THE DAY THE SEA CAME DOWN THE CHIMNEY
Government Documents Discovered by Devon Writer Steve Melia Shed New Light on an Old Story
On the night of January 26th 1917, the South Devon fishing village of Hallsands collapsed into the sea. Its terrified inhabitants watched helplessly or clung to doorframes as walls collapsed and floors fell away beneath them. Miraculously no one was killed, but by the following morning 25 families were homeless.
At the end of the nineteenth century Hallsands was a quiet village of around 150 people, who lived mainly through inshore fishing. Before this story began, the most exciting event to hit the village was a barrel of brandy washed ashore, which helped one villager to drink himself to death.
Some twenty-five miles North-West of Hallsands lies Devonport, at that time the second largest town in Devon. In 1896, the Government approved ambitious plans to extend the naval dockyard which lay at the heart of the Town. The contract, worth around £280m in today’s prices, was awarded to Sir John Jackson Ltd. In previous accounts, Sir John has been described as a straightforward businessman, a view which is now open to question.
Despite his business commitments, Sir John threw himself into politics as soon as he arrived in Devonport. The Conservative Party had returned to power in 1895 and Sir John was elected as Conservative County Councillor for Devonport the following year. It was the first step in a parallel career that was to see him elected as the Town’s M.P. in 1910. Knighted for his work on the Manchester Ship Canal, he and his company grew rich largely through public contracts.
The massive quantities of concrete needed to extend the dockyard presented Sir John with a challenge – how to obtain sufficient shingle at the lowest possible price. His company first applied to dredge in the Exe Estuary near Exmouth, where the principal landowner, the Hon. Mark Rolle was a major contributor to Conservative Party funds. When Rolle objected, claiming this would threaten Exmouth’s waterfront, Sir John decided to seek an easier target further down the coast. The owner of the coastal land between Hallsands and Beesands (whose own home was comfortably inland) agreed to Sir John’s terms and contracts were signed before anyone in Hallsands knew what was happening.
When the dredgers appeared off their coast, the villagers turned for help to their M.P., Frank Mildmay, whose grandson still owns the nearby Flete Estate today. So began a long campaign to stop the dredging and then to compensate the victims. As opposition grew, Sir John Jackson was to use political influence, bribery and ultimately defied the law to dredge in areas without permission.
As the villagers predicted, the beach began to fall until, in 1902 they took the law into their own hands, physically preventing the dredgers from landing. A week later the Government revoked the licence to dredge, but it was too late. The beach continued to fall and houses began to collapse. After a long campaign, in 1904 the Government and Sir John finally agreed a meagre settlement and work began on a new sea wall. For 13 years the wall held back the sea while the beach continued to fall.
By 1917 Britain was at war, and most of the village’s surviving young men were away on active service when a combination of high tides and South-Easterly gales hit the village on that fateful night. In the words of Edith Patey, then aged 17:
“All of a sudden the walls came toppling down, the floor caved in …We felt like being right in the sea, the roaring waves bouncing over us, the rafters all breaking in. We could see the white waves foaming underneath the floors. The coal house all slipping away, no fires, the sea came down the chimney.”
Despite the privations of wartime hundreds of people across Devon gave to a relief fund launched by the Western Morning News, whilst Col. Mildmay, now a serving army officer, led a new campaign to re-house the villagers, from his headquarters near the Western front.
In 1918 the Government appointed an inspector for a local inquiry. His conclusions were unequivocal: the dredging had caused the collapse. He recommended compensation of £10,500 to rebuild the village on safer ground. The civil servants were not impressed. The Assistant Secretary to the Treasury wrote:
“If we offer [a grant] at once we shall only be pressed for more – the Hallsands fishermen, as past history shows, are past masters in squeezing. One sympathises with them in the disaster which has overtaken them but a year or more has now elapsed and it is probable that by now they have managed to get homes and a livelihood.”
In fact most of them were still living nearby, renting rooms, overcrowding the homes of their neighbours or even sleeping in the ruins.
Embarrassed by its findings, the Government refused to release the report until, some time after the Second World War, it was passed with other documents to the Public Records Office, where it has remained unnoticed until now.
In May 1918 a lower payment of £6,000 was made as a “full and final settlement” of all claims. As inflation reduced its value, the committee administering the grant tried in vain to access the new funds allocated for council housing. In August 1922 they were forced to admit defeat, and work began on a development of just ten houses, which still stand today in the ‘new’ village of North Hallsands. The remaining money was insufficient even to pay for these, so they were forced to borrow. The tenants, former homeowners, would pay rent for the rest of their lives.
Meanwhile in 1918, Sir John Jackson’s luck finally ran out. A parliamentary inquiry found him guilty of overcharging the nation on war contracts. He resigned from parliament in disgrace and died a year later.
Some people have speculated that Hallsands would have succumbed to the sea even without the dredging. There is some evidence of instability along that coast even before our times of climate change and rising sea levels. It is impossible to say how long the old village would have lasted, but there is no doubt the dredging caused the collapses of 1903 and 1917. As described by Mildmay:
“The greater part of the shingle was taken between high and low water mark, so that the dredgers sucked the very beach itself.”
The houses which were never replaced are now a matter of history but the failure to provide communal facilities continues to afflict North Hallsands today. Before the collapse, Old Hallsands had a reading room – a meeting place for the village – which was never replaced. Today, a letterbox and a payphone are the only public facilities for 33 adults and around 20 children. The difference between the recommended compensation and the £6,000 actually paid would be worth around £150,000 in today’s prices. This is a debt the Department of Trade and Industry, successor to the Board of Trade, still owes to the community of Hallsands.
Hallsands, a Village Betrayed is published by Forest Publishing, price £4.99, available through bookshops across Devon, at Trouts opposite the ruins, or online.
A copy of all the source documents has been deposited with the Cookworthy Museum in Kingsbridge.also includes some original documents, photographs and exercises for schools.
Steve Melia’s first novel Sins of the Fathers will appear later this summer.
Photos courtesy of: City of Plymouth Archives & Records, Barry Morris & the author.