The History of Dawlish

by Tricia Whiteaway











Even before the Saxons arrived in Britain, the land south of Exeter was fertile and suitable for early man’s home as there were plenty of birds, wild animals and fish in the sea – as the remains in Kent’s Cavern just twelve miles away shows. In our valley, sheltered from the Haldon Hills, with south-facing slopes and a stream that ran down the hills through the valley to the sea that was called Doflisc – Celtic for dark water – from which the village took its name.

Did the Romans visit Dawlish? They were only 12 miles away in Exeter and even closer when they built a bridge over the Teign, but did they come here? No written records show this, however proof that early man did live here comes from the amount of worked flints, a Neolithic Cornish stone axe (found in the cemetery), a stone spindle whorl (for spinning wool) a Bronze-Age knife, Celtic and Roman brooches and coins found on the fields. The Iron Age Castle Dyke on Little Haldon on the parish boundary, is not a fortified hill fort but more of a market-cum-meeting place, whilst nearby are tumuli (burial barrows).

In 1044 Edward the Confessor granted an estate at Dawlish To his chaplain Leofric, who had been brought up and educated in Lorraine, an area roughly corresponding to modern Belgium. Here he met the exiled future King Edward the Confessor and he returned to England with him in 1041, one year before Edward became king. Three years later King Edward appointed Leofric Bishop of Devon and Cornwall based at Crediton who moved the See to Exeter in 1050. Leofric retained his large Dawlish estate until his death in 1072, when he left it to the Church. The charter in which the gift was made survives.

This estate could have been originally part of a much larger swathe of land between the Exe and the Teign in the personal possession of later Anglo-Saxon kings. Alfred the Great left an Estate at Exminster to his younger son Aethelweard on his death in 899, one of several estates left to this son. The Teignton described by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 1001 as burnt by a Viking army was almost certainly the royal estate at Kingsteignton. Likewise Bishopsteignton – the bishop’s estate on the river Teign would have been in origin a royal estate granted by the king to the Church. It is conceivable though not provable, that in a much earlier time these were all elements of one very large estate.

These extensive fertile coastal and riverine lands may have come into the possession of the kings of Wessex at the time when they first asserted their control over Devon east of Dartmoor, if so it is just possible that these were lands owned originally by the British Kings of Dumnonia.

(Derek Gore, Fellow of the University of Exeter)


It is from the King, the Bishop and the See of Exeter that Dawlish has taken to make their coat of arms that they have held for over sixty years. On the left, the coat of arms of Edward the Confessor, on the right Leofric’s arms, and the crossed keys of the See of Exeter.



In 1066 initially nothing much had changed in Dawlish with the new French overlords. If you had to pay taxes, you continued to pay them, irrespective of who they were paid to. Then twenty years later the great ‘census’ of Domesday took place. Dawlish was then part of Bishop Osbern’s estate when officials from Exeter visited all places noting who owned or leased lands, how much, what land was under the plough, what was meadow or woods, what animals were kept. There was no way of hiding anything. The only difference is that these officials spoke Norman French.

The outcome of the Domesday records show that Dawlish paid tax on seven mansi (manors) or hides (about 840 acres) and there were 30 villagers and 8 smallholders (around 160 people) living here. It had meadows,  pasture and woods, they had only 3 cows, 2 pigs but 100 sheep and it was worth £8. Perhaps some of our Saxon-named farms date from this time - such as Southwood (bequeathed by King Alfred to his son), Aller, Smallacombe, Lidwell, Cofton, Shutterton, Shiverstone, Weston or Eastdon - but the Lord of the Manor, Bishop Osbern, had two slaves on his 120 acres which later became the Barton estate.

Life went on, taxes went up (they are never reduced are they) more land was cleared for farming and the people were probably unaware that in 1253 the newly founded Office of Dean and Chapter for the Exeter Cathedral now administered Dawlish (with many other parishes) and this situation for Dawlish lasted until 1802. Initially they selected a local man to be a Reeve - their man in the village - a position that later changed annually. Over the 1388/9 period Richard Mugge (Mudge) was the Reeve, whilst in 1419/20, perhaps a descendant, John Mugge of Easdon became reeve and later it was John Shylston in 1442/3 - names that still appeared in Dawlish in the 20th century showing how long the families have remained.

It is said that there was probably a wooden Saxon church built on the site of the present parish church of St. Gregory, itself an early consecration, built inland away from high tides and the flooding marshy valley. In fact the earliest date we have for our church is 1148 when it was one of seven selected by Bishop Chichester for the support of the canons - so the Norman corbel stone that lies behind the church would indicate we could have once had a Norman stone church. The date of 1272 gives us the first vicar known only as W and ten years later it is confirmed that St Gregory’s was the Mother church to St. Michael’s of East Teignmouth and much later still, of St Mary’s of Cofton. The remains of a Saxon Cross still stands outside St. Gregory’s church.

During the worst plague in 1348 that killed perhaps a third of the country’s population, three Dawlish vicars succumbed to the Black Death. By 1438 a bell tower of local red sandstone was built to the church. We certainly had at least two bells by 1588 including a great bell rung for funerals and we had an early clock maintained by the appropriate named John Clockmaker. There was a later clock in 1715 that now resides in Dawlish Museum.


Over the centuries Dawlish prospered and grew, it still paid taxes – usually to pay for wars - Kings came and went – these events would be announced in the church - but very little changed in this small town. Even when the biggest change in religion from Catholic to Protestant caused by Henry VIII in 1548, whatever the locals thought it was not reported, but it is recorded that Robert Herte (described as a monastery pensioner) was employed in Dawlish church – possibly St Michael’s at Teignmouth as he lived there. And of course the Prayer Book Rebellion started in the West Country in 1549.

Even before the great Armada, monarchs insisted on a training programme for the men of the country – the first Dad’s Army – records of which are extant. In Dawlish two wealthy men had to provide armour, pikes, bills and bows with arrows for two men, whereas twelve other men gave money, according to their wealth, to supply weapons for the 27 men – three archers, three gunners, four bill-men and seventeen pike-men - who practised their weapons on a regular basis. There are payments to certain men for cleaning, repairing or carrying the muskets and armour for military training, held either at Chudleigh, Kenton or Haldon .

Our churchwarden accounts start in the year of the Armada 1588/9 that gives little news of the battle but we can find out more of everyday things and people. That year the churchwardens were Gregorie Ockman and Christopher Townsen and they did their duties collecting and paying out money – for candles for the ‘reijsing daie’ (rejoicing day - a party for Queen Elizabeth’s succession) and repairs for the church bells - a constant necessity. There is even a payment of 16d for ‘fowre men to watch when the Spaniards (escaped?) out of the Bridewell’. Spanish prisoners from the Armada were kept in the barn at Torre Abbey.

Church bells were very important in the past – the television news report of its day - ringing for the usual church services, weddings, burials, then for Guy Fawkes day and good news such as battle victories, coronations or anniversaries of such. But they would also be rung strangely to dispel lightening! In 1595 John Langmeade was paid for repairing the second bell, but also for mending the stocks and the pillory (holding miscreants in public by legs or hands and head in public to shame them) and the cucking stool (for ducking people for any other misdemeanours). We know of one - Dorothy Stoninge - as she appears that year when thongs were bought for whipping her and for bread and drinke given to one who kept her and one to whip her - 6d. What had she done? Whatever it was she did it severall tymes !

There are clues that the church building was beginning to crumble. Reports that posts were inserted to shore-up something and in 1596 Giles Colsery and his man were paid 3s.2d. for ij (2) daies worke upon the church with viid (7d) of nailes to sett in Ric. Treipes ladder to fasten a piece of tymber.’ Eventually a whole tree was used to support the roof in 1599 - which took three days - but it was not until 1825 that the church was remodelled by actually raising the roof and then the whole was enlarged in 1875.


We can assess the population of Dawlish long before the advent of the 19th century census, from the Protestation Returns taken in 1641. Men and boys over 16 had to show their loyalty to King Charles I and thus the Protestant Religion by signing this document. It showed there were 360 males living in Dawlish of 123 separate family’s names; and by adding their wives and children we can guesstimate the population to be about 800 - and they were all Royalists.

Were any in the army? I would have thought so without a doubt, but we have no details. Even before this time, males over the age of 16 had to train with weapons by law. We also know that Thomas Tripe of Rixdale Farm was a Royalist as on the restoration of the monarchy he had the plaster ceilings in his house decorated with scenes of the King hiding in the oak tree and other symbols. However after the siege of Powderham Castle in the January of 1645 two unnamed soldiers, presumably Royalists, were buried in the churchyard after this battle.

The parish registers date from around this time and although they give us names and dates, we seldom have any further details as to occupation or status. The labourer gets the same treatment in the registers as the lords and ladies. However there is a missing Churchwarden’s Accounts ledger for this period so it is difficult to build up a complete picture of the period. But Exeter history reveals that Sir Peter, a member of the Balle family had built and lived in the neighbouring mansion at Mamhead, and also leased the Manor of Dawlish and became our Lord of the Manor. He was the Recorder of Exeter and personal servant to Queen Henrietta, wife of Charles I. Some of his Dawlish land passed to his descendants when the last one, merchant Thomas Balle, built the obelisk at Mamhead in 1743 as a landmark for shipping coming into the river Exe and Exeter. Later part of the Manor of Dawlish was leased by Stephen Weston, Bishop of Exeter, and it then descended through his family until eventually it went through his granddaughter who married a Fortescue in the time of George III.


This then brings in a story connecting Dawlish with the newly found land - Australia. After a life at sea, when he retired Admiral John Schank lived in Barton House, opposite Church House, and around 1799 he was visited by a young naval officer about to go to the other side of the world. Distantly related to his wife, the visitor, Lieutenant James Grant was commissioned to plot the coast of south Australia and sailed on the 18th February 1800 on the Lady Nelson. The reason for his visit was that Admiral Schank had designed this ship with a retractable keel specially designed for coastal work.

During this visit he was introduced to Peter Churchill, a very distant relative of the Dorset Churchills, one of whom became Duke of Marlborough. Peter Churchill had married Fortescue’s sister and they lived in Church House but within a year she had died and he married again to Elizabeth Foulkes whose naval brother lived in Bridge House. Churchill was a keen gardener and gave Lt. Grant some seeds to sow on his travels when he had the chance for the future benefit of our fellowman, be they Countrymen, Europeans or Savages.

Ten months later Grant arrived in Australia and in the area of Bass Strait he discovered an small island close to Phillip Island off the coast of Victoria, on which he landed and built a block-house and developed a garden planting some of the seeds of vegetables, apples, peaches and nectarines trees he had been given by Churchill and so he named the island after him. It is now a National Park owned by the Victorian Conservation Trust.


Many early guide books called Dawlish a fishing village – but one cannot live on fish alone - without the chips! Fishing was important (there was once a tithe on fish in 1535 worth £2 a year) but even then it seems the fish were beginning to declining. Certainly barrels of fish were sent to London by train until the 1920s but it has always been a secondary occupation to farming in Dawlish. With the decline of fishing and with the advance of faster, larger, and different practices (and present fish quotas) it has reduced to being a part-time trade or more of a hobby.

Yet without a harbour, Dawlish town had a great number of sailors in the past. In 1619 lists of sailors (again in case of impending wars) shows we had a serious number of seamen divided into 15 master mariners, 116 sailors and 15 seinemen (those who caught fish off the shore). These numbers are surprisingly high compared with East and West Teignmouth with its harbour, that had 92 sailors, 14 master mariners but they had seven ships compared to two at Dawlish. Fishing was kept to families, father to son – in 1619 there were 9 Tapleys, 5 Babbs, 4 Bricknolls.

Then due to the Napoleonic Wars in the 1790s when Torbay became a naval base, Naval Officers and their families began to live in our town. The local builders soon took up any empty plots of ground in town to build bigger and better houses to lease to them and to the increasing number of wealthy people who could no longer travel on the Continent due to these wars. Tourism had arrived! Two hotels had been built in the 1780s on The Strand to cater for any visitors whilst most of the locals were happy with their cob and thatched cottages (which are cool in the summer and warm in the winter) and some still remain.

THE 19TH CENTURY Dawlish events in nineteenth century - list

In 1802 the Dean and Chapter of Exeter Cathedral, the owners of Dawlish, were allowed to sell their Dawlish land. Businessmen from Exeter and farther afield took up the advantage with their money to buy farms, houses and land to create their own estates. The London banking family of Hoares had Luscombe Castle and Stonelands built by the well-known architect John Nash.
Sir William Watson from Bath built Lanherne (now sheltered flats), John Pidgley from Exeter built Elm Grove (demolished and now a housing estate), Sir John Ley (the Chief Clerk of the House of Commons) built Plantation House later combined with Sefton House (now a nursing home) and his son was once High Sheriff of Devon. Oaklands, was also once the home of the High Sheriff, is now a school, and the Hoares of Luscombe have held that position twice whilst Codrington Parr of Stonelands was High Sheriff in 1839.
The Rise (now a retirement home) was the home of Miss Pennyman who entertained Princess Caroline of Brunswick in 1806, the uncrowned Queen of George IV. In the early 1930s the late Queen Mum with the Queen, then Princess Elizabeth and her sister Margaret, would visit a house called The Cottage (now Weech House) where lived Miss Cavendish-Bentinck, the Queen Mum’s aunt.

The next biggest event to happen in Dawlish in the middle of the 19th century was the coming of the railway. That great engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, planned to run his Atmospheric Railway along the coast from Exeter to Plymouth. In 1845 a single track with wide rails were laid and pumping stations were built at St David’s, the Turf, Starcross, (which still stands), Dawlish, Teignmouth, Bishopsteignton and Newton Abbot. It ran for 20 miles and was achieving nine passenger trains a day between Exeter and Teignmouth. However, this novel method of transportation was impractical and expensive and was soon taken over by the more usual steam trains of the South Devon Railway.
The pumping station at Dawlish was demolished but remnants are in the railway car park built into a retaining wall. The first wooden station caught fire and was rebuilt in 1873. In the late 19th century the rails were changed to narrow gauge and the lines doubled. With the railway practically on the beach it was ideal for the fishermen around 1900 to send their catches by rail (packed in barrels as this photo shows).
But on the other side of the coin because of its nearness to the sea the spray, high tides and winter storms caused it to be the most expensive stretch of railway line in the country, which it remains. Plans to take it in inland has been mooted for over a hundred years.
The coming of the railway didn’t immediately increase the population of Dawlish but as with many other country towns in that period, numbers increased, and within a few years the total of other born Devonians out-numbered the locals. Happily there is still a core of Dawlishians here and many more people who hope they have been accepted to be called by that name.

Many small farms have disappeared due to a change in farming together with an increase in the population requiring more houses to be built whilst our industries were small compared to large towns and cities. Cider was always made locally on the farms, making Honiton lace was carried out in a small way by a few families but the largest industry that lasted for over a century was the brewery in the High Street (1817-1925) that provided beer and lemonade to its 28 pubs in the area. And in the days when gentlemen and ladies wore fresh buttonholes every day, famous Dawlish violets were sent to London from the gardening smallholders of the area.


Dawlish has increased in population to around 13,000. There are many more houses in Dawlish but in many ways not a lot has changed – but perhaps that is why we like it. Big industry has passed us by and the change in shopping has altered the look of some of our streets, but for nearly a hundred years tourism is our biggest business. As locals we still love our beaches, our Carnival with the Red Arrow displays, our churches, our black swans on the Lawn that so many tourists remember with pleasant memories.
So I hope this gives you a brief history of over a thousand years of our delightful, peaceful town of Dawlish on the sunny English Riviera coast of South Devon. But be aware when walking round the town. Is that a Neolithic man collecting shellfish off the shore? Or is that a Norman walking his hound on the Newhay (French for new hedge)? Is that a 17th century mariner sitting with the fishermen on Boat Cove, a Regency dandy strolling along Marine Parade and a navvy checking the cliffs rocks? Or is it just sea mist?