History Of Brixham

History Of Brixham


Although there is evidence of ice age in habitants here, and probable trading in the Bronze Age, the first evidence of a town comes from Saxon Time. It is possible that Saxon settlement originated by sea from Hampshire in the sixth century, or overland around the year 800Brixham was called Briseham in the Domesday Book Its population then was 39.
William Prince of Orange , who became King William III landed in Brixham on 5 November 1688, during the Gloriuos Revolution, and issued his famous declaration “The Liberties of England and The Protestant Religion I Will Maintain”. Many local people still have Dutch surnames, being direct descendants of soldiers in that army. A road leading from the harbour up a steep hill to where the Dutch made their camp, is still called Overgang, meaning ‘passage’ in Dutch.

Overgang Steps View of Overgang pictures by Christine Ellis

The street names reflect the town’s history. Pump Street is where the village pump stood. Monksbridge was a bridge built by the monks of Totnes Priory. Lichfield Drive was the route that the dead (from the Anglo-Saxon ‘lich’ meaning a corpse) were taken for burial at St Mary`s churchyard. Salutation Mews, near that church, dates from when England was Catholic and the salutation was to the Virgin Mary. Similarly, Laywell Road recalls Our Lady’s Well. The first building seen when coming into Brixham from Paignton is the old white-boarded Toll House where all travellers had to pay a fee to keep the roads repaired.


Smuggling was more profitable than fishing, but if the men were caught, they were hanged. There are many legends about the local gangs and how they evaded the Revenue men. One humorous poem describes how a notorious local character, Bob Elliott (“Resurrection Bob”), could not run away because he had gout and hid in a coffin. Another villain was caught in possession but evaded capture by pretending to be the Devil, rising out of the morning mists. On another occasion when there was a cholera epidemic, some Brixham smugglers drove their cargo up from the beach in a hearse, accompanied by a bevy of supposed mourners following the cortege drawn by horses with muffled hooves.


Warships have been seen in Torbay from the days of the Vikings up until 1944 when part of the D-Day fleet sailed from here. In 1588 Brixham watched Sir Francis Drake attacking the Spanish Armada. In Brixham harbour there is a full-sized replica of the ship, the Golden Hind, in which Drake circumnavigated the globe. Visitors can go on board.

Golden Hind Replica by Christine Ellis

For centuries, ships going down the English Channel have come into Torbay to seek refuge from the storms and to replenish food supplies. Sometimes these were merchants, taking cargoes to far away places and bringing back exotic goods and rare spices; sometimes they were carrying pilgrims, or gentlemen on the Grand Tour.
Since the days of Henry VIII Brixham has played a part in the defence of the nation. The headland known as Berry Head was a military site where guns were once positioned to defend the naval ships that were re-victualling at Brixham. Twelve guns were put there during the War of American Independence, but were removed when peace came in 1783. Then ten years later, during a war with France, guns were again deployed around the town. The major position was at Berry Head, but this time fortifications were built to defend the gun positions.


Apart from fishing, most of the other local industries were connected with stone. Limestone was once quarried extensively and used to build the breakwater, for houses and roads, and was sent to Dagenham to make steel for Ford cars. It was also burnt in limekilns to reduce it to a powder which was spread on the land in other parts of Devon as an agricultural fertiliser. The old quarries and the limekilns can still be seen.
Another mineral found in Brixham is ochre This gave the old fishing boats their red sails but the purpose was to protect the canvas from sea water. It was boiled in great caldrons, together with tar, tallow,and oak bark The latter ingredient gave its name to the barking yards which were places where the hot mixture was painted on to the sails, which were then hung up to dry.
The ochre was also used to make a very special paint. This was invented in Brixham in about 1845 and was the first substance in the world that would stop cast iron from rusting. Other types of paint were made here as well, and the works were in existence until 1961.
There were iron mines at Brixham, and for a while they produced very high quality ore but the last one closed in 1925. Most of the sites have been built over and there are now no remains of this once important industry.
Rope making was another important trade. In the late 19th century there were three long rope-walks, one on Windmill Hill, another running the length of Great Rea Road, and the third at Furzeham. Before this, rope=makers yards were fairly small, one streching along the low cliff where the British Seamans Home is past the war memorial. Another small one stood beside St. St Mary`s Church on the northern side, at least three others were known to have existed.

The Harbour

Brixham harbour as it is seen today began to take shape in 1803 when the foundation stone of the pier was laid and was completed in 1804. As Brixham prospered the harbour became too small for the number of ships, so in 1837 it was decided to build a new and longer pier and breakwater .
The foundation stone was laid in 1843 thanks to loans and gifts. After 1400 feet had been built the scheme stopped for lack of funds. The breakwater was damaged in the great storm of 1866 and in other storms.
In 1909 an extension of 600 feet was started with government help and a further 1,000 feet was begun in 1912, this bought the total length to 3,000 feet. The opening ceremony took place in September 1916, it included the lighthouse at the breakwater end with its red occulting light.

The Breakwater and lighthouse by Christine Ellis

The Great Storm

Hundreds of ships have been wrecked on the rocks around the town. Brixham men have always known the dangers but even they were taken by surprise by a terrible storm that blew up on the night of 10 January 1866. The fishing boats only had sails then and could not get back into harbour because gale force winds and the high waves were against them. To make things worse, the beacon on the breakwater was swept away, and in the black darkness they could not determine their position. According to local legend, their wives brought everything they could carry, including furniture and bedding, to make a big bonfire on the quayside to guide their men home. Fifty vessels were wrecked and more than one hundred lives were lost in the storm; when dawn broke the wreckage stretched for nearly three miles up the coast.
Hearing of this tragedy, the citizens of Exeter gave money to set up what became the RNL`s Torbay lifeboat, which has since rescued hundreds of people.

The Life Boat Station

Since 1866, Torbay lifeboat station, located in Brixham, has operated an all-weather lifeboat. The station also has an inshore D-class lifeboat. The crews have a history of bravery, with 52 awards for gallantry. The boathouse can be visited and memorials to the brave deeds seen; on special occasions visitors can go on board the boat. Two maroons (bangs) are the signal for the lifeboat to be launched.


Brixham is also notable for being the town where the fishing trawler was invented and were admired throughout Europe. In the 19th century; their distinctive sails inspired the song “Red Sails in the Sunset “, which was written aboard a Brixham sailing trawler called the Torbay Lass.
In the Middle Ages, Brixham was the largest fishing port in the South-West, and at one time it was the greatest in England, known as the “Mother of Deep-Sea Fisheries”, its boats sailed all round the coast and helped to establish the fishing industries of Hull , Grimsby and Lowestoft . In the 1890s there were about 300 trawling vessels here, each owned by one man who was often the skipper of his own boat.
There is still a big fishing fleet, and you can see them coming in and out of the harbour, followed by flocks of seagulls.

The fish market is open to the public on two special days in the summer, when the finer points of catching and cooking fish will be explained to you. The modern boats are diesel-driven, Today some of the original vessels have been restored and can been seen sailing around the harbour or moored on the town pontoon.
Pilgrim, Vigilance, Provident, Keywadin, Golden Vanity and Regard are based in port and offer training trips and charters, which include short day and evening cruises.

There was once an important boat building industry here, as well as all the associated trades such as rope walks, anchor smiths, iron founders, tinsmiths, coppersmiths, sawyers, chandlers, coopers, riggers, sail lofts and so on. Walk around the narrow streets behind the Tourist Office and see something of the area long ago, or visit Brixham Heritage Museum to look at the tools used in building the ships, models and pictures of them and a reconstruction of a fisherman’s cottage living room.

The Coffin House

The coffin house reflects Brixham humour it is coffin-shaped and when a father was asked for the hand in marriage of his daughter, he said he would ‘see her in a coffin, before she wed’. The future son-in-law bought the coffin-shaped property, called it the Coffin House, and went back to the father and said ‘Your wishes will be met, you will see your daughter in a coffin, the Coffin House’. Amazed by this, the father gave his blessing.

The Coffin House by Christine Ellis

Grenville House

Picture by Christine Ellis

Grenville House was built as an orhanage as part of the Torbay and Dartmouth Mission to seamen with the object of `providing` for the sons of deceased British Seamen. It was in existence as an orphanage from 1863 to 1988.
The British Seamans Boys Home, The `orphan` which has now been omitted from the name was established in 1859 by William Gibbs of Tintersfield, Bristol. A new building was started in 1863 and completed the following year. It was further enlarged in 1873 and a school room was added in 1875.
A new wing was built in 1888-89 and a second in 1912, and a further enlargements made in 1913.
Brixham because of its many fishermen and the dangerous nature of its industry had more orphans per hundred head of population than any other place in the country. Orphan baoys also came from other ports like Portsmouth, Southampton and Plymouth.
In the first world war the number of ophans swelled.
In latter years it accepted fatherless only boys and became famous for its drum and bugle bands.
Since 1990 it has been a place of recreation, also helping ypung people prepare for life.

Battery Gardens

Battery Gardens are only a few minutes stroll along the coast from the harbour and provides stunning views across the bay
Battery Gardens have a military history leading back to the Napoleonic wars and the time of the Spanish Armada. The emplacements and features seen here today are those of the Second World War and are of national importance. The site, listed by English Heritage, is recognised as one of the best preserved of its kind in the UK. Of the 116 ‘Emergency Coastal Defence Batteries’ set up in the UK in 1940, only seven remain intact
“Battery” is a military term used to describe a number of artillery weapons and the soldier’s who operate them. The World War II coast and defence batteries had two main guns, anti-aircraft weapons and, in the case of Brixham, extra harbour defence guns.
A total of about one hundred officers and soldier’s manned the Battery. The Battery was originally manned by soldier’s from the Royal Artillery, but following the receding threat of invasion the Battery was later manned by 378 Battery – of which almost all were members of the Home Guard.
All that can be seen today was built from June – September 1940 immediately following the defeat and evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk after the fall of France.
Of the 116 Emergency Batteries built in 1940 from John O’Groats to Kent, to Lands End, and to South Wales only 7 remain. Of these Brixham battery is the most complete

View from Battery Gardens by Christine Ellis

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