As its name suggests the town sits along the majestic River Dart and it is this beautiful stretch of water that is the soul of Dartmouth. Earliest times saw the town as a simple settlement at the top of Townstal, high above the muddy river bank. The 11th century found two small fishing villages, Hardness and Clifton, clinging perilously to the steep ground above the tide line. Since that time inlets have been dammed, ground re-claimed and wharves and warehouses built to accommodate the exotic goods imported by the town’s wealthy fleet of merchant ships from Europe and across the Atlantic.
Dartmouth became a haunt for privateers with our very own pirate Thomas Norton and a family of pirate Lords, the Hawleys who stole from the French and Spanish whilst cheerfully acting as the towns M.P.s and Mayors! Chaucer immortalised his friend John Hawley in his Canterbury Tales as the Schipman of Dertemouthe – a thief, fighter and murderer of enemy sailors but an expert in seamanship! The town itself was kept safe from marauding invaders with the building of Dartmouth Castle when chains were run across the river to Godmerock.
Sir Humphrey Gilbert and John Davis left on their perilous voyages of discovery from Dartmouth whilst Sir Walter Raleigh brought his captured Spanish treasure ships back here! Famously this is also the harbour that the Pilgrim Fathers sailed from in 1620 when they set sail in the ‘Mayflower’ for the Americas.
The Naval College was first established here in 1863 with the ships ‘Britannia’ and ‘Hindustan’ moored off Sandquay whilst the shore based Britannia Royal Naval College was opened in 1905.
More recently the town sheltered every type of naval craft during the Second World War before the invasion and 480 vessels sailed for the beaches of Normandy in 1944.
You can re-live this unique seafaring history by exploring streets with such intriguing names as Jawbones, Flagon Steps, Damnation Alley, Undercliff, Kings Quay, Old Rope Walk and Waterpool Lane. You’ll stumble across quaint, quirky buildings like the Ship In Dock, Sloping Deck, The Captain’s House, The Windjammer and The Floating Bridge – all now places to eat, drink or sleep! The Butterwalk with its host of mythological beasties was built with timbers from captured ships.
Other famous sons have modern memorials– John Flavel, a deeply religious and community loving man whose name is now immortalised in the new Flavel Centre housing cinema, theatre, cafe, library, internet suite studios and an open gallery for aspiring and professional artists. In the Tourist Information Centre you can view an original atmospheric beam engine, invented here by Thomas Newcomen to pump water out of mines and thus helping the start of the Industrial Revolution.
Dartmouth is truly a magical place – a mad hotch potch of architectural styles with creatures of myth, filled with a cornucopia of artistic talent, bursting with English eccentricity. A town where history is alive, where shops are unique, charming, quirky and individual, where organic and local produce is proudly represented by a host of top quality restaurants and cafes, where a warm welcome is offered by those who will host your stay and a place where every pub holds out a hand of greeting. Dartmouth is a town where folk still take time to stand in the park and chat, sip a coffee on the sunny embankment or laze under the cherry trees and listen to music from the bandstand.
The Port of Dartmouth Royal Regatta takes place annually over three days at the end of August.
Bayard’s Cove has been used in several television productions, including The Onedin Line a popular BBC television drama series that ran from 1971 to 1980.
Notable former and present residents
Thomas Newcomen, the inventor of the atmospheric engine – the first successful steam-powered pumping engine – was born in Dartmouth in 1663. The location of his house in Lower Street is marked with a plaque, although the building itself was demolished (and elements incorporated into local architect Thomas Lidstone’s house on Ridge Hill) in the 19th century to make way for a new road which was named after Newcomen. An 18th-century working Newcomen steam engine is on display in the town.
The town was home to the civil engineer and calculating prodigy George Parker Bidder (1806–1878), who is notable for his work on railways over much of the world, as well as the docks of the East End in the Port of London. Bidder served on the town council, and his expertise was instrumental in draining the area which is now the centre of the town, but was then part of the River Dart. He also undertook pioneering work with Samuel Lake on steam trawling whilst living in the town. Bidder died at his home at Paradise Point near Warfleet Creek and is buried at nearby Stoke Fleming.
Flora Thompson lived in Above Town between 1928 and 1940, writing Lark Rise and Over to Candleford during this time. The books were later combined into a single volume with the later Candleford Green to form the well-known Lark Rise to Candleford. She is buried at Longcross Cemetery.
The noted stage and film actress Rachel Kempson (1910–2003) was born in Dartmouth. She was the wife of Sir Michael Redgrave and mother of Vanessa, Lynn and Corin, and published her autobiography, Life Among the Redgraves, in 1988.
Gordon Onslow Ford (1912–2003), a leading British surrealist painter, attended the Royal Naval College.
Christopher Robin Milne, son of A.A. Milne, after whom the character Christopher Robin in the Winnie-the-Pooh books was named, used to own the Harbour Bookshop. The bookshop has recently faced closure.
Many local businesses with amusingly appropriate names were commemorated in a special edition of the card game Happy Families produced locally in the 1987s, created to raise funds locally. A copy is held in Dartmouth Museum.
1049………… First mention of ‘mouth of Dart’ as a haven and landing place in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
1147 & 1190… Second and Third Crusades – ships assembled in harbour.
c. 1243……… Foss dam built across tidal creek.
1286………… Edward I visited the town, and permitted the building St. Saviour’s Church.
1341………… Official Borough status granted by Edward III.
1377………… Town raided by French-led force.
c.1388……… Hawley’s ‘fortalice’ built at the river mouth.
1404………… Bretons prevented from sacking Dartmouth by defeat at Battle of Blackpool Sands.
1488-94…….. Dartmouth Castle built.
1583………… Sir Humphrey Gilbert colonised Newfoundland.
1588………… Dartmouth ships helped defeat Spanish Armada.
1620………… Pilgrim Fathers called at Dartmouth.
1646………… Fairfax recaptured Dartmouth for Parliament.
1712………… Newcomen built first full-scale steam engine.
1775………… Poorhouse built on site of St. Clare’s Chapel.
1822………… First recorded Dartmouth Regatta.
1823-26…….. New Road to Townstal built, allowing wheeled vehicles into town. Later renamed Victoria Road.
1831………… Opening of Floating Bridge (Higher Ferry).
1846………… Visit of Queen Victoria and family in royal yachts.
1863………… HMS Britannia, training ship, moored of Sandquay.
1905………… Britannia Royal Naval College completed.
1937………… Coronation Park opened on reclaimed land.
1944………… 480 Allied ships left the Dart to join the D-Day invasion.