The Story of Hallsands

    The story of Hallsands is one of which is familiar to most local people, and one that is told to illustrate what happens when man tampers with nature.

    In late Victorian tomes this village had about one hundred and fifty residents.  Hallsands was small thriving community of people, who respected the winds and waves of Start Bay, and who managed to prosper in spite of all the normal difficulties and hazards of fishing. However, unlike many of Devon’s fishing villages, Hallsands was built along a narrow and short area of flat rock which used to stand well above the level of high tide and was reasonable protected from the fiercest of storms, including that of the storm of 1891. It was protected by a large pebble beach.  Its houses backed right up to the cliffs and there was just one narrow road dividing these from those which used to stand on rock, which today is often covered by water at high tide.

    The locals looked to the sea for their livelihood and at that time the regular migrating shoals of fish, as well as the great resident population of lobsters and crabs. Such catches could be seen been hauled ashore by the fisher folk of Hallsands.
    The village boasted, a blacksmith, carpenter, tailor, it had its own post office, a shop and an Inn. Hallsands was a close knit community and villagers rarely locked their front doors and residents wandered at will from house to house.  It was the idyllic place to live.

    One event of the closing of the 19th century was to determine the demise of Hallsands. Unknown to the fishermen, plans were being made for the extension of the large naval dockyard of Devonport, Plymouth. Thousands of tons of gravel were needed for building walls and extending berths. A search was made for a nearby source of this material, and it was discovered in plentiful amounts in and around Start Bay. The Board of Trade granted a licence to Sir John Jackson to dredge and carry away sand, shingle, gravel and other material from the bed of the sea below water mark opposite the villages of Hallsands and Beesands.  Dredging began in April 1897.
    The villagers of both villages protested, as they were sure that any substantial removal of material from the sea bed would sooner or later affect the high ridge of pebbles, plus the dredging work was interfering with their fishing.

    An inspector held an inquiry at the coastguard station in Hallsands in June 1897. He examined the shore and heard evidence from both sides. Sir John Jackson response to the fishermen was that the sea would replenish any shingle that was extracted. It was recommended that the dredgers avoid the coast directly in front of Hallsands and neighbouring Beesands. 
    In August 1897 compensation was paid to the fishermen of both villages for the interference of their fishing grounds and their livlihoods. It was agreed to pay the community of Hallsands £125 a year for as long as the dredging continued. It was agreed to pay for any damaged pots or fishing gear.


    For a couple of years after this, the fishermen appeared to have accepted the dredging without complaint.
    By 1900 it was becoming apparent that, as the fishermen had predicted, the level of the beach was falling. In the autumn storms the sea wall washed away part of the stone wall facing the beach. In November of 1900 property owners again petitioned their M.P. complaining of damage to their houses. Sir John replied to the Board of Trade denying responsibility but offering to pay for any damage attributable to his work during the dredging and for up to 6 months afterwards. The villagers did not respond, but in March 1901 Kingsbridge Rural District Council wrote to the Board complaining of damage to the road.

    In September 1901 the Board appointed a new inspector, Capt. Frederick. His report concluded that the beach had fallen by 7 - 12 feet and "in the event of a heavy gale from the East...few houses will not be flooded, if not seriously damaged." He concluded that dredging should be stopped.
    The Board initially restricted the terms of the licence whilst Sir John tried in vain to negotiate with the villagers. On New Year's day 1902 they finally took the law into their own hands, preventing the dredgers from landing. On January 8th the licence was revoked.
    From April 1897 to December 1901 when the licence was revoked for dredging by the Board of Trade, about 650,000 tons of material had been removed from the bed of the sea.  
      
    During 1902 the level of the beach recovered, but it was to be short-lived. The winter of 1902/ brought more storms and damage.
    In the village of Hallsands the night of 26 January 1917 serves as a reminder of the folly on interfering with the sea. Darkness came early that afternoon as the pending storm blew down the Channel, a rare, strong, easterly wind. Well protected from the prevailing South Westerlies, the village became vulnerable as the winds swung around to the north-east and strengthened. The tide was exceptionally high that night and couple with the fierce onshore winds the sea came pounding up the beach.  It surged over the pebble ridge crashing across a wall into the houses beyond. Smashing through winds and bursting open doors, it flooded the ground floors of the houses, enveloping them in cold swirling water. The destruction was unbelievable. By midnight four houses had gone.
    The inhabitants gathered the few belongings they could and assembled on the cliff tops above to watch as their houses were destroyed. Even the dawn was not to relieve their anguish, for the following day brought another high tide and houses were felled one by one by the pounding waves. By the end of the only one house was left standing. The devastation was complete. Altogether some 29 homes had been taken along with the livelihoods and belongings of the entire village.
    Miraculously no-one was killed, but the villagers were now homeless.

    On Monday, 29 January 1917 one local newspaper reported as follows:

    “The storm burst on Friday evening and the people living on the shore very soon saw that their houses were doomed. They speedily made their way to a place of safety at the top of the cliff, but one old lady, who was an invalid, could not be removed until the following day. Such was the fury of the waves that the householders found it difficult to save much of their belongings, and some have lost the whole of their goods and chattels.

    “When morning broke a scene of desolation presented itself to the eye. The fishing boats had been tossed up clean into the meadows, wreckage was strewn about in all directions, and the village was practically wiped out. The seas swamped right over the houses, which seemed to crumple beneath their weight. Some of the people had a terrible experience. In one case there were nine people huddled together in a little house against which the waves were incessantly dashing, and they were expecting every moment that the walls which afforded them shelter would collapse, and that they would be washed away.

    “One of the fishermen, James Lynn, saw two huge waves crash against his house and knock most of the front of it clean in. The lamp was extinguished, and the people were in utter darkness, but they managed to make their escape by the back door. Another home near by was levelled to the ground, and the roofs of others have been lifted off. Altogether twenty-four families have been rendered homeless. One old fisherman, sorrowfully viewing the wreckage on Saturday, said ‘This is the end of our village. We shall have to go elsewhere.’”
    Not everyone left Hallsands.  Two houses at a higher level than the others survived and were continued to be occupied. Elizabeth Prettejohn lived in one of them in 1917, when she was 33. She stayed there until her death in 1964. For many years she was happy to provide guided tours of the village ruins to interested tourists.

    Apart from Elizabeth Prettejohn it appears that all the other villagers moved away. Some went to live with relatives or friends, but others had to take whatever accommodation they could find. Five men spent several months sleeping in a loft over a coach-house. When the weather was calm and warm some people would return to sleep in the ruins of their former homes. An additional problem for the fishermen was that their boats and equipment had been badly damaged in the storm of 17 January.

    Very soon the question of compensation arose again. The Devon Sea Fisheries Committee wrote to the Board of Trade calling for full compensation, and on 7 March another Devon MP, Sir J Spear, raised the issue in Parliament. The Board of Trade appointed Sir Maurice Fitzmaurice to investigate and make recommendations. At the end of his enquiry he confirmed that the damage was entirely due to the dredging operations, and he recommended compensation as follows:

    * 26 buildings  - £8000
    * Stores and gear - £1250
    * Furniture and belongings - £500
    * Drainage, water supply, and roads - £750

    The decision about the actual amount to be paid was not made until May 1918. Instead of the £10,500 recommended by Sir Maurice Fitzmaurice just £6000 was offered. A year later, as plans were being developed for new houses, a survey was carried out to establish the intentions of the dispossessed householders. It was found that four owners did not intend to return, seven wished to have thirteen houses for themselves and their families, and three were undecided. Eventually 10 houses, named Fordworth Cottages, were constructed a little way inland. They were ready for occupation in July 1924. They were not, however, given to their occupants. Instead, despite having owned their homes in Hallsands, the householders were required to pay rent for their new homes.

    Some of the villagers were able to go on earning a living in the fishing industry. Two sisters, Ella and Patience Trout, not only carried on catching crabs, but also had the enterprise to open a guesthouse on the cliff top above Hallsands, carrying out much of the building work themselves. Ella had already made a name for herself in September 1917, when she rowed out to rescue a sailor from a steamer that had been attacked by a German submarine. In 1933 the guest house was developed into the Prospect House Hotel, and then as holiday apartments.




    Hallsands Today

    The site of the old village at South Hallsands is closed. South Hams District Council has built a viewing platform, which is accessed from Trout's Apartments (formerly Trout's Hotel) in South Hallsands.
    The beach at North Hallsands, known locally at the time as "Greenstraight", is the only one remaining at Hallsands as the beach beside the village no longer exists having been removed in 1917 by the storm. There are two houses that remain intact, although every summer the owners spend many months repairing the damage the easterly winds have caused over the winter. 


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