Salcombe Regis: 700 years of village life

The church in spring

The church in spring - Credit: Archant

The extent of this one parish’s involvement in England’s social, political and military history through the ages is quite breathtaking.

Its inhabitants were involved in practising medieval superstitions, coping with the tensions between Catholicism and the protestants, the early exploration and settlement of the Americas, fighting in the Napoleonic wars, the unforgiving treatment of criminals and the popular coastal activity of smuggling contraband.

Socially, during the Georgian and Regency periods, Salcombe Regis proved a magnet for some well-to-do and well connected people, some earning a degree of notoriety as local characters.

Julia Creeke decided that, as more than 40 years had passed since anything had been published about the village, this must be put right. Her comprehensive 166-page anthology draws on many unpublished manuscripts, long-forgotten books and specialist publications. The writings in it span 700 years, from medieval times to the millennium. Her book is beautifully illustrated with paintings and photographs.

That such detailed records exist, Julia writes, is to a large extent due to the work of John Anderson-Morshead (1846-1923), son of the Salcombe Regis vicar, who spent years transcribing Latin texts from the Exeter Cathedral archives.

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More recently, notes from the Reverend Reginald J Kaye, vicar of Colaton Raleigh, add much fascinating detail. Mr Kaye, whose family, the Sadlers, lived at Thorn Farm from 1958-84, took a great interest in the ancient manor house. He notes that the door to Thorn faces north, as the belief was that the plague was borne on southern winds. In 940 AD, the Saxon King Athelstan had given the Manor of Salcombe Regis to the Monastery at Exeter, and from there it passed to the Bishop before being given to the Dean and Chapter in 1149. From that time, Thorn was the home of a Canon of Exeter, appointed by the Dean and Chapter to administer the affairs of the Manor.

Mr Kaye’s account refers to Vaughan Cornish’s recollections of the late 1800s when his grandfather and elder brother had to plant replacements for the ancient Thorn Tree. Since Saxon times, offshoots of the old Glastonbury Holy Thorn had been planted in southern England. But Salcombe Regis is one of the few places where this connection with the past has been maintained.

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The high-church Cornishes were appalled when in January 1820 they received a ‘command’ to take tea at Woolbrook Cottage, Sidmouth, with the Duke and Duchess of Kent on the Sabbath. Charlotte, daughter of Sarah and George Cornish, wrote: “It is the first time in my life that I ever paid a visit of this kind on Sunday and I hope it will be long before I do so again.” The Duke died, unexpectedly, shortly afterward.

Among the fine houses built in Salcombe Regis was Sidcliff, the ‘occasional residence’ of wealthy Russian merchant Edmund Boehm. It was at a Grand Ball in Boehm’s St James’ Square home in London that the Prince Regent was given the news of Wellington’s victory at Waterloo.

Ronald Wilson’s account of Georgian and Regency life in the Sid Valley recalls locals’ involvement in the wars against Napoleon: John Yule of Branscombe as Captain of Marines and John Carslake, son of Colyton surgeon Bampfield Carslake, who served under Nelson in the great battle of Trafalgar which ended French hopes of invading England.

Wilson notes the continuing divisions in the upper strata of society between descendants of the high church, 17th century Royalists and the largely non-conformist Parliamentarians. While the Cornishes were established church, adherents of the Presbyterian Church in the district included the Carslakes as well as the Pearses, Leighs and Follets.

Tomazine Leigh’s diary records a dance with the Dean of York, William Cockburn – ‘a sweet man’. Widowed Cockburn had an eye for the ladies. He warned his second son against marrying a lady who was ‘far too young for you’ – then married her himself.

Hon Sophie Fortescue, a character suspected of having a ‘screw loose’, took under her patronage James Brooks Lee Pike, a boy from a poor Sidmouth family, leaving him Griggs Farm and most of her considerable estate. Pike prepared a vault for his benefactress at Salcombe Regis Church, in due course being laid to rest himself in the same stone table tomb.

Roger Clapp’s memoir of his voyage to America in 1630 records 10 weeks of ‘preaching and expounding the word of God every day’. They sailed up the Charles River and were saved from starvation by bartering biscuits and clothing for fish and grain from friendly Indians. Clapp praises God’s work in inspiring so many worthies ‘when times were so bad in England that they could not worship God after the manner prescribed in his most holy word, but they must be imprisoned, excommunicated etc’.

Railway enthusiasts will enjoy the account of the attempt in the 1830s to construct a harbour at Sidmouth. Stone was to come from ‘generous deposits’ at Hook Ebb, in Salcombe Regis, half a mile to the east. Large sums were invested in laying down a railway, with a tunnel bored to carry the track through Salcombe Cliff to reach Salcombe Mouth, where Devon sandstone gave way to limestone. A steam engine was delivered by sea, dragged over the hills from Exmouth. (For the end of this tragi-comic tale, as well as much more besides, I must encourage you to buy the book.)

Construction of the tunnel had been a boon for at least one man. John Rattenbury wrote that he had given up smuggling to carry stone for the company – but returned to his illicit occupation when work ceased. Until it was blocked the abandoned tunnel was used by smugglers as a contraband store.

Julia has penned a detailed account of the evolution of Salcombe Regis Church. Externally, the building remains much the same as it looked in 1510, but internally in those days it had been dark and gloomy, yet garish and filled with images. In those times, Wardens organised celebrations called ‘ales’ to honour the saints, and brewed the ale which was sold to raise funds for the church’s upkeep. The only piece of furniture to survive from pre-Reformation time is the head of the Chough Lectern, which had been hidden in the thatch of a barn to save it from Cromwell’s men. The church’s greatest treasure is the 1571 Communion Cup and Paten, made by Exeter’s great Elizabethan silversmith, John Jones.

? Salcombe Regis – An Anthology – 700 Years of Village Life is to be launched at 7pm on Friday, November 13, with a musical evening at All Saints’ Church, Sidmouth. Renowned English harpist and composer Elizabeth-Jane Baldry is to give a recital, interspersed with readings from the book. The cost is £10 (pay at the door). This includes a glass of wine and light refreshments. Proceeds are in aid of The Friends of Salcombe Regis Church, a body formed to secure the maintenance of the fabric of the church for future generations.

Copies of the book will be available at £12.50 during the evening, a discount of £3. Thereafter it will be on sale on line at at £15.50. Sidmouth Museum via its online shop at is also a stockist. Bookshops in the town should also have it available.

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