It is fairly obvious from the title of my first publication that I have a keen interest in the West Country, particularly in Devon…. a county which is nothing if not a seafaring county, having produced many of the country’s most famous sailors. Francis Drake was born near Tavistock and Walter Raleigh near Sidmouth. All around the coast of Devon, small boats put out to sea, trying to make a living from the often unfriendly waters. The larger ships are seen more in Plymouth, as the major ferry port in the county with the Navy also active in Plymouth Sound.
The northern coast is rugged with cliffs and jagged rocks thrusting out to sea; a far more inhospitable coastline. Ilfracombe is one of the departure points for the ferry to Lundy, a beautiful island 18 miles out in the Bristol Channel with Bideford, on the river Torridge, being the other. The estuary of Bideford is a popular holiday spot and there are many old villages in the vicinity for example, Appledore – the sea port within the parish of Northam – which offers a nostalgic mixture of fisherman’s cottages, pubs and narrow winding lanes. Also, along the coast to the west is the picturesque village of Clovelly. Recorded history states that wreckers used to ply their evil trade by tying lanterns to donkey’s tails and walking them along the cliff top. The moving light would indicate to the ship’s captain that this was a safe haven and this had fatal results.
There were many disasters which befell fishing communities in the north of the county of Devon. One of particular note is ‘The Great Storm’ of 1821. The Exeter Flying Post (11 October 1821, issue 2924):
‘Melancholy Catastrophe. About sixty boats, employed in the herring fishery at Clovelly, were, on Thursday evening, by the suddenness of a gale of wind, obliged to relinquish their nets in the hopes of gaining the shore in safety, but unfortunately more than forty were driven among the rocks. The cries of the drowning, thirty five in number, most of whom have left large families, produced an effect too heart rending to be adequately expressed. The distress occasioned to the families of the unhappy sufferers, who looked forward to the fishing for their entire support, but now, alas, bereft of the means of subsistence, is most affecting. The Rev. Mr. Putt and Rev. Mr. Luxmoore, then staying at Clovelly, were particularly instrumental in saving the lives of many who but for their humane exertions must have inevitably perished; and at their departure generously left £5 to be distributed among those families who are now become utterly destitute.’
Four days later a similar account appeared in the Sherborne and Yeovil Mercury which more accurately stated that thirty one fishermen had drowned. According to the account, from the 1911 Church magazine, reprinted in Down a Cobbled Street: The Story of Clovelly (Sheila Ellis, 1987), eleven were from the Clovelly parish.