Dartmouth, without doubt, is one of my favourite Devon towns: A picturesque setting, old buildings, and a fascinating maritime history combine together to make this one of the gems of South Devon.
Lying along the western bank of the River Dart just before it reaches the sea, Dartmouth owes its very existence to the river. Primitive settlements were set up along the muddy banks as far back as Celtic times, but land reclamation over the centuries have seen the town develop into how it looks today.
During that time the deep natural harbour has seen many comings and goings: The 12th cent saw ships leave here for the Crusades, and Henry II’s marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine saw a lucrative wine trade flourish with Bordeaux, but the most influential person in Dartmouth’s history was a local man by the name of John Hawley.
John Hawley was a landowner and local merchant who also had a fleet of ships. Between 1374 and 1401 this pillar of Dartmouth Society became mayor of the town no less than fourteen times and MP twice: He was also a privateer.
During his lifetime England was involved in the Hundred Years War with France, and as there was no navy as such in those days certain merchants were given licenses to act on the King’s behalf, allowing them “to go to sea at their own expense to attack and destroy the king’s enemies”. The proceeds from this activity was (unequally) split between the King, the ship’s owner and the ship’s captain. Needless to say, privateers often found a way of supplementing their income, and although never proven, John Hawley would have sailed ‘close to the wind’ so to speak, between privateering and piracy.
John Hawley’s privateering antics left Dartmouth vulnerable to attack and so it was inevitable that he would have to deal with the problem at some point, and in 1388 he built a fort at the entrance to the river.
At the end of the 15th century his fort was upgraded to a castle with another one being built across the river at Kingswear: Between the two a chain was linked that could be hauled up whenever there was any danger from attack.
It did the job, but as naval military hardware advanced, the defences needed bolstering up which came in the form of a Guntower. Built between 1481 and 1495 the Guntower is the earliest surviving English coastal fortress specifically built to carry guns and it’s unusual in that it’s partly square and partly round.
Below are pictures of Dartmouth Castle, Dartmouth Castle looking across the river and Kingswear Castle.
Just to make doubly sure that Dartmouth was safe from invasion, Henry VIII ordered Bearscove Castle to be built at Bayard’s Cove as a second line of defence.
Bayard’s Cove Fort, as it’s called nowadays, was nothing like those at the mouth of the river and all that remains is a circular shell.
All these fortifications may have been designed to keep enemies out, but they didn’t hinder sailors who wanted to leave. During Elizabeth I’s reign seafarers left on voyages of exploration to find lands that were to bring new trade routes and untold wealth to both Her Majesty and themselves.
One of these men was Sir Humphrey Gilbert whose family came from Compton near Torquay. The family also had a house built at Greenway on the River Dart where Humphrey was born. His half-brother was Sir Walter Raleigh and his neighbour was John Davis, who may not be as well known, but deserves a mention in the illustrious list of sea dogs for several reasons including the discovery of the North-West Passage.
In 1583 Sir Humphrey Gilbert colonized Newfoundland for his queen and in so doing secured the cod fishing grounds for Dartmouth fishermen which formed the basis of the town’s prosperity for the next 200 years.
Greenway House later became the summer home of Agatha Christie and Compton Castle is still lived in by the Gilbert family. Both properties belong to the National Trust and are open to the public.
Bayard’s Cove was also a departure point for the Pilgrim Fathers to the New World. Its universally known that the Pilgrim Fathers left Plymouth on the Mayflower, but if you read my blog on the Mayflower Connection, you’ll see that there were two ships that left Plymouth – the Mayflower and the Speedwell.
After they left Plymouth the Speedwell sprang a leak and both ships got checked over at Dartmouth. They only got as far as Land’s End before the Speedwell got into trouble again, and so they returned to Plymouth, and only the Mayflower set sail again. If they hadn’t had to return, I suppose it could be argued that the Pilgrim Fathers would have left Dartmouth, rather than Plymouth, for the New World.
The cobbled quay at Bayard’s Cove is an attractive corner of Dartmouth. It has a collection of buildings, that although range between the 17th and early 19th century harmonize well together, and for those who are old enough to remember, was used to portray the port of Liverpool in the popular 1970s TV drama series The Onedin Line. Incidentally the wooded area upstream from the town represented The Amazon jungle as well, believe it or not.
There’s more to Dartmouth’s maritime history than Privateers, Sea Dogs, Castles and Pilgrims – and even though this blog just gives an outline of those times – at least it’s a start. Watch this space!