Until around 100 years ago, Salcombe earned most of its living from the sea. Fishing, seafaring, boat and later shipbuilding with smuggling and probably some piracy were the principal occupations.
The oldest local settlements were built some distance inland because danger came from the sea – invasions, pirates and slavery – hundreds of Devon people were kidnapped in the 1600s.
The name Salcombe first appears in writing in 1244 but archaeologists have identified stone age settlements on the cliff tops on both sides of the mouth of the estuary.
References to Salcombe are limited for several centuries after 1244, however, ships of some size were already based in the harbour. Twelve ‘barges’ and a ‘ballinger’ were hired to transport troops to Brittany at the start of the Hundred Years War.
John Leland described the harbour and settlement in the 1530s in his Travels in Tudor England as “…sumwat barrid and having a Rok at the entering into it … and aboute half a Mile within the Mouth of the Haven … is Saultcombe, a Fisshar Towne”.
In 1570 a census of ‘mariners mustered in Devon’ was taken. 56 are listed for Salcombe and 12 for Portlemouth. Two years later another survey shows that five ships under 60 tons belong to Salcombe with an aggregate tonnage of 150.
In the parish of Malborough in 1619, which then included Salcombe, lived 104 mariners, 5 ship-wrights and 2 ‘coopers barrel makers for sea’. About half the names would be familiar to today’s town residents showing that many families have been settled here for centuries.
Devon was much fought over in the Civil War. Devon’s countryside was largely Royalist, but the towns were for Parliament. The blockhouse at the entrance to Salcombe harbour was renamed Fort Charles. The harbour became a protected anchorage for royalist privateers. It was the last Royalist stronghold to survive in the county.
Change came in the second half of the 18th century. The first ‘holiday home’, the Moult between North and South Sands, was built in 1764 by John Hawkins and is described as a ‘mere pleasure box’.
Nearly 300 sailing vessels and a handful of steamers were built in Salcombe and around the Estuary during the nineteenth century, almost all for local owners. Early trades were coastal, salt to Newfoundland and salted fish back to Europe.
At the end of the great wars of the French Revolution, the fruit trade developed and with it the superb and speedy ‘fruit schooners’. The last sizeable wooden ship was launched in the Estuary in the 1880s.
Visitors in small numbers had been attracted to the neighbourhood since the late 1700s. Large houses were gradually built at the various viewpoints along the cliffs and foreshore to the south of the town.
Woodville (now Woodcot) in the prime position in Cliff Road dates from 1797. Ringrone House followed in 1839. It still exists, now totally invisible within the structure of the Marine Hotel to which it was converted in the 1890s, and more recently into the Salcombe Harbour Hotel.
The removal of the noisy and smelly shipyards from the waterfront and the redevelopment of a prime site by the building of the York Hotel improved facilities for the visitor. This was later renamed Salcombe Hotel and was in the 1980s converted into apartments.
The arrival of the railway at Kingsbridge in 1893, connection to Salcombe by steam ferries and, in 1909, by motor buses made the town more accessible to visitors.
Between the two World Wars the town gradually developed as an exclusive holiday resort for those who enjoyed the benign climate, the beautiful scenery, sea fishing and sailing. No attempt was made to introduce attractions like those of the popular holiday centres.
The town had started to attract wealthy retirees in the early years of the twentieth century and this trend continued in the 1920s and ’30s. Salcombe Sailing Club was founded in 1922 for the town’s artisans. The Yacht Club, dating from the 1890s, was exclusively for gentlemen. Ladies were grudgingly admitted in 1939.
In 1943 came the advance party of a substantial United States naval force which eventually reached a strength of almost 2000. The present Whitestrand Quay with its slipway was constructed following the demolition of two streets of decaying cottages.
A concrete slipway was built on the beach at Millbay and a fuel depot was constructed on the end of Snapes Point. The armada sailed on 4 June 1944 for the Normandy beaches to take part in the Allied assault on enemy occupied Europe leaving Salcombe almost deserted and strangely quiet.
Travel was difficult in the period of post-war austerity with food and petrol rationing both continuing for some years. When the summer visitors eventually returned things seemed much the same as before.
The town and beaches remain as busy as ever in the summer holidays and there are welcome signs that the season lengthens each year as holiday home owners make more use of their properties and visitors learn to enjoy the quiet town. More people are taking note of the maxim of the celebrated Victorian historian, James Froude, “Winter in Salcombe is winter only in name”.
Excerpts taken from a history of Salcombe prepared by Tim Bass, former Chairman of Salcombe Maritime Museum.