Dawlish Beaches 1770-2020

by David Allanach


1. For centuries Dawlish was a small quiet community grouped around the church. It was not on any main route and was therefore not easy to get to and was fairly cut off. 

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2. Half a mile away by the shore there was another group of dwellings belonging to the fishermen. Most of them would be fairly rough and ready but maybe better than the one illustrated. Fishing was an important occupation and one which thrived even though there was no harbour. However, change was afoot as medical opinion began to advocate the merits of the sea in order to improve one's health based on the same principles as the inland spas.

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In 1771 a Dr Downman of Exeter advised visiting Dawlish for the 'refreshing breeze and inhaling the briny spray'. In 1778 it was noted that 'Dawlish was entertaining sea-bathers, drawn there by its recently acquired reputation as a small health resort'.


3. The fishing at this time took up much of the beach and seine nets were fixed near the entrance to Dawlish Water. In the distance can be glimpsed the wheels of the bathing machines. In 1778 there was only one machine but their numbers soon grew. They were an important feature on the beach for nearly 150 years. In effect they were a shed on wheels where bathers could undress. The machine was then wheeled into the water and the bather descended into the sea where a formidable woman known as a 'Dipper' pushed the recipient under the water several times in order to improve their health. It was also recommended that the cure would be more effective if a glass of sea water was drunk each day. This picture was probably painted in the 1790s when the popularity of Dawlish had led to a small housing boom by the sea but the paths and tracks were still very rough.

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4. Dawlish increased its popularity during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars when wealthy British people could no longer spend their holidays abroad. Dawlish became one of the leading fashionable Devon resorts and there was an intense period of development in the town. Although the bridges remained to be tackled a gravel drive had already been laid out in front of Marine Parade by 1803.

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5.The town was much improved over the next few years and various facilities were established a theatre, a circulating library and an assembly room for social gatherings, drinks and billiards. The first version of the assembly room can be seen on the other side of Dawlish Water, the long building with pillars near the sea. A typical day for the visitors would start early with bathing, drinking the waters or just looking on, then there would be parading up and down the sea front, followed by card games and by late afternoon it was time for the 'public tea'. Sometimes there would be a ball in the evenings attracting gentry from as far as Ugbrooke.

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6. Dawlish fortunes declined somewhat after 1815 when people could once again travel abroad and Dawlish was upstaged locally by Torquay. Nonetheless Dawlish was still recognised as an important Devon resort and visitors were able to access the town easier with its improving road communications. One popular feature opening around 1830 was the bath house with the Doric columns offering cold or heated sea water which replaced a much smaller facility. One of the rather crude bathing machines of the period is shown along with the capstans at the top of the beach which were used for hauling them out of the water (after they had been pushed into the water by hand).

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7. The railway arrived in 1846. As it was built along the top of the beach it immediately became a barrier to easy access and a colonade had to be built at one end and a subway at the far end of Marine Parade. There was now less room for bathers and fishermen but the railway did bring more visitors.

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8. The working class visitors were mainly restricted to advertised excursion trains until a campaign began in Exeter to promote the health benefits of sea bathing for the masses. From 1859 the GWR were persuaded to issue special six penny tickets on the first train to Dawlish on a Sunday but the travellers had to return on the first train towards Exeter which allowed them about an hour on the beach. On fine days 300 or more people caught these trains. Obviously this picture does not portray a Sunday morning but it does show that pleasure boating has a long tradition here.

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9. Traditionally men had often bathed in the buff and apparently some women also in earlier times. By the early 1860s there was a national campaign against nudity on the beach which led to segregation of the men and from 1864 they were only allowed to bathe at Coryton beach. The increased use of this beach led to two competing bathing machine companies being established with markedly different looking machines. Around this time the Dawlish Swimming club was founded as the sea was now being used more for leisure than for health.

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10. From 1880 the bathing machine proprietors faced competition from the new Ladies Bathing Pavilion. 3 attendants looked after 30 changing rooms and there was a large reading room to one side for both men and women. It boasted the rare facility of a little tramcar to take the bather from the shielded entrance into the water although the photos show that these tramways often stopped short of the sea. It is worth noting that the Ladies Bathing Pavilion was actually managed by a man. Fishermen were also often present nearby.

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11. By the late 1880s all men were wearing bathing costumes (although teenage boys could sometimes still cause embarassment). It was now deemed fitting to be clothed from neck to knees as on the continent. However those teenage boys caused a great debate in the local council and the upshot was that no bathing on Dawlish beaches was allowed after middday on Sundays for a while.

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12. The 1890s was the last time that the bathing machine proprietors like 'Admiral' Henry Coombs and his wife only had to face competition from the bathing pavilion. The design of the machines had improved to the extent that they now incorporated windows and their sides were adorned with advertising but they were soon to be seen as an anachronism.

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13. The first signs of change came in 1897 when families were allowed together on the main beach for the first time. As men were now suitably attired it was not long before all men were allowed on that beach.

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14.From around 1900 the monopoly of the bathing machines and the pavilion was challenged by hirers of tents and wheeled beach huts. Whereas bathing machines were hired by the hour or half hour the tents and huts could be hired by the day, week or season. It was no longer a problem for bathers to walk from their changing area down the beach and into the water.

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15. By this time all the fishing boats had moved to Boat Cove and pleasure boating was really taking off there too. These boatmen are waiting for customers because when the tide went right out Boat Cove could not be used and people had to make their way out beyond the Pout Wall in order to board a boat.

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16. Dawlish began to attract more of the less affluent as people gradually started to have paid holidays and the beach became an important attraction for the children. This picture is taken after 1915 when a storm destroyed the reading room of the bathing pavilion. The use of deck chairs is now quite common, apart from comfort they protected clothes from getting too dirty.

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17. Once a railway station had been established at Dawlish Warren the popularity of the area grew and grew and by the 1920s its beach was attracting more people from Exeter than Dawlish itself. This is the scene on Whit Monday 1919.

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18. There was an inexorable rise in the number of beach huts at Coryton as people tried to create a home from home with a wide variety of designs

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19. Some looked a little cramped and were more like sentry boxes and were probably old bathing machines which had been grounded.

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20. The beach was now seen as a playground which was much enjoyed by the children and adults could enjoy the fun too. This was a competition sponsored by the Daily Mail in 1923

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21. By 1932 swimming costumes had become shorter and more practical

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22. The beach beside the station has never been as popular or had many facilities but it still gets well used. The idea of sitting in the sun is catching on but only the children are stripping off, the adults are fairly well covered and hats are almost compulsory. Attitudes were only just beginning to change as previously it was important to retain fair skin or risk being thought of as lower class because only outside labourers would have a tan.

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23. The second world war brought changes. The most dramatic being the blowing up of the Bathing Pavilion in case it aided an enemy landing! Tubular poles were dug into the beaches to stop any tanks and Coryton beach was one of those which was put out of bounds. Restrictions were further increased in the period before D Day and all visitors were banned from the coastal areas. This picture was taken on VJ Day and locals have found their way through the defences to enjoy the beach at Coryton.

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24. The beaches at Dawlish proved very popular in the 1950s and early 1960s and the trains brought a great influx of visitors every Saturday during the summer. Everyone dressed to enjoy the sun and get a tan. It was now acceptable to undress on the beach so all the tents and many of the huts disappeared

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25. Pleasure boating continued to be an important activity at Boat Cove at this period. However things were about to change because of the growing popularity of cheap package holidays abroad. Gradually the number of hotels and other facilities declined and boats could no longer be hired at Boat Cove.

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26. Nonetheless, although the beaches may be less crowded they remain popular and are an integral part of the Dawlish scene. Today they are used by adults seeking the sun, having a picnic or a swim whilst others watch the children playing and paddling. This beach scene would be quite unrecognisable to a time traveller from the 1770s.

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Compiled June 2020