Hall Sands

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4:31 PM

The village that fell into the sea © Carolyn Eddy 2003


There used to be a village in South Devon called Hallsands; it was a thriving fishing community caught between the sea and the rocky cliffs. Then one night it fell into the sea.

Of course, it didn´t quite happen like that but it´s not too far off from the truth.

Built on a narrow flat rock, and protected from the tides by a large pebble beach, Hallsands provided home and living to many fishing families for hundreds of years. They were a close-knit community, with their houses nestled snugly together and they devoted their time to crabbing or fishing the shoals with their nets. The daily catch would be brought up on to the beach and packed up by the men and women for despatch to London via Kingsbridge.

Fishing was not the only business undertaken. There was the public house, named the London Inn, which also had a piggery and stables attached. Other business included a grocery shop, post office, a tailor, a carpenter, shipbuilder and coastguards. Pleasure steamers from Torquay would stop and call in with day-trippers and very popular was the local brew known as White Ale.

Life must have been very hard but certainly not without its excitement. The great storm of 1891 saw two shipwrecks within hours of each other. First came the Lunesdale, all 140 tons of her. The villagers had to form a human chain to try and rescue the crew, but only the ship´s master survived. Second came the Lizzie Ellen, with a cargo of china clay. Again the villagers had to wade in the water to rescue the crew. Three men survived but the ship took with her her master and the cabin boy.

In 1897, plans were made to extend the naval dockyards at Devonport in Plymouth. This was initially what would seal the tragic fate of Hallsands. Within 20 years the village would be gone.

Gravel was needed for the dockyards and Start Bay was an excellent source for providing the materials needed. The Board of Trade granted Sir John Jackson a licence to begin dredging sand, shingle and gravel from the seabed opposite Hallsands and her sister village of Beesands.

The people of both villages made protests, as they were concerned about the effects created by the removal of such vast amounts of seabed. The dredgers were also interfering with the daily fishing. An inquiry was held that same year and questions were raised in the House of Commons. An explanation offered to play down fears of the villagers was that the sand would replace itself naturally and fill in any excavations made. Compensation was awarded to both villages for any inconveniences caused to their fishing routines and loss of business.

Dredging continued until 1902 but the effects were already surfacing. Seawalls had to be fixed because they were undermined. The foundations of some buildings were becoming exposed and the beach was subsiding. High spring tides were creeping ever closer.

Once the dredging had stopped, things settled for a short while and the beach did appear to recover slightly but then the winter storms of 1903-4 blew in. High tides and strong easterly winds took the sea wall in front of the London Inn and part of the inn itself. The southern end of the village also took a serious battering and took part of the one and only road through Hallsands.

After the storms, the resolute people of Hallsands picked themselves up and started to rebuild what they had lost. Houses were repaired, the road was fixed and a new larger seawall was constructed. Life was never quite the same again however, the once protective pebble ridge had settled 12 ft below its original height before the dredging had started, and although fishing carried on as normal, it had become harder because of the difficulty in securing the boats. Despite all this, life carried on for many years in peace, and the sea´s anger did not resurface, until 1917!

On the 26th January 1917 gale-force winds and high tides blasted in. Houses were flooded out as the waves crashed continuously over the pebble ridge and seawalls. The villagers realised how serious the situation was and so they gathered up as much as they could carry and fled for their lives up the narrow path to the top of the cliffs from where they had to watch the destruction of all they had ever known. Four houses were destroyed that night. The 27th January brought in the next high tide and finished off what was left. Just one house remained standing intact.

Many months of arguments finally concluded that it was because of the dredging that the village had been lost and compensation was awarded to the survivors for the building of new houses back from the cliff top.

The last resident to leave the old site was Miss Elizabeth Prettejohn who lived there in the last remaining house until her death in 1964 bringing the final chapter of Hallsands story to a close.

If you go and visit Hallsands today, all that you will find are a few vague ruins still nestled tightly by the cliffs on a rocky ledge. If it wasn´t for these ruins, it might never cross your mind that a whole community of people used to live and work there just a century ago for it looks an unlikely place for a village to have existed.

© Carolyn Eddy 2003
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