'Queen Victoria herself seems to have been very lucky for Sidmouth'
- Credit: PA
Sidmouth was not traditionally a very lucky place for Queen Victoria.
In the winter of 1819 and 1820, while still a baby she was staying at Woolbrook Glen (later the Royal Glen Hotel), when a boy shooting sparrows outside accidentally fired a shot through one of the windows. The infant princess was lucky: the bullet narrowly grazed one of her sleeves. But worse was to come, during the visit, her father, the Duke of Kent, one of the sons of George III suddenly fell ill and died. This was discussed in one of my recent columns, published in late November.
The bad luck didn’t flow both ways, however, as Queen Victoria herself seems to have been very lucky for Sidmouth. Indeed, the second half of her reign – from about 1870 to 1901- was something of a golden age for the town. From the late 18th century onwards, the belief that bathing in the sea could cure all manner of ailments really began to take root. Attractive seaside resorts such as Sidmouth and Exmouth had thus become increasingly fashionable holiday destinations and this continued into the Victorian era. The coming of rail made Sidmouth much more accessible to visitors. The branch line opened in July 1874 and over 1,000 children from Sidmouth, Salcombe Regis and Sidbury and a band turned out to witness the arrival and departure of the very first trains there.
Hotels too, made holidays easier, for those who could afford them. The Royal York (1811), The Bedford Hotel (1813), all appeared alongside The Royal Glen, The Knowle and The London Hotel while Colonel Balfour built The Victoria in 1903, two years after Queen Victoria’s death. Middle-class people would sometimes spend a full month on holiday in places like Sidmouth, often bringing staff such as a nanny along with them.
In both 1887 and 1897, the streets were decorated with bunting and other adornments as Queen Victoria’s Golden and Diamond Jubilees were both celebrated. Victoria herself died in January 1901. It was the end of an era and yet Sidmouth’s life as a busy seaside resort continued into the 20th century. It took the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, to truly bring this golden phase in Sidmouth’s history to an end.
Who do I think I am?
One thing lots of people like to do at this time of year is to begin researching their family history. I must admit, I’ve not done this although others in my family have. An odd thing I’ve noticed on casually looking at the results is how often Winston Churchill’s name comes up.
Don’t get me wrong: my family has no real connection to Churchill’s at all. Nevertheless, he does seem to come up quite a bit. My parents, for example, are now in their seventies but lived in Woodford in London for a while in the early 1960s. Churchill was an old man by that point. But he was also their MP, standing down in October 1964, just three months before his death.
Another connection comes through my brother-in-law. His grandfather served in the Battle of Omdurman in 1898 - a campaign in which the young Churchill, then a soldier and journalist, was also involved. The young soldier’s diaries were included in a book called Omdurman Diaries published just over twenty years ago, to commemorate the centenary of the battle. Churchill is mentioned briefly in the text.
My great-grandfather, on my mother’s side, would have had cause to remember Churchill less fondly. Serving in the British Army during the First World War, he was wounded in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign which began in 1915. Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty was largely held responsible for the calamity and soon resigned from the government, joining the Army and serving on the western front despite still being an MP.
Perhaps I am just unusually interested in Churchill, but on reflection, the fact he comes up so often, is simply a reflection of the huge part he played in so many aspects of British history.