Brixham is a small fishing town on the southeast coast of Devon. It is at the southern end of Tor Bay and of the little Torbay conurbation. Brixham stands across the bay from Torquay. It and all these towns are within the Haytor Hundred.
The town is a fishing port and its main occupations are fishing and tourism. At the time of the 2001 Census it had a population of 17,457.
Brixham is most famous as the spot at which William of Orange landed on 5 November 1688 to begin the Glorious Revolution, to cast his father-in-law James II off the throne. It led in just a few weeks to almost bloodless victory and William's own accession as King William III.
It is thought that the name 'Brixham' came from "Brioc's homestead", and that Brioc was an Old English or Old Welsh personal name otherwise unattested.
The town is hilly, and built around the harbour which remains in use as a dock for fishing trawlers. It has a focal tourist attraction in the replica of Sir Francis Drake's ship the Golden Hind that is permanently moored there.
Cowtown and Fishtown
In summer the Cowtown carnival is held, a reminder of when Brixham was two separate communities with only a marshy lane to connect them. Cowtown was the area on top of the hill where the farmers lived, while a mile away in the harbour was Fishtown, where the seamen lived. Cowtown, the St Mary's Square area, is on the road leaving Brixham to the south west, in the direction of Kingswear, upon which stands a church built on the site of a Saxon original. The local Royal British Legion club is also here. The main summer attraction in Cowtown is the Hap'nin in St. Mary's Park, an annual music event, with local bands, that takes place in mid July.
The main parish church is St Mary's, about a mile from the sea. It is the third to have been on the site (which was an ancient burial ground). The original wooden Saxon church was replaced by a stone Norman church that was in its turn built over in about 1360. Many of the important townspeople are buried in the churchyard.
The tower of All Saints' Church, founded in 1815, stands guard over the town. The composer of Abide With Me, Rev Francis Lyte was a vicar at the church. He lived at Berry Head House, now a hotel, and when he was a very sick man, near to dying, he looked out from his garden as dusk fell over Torbay, and the words of that hymn came into his mind.
Houses by the harbour
Many of Brixham's photogenic cottages above the harbour were originally inhabited by fishermen and their families
Near the harbour is the famous Coffin House, which reflects Brixham humour. The house 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 first evidence of a town here comes from the Anglo-Saxon period.
The population of Brixham was recorded as was 3,671 in 1801 and 8,092 in 1901. In 1334, the town's value was assessed at one pound, twelve shillings and eightpence; by 1524, the valuation had risen to £24 and sixteen shillings. It is recorded as a borough from 1536, and a market is recorded from 1822.
William Prince of Orange (afterwards King William III of Great Britain & Ireland) landed in Brixham with his mainly Dutch army, on 5 November 1688, during the Glorious 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.
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 'lich' meaning a corpse) were taken for burial at St Mary's churchyard. Salutation Mews, near the church, dates from before the Reformation of the English Church, 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.
Brixham was served by the short Torbay and Brixham Railway from Churston. The line, opened in February 1868 to carry passengers and goods (mainly fish), was closed in May 1963 as a result of the Beeching Axe cuts. Although the former line to Brixham is deserted and overgrown, the branch line through nearby Churston is now maintained and operated as a heritage railway by a team of volunteers as the Paignton and Dartmouth Steam Railway.
The British Seaman's Boys' Home was founded in 1863 by William Gibbs of Tyntesfield for the orphan sons of deceased British seamen.It was famous for the only marching drum and bugle band of its kind and was finally closed in 1988 after 125 years.
Many of the dwellings towards Higher Brixham were built largely between the 1930s to 1970s. Several holiday camps were built in this area, for example Pontin's Wall Park and Dolphin. The Dolphin was one of the company's biggest camps. The camp closed in 1991 after fire destroyed the main entertainments building.
The port and the sea
Brixham is also notable for being the town where the fishing trawler was improved 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-western shires. Known as the 'Mother of Deep-Sea Fisheries', its boats helped to establish the fishing industries of Kingston-upon-Hull, Grimsby and Lowestoft. In the 1890s, there were about 300 trawling vessels in Brixham, most individually owned. The trawlers can still be seen 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 are explained. The modern boats are diesel-driven, but several of the old sailing trawlers have been preserved.
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 the tragedy, the citizens of Exeter gave money to set up what became the Royal National Lifeboat Institution's Brixham Lifeboat in 1866. Now known as Torbay Lifeboat Station, it operates a Severn all-weather lifeboat and an IB1 inshore 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.
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.
The town's outer harbour is protected by a long breakwater, useful for sea angling. In winter this is a site for purple sandpipers. During the Second World War, a ramp and piers were built from which American servicemen left for the D-Day landings.
To the south of Brixham, and sheltering the southern side of its harbour, lies the coastal headland of Berry Head with a lighthouse, Iron Age Fort and National Nature Reserve.
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 after he had (so the legend goes) finished his game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe. Today 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.
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 is now a National Nature Reserve, but it is also 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. Just 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. These can still be seen, and are now some of the best preserved Napoleonic Age forts in the country.
During the long series of wars against the French that began in 1689 and lasted until 1815, the Royal Navy came into Brixham to get supplies of fresh vegetables, beef and water. There might have been twenty or so of the big men-o'-war lying at anchor in Tor Bay. On the harbourside towards the marina there is a grey stone building which today is the Coastguard headquarters; then, it was the King's Quay where His Majesty's vessels were provisioned. Local farmers brought vegetables to ward off scurvy, and cattle were slaughtered and their meat packed into barrels. The water came from a big reservoir situated near the crossroads in the middle of town; from there a pipeline carried it under the streets and under the harbour to the King's Quay.
Many of the well-known admirals of the day visited Brixham. Not only Nelson, but also Lord St Vincent, Cornwallis, Hood, Rodney and Hawke. There was also Earl Howe, who earned the nickname of Lord Torbay because he spent so much time ashore in Brixham. A notorious visitor was Napoleon Bonaparte, who, as a prisoner on HMS Bellerophon, spent several days off Brixham waiting to be taken to exile on St Helena.
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 Britain. Of the 116 'Emergency Coastal Defence Batteries' set up in the UK in 1940, only seven remain intact.
Apart from fishing, most of the other local industries were connected with stone. Limestone was once quarried and used to build the breakwater, for houses and roads, and was sent to Dagenham to make steel for Ford automobiles. 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 in the Sunset", 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 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 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.
- Archery: Brixham Archers - the biggest archery club in the bay
- Rugby: Brixham Rugby union Football Club, founded in 1874
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- "Overgang" at Lookwayup.com. (retrieved 17 January 2009)
- Denton, Tony (2009). Handbook 2009. Shrewsbury: Lifeboat Enthusiasts Society. p. 59.