Dartmouth. Report from the History Section

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Author(s): Simons. Robert; Year published: 2018; Origin: Section Conference Reports; Pages: 
Topic(s): history; Location(s): Dartmouth

From the shoreline of Dartmouth there is a sense of pride and history as Britannia Royal Naval College looks over the bustling river with its moored yachts, paddle steamer and ferries plying their trade. These deep waters have sheltered ships from tiny cogs to large steamers and ships built on its banks have assembled with others to launch adventures from the Crusades to the Second World War.

It was not always thus, as in its infancy Dartmouth was overshadowed by the larger port of Totnes. It was not that attractive to settlers as its hilly geography was too steep for ploughing and its coastal position meant it was prey to raiders. Hence the Domesday village of Townstall, “the homestead on the hill”, was the more logical option for settlers, although it only had about fifty people and five ploughs. Provisions had to be taken down Townstall Hill by pack horse to the two hamlets of Hardness and Clinton-Dartmouth . The main approach to the town has always been via the sea, its narrow streets not designed for vehicles, being inaccessible to wheeled transport until the 19th century, and in 1864 the railway arrived but only as far as Kingswear. The difficulties caused by the street pattern can still be seen when wandering around the town with its myriad of vertical paths.

Dartmouth came into prominence after the Norman Conquest when William realised its importance due to its proximity to Normandy. It was selected as the assembly point for 146 ships setting out on the Second Crusade of 1147 and again in 1190 for the Third Crusade. These events may have given the name to Warfleet Creek which lies just inside the river mouth. In 1341 the king, Edward the third, rewarded the town a charter of incorporation, and in 1372 after many legal and illegal attempts, St Saviour’s Church was finally consecrated thus saving the populace the trek up to Townstall which had “very great fatigue of their bodies”. By 1377 it had the third largest population (over 650) in Devon, was benefiting from trade with Genoa and Gascony, and had been visited by Chaucer whose Shipman of Dert-e-mouthe was one of the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales.

Seamen have always contributed to the town’s reputation as a port of some distinction. Suffice to say it was never short of newsworthy events such as the construction of the castle around 1400 which was provided with a moveable chain connected to a smaller fort on the opposite bank in order to defend the river mouth. It sent eleven ships to support Drake at the time of the Armada and reportedly held the captured Spanish flagship for nearly a year. The economic benefits of sea power are aptly demonstrated by the capture of a Portuguese caravel which was towed into Dartmouth in 1592. The haul from this single ship was calculated to be worth half of England’s regular annual imports. The Pilgrim Fathers took advantage of Dartmouth to receive shelter and repairs for the Speedwell and the Mayflower on their epic voyage from Southampton to the Americas via Plymouth. It also joined with Plymouth in frustrating the Royalists in the Civil War.

Explorers and adventurers associated with Dartmouth include John Bulley and Sir Humphrey Gilbert whose exploits around Newfoundland encouraged John Davis to explore various routes; the Davis Strait between Newfoundland and Greenland still bears his name. During the Second World War 480 vessels assembled and set sail to Normandy as part of the D-Day landings. Dartmouth had provided a convenient location, as it had for William 800 years earlier. As a harbour of assembly and departure Dartmouth from the Crusades to the D-Day landings has no equal. Similarly it must rank highly as a place where seafarers have returned home from places where none had sailed before from havens as far apart as Greenland and Cathay.

Newcomen engine
Image from Wikimedia Commons – click on it for details

Despite the plethora of maritime connections the most notable Dartmothian could well be Thomas Newcomen, born in Dartmouth in 1663, the inventor of the atmospheric engine – the first successful steam powered pumping engine. The benefits that this engine brought to the mining industry in particular and industrial development in general deserve his recognition.

Such is a very brief sketch of the distinctive history of this beautiful part of Devon which has also attracted artists from Turner to Gillo, writers from Christie to Christopher Milne, and numerous transactions of the Devonshire Association from 1880 to the present day.

Robert Simons

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