It has been said that the only thing that Babbacombe is known for is the story of John Lee “the man they could not hang”. Let us dig deeper.
Although St Marychurch dates back to Saxon days there is evidence of a fishing community near Babicomb beach in 1500.
The whole area was extremely poor, the people barely surviving living from hand to mouth mostly working on the sea, a few worked on the land as farmers or quarrying the local limestone. Smuggling was rife.
The Manor map dated 1775 is the earliest known large scale map of the locality and the only properties shown are a handful of cottages on the slopes near the beach. These appear to be on the sites of The Glen, the Cary Arms and Beach Cottage. Further up the hill Ivy Cottage, Mushroom Cottage, Rock Cottage and Rose Cottage.
The Teignmouth, Dawlish and Torquay Guide by Carrington and others, 1829 says;
“Proceeding onward we reach Babbicombe, a romantic rocky glen, twenty years since there were only a few fishermens’ huts, but the beauty of the spot having excited attention, several ornamental cottages have been built, and gardens formed along the steep sides of the hill and amongst the rocks, which have to great degree destroyed the beauty of the scene, depending as it does on its wild secluded character”.
Again in the Tithe map dated 1840 there are still no properties on the Downs but several on the Babbicombe slopes showing names of both Land Owner and Occupier. Rose, Vine, Ivy, Rock and Mushroom Cottages, the Coastguard cottages, the Roughwood and The Cliff appear to be amongst them.
In April 1854 Ivy, Rock and Mushroom Cottages were destroyed by a fire ……… it was reported as follows;
The Exeter Flying Post 27 April 1854 reports on a fire that originated at Mushroom Cottage, the property of Mr Turner and the devouring element, driven by the NE wind, first ignited Ivy Cottage immediately above and then Rock Cottage surmounting the others. In a short time the three were reduced to a heap of ruins. Ivy Cottage was occupied by Mr Bloxsome’s servant alone and the Rock Cottage by the Rev. Anthony Froude and family. No lives were lost. The cottage occupied by Mr Lear, the property of Mr Davy of Wear was saved. The properties of Mr Whitehead, Miss Scaley, Capt Costley, T. Atkins Esq. and the Cary Arms were unharmed.
Rose Cottage was left unharmed and being over four hundred years old is the oldest building with a thatched roof on Babbacombe slope. There are still remains of the cottage next door.
As more and more Victorians arrived looking for a “new Riviera” Babbacombe as we know it began to grow.
A handbook for travellers in Devon and Cornwall, 1851 states;
“A few years ago this pretty village was one of those romantic seclusions which have rendered the coast of Devon a favourite with the novelist. Speculating builders are now effecting a change in Babbacombe. The village is extending inland in ugly houses”.
The “ugly houses” of Babbacombe Village at the top of the hill developed around the Reddenhill Road area and the Babbacombe Road.
Mathew’s Handbook for Torquay, 1856 states;
“Babbacombe was a short time since a most romantic spot, consisting of a few ornamental cottages, together with one or two of a lower class which are built on the side of the cliffs bounding a small bay. These still remain but the place is now disfigured by a number of new dwellings quite out of character with the scenery”.
The comments made in 19th century travel guides, are also quite contemporary !
The Victorian building program gave local men much extra work. The villas, many in the Italian style, although only used mainly for holidays gave employment to local women as maids. The Marble works and the Potteries opened, bringing work and a little more wealth into the village.
Babbacombe pier was built to offer protection to local fishermen when landing their boats particularly in rough seas. It was designed to be 100 feet in length by the engineer, Vernon Harcourt.
Some members of the committee involved in the decision making thought it should be twice the length but costs kept it at 100 feet. Three tenders were received for the construction. It was eventually built by a Mr F Matthews at a cost of £1,800, which was the lowest bid. It was officially opened on Saturday 2nd August 1890 when a religious service was also held accompanied by the choir of All Saints Church.
Babbacombe Downs was for fun, recreation and music in the bandstand. The Royal Hotel, being the first purpose built hotel in the area, opened for business in 1863, Babbacombe School opened in 1868, All Saints Church in 1874 and St Anne’s Hall in 1884. The village became the hub for tourism.
The Great War stopped the building of anymore developments, as happened across the whole of the country and the next changes came in the 1920’s and 1930’s. The tourists were back in greater numbers and the coach companies, many based in Reddenhill Road, arrived ready for business with their excursions around the area.
Even though Babbacombe has lost the Banks, the Post Office and the coach companies it still has village atmosphere with many independent shops.