Remembering the golden age of Exmouth

Exmouth. Picture: Alex Walton Photography

Exmouth has long been an attractive place to live - Credit: Alex Walton

Summer is here again, so it seems as good a time as any for us to remember that for a glorious period lasting roughly one century between the 1750s and the 1850s, the town of Exmouth enjoyed a glorious and golden period as one of the most fashionable coastal resorts in the land.

Conditions were perfect. A century before, Exmouth had been occasionally raided by Algerian pirates on the lookout for booty to plunder. These rogues often ended up departing with human cargo, kidnapping townspeople who they would then attempt to sell as slaves in North Africa.

Thankfully, by the second half of the 18th century, this practice had died out. Indeed, for much of the period we’re discussing, the European continent itself was off limits even to those wealthy enough to travel there due to the ongoing chaos caused by the Napoleonic Wars. Places like Exmouth thus came to be seen as an attractive option in their own right.

In the 18th century, the prospect of a holiday by the seaside held an appeal which extended beyond the simple desire for a bit of sun, sea and sand which most of us occasionally yearn for from time to time today. The Georgians were great believers in the medicinal benefits of salty water and fresh air as a potential cure for all manner of medical matters. They were in fact not entirely wrong about this. These things are indeed generally good for you. But people in the 18th century definitely attached more value to them than we do today.

Exmouth also held a special attraction for a certain category within society. For whatever reason, Exmouth became a popular safe haven for women who had been spurned by men within the glare of the public gaze.

Anyone who read my very first column last October will have seen how Lady Frances Nelson lived out the last 30 years of her life in Exmouth having suffered the humiliation of being publicly and unceremoniously dropped by her husband, the legendary naval hero, Lord Nelson at the start of the 19th century. Nelson, had in fact, been her second husband. Frances was born Frances Woolward on the Caribbean island of Nevis in 1758 and had married and had a son by a doctor, Josiah Nisbet before he died suddenly after they moved to England in 1781. She married Nelson before he was famous and treated him after he lost his right arm at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1797.

But her love for Nelson was ultimately not suitably rewarded. Lady Frances and her son retreated to Exmouth after being very publicly spurned by Nelson and mistreated by both him and his mistress, Lady Emma Hamilton. Despite this behaviour, Frances remained publicly loyal to her estranged husband, a tradition which continued after his death at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

Lady Byron, the wife of the legendary “mad, bad and dangerous to know poet”, Lord Byron and her daughter Ada Lovelace also visited Exmouth during this period. Lady Byron and Ada are actually interesting enough characters to warrant a column in their own right, so I may return to them at another time. Another notable visitor to Exmouth during this period was the Duchess of York, wife of the Duke of York; one of the sons of King George III who was later immortalised marching 10,000 men up to the top of a hill and then marching them down again in the famous nursery rhyme.

In 1861, the first railway line into Exmouth opened. Within the first five days, 10,000 people travelled on the line and property prices soared. But despite this, the coming of the railways ultimately came to mark the end of Exmouth’s good times. For while the new train lines made Exmouth more accessible, they also made other attractive locations which had previously been hard to reach, easier to get to. Exmouth lost out as a result. The golden age was over.

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