On the Whit Bank Holiday Saturday 30th May 1846 the first passenger train ran, taking only 40 minutes to reach Dawlish from Exeter. This made Dawlish the first resort to be served by the railways west of Weston Super Mare quite a coup for the town.
However, the railway was very much a preserve of the middle and upper classes to trip to Dawlish. Most of the population worked 6 days a week and went to church on Sundays. There was little time, money or energy to come to the coast, except at Bank Holidays. At this time, workers were generally not entitled to paid holiday time off.

Although the rate of expansion in Dawlish was slower in the second half of the 19th century than it had been in the first half, increased wealth in the town and improved technology meant that living standards for the residents became much more tolerable. The introduction of gas for heating and lighting, piped water, a sewerage system, street lighting and, latterly, the introduction of electricity enhanced the lives of many. Improvements in education and health also started to take effect in this period. The building of the Coastguard Station in 1868 gave greater protection for the fishermen and a police force was established in the town in 1857, to supplement the parish constable.

Moving into the 20th century, the advent of paid holidays led to more and more visitors to the town, some of whom wanted to settle. More lower class housing was built: Luscombe Terrace, Hatcher Street, Frederick Terrace, Hoopern Terrace and some re-building or in-filling established roads such as High Street, Old Town Street and Brook Street occurred in the early 1900’s. The outbreak of the First World War interrupted the pattern until the 1920’s.

Now that Dawlish had been discovered by day trippers the town quickly became less gentrified and more down-market. More and more people wanted to visit for a week or a fortnight and, as the wealthy retreated, the elegant villas were turned into hotels, guest houses and lodging rooms.

Even at this stage, there was very little building outside the town centre.

The 20th century has seen a four-fold increase in the population of the town.

Dawlish Warren became an attraction only when the Great Western Railway built a station there in 1905 and enlarged it in 1907. Prior to that date only a few large houses nestled on the hill behind the Warren. Walkers from Dawlish, cyclists from the area and a few cars had been the only visitors up until then.

In 1929, Dawlish aspired to its own airport. The Great Western Railway built an aerodrome on Haldon, to service Torbay and its regular Cardiff to Plymouth route. The war saw an end to the service, although the aerodrome continued to be used for military purposes.

The 1930’s saw Dawlish becoming increasingly popular as a low budget holiday destination and the first holiday camps with caravans and chalets began to open. The Great Western Railway brought the majority of these visitors and it must have been quite a sight to see the carriages spilling out their excited passengers on a summer Saturday! The Second World War once again brought building to a halt this time for 10 years or more. It also put an end to plans drawn up by the Great Western Railway to build a Dawlish avoiding line from Powderham via Gatehouse and Weech Road, making Dawlish a branch line station. This would surely have been to the long-term detriment of the town.

The pattern of holiday breaks from the 1970’s onwards, with the introduction of cheap foreign package holidays, has undoubtedly been to the detriment of Dawlish as a thriving resort. The demand for hotel rooms and guesthouses has diminished year on year. Whereas in the 1960’s nearly every property on Marine Parade, Westcliff, Eastcliff, The Bartons, Brunswick, Brookdale, Riviera, Sea Lawn, San Remo and Iddesleigh all 19th century houses for the gentry – offered rooms to holidaymakers, now they have come full circle. Many have been converted into flats of varying quality and sometimes dubious occupancy! Others have become retirement or nursing homes. With many people now living to a ‘ripe old age’ the demand for suitable accommodation has given a new lease of life to many of the elegant villas.

Most holidaymakers now want cheap, self-catering holidays, with most staying in caravans or tents. There are over 10,000 holiday bed spaces in Dawlish Warren alone.

Thankfully, the position of the railway, the Lawn and Pleasure Gardens have enabled Dawlish to retain something of the genteel appearance which so attracted the gentry 200 years ago. Despite the rather dubious efforts of Teignbridge Planners, the town tries hard to keep its individual charm while traders struggle to prevent the town dying on its feet, in the face of competition from out of town supermarkets and D.I.Y. stores.

To sum up, the history of Dawlish has been notable for its lack of exciting happenings. No famous people have been born here, no notorious murders taken place or cataclysmic events made national headlines. It still retains, in some small measure, an air of genteel refinement which the geography of the town centre cannot destroy.

Visitors still enjoy its attractions, although the amusement arcades and holiday camps have replaced the bathing pavilion and promenades.

The Lawn has been central to the life of Dawlish and its visitors for nearly 200 years. It has seen a myriad of diverse uses from grazing sheep to funfairs, tennis courts to five a side football, Sunday afternoon jazz bands to open air plays, Easter fairs to jumble sales, bowls to flower festivals. And, undoubtedly, countless courting couples. It is said that no person can be called a Dawlishian unless they have had a soaking in the Brook!

As a postscript, I can do no better than quote a paragraph from Grace Griffiths’ wonderful Book of Dawlish which I never tire of reading:

Dawlish has many faces but, whoever wanders along the brook in Spring when the mallards are lazing along the banks, their plumage iridescent in the sunlight, and ducks of many other species are shepherding their tiny, fluffy young up and down the stream, while the Chinese Swan Geese cluster under the trees and the black swans sail majestically under the bridges, will know that this is the time to see the true Dawlish.

Perhaps, leaning from the bank to watch the brown trout quivering in the clear water, he will be overcome by the warmth of the day, and the smell of newly mown grass from the lawns and the Regency houses will fade away, their place taken by salt marsh and low bushes backed by dark hills.

Up the track from the sea will come a swart Briton, his sack of salt clutched in his hands, hurrying homewards before the shadows fall, behind him a tall blond Celt swinging a still wriggling catch of fish in his net, a Saxon going to his cottage by the church. They will pass unnoticed by the Regency beau, who is swaggering towards the brilliantly lit Assembly Rooms on the other side of the brook and the 19th century fishwife peddling her wares to a host of shades.

The watcher will feel no sense of wonder: only a oneness with all that is and all that has been.

©1999 David Force