‘Mystery’ of Sidmouth’s coat of arms solved

Sidmouth Town Crest

Sidmouth Town Crest - Credit: Archant

A businessman believes he has ‘pretty conclusive’ proof of how Sidmouth’s coat of arms took shape.

Richard Eley recently told civic leaders the town has no link to the Vikings and the longboat on its crest is a corruption of the original fishing boat.

He has now re-located the reference in antiquarian Peter Orlando Hutchinson’s History of Sidmouth, while Sidmouth Museum volunteers have shed further light on the crest’s past.

Mr Hutchinson wrote: “On the 20th May, 1863, a Local Board was formed, sanctioned and confirmed by the head Board in London. When the Board was formed, it was stated that such corporations usually had a seal, with which all documents issued by them, were stamped, so as to give them an official authority.

“I was asked if, in the course of my researches, I had ever come across an old seal of arms or other device as belonging to the parish – but I replied in the negative. Upon this, several persons exercised their ingenuity in contriving a new one. Something referring to fishing or to the sea, seemed most appropriate.

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“One person suggested two fish tied together by their tails, like the zodiacal sign Pisces: another a crab: another a lobster: whilst my design was a lug-sail fishing boat on the water – and my design was adopted.”

Richard said: “It seems highly likely to me that the design used by the Local Board was adopted subsequently by Sidmouth Urban District Council and then the town council.

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“So that is the Viking mystery pretty much solved. I wasn’t seriously suggesting that we should change our coat of arms, not least because it would be costly. But I do like the idea of it all being a mistake with someone in the past having too fertile an imagination.”

A 1950 Herald report on the urban district council unearthed by Sidmouth Museum librarians Rab and Christine Barnard reveals how the rest of the coat of arms took shape.

It says: “As her late Majesty Queen Victoria lived at Sidmouth for a short time, it was thought suitable to introduce something from the Armorial Bearings of the Duke and Duchess of Kent, and the cross and fleurs de lys from the label in the Duke’s arms were included.

“The field is gules (red) and can be taken to stand for the red cliffs of Devon, and the ship was left in the shield, as thus was used in the Seal of the town for many years.

“The ship is shown on ‘barry wavy’ argent and azure, which is the heraldic representation of water. The lion in the crest is included as this animal appears in the Armorial Bearings of the County Council of Devon and the sun ‘in splendour’ is indicative of the sunshine to be enjoyed at Sidmouth. The lion is shown rising from the water to emphasise Sidmouth’s location.

“The crest is shown on a wreath of colours, on a helmet of a suitable degree, an esquire’s helmet being the correct one for a municipal body.”

Stephen Huyshe-Shires, the joint custodian at historic house Sand, has also been inspired to investigate the coat of arms.

He visited the town council offices and read through the official grant of arms, where the depicted boat is described as ‘an Ancient Galley in full sail, Oars in action’.

Mr Huyshe-Shires said: “Other documents I was shown in the council’s files suggest that the idea of the ship in the grant ‘…recalls three (ships) sent from Port Royal to the relief of Calais for Edward III in 1336’, so perhaps not even a fishing boat either!

“There is also a hint that what was offered to the College of Arms as a suggested design may have been changed in the execution. That is also not surprising, and is why the wording is the important part.

“Ask different heraldic artists to paint an ancient galley and you’ll get different results. These are never intended as photographic likenesses.”

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