The Lost Fishing Village of Hallsands

June 2021

In the early years of the twentieth century commercial dredging removed a shingle beach from the tiny fishing village of Hallsands in South Devon. Soon high tides and storms washed everything away and all that is left now are the ruins of this maritime community. Dr Sam Willis meets maritime archaeologist Grant Bettinson from CITiZAN to find out more. The interview was filmed so do check out our YouTube Channel as the ruins are shown as never before with dramatic new drone footage.

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    Sam Willis 

    From the Society for Nautical Research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis, and this is the Mariners mirum podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. Hello everyone and welcome to the Mariners Mirror podcast this week I’m in beautiful South Devon. I’ve come to explore the extraordinary and moving story of the lost village of Hallsands, a village nestling beneath Start Point, whose Beach was dredged away to provide sand and shingle for building works in Plymouth, and which then suffered terribly from high tides and storms. Once the protective barrier of the beach had been removed. To find out more I travelled down to Devon to look at the ruins of the village and to meet Grant Bettinson, a maritime archaeologist and discovery programme officer for South Devon rivers, for CITiZAN,  the Coastal and Intertidal Zone Archaeological Network. Now, I’ve not been as excited or impressed with a project for some time. These guys are really fabulous. They exist to highlight the threat of coastal erosion to a wealth of foreshore and intertidal sites. They’ve established an infrastructure and network of volunteers with the skills, commitment, and support needed to record, monitor, and promote fragile and threatened archaeological intertidal sites all over the UK. And you can find them at citizen.org.uk this interview was filmed and there is some stunning drone footage of the ruins of Hallsands to wander out. Please find that at the Mariners Mirror podcast YouTube channel. But for now sit back imagine the wind in your hair the sun glinting off the blue sea of the Southwest. A towering white lighthouse above you, and below you with the coast stretching ahead beneath sweeping gulls of a sad remains of walls and houses. All that is left of a community lost forever taken by the storms and the rising tides. With global warming continuing unabated, this is a story that we may well become all too familiar with in the future. So let’s see what we can learn from the past. I’m on Start Point in South Devon. It’s a beautiful headlands sandwiched between the Dartmouth and the Salcombe Estuaries. I’m here to explore an extraordinary story. Down here are the remains of an old fishing village. Once a happy coastal community families eking out a living from the sea in Start Bay, until dredging of sand and shingle from their beach on an industrial scale, threaten the survival of that community. And then a terrible storm came in the New Year of 1917. swallowing that village into the sea forever. I’m here to find out more. Grant This is an amazing place what happened here,

    Grant Bettinson 

    It’s Hallsands or the lost village of Hallsands is a fascinating story of when dredging works resulted in the loss of an entire village. So this is the ruins of a village that was unindicted by the sea in the 1917, but has a very long history up to that from 1895. How humans master the natural order of things by dredging here. Resulting in a village of 100, a very prosperous village of a population from 100 to around 96, eventually, being completely lost to the sea and has never come back.

    Sam Willis 

    What do we know about the village that was here before it was lost to the sea?

    Okay, so the early prehistory we don’t know that much about, however we know the village was here by the 16th century. Its mass expansion to the population around 120, I believe it is, is in the 17th and 18th century when the fishing starts to kick off the main industry for the village was crabbing and fishing. So they used to use a method called seine  fishing,  where they take the nets out into the sea, go around the thing and then bring it into the shore on boats. They go around the fish and then bring them in on boats and there’s loads of lovely photos of this. What you can’t imagine now looking at these ruins is that they used to be a beach of around 30 metres outwards from the houses. They start dredging in 1895, that lasts for five years, but even then they’re not listening to locals is it’s an always a problem when it comes to a maritime infrastructure. But even then, by 1897 the locals have already started to complain noticing that their beach that was 50 metres is going down and down and down and they’ve got about by spring tides in November 1900s. They’ve only got about one metre of play next to their houses. They’re getting very worried at this point, and there was a like a clause in the contract for the dredging, saying that if there was considerable damage to the local population, they would stop. However, the saga continues, and then the dredging company agrees to put in sea defences. But by 1905, you have some huge spring tides and storms that destroy a hell of a lot of the village. The the actual pub that was in the centre, The London Inn, is completely destroyed, and there’s only a wall left, and I’ll show you a photo of that later. And once that’s once that’s gone, the population was around 126. At that point, that goes down to 97. Even though the dredging company puts in new sea works, no one has that much confidence. So you’re not going to have that much confidence once your house has already been knackered, you’re not going to have another round of confidence after that. So then they discontinued the dredging has completely stopped by this point, they stopped the licence for the dredging in 1900s. And they do not continue dredging, but by that point, the damage is already done. And the beach continues to erode and erode and erode out these people’s livelihoods. And then eventually, in 1917, you have these gigantic tides that break the sea defences. And the local population on that night of  27 of January 28 of January, is when the storms happened. They’ve battened down all their boats in the high street, knowing this is about to happen. The storms and spring tides come in and they destroy all the village to what it looks like now. So you lose all those buildings, with the last remaining one being here. Luckily, around them, they believe the population was around 76, no one dies. But you do have these stories of people sleeping in the ruins afterwards, they all become homeless overnight, and their livelihoods gone. So then you get into this, then you would think the story ends this compensation. They argue for compensation. It doesn’t end there. So in 1917, they’re still arguing for compensation, they essentially become the first we’ve kind of termed as the first climate change refugees, which isn’t a term that existed then. Now it’s a term we understand what the things that are going on in Wales in different places that there will be climate change refugees. This is a 1900s example of what happens when a village, it’s livelihood that is reliant on a natural feature goes completely.

    Sam Willis 

    Why were they doing this dredging?

    Grant Bettinson 

    Okay, so they’re taking the shingle and sand from South Bay to build a new Admiralty port over in Keyham near Plymouth. Starts aroiund 1895, they continue this for five years, it’s estimated a conservative estimate,  that they took out 300,000 metres cubed of material. The non conservative estimates are a lot lot higher, and it’s very difficult as you can imagine, to work out how much was actually dredged a 100 odd years ago,

    Sam Willis 

    I assume no one spoke to the residents about them removing their beach.

    Grant Bettinson 

    Okay. So I don’t think it came as a surprise that they were dredging. They weren’t consulted in mass like they weren’t there wasn’t a forum or something that we’d have today. But there was a clause for him that if it affected them, it would they would stop dredging immediately. It be in the 1800s they kind of ignored the locals. So even when significant loss of the beach was noticed by 1900s. They then eventually revoked the licence. But the the locals have been complaining from all the way from 1895, when they started dredging all the way up. With considerable reports and various other stuff produced saying ‘our beach is disappearing, can you do something?’  Then the dredging company tries to put in deep sea defences and things to placate the locals. But they still keeps happening and they noticed their livelihoods are starting to go. And confidence has gone.

    Sam Willis 

    What’s their historical evidence like for the village that used to be here,

    Grant Bettinson 

    We have some incredible photos, they’ve been curated for us by the South Devon AONB who put in the platform we’re stood on in 2012. And we have some beautiful photos, and because it’s quite a modern example, photography exists in the 1800’s and in the 1900,s. So we have examples of this beach, we can see them pulling their boats onto Hallsands beach when they have a beach and obviously now there’s no beach. And the idea of actually pulling a boat onto that beach is you can’t even imagine this. And this beautiful images of the high street beautiful images of the crab pots and kids and families living here. And how prosperous this village would have been. So yeah, we have some beautiful photos. And I’ll show you some of these. So you can see here. This is what the Hallsands used to look like. This building.

    Sam Willis 

    Wow. It’s right at the back there. And you can see so little kids here. We have five of them on a log.

    Grant Bettinson 

    They are sat out there. Yeah, on that wall. Just a little bit further down. So this coming out here was the main High Street. Yep. And you can see that it’s all gone into the sea now, even even though it’s been reinforced, probably in the 50s. You can see just how much beach used to exist and how it doesn’t exist anymore. There’s some beautiful images again ofthis, which is the seine fishing so you can see it’s a

    Sam Willis 

    We got men and women hauling in.

    Grant Bettinson 

    And there is a great story that was told to me by the South Devon ANOB,  of apparently there was a lot of piggy backs given to men, to not get their trousers wet by women, which is a very interesting story. You have to confirm that one with the South Devon AONB. As you can see, seine fishing is a village affair. So once those nets, once they’ve got the net round the shoal, they then bring it into the beach, and then the whole village hauls that net in.

    Sam Willis 

    The whole community here, living together and there’s there’s a pub isn’t there?

    Grant Bettinson 

    Yeah. So this is the original image of the 1903 storms.

    Sam Willis 

    Wow.

    Grant Bettinson 

    So this was the first set of storms that destroyed a fair amount of buildings and forced the dredging company to build further sea defences here.

    Sam Willis 

    So here we got an image of this got a building here. And a huge storm coming at high tide. I mean that that house there, it looks like it’s a flood defence. And obviously your house is not a flood defence.

    Grant Bettinson 

    And it looks like it’s about to go This was the remains of the village after those 1903 storms. Yeah. And then this is it by 1917. And you can see just the damages done here. But this is just all

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah, it looks like it looks. We’ve got a picture here. This is for you podcast listeners who haven’t got any visuals. I got a picture here. It looks like a, a huge JCB has driven through the middle of a fishing village taking off roofs knocking down walls. It’s an unimaginable scene of destruction. It’s very sad, isn’t it?

    Grant Bettinson 

    Yeah. And you can see this is the sea defences here, some of which you can just kind of make out now. Yeah. But they were completely unindicted in the  1917 storm.

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah. And what else do we know  about Start Bay? This is an extraordinary location.

    Grant Bettinson 

    Yeah. So interestingly, the actual dredging is a little bit of a benefit for us and Citizen, we often end up with a situation where eroding foreshores actually produce archaeology as well. So there is a submerged forest underneath Hallsands.

    Sam Willis 

    And how old is it?

    Grant Bettinson 

    No one’s quite sure the dating isn’t very specific on it. But it’s you can see every so often, particularly in North Hallsands, which is over, over that little ridge, that was the houses that were eventually built to accommodate the village of what was left of it, they only built a very small amount that couldn’t accommodate the the climate change refugees left.But on that beach, you can still see every so often after a big storm, you can see these large peat shelves, and in there, you’ll see thesubmerged timbers and submerged forest poking out.

    Sam Willis 

    Fascinating stuff. And this is now the village itself. It’s super dangerous. We’re not allowed to get down there. And it hasn’t been surveyed. Archaeologists done the work down here

    Grant Bettinson 

    A few people are flying flying drones over it. There was a few little surveys done, but I don’t believe anyone has done a big large survey of what the remains looked like

    Sam Willis 

    I was saying that we actually managed to get some of that drone footage. So if you’re listening on the podcast, do check out the YouTube channel where you can see that amazing drone footage. I mean, one of the concerns here is that the village is going to get lost, that these remains will get completely destroyed, won’t they? Which we don’t want to happen.

    Grant Bettinson 

    Yeah, it’s a beautiful sight. I mean, anyone who’s walked the walk from Start Point down to Slapton Sands will know and I’ve seen the placards and stuff that tell you this village is here. But it’s the ruins are an incredible kind of site. There’s a lot of when I did this walk with a group of locals. One of the elderly woman gave me a load of sketches that she did as a child. Oh, wow. When you could get down here, so it’s still eroding out. So I remember when I was a child

    Sam Willis 

    Have you still got those sketches. See if we can get  a look at those.

    Grant Bettinson 

    Forget when I was a child, you could still get all the way down and this house here is the last resident of what’s the last residence of Hsallsands it’s owned by a woman called Elizabeth Pettyjohn. And she was the last resident even after the storms of 1917. And she stubbornly refuses to move and stays there all the way up to the 60s I believe

    Sam Willis 

    Is that good for her or was seriously dangerous?

    Grant Bettinson 

    Personally when I heard you could rent it out. I was very up for renting it out for a survey. But um, yeah. But yeah, as you can imagine, there’s a lot of different stories the one of the weirdest parts about this is the compensation element to it. So they don’t, even after the whole village is destroyed, and no one takes responsibility for it. Even then, you have this population that about 70 that have been essentially abandoned. They are going for compensation. They do eventually get a few houses built but not enough to accommodate them. They went from self sustained owning their own buildings, having their livelihoods, to suddenly having to rely on friends and families. Locals renting and all this other all the other stuff and essentially this, they don’t give them compensation. The reports of this get hidden all the way up until the second world war amazingly, until they finally reveal what happened here.

    Sam Willis 

    What’s the big lesson of Hallsands? What do we need to not ever forget about this place?

    Grant Bettinson 

    I think it’s something that we are now currently forgetting is the time to act when you start to notice stuff like this, is immediately. Like the one of the curses was here was, when the locals said their Beach was being removed. they weren’t listened to. They weren’t being there was no reaction to it. They put in token gestures, they put sea defences in, they put other stuff but they didn’t react.  We’re having a similar thing at the moment with climate change, where stuff like this is happening all over our coastlines, at ever increasing rates, and we’re not really reacting to it in the way we should be.

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah, well, an important lesson there for us all, I think. Thank you all so much for listening. Now, do please do something for me. I need you to help spread the word tag us on social media. please mention us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and use good old word of mouth. Everything and anything you can do to pass on what we are doing here would be hugely appreciated. And remember, this is not just about audio, we’ve begun to produce some stunning and innovative videos. Not just documentaries, like this one where you hopefully you will have all logged on and see the amazing drone footage ofHallsands, but also some really fabulous animations. You can find them on our Facebook page and on the Mariners Mirror podcast, YouTube channel. Thank you so much as always for your fascinating contributions to the free forum that’s on the Society for Nautical Research website. It continues to grow into a fascinating miscellany of all things maritime. You can see all of that on the Society for Nautical Research website at nsr.org.uk. But above all, please, please join the society. Your annual subscription goes towards publishing the most important maritime history and towards preserving our maritime past.

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