Sidmouth’s History of Soldiers, Celebs and Smugglers

It can be hard to believe when you walk through the sleepy streets of Sidmouth, but the town has had a pretty exciting history. Sure, the streets are now populated by gentle pensioners licking seagulls* and counting ice creams*, but the town has seen a great deal of crazy activity in years past. Don’t believe me? Well, just read on.

*I know.

Sidmouth is full of… CRIMINALITY

Sidmouth’s criminal past goes back a long way. A legal document from 1467 featured an array of local miscreants: a baker who lied about the weight of his bread, someone who tried to commit murder with a bow and arrow, and a large number of people caught brewing ale without a license. Heinous.

It was theft however, that was the most frequent problem over the centuries. In 1850 a Jewish salesman named Michael Cohan entered the Hare and Hounds pub, six miles north of Sidmouth, and had his watch stolen by four ‘roughish fellows’. He complained to the authorities, and with the testimony of the pub landlord, they were committed to trial.

In 1889, a 13-year-old boy named William Endon was charged for stealing money from a local widow and sharing it with his two friends. In addition to William being thrashed with a birch-rod, the three boys were offered the choice of a fine, or ten months imprisonment with hard labour. I think it’s safe to assume they plumped for the first option.

Wouldn't you?

Fines are nicer than birch-rods

Of course, it’s possible to steal away with something more valuable than a watch or money. In 1919 a music hall performer named James Townsend was in Sidmouth with a comedy group, ‘The Merry Mischiefs’. James happened to meet 14-year-old Evelyn Doble at the beach and quickly started up something of a relationship with her. This caused a scandal amongst the townsfolk, and so the two of them ran off together, moving from inn to inn until James gave himself up to the police in the East Midlands. He said to them:

“I have done nothing but good to the girl. I have spent my last farthing on her, and have nothing left even to pay a solicitor to defend me. Now they come here and tell untruths against me. I would not have harmed a hair on her head.”

The jury convicted him of Abduction, but as he was a veteran of the First World War, and had suffered severe wounds during his service, he was given a lenient sentence.

Music Hall performers could be an odd bunch,

Music Hall performers were an interesting bunch

As unpleasant as all this crime and punishment sounds, not every Sidmouth resident has taken the law particularly seriously. In 1843 the Western Times gently bemoaned the conduct of children present at court:

“Hitherto there have been no means adopted for keeping the crowd of idle boys and girls at some distance from the table occupied by the Queen’s Justices. We have, ourselves, sometimes seen three or four young urchins at a time clambering on a worthy magistrate’s chair, having the appearance of bees swarming on a cauliflower”

A cauliflower.

A cauliflower

I don’t know about you, but that’s not how I imagined a Victorian courtroom!

Sidmouth is full of… FAMOUS PEOPLE

In the late 18th century bathing in the sea was believed to be very good for you, which meant that it became fashionable for the well-to-do to take holidays to the seaside for health purposes. The mild climate and beautiful scenery of the Sidmouth area helped make the town one of the primary bathing destinations in the country, and it soon became something of a happening location.

Sidmouth, happening.

Sidmouth, happening

The curative attributes of the sea didn’t work for everyone though. In a Sidmouth churchyard, there is a monument from 1791 built in honour of a Mary Lisle (39). She had come to Sidmouth for its healing powers, but was failed. It reads:

“Blest with soft airs from health restoring skies,
Sidmouth! To thee the drooping patient flies:
Ah! Not unfailing is thy port to save,
To her thou gavist no refuge, but a grave.”

She was a bit unlucky, but there were plenty of people who had a very good time in Sidmouth, including some pretty impressive names. Jane Austen spent the summer of 1801 in the town, where she fell in love with a dashing young man, though he was later killed by a typhus epidemic before he could propose to her. She was presumably miffed.

Jane Austen. Miffed.

Jane Austen, miffed

Jane Austen wasn’t even the town’s most famous guest — Queen Victoria visited in December 1819 with her family, when she was still a baby. She was a beloved child and spent that Christmas on a cushion in the centre of the table because her father, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, deemed her the ‘sweetest dish’ present.

His love for her was to be his undoing; after a walk in the rain he refused to change his wet clothes, preferring instead to play with little Victoria. As a result, he developed a fatal fever and died. When the royal party departed, Sidmouth’s streets were thronged with silent crowds.

To be fair to him, she was a particularly angelic looking kid.

To be fair to him, that is one cute kid

Sidmouth is full of… WAR 

Sidmouth doesn’t feel very warlike, but its residents have been slashed, shot and blown up in an amazing variety of military endeavours. The reign of King Edward III (1327 – 1377) was generally rather fighty, and Sidmouth was called upon on several occasions to provide men, money and boats for his various clashes with the Kingdom of France.

It is recorded that in the preparations for one particular campaign, which eventually led to the capture of Calais, Sidmouth furnished the royal army with 2 ships and 67 men. Hopefully they managed to take advantage of Calais’ reduced-price booze.

The Siege of Calais (1346). Any of these fellas look like a Sidmouthian to you?

The Siege of Calais (1346). Any of these fellas look like a Sidmouthian to you?

This wasn’t the only time Sidmouthians took issue with the French. In 1628 there were so many French ships active near the coast that Sidmouth’s fishermen were afraid to put to sea. As a result, a fort was built next to the town, to deter a possible attack. In 1859 diplomatic tension with Emperor Napoleon III of France meant that a ‘Volunteer Artillery and Rifle Corps’ was established in the town, who helped to rebuild and man the fort, which had fallen into disrepair.

The mighty Sidmouth Fort and its garrison of one bloke and flag.

The mighty Sidmouth Fort and its garrison of one bloke and flag

It wasn’t just the French who caused trouble.  In 1685 the Duke of Monmouth, an illegitimate son of King Charles II, landed a rebellious force at Lyme Regis, where they were joined by 14 men from Sidmouth. After the rebellion failed, rebel fugitives were supposedly hidden in nearby caves. During the Anglo-Dutch Wars of the 17th century many locals were caught up in the fighting, including a Mr John Haycraft, who was killed in 1665 after being ‘shote through ye bowells’.

The First World War was as dreadful for the population of Sidmouth as the rest of the country. In total, 116 men were killed in active duty during the war, either through disease, accidents or enemy fire. One local woman is also recorded as a casualty of the war, Ms Mary Gertrude Tindall (37), who , when nursing wounded soldiers in Exeter in 1917,  became ill and died. The Sidmouth Observer wrote at the time that she was:

“… undoubtedly, an inspiration to others, and her brightness and cheerfulness infected others with whom she came into contact.”

The Second World War wasn’t nearly as deadly, but had a more obvious effect on Sidmouth itself: American troops were stationed in the town, British commandos trained in the grounds of the Knowle, and there were invasion defences set up to defend the seafront from enemy assault, including barbed wire, machine gun posts and minefields. It could be dangerous – one poor 15 year old girl was killed by a mine on the beach beneath Salcombe Cliffs.

Anti-invasion defences on the beach at Sidmouth, 1940. The Wehrmacht must have been quaking in their jackboots.

Anti-invasion defences on the beach at Sidmouth, 1940.
The Wehrmacht must have been quaking in their jackboots.

The town was also attacked by the Luftwaffe on a few occasions. The pilots were obviously looking for an easy target, the lazy blighters.

Sidmouth is full of… SMUGGLING

It’s not hard to understand why smuggling has proven such an attractive profession for coastally-situated young men over the years. It offers the prospect of adventure, and the chance to make a fairly sizeable amount of money without weeks of back-breaking labour.

The infamous smuggler, Jack Rattenbury (1778 – 1844), was born in Beer, and operated on the coast around Sidmouth for decades. Despite semi-regular periods of imprisonment (and being repeatedly pressed into the Royal Navy) Jack managed to have a pretty successful career, and seemed particularly talented at escaping from sticky situations. In his autobiography he claimed that he was once captured by a French privateer, and after winning their trust was left at the helm of the ship whilst the crew got drunk. Rather than steering it towards France, he manoeuvred the vessel back to England, which he pretended was just the Channel Islands. He eventually leapt off the ship, and swam into Swanage Harbour, where he alerted the authorities to the Frenchmen’s presence.

Jack Rattenbury looking the part of a scrofulous rogue.

Jack Rattenbury looking the part of a scrofulous rogue

He also wrote about various purported armed stand-offs. One incident involved him holding off nine soldiers sent to arrest him for desertion from the Royal Navy:

“I declared I would kill the first man who came near me, and that I would not be taken from the spot alive. At this, the Sergeant was evidently terrified, but he said to his men ‘Soldiers, do your duty, advance and seize him’ to which they replied, ‘Sergeant, you proposed it: take the lead’…no one, however, offered to advance.”

The stand-off apparently lasted for four hours, before Jack made his escape.

His link to Sidmouth can actually be seen in a local place name. Mutter’s Moor, on the edge of the town, was named after Abraham Mutter, who was one of Jack Rattenbury’s associates. Mutter’s day-job was delivering fuel into Sidmouth in a cart, which was the perfect cover for removing smuggled goods out of the town.

Mutter's Moor. Now with 100% less smuggling.

Mutter’s Moor. Now with 100% less smuggling.

In 1836 Rattenbury retired, presumably so he could spend more time enjoying his criminal gains. He describes his reason for retiring in his book:

“Thus ended my career as a smuggler,—a career which, however, it may be calculated to gratify a hardy and enterprising spirit, and to call forth all the latent energies of the soul, is fraught with difficulty and danger.”

This wasn’t really the end of the story though – his son William soon picked up the family trade!

Whether as an uninteresting fishing village or as a fancy society retreat, Sidmouth has indeed enjoyed a history riven with bloodshed and scandal. It’d be a shame though, with your new-found knowledge, if you lost sight of the real value of the town’s modern, softly-paced loveliness. Here’s a verse from a poem from Sidmouth local John Meiklejohn Gardiner, which I think sums up the thought nicely:

“Some things have vanished but others remain
What we’ve lost on the swings is the roundabouts gain
Now in my seventies with a lifetime of dreams
I reflect on the past and what might have been
Hold on a moment – Let’s be of good cheer
Sid Valleys alive, Sidmouth’s still here.”

Well said, John.

Additional Research: Saffron Roberts 

Will Hazell is a freelance copywriter who works primarily in the heritage and conservation sectors, though he enjoys dipping into other fields from time to time. If you’d like to hire his writing talents you can find him at Will Finds the Words.

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