Charmouth Then and Now Talk part 2


Hello and

So how come I’m giving this talk? Well I enjoy messing around with photos and I’ve been trying to merge old photos of Charmouth with modern ones that I’ve taken. It just helps to bring Charmouth’s fascinating history to life. I sent some of the photos to Neil and he persuaded me to share them with you. I also have an interest in military history so, as you’ll hear, I’ve taken the opportunity to pick out some of the military stories from Charmouth’s past.

As well as the photos I’ve also delved into the recesses of Neil’s website, the Village Echo and old press cuttings to try and find interesting and hopefully entertaining stories about the village. Malcolm will be reading these out.

For the benefit of those who weren’t here last time I thought we’d start with a quick look at some of the photos we showed then. So last time we started up at the top of the village and worked down to Barrs Lane. Here’s where Old Lyme Hill and Old Lyme Road meet Axminster Road, looking much the same as it does today. The two roads to Lyme were still in use then. Today we use the road past Fernhill and that is where we met Pasha the lion. Avert your eyes now if you don’t want to see him again.

We heard the tragic tale of Pasha the lion who escaped from a circus when his cage broke free up by the Fernhill Hotel. Sadly Pasha’s one hour of freedom cost him his life when he was finally despatched by Percy Smith the village postman

But we also saw that Pasha’s spirit lingers on in the nearby cliffs.

We saw many of the former residents of Charmouth – here are some stood outside the New Commercial Inn with the village hospital alongside it.

We also met Andrew Dunn who in 1911 proudly carried the flag down the village for the procession to mark the Coronation of King George Fifth. I still see him stood there every time I drive up that bit of road. We met him again several times in the talk.

Charmouth was very popular with holidaymakers and here we saw their luggage being loaded to take down to Axminster station.

At the top of the Street was a thriving collection of shops, this was the Forge, now a fossil shop

And here’s a recent illustrious visitor to the Fossil shop

Who later saw the fossil installed in the Heritage Centre

Andrew Dunn led the procession down the Street.

Moving round the corner in the 1910’s we met the Whittington sisters outside Miss Tarr’s shop. They lived in Charmouth Lodge next to Barrs Lane.

Stood outside Miss Tarr’s shop are two sailors, Ted Hunter and Charles Larcombe. Charlie Larcombe, along with George Pidgeon would later help to build the village War Memorial in 1922.

It’s a lot busier there today. Thanks goodness for the bypass.

Life was a gentler pace then

In1858 Florence Nightingale helped to establish a sanitorium at Littlehurst , this later opening with the Doctor Beckers in 1987 recaptured the moment.

Here’s Herringbone occupying the old Post Office. They seem to be making a habit of occupying old Post Offices.

The present church was built in 1836 but here’s a model of the one they demolished as it might have appeared

The area in front of the church was broader before the cemetery was extended, the original position of the wall being marked by the two yew trees today. This was where the market and village fayre were held.

Next to the church was the old Coach and Horses before it burnt down.

Andrew Dunn and the 1911 Coronation Procession has made it as far down as Nisa.

One of Charmouth’s most prominent visitors was Maud Watson who in 1884 was the first Wimbledon Ladies Singles champion and lived in her later years at Hammonds Mead with Miss Evans.

The tennis club was run by the Whittington sisters who lived at the Limes and that is where we finished our story last time.

So it’s only appropriate that we start from there this time.

What I didn’t mention last time was that it would seem that several ghosts also lived there. There was a lady in white, a monk and also a young girl. One villager’s dog would refuse to walk past the house.

The Whittington sisters said that….

MALCOLM Ever since we lived in the house we were aware of the figure of a young girl who would sometimes pass us on the stairs. One evening Canon Whittington was in the drawing room playing the piano when the lights went out. The sound of feet came rushing down the stairs and a pair of hands grabbed him round the throat. He was so shocked he never entered that room again.

Some years later a builder investigating beneath rotten floorboards in the same room discovered a well and across the top of it lay the ancient bones of a 16 year old girl. The rector was asked and the bones were quietly laid to rest in the churchyard. The ghost of the girl was never seen again.

Lets move on to more cheerful matters and have a little look further down Barrs Lane. In the 1860s Sir John Hawkshaw drew up plans for a railway to come to Charmouth. The red dotted line marks the proposed route. A station was to be built in what is now the playing fields. Unfortunately the Parliamentary Bill was thrown out and the railway was never built……or so we thought.

This rare Claude Hider postcard gives a different impression.

Neil was so excited when he saw the postcard that he dashed down to the playing fields to check things out…..

It’s surprising the things you don’t notice in the village. Maybe it’s our equivalent of platform 9 ¾ that the Hogwarts Express departs from?!

The rolling stock looks about the same vintage.

Charmouth Railway was actually built in 1985 and is a Narrow Gauge model built by David Taylor. It is said to be a fine example of the model makers’ art. It was last shown in Exeter in June 2019. Be nice to get it here wouldn’t it?

Wandering back up Barrs Lane we pass the bakery, so very nearly the scene of one of Charmouth’s most serious disasters.

MALCOLM    In 1969 the peace of a glorious Christmas morning in Charmouth was shattered by the sound of fire engines. Fire had broken out at the village bakery. Harold Smith the baker stood in despair watching smoke and flames pouring from the flour hoist. With him was a group of equally anxious villagers, for, in the bakery’s bread oven were 10 turkeys. Too large for their own ovens Harold, as tradition dictates, had allowed the villagers to cook them in his oven.

Once the fire had been extinguished Harold and George Bastin the station Officer ventured into the wreckage. They emerged with big smiles on their faces, the turkeys were unscathed. Christmas was saved, much to the relief of one of the firemen whose own turkey was one of those in the bakery oven.

Emerging from Barrs Lane back onto the Street this, up until 1958, would have been the view that greeted you. Sandford House standing at the entrance to a very much narrower Lower Sea Lane shows how different the view was. In fact most of the premises around this junction seem to have changed quite dramatically over the years, as we shall see.

This fine row of villas including Sandford House had been built in an era when things were much more genteel and transport was on a much smaller scale. Roads were wide enough to accommodate a single wagon and horses and traffic was so infrequent that two way traffic wasn’t a problem.

Sandford House was the home of Colonel Little who in WW2 initially set up and commanded the Charmouth Home Guard or LDV as it was known then.

Unfairly ridiculed in my view thanks to Dad’s Army the Home Guard had a serious job to do. There were nightly patrols through the village, positions to man above the beach and an observation post at Catherston to watch out for parachutists landing in Marshwood Vale. Troops from the Durham Light Infantry, who had fought hard during the withdrawal from Dunkirk, were also billeted in the village at Neil’s house, Thallatta. As far as I can find out only one shot was fired by Charmouth Home Guard during WW2 when a .303 round was accidently discharged, putting a hole in the drill hall ceiling.

Equipment supplied to the Home Guard gradually improved but at the start some of it was quite primitive. An example of this was the Type 75 Anti Tank Grenade. It comprised a beer bottle filled with layers of phosphorous, water, paraffin and ground rubber. Thrown at a tank it would break and cause heat, smoke and an awful smell but, I suspect, not do a lot of damage.

Charmouth Home guard had a supply of these which were buried in  crates by the hedge up near Langmoor Manor and Lily Farm on the Axminster Road ready to shower down upon an unsuspecting force of invading Germans.

Scroll forward some 50 years to 1989 and an excavator working on the new bypass suddenly erupts in a series of flashes, clouds of smoke and a dreadful smell. The road was closed for hours while bomb disposal experts from Aldershot were called. The Home Guard’s stash had been found. A further six crates of these grenades were discovered and promptly destroyed with a controlled explosion. I don’t know if the digger survived but I suspect it might have.

One of the crates was emptied and saved and is still to be found displayed at the Royal Logistics Corps Museum at Deepcut.

Anyway, back to Sandford House. The busy entrance to Lower Sea Lane was clearly too narrow for modern day traffic being no wider than Barrs Lane is today. So when Colonel Little passed away in 1958 the house was bought by Dorset County Council and demolished.

Had they waited a few years, the job might have been done for them. In 1987 this grain lorry almost demolished Braggs store after its brakes failed.

The consequences could have been much more serious had there been anyone on the footpath as this blissfully unaware modern day family shows.

It was just one of a series of crashes which were documented by Mike Davies and which helped to persuade the authorities that we needed a bypass. Fortunately the bus swerved before hitting the petrol pumps outside Lansdowne House.

This lorry that crashed into The Court was, ironically, from a walling firm.

Looking back down The Street I could never quite place this photo that was taken in 1905. It somehow didn’t look like Charmouth.

But of course when you look closely you can just about see the entrance to Lower Sea Lane - or just Sea Lane as it used to be called. Before that it was sometimes known as Mill Lane although no trace of a mill has been found. In front of what is now the chemist you can see a white statue.

On this corner used to be Pryer’s builders yard. The chemists now uses the original building although, as we have seen, it’s had a bit of rebuilding work done from time to time.

The Pryer family built many of the buildings we see in the village today. Nisa and Prospect Place, the parade of houses along from it, were built by them in 1862.

Here’s Harry Pryer (for some reason known as Pussey Pryer) and on the left is his father Giles. It was Giles who, along with his brother, in 1854 built the old Cement Factory that now houses the Heritage Centre. He used stone straight from the beach. He and his brother carved their names into one of the limestone blocks in the wall there, now hidden behind the plasterboard of the video theatre.

For many years Pryer’s yard was home to a ship’s figurehead that had been found on the beach. Nobody seems to know what happened to it, it disappeared after Harry Pryer’s death in 1931.

Opposite Pryers Yard, rather than the shops we have today, was this row of cottages.

The end cottage, known as Streets after the name of it’s former occupiers, was bought by the Pryers in 1862. The lower part of the building on the left hand side was a workshop which had been used as a tailors and a bakery. The Pryers used the land at the far end of the plot down by the park to build two houses known then as Pryers Villas now called Lanes End I believe. Indeed Barrs  Lane was itself known by some as Pryers Lane. The cottage on the Street was reputed to be haunted. This attracted the attentions of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who came to the village in 1894 to investigate and reported….

Including the Pryer’s cottage there were three cottages in the row. Opposite them in this photo you can just about make out Pryers yard and between there and the Old School House you can see the large field, flanked by a splendid row of Elm trees. Known as Pear Close it was used for many village events. 

Here’s the 1908 Village Flower Show and Fete that was held on that field. In the background you can see the tall building of what is now Devonedge. In front is the band of the Charmouth Volunteers.

The fete was a lively event, perhaps a foretaste of Charmouth Fayre today? Here you can see couples swirling around in an energetic dance to the band’s music.

MALCOLM    A few years later, during the Great War, the Charmouth Volunteers band would gather at the Coach and Horses whenever the recruiters arrived looking for men to sign up to go and serve the king. Every person who volunteered was given a rousing tune by the village band as they walked in. Gradually, members of the band would themselves enlist and over time the band got smaller and smaller until… finally… there was no one left to play.

Back to the row of cottages. Above the cart you can just make out the awning of  a shop on the front of the second cottage, this was Frank Coles Bakery.

Here are Frank and his son, just down the Street by Devonedge Lane, out on deliveries…

…and here is his son Francis, presumably waiting while Dad has a swift half in the George. By the way, there are several pubs in Dorset called The George, most are named after King George III who frequented Weymouth and this area. Our George was named long before that after Saint George.

As we’ve already heard, the cottages were destroyed by fire:


 Bridport News July 12th 1895.
On Sunday afternoon, about three o'clock, smoke was observed issuing from the thatched roof of an uninhabited house belonging to Mr. Pryer, builder. An alarm was at once raised, but the fire had got such a firm hold of the roof that it was found impossible to save it. Efforts were directed to save the adjoining house of Mr. Coles, baker, which was also thatched, but in spite of the exertions of a ready band of helpers, the fire obtained the mastery of the house. An uninhabited house adjoining Mr. Coles next caught fire, and there was great fear that an adjacent block of thatched cottages would be involved in the conflagration. By pulling down the walls of the house next to Mr. Coles the progress of the flames was checked, but the three houses were completely burnt out.

After the sites were cleared, the first to be rebuilt straight away was Sunnyside or Devonedge as we know it now. Great difficulty was experienced building the western wall. Frank Coles hadn’t employed the Pryers as the builders, possibly he was still upset as the fire had started in their property, but for whatever reason he chose a chap called Gollop as the builder. The Pryers refused access to their land for scaffolding so the wall had to be built by leaning over the top from Frank Coles’s side.

MALCOLM: Reg Pavey reports that…‘During the building operations Frank Coles placed under a brick a sovereign, a half-sovereign and a five shilling piece to commemorate the event. That night someone who witnessed this returned unobserved and removed the coins, carefully replacing the brick.  It wasn’t until many years after the house was finished that the perpetrator owned up.’

Sunnyside was a boarding house, here we see some of its visitors on their way to Axminster Railway Station, but although initially successful it was a bit too big for the village and didn’t succeed. Frank Cole ran his bakery business from the shop underneath. The plot on the corner next door was to remain empty for over 30 years.

In 1934 following Pryer’s death the land was sold and developed as The Arcade, the shops with which we are all familiar today. Although the occupiers of the shops have changed over the years, seen here in 1934 the view of the shops has remained pretty much the same. They continue to be a valuable asset to the village and long may they prosper.

And for those of you who saw the first talk, here we have, for the second time, yet another visit to Charmouth by an elephant, presumably to publicise a circus.

Next to Sunnyside was Lansdowne House. This was rebuilt in 1923 by Clifford Stapleforth. Gone were the days of coach and horses, it operated as a vehicle repair business (out the back) and, as we’ve seen with the near miss bus crash, a petrol station in the front. I don’t think you’d get permission to serve petrol across the pavement these days. A gap was left  between it and Devonedge, both to allow access to workshops at the back and to act as a fire break. The house had to be built set back from the road so as not to obscure an end window in the neighbouring Wander Inn.

It was Clifford Stapleforth who had bought the empty corner plot from the Pryers and built the Arcade of shops. He also bought the large field opposite, Pear Close, where the village fetes had been held.

It would seem that Clifford Stapleforth was an astute businessman. Two years after building the garage business at Lansdowne House, in 1925 he promptly sold it and its petrol pumps to Charlie Woollard who, unfortunately for him, was completely unaware that the site opposite was soon to be a Garage run by local business man Billy Gear. The plot of land opposite had been sold to Billy Gear by Clifford Stapleforth!

It must have come as a bit of a surprise when the new garage opened but there seems to have been enough trade for both. During World War Two the American Army requisitioned half of Gear’s Garage for their own use. When the war ended Billy organised a fundraising auction for returning villagers who had served away in the forces during the war. Each was presented with a wallet generously filled with cash.

  So for a while the village was well served for petrol. Does anyone know when petrol was last sold in the village, I’ve not been able to find out?

Oddly, even though it is many years since petrol was sold in the village,  the Highways Agency still seems to this day  to commemorate its availability on their road sign up by the roundabout on the A35. Perhaps someone should tell them.

Today’s Fish and Chip Shop building was part of Gears’ garage and was originally their car showroom. It then became a gift shop run by Billy’s wife.

Next to the Chip Shop stands Uphill,  the house that Billy had built for him and his wife to live in. And next to that was of course Lloyds Bank, today’s Bank Cafe.

On the opposite side of the road, next to the petrol pumps at Lansdowne House stood the Wander Inn, also known many years before that as the New Inn. It was one the oldest buildings in the village dating back to at least 1656. It was used during WW2 to store scrap paper and aluminium bottle tops. After the war James and Dorothy Potter established a very successful tea rooms and gave it the name the Wander Inn. It had been split into two cottages but they recombined the two to make more room for their business.

The thatched roof, as you can see here, had been clad with metal sheeting in the early 1900s possibly to protect against another disastrous fire like the one that had so nearly claimed it in 1895.

The metal sheets were simply put over the top of the old thatch. This is what the original thatch and timbers looked like from underneath in 2002. Rustic simplicity I think you call it, but it had stood the test of time for some 300 years.

But the building was deteriorating so in 2002 planning permission was given to redevelop it provided that the front façade was retained and the new building was kept in character with its neighbours lower down the street. Demolition work started at the rear. But the building soon began to creak. Peter Press reports that…

MALCOLM: ‘Just after 9.00am on the 21st January 2003, on my way to the Post Office that morning, I was within yards of the building when a great crash and a column of dust with rotten bits of thatch rose into the air as the entire north face of the roof fell into the building. Although no one was hurt, one of the workmen will long remember the event – he was in the building when it started to go. Were it not for his relative youth and a degree of panic that ensured his rapid exit, there might have been an even greater disaster.’

There wasn’t a lot left so it was pulled down and we now have the two new cottages, Red Bluff and Swiss Cottage, that we see today.

Moving down the Street, there we can see on the right the Wander Inn just down from Devonedge. On the left we come to the Abbotts House or Queens Arms as many still know it. I’m sure you are all very familiar with the story of Charles the First staying there on his one night visit to the village so I won’t repeat it here but instead I want to tell you about someone else who visited the village for one night and who, in his day, was possibly even more famous.

This is an American called Edward Payson Weston more commonly known as Weston the Pedestrian. A sportsman of sorts, he was one of the most famous competitors of his time, the equivalent of David Beckham or Usain Bolt. His particular athletic prowess was in walking. A hugely popular sport at the time.

Large halls would be hired in cities on both sides of the Atlantic where he would undertake long distance walking competitions around a marked track which would take several days. At some venues he would get ten thousand people a day who would pay to come in and see him. He beat the British Champion ‘Blower Brown’ by walking 550 miles in 141 hours. For publicity, Weston would also do exhibition walks around the country. Here’s a newspaper cutting from one of these demonstration events…



 "The inhabitants of Charmouth were all excitement on Friday night owing to the approach of Weston the pedestrian. A torchlight procession was formed, flags were hoisted, and the band turned out to escort him through the village. Shortly after 10p.m. Weston made his appearance, with a number of people at his heels, the band playing "See, the Conquering Hero Comes“. Weston seemed anything but a "conquering hero" then, for he was either much annoyed at the crowd who surrounded him, or was terribly fagged."   

Sadly, many years later Weston was badly injured when he was struck by a New York taxi and never walked again.

Moving down the Street we come to the row of cottages know as Mill View, built in 1857 to house Customs Officers. That’s the horsedrawn Bridport Bus on its way out of the village but just behind it you can see that motor cars were beginning to make their appearance. The cottages are built on the site of the house where in 1645 the local vicar lived – he was Bartholomew Wesley who was the grandfather of John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church. The original house burnt down in 1851 but it’s previous resident is commemorated of course just up the road by the more recently named Wesley Close.

While we’re talking about street names, Barney’s Close is of course was named after Barney Hansford a well known fossil hunter who set up his Fossil and Country Life exhibition in this part of The Street. The building had been used as a drill hall by the Charmouth Colunteers. It was here that the Home Guard shot a hole in the roof. The building later became the telephone exchange. One of the premises at the other end of this row was knocked down to create the entrance to what is now known as Barney’s Close.

Many of the photos we see of old Charmouth were taken by Sam Hansford, Barney’s dad.

Moving on down the Street we come to Charmouth Mill. When the Normans arrived in 1066 they promptly caused many mills to be built by the Lords of the Manor and made it illegal for people to grind their own corn. It was an offence to even possess your own grindstones. This of course meant you had to pay the manor to have your own corn ground into flour, essentially making it a fundraising form of taxation.

The river was diverted into a mill stream and the water stored in the mill pond. Here is Rose Toms, the millers wife feeding geese on the mill pond. The millers house is on the left and the mill is on the right. A house has been built in this gap now and the mill pond no longer exists. The water from the mill pond powered an undershot waterwheel to grind the corn.

This perhaps makes it easier to see where the mill was. There’s no bus shelter to block the view as there is today. The bridge looks a little different, it was quite narrow and steeply arched, limiting visibility as you approached it. It had its fair share of crashes.

The Americans had problems here as they moved their troops and vehicles to embark for D Day, their low loader lorries would bottom out on the top of the arch but it seems they managed to get over. Unfortunately this lorry load of barrels wasn’t so lucky.

As traffic increased the bridge became more difficult and dangerous for modern traffic to cope with, so in 1957 it was rebuilt to make it twice as wide and the steep arch lowered by about 3 feet so that drivers would have the clear line of sight. Behind it you can see the mill and the low, single storey lean to building attached to the back of it which was where the water wheel used to be.

The bridge formed a natural gateway into Charmouth and it was frequently decked with an arch to celebrate big events. Here it is for the Coronation of 1911, which reminds me, we haven’t seen much of our old friend the flag bearer Andrew Dunn.

As we’ve seen, he lead the Coronation procession down from the top of the village and here it is passing the George.

It then turned around and here he is leading the procession back up the Street past the chip shop.

It looks like they had to wait at the traffic lights to let this senior citizen cross over. That’s John Hodder in the bowler hat adjusting the flag, we’ll meet him again later.

Finally they turned down Barrs Lane into what is now the playing field where we’ll say goodbye to Andrew and leave him to have a well earned pint and put his feet up. 

And that sounds like a good place for us to have a break too.


There’s an interesting note in John Broadhurst’s history of the school where he talks about the adoption of this crest by both the school and the Parish Council. Apparently they did so after it was found by Don Dampier on a postcard while he was on holiday in Wales. It doesn’t say anything more, so the mystery as to why there’s a castle remains.

Further along Lower Sea Lane we come to Hensleigh House. Those of you who saw Part One of the talks will have already met the man who built it, Percy Smith the village postman. It was he who was brave enough to approach and despatch poor old Pasha the lion with his service revolver.

Percy is an interesting character. He had left England for Canada just before World War One but when war was declared he immediately signed up to serve with the Canadians. He survived many bloody battles and in 1918 distinguished himself at the second Battle of Arras where he was awarded the Military Medal. By this time there were so many acts of bravery that officers recommending medals no longer had to give the details why, so we don’t know what he did. We do know that the Canadians were the troops that the Germans feared fighting against the most. At Arras the Canadians decided not to follow the unwritten rules of war. They surprised the Germans by not waiting until dawn at 6am to attack but went in at 3.30 and stormed through their lines. The war was then over within 100 days. After the war a by now very deaf, thanks to all the explosions he’d heard, Percy came back to Charmouth. Some thought him to be a bit grumpy but he’d been through a lot.

Percy was one of a long line of village characters, another being this gentleman. Isaac Hunter, a prawn and lobster fisherman who was renowned for his rowing ability, Reputedly rowing as far as Plymouth and Cowes. No one ever took up his challenge of a rowing race between West Bay and Lyme and he regularly won the races at the Charmouth and Lyme Regattas. He was also a skilled fossil hunter. But it was the story of Isaac Hunter’s dream that captured the imagination and features in the newspapers…


On the stormy night of 24th November 1872 Isaac Hunter couldn’t sleep. He kept dreaming that his lobster pots were being washed ashore under Stonebarrow by the storm. Several time he was woken by the same dream and was so troubled that at 3 a.m. he went down to the beach to check. He bumped into a customs man who told him to go back as the waves were crashing onto the shore against the cliff.

But he went on and was astonished when, in the gloom, he came across a ship lying on its side 30 yards from shore with three men clinging to it as the waves crashed over them. He ran to Westhay Farm and got help, returning with Mr Harris, two labourers and a rope. Several attempts to get the line to the ship failed and the coastguard ran off to Seatown to get some rocket apparatus. Hunter and Harris persevered and eventually the line was secured to the ship. The first crewman started down but immediately fell into the surging water.  Hunter dashed forward and grabbed him but the waves dragged them both out to sea and only by great fortune did the wave turn and throw them back up on the beach. The second man was retrieved safely until only the Captain remained and he was in a bad way. He too fell off the rope and was sucked under the ship. Hunter, with a rope around his waist this time, dashed into the sea to grab him and they were both hauled out. The ship, the 65 ton ‘Courier’ from France, carrying a load of 85 tons of potatoes, disintegrated under the pounding shortly afterwards.

The three Frenchmen stayed with Mr Harris at his farm until the body of the fourth member of the crew, a boy who had drowned, had been found and buried. Both Isaac Hunter and Mr Harris, were later presented with engraved watches to thank them  for saving the lives of the two Frenchmen.

And so we come to the foreshore. The river, seen here in the 1890’s used to take a much more meandering course. To get across it there was a rickety bridge known the Battery Bridge, named after the cannons of the Charmouth Volunteers that were located on the other side.

Formed in 1868, Charmouth Volunteers were the forerunners of the Territorial Army. They were a reserve force created to face the growing threat of invasion from the French. Volunteers inland trained as foot soldiers and those at the coast as artillery. Some 160,000 volunteered across the country at the rate of up to 700 a day. I’ve read one suggestion that early closing days in shops originated in part to enable the Volunteers to go off for target practice during daylight hours.

Drill Halls were built. As we’ve heard, ours was to become the telephone exchange, and later Barney Hansford’s fossil exhibition was based there. Lyme Regis’s drill hall is now familiar to us all as the Marine Theatre. A Rifle Range was set up along the East Beach with a target mounted in the part known as The Vineyard. Visiting fossil hunters are often told to look out for the bullet shaped fossil belemnites on the beach, I wonder if they still come across actual bullets?

The Battery originally comprised horse drawn limber guns with big spoke wheels which the Volunteers  would occasionally take out around the countryside. Unfortunately when coming down the steep Hardown Hill, one cannon got out of control and ran off the road. It became permanently stuck. And had to be abandoned. It remained there for many years and from time to time, for celebrations, Squire Weld would charge it with gunpowder and fire it with a resounding boom, much to the glee of villagers.

Eventually the Volunteers were given three ex Royal Navy ship’s cannons, some weighing five tons, that had to be hauled to Charmouth with great difficulty slung under  horse drawn timber carts from Axminster Railway Station.

Charmouth Volunteers were very proficient gunners winning the Challenge Cup in 1891 at Swanage, The cup can be seen by the cannon in the photo here. They scored 45 points out of 46 by making three direct hits on a target at 2000 yards range in just 4 minutes 40 seconds. To give you some idea the sewage outfall buoy off Charmouth beach is 1500 yards out. One of those wooden poles you can see in this photo that were used to align the cannon is now kept for all to see up in the Pavey Room.

The Volunteers were disbanded in 1895 and it is rumoured that their cannons are buried in the old river bed now underneath the car park. Their band continued until, as we have heard, it faded away during World War One.

You can see the cannons and the small concrete building that was the magazine where ammunition and small arms were stored just to the left of the somewhat derelict looking Cement Factory, more of which shortly.

After they were disbanded, the now redundant ammunition store was converted in 1897 to become a pavilion to commemorate the Jubilee of Queen Victoria. Essentially they built a veranda and some seats around it.

As I’ve already said, in the early 1900’s the river was quite a meandering, curved feature.

But it was eroding perilously close to the embankment that carried Lower Sea Lane. It couldn’t be allowed to cut the access road to the beach.

So in 1904 the Parish Council contracted a local man, John Hodder, to cut through the spit and dam up the old route of the river. It became known as Hodder’s Cut.

This is John Hodder in a photograph taken by Sam Hansford, Barney’s dad. I’ve included it just because I think it’s a great photo.

And here is Hodder’s Cut with its crisp, freshly cut edges which, looking at it now, we can all see were bound to erode and collapse. Sure enough, within a few years the Jubilee Pavilion (just off to the left in this photo) had been undercut and collapsed. Also the ends of the bridge had to be lengthened to stop it dropping into the water but it too had eventually to be replaced.

Over the years Charmouth has had its fair share of military encounters and we’ll have a quick look at some of them. In 1685 the Duke of Monmouth, King Charles II’s illegitimate son, tried to claim the throne from his Uncle Jim, James II. Having landed at Lyme Regis he decided to first take on the King’s soldiers at Bridport. Because he knew the road would be watched he sent his men along the small path that ran from Lyme along the bottom of the cliff and up past Neil’s house. Forty cavalry and 400 foot soldiers passed along the cliffs at Charmouth  in the dead of night. The track, long since disappeared, then took them across the face of Stonebarrow along Cain’s Folly to St Gabriel. They initially surprised the Bridport garrison of 1200 men but as soon as it started fighting back, Monmouth’s commander lost his nerve and beat a hasty retreat, leaving his men to fight their way back.

Even earlier, had you looked out to sea as dawn broke on the 23rd July 1588, you would have seen 130 ships of the Spanish Armada and 100 English ships becalmed in Lyme Bay. As the wind picked up the Battle of Portland started and a completely new type of naval warfare came into being. Rather than just fire one salvo and then try and grapple the ships together so that hand to hand fighting could take place, as had been the way of fighting at sea up until now, the English stood off and used long range bombardment to try and damage the Spanish ships. They stayed upwind so that as the Spanish ships heeled over with the wind in their sails, the English gunners could aim at the hulls below the water line. As it turned out they fired 500 shots and did little damage but the principle had been established and has been the basis of naval warfare ever since.

While we’re  talking about invasion we can still see the evidence today of the last time it concerned us. There are still a few of these tank traps or dragons teeth left on the beach from World War Two. As well as the Home Guard to defend the village we had some regular infantry. There were 12 soldiers living in Neil’s house complete with a single 2lb gun mounted on the back of their lorry. The Charmouth Volunteers must have been turning in their graves. Perhaps their old 64lb cannons should have been dug up.

In fact, the threat of invasion was more real than anyone knew. This slide looks a bit like the opening shots of Dad’s Army?! But it shows Hitler’s first plan which was to invade on a broad front from Ramsgate to Lyme Regis. The troops landing at Charmouth were to move 10 miles inland to join up with parachutists and secure the high ground and enable the capture of Weymouth and Portland, before sweeping round to capture Bristol which they thought would take seven to ten days. Hitler later modified the plan when he learned of the difficulties, including there being several hour’s difference in high tide times between each end of the Channel. He changed the plan and decided to invade Charmouth later if things were going well elsewhere. So the only casualty in Charmouth was to be a cow that was killed when it stood on a land mine in the grass behind the beach.

As a prelude to Hitler’s invasion air battles raged regularly over Lyme Bay, here’s the story of just one. If you had been walking near the beach at about 7.30 on the evening of 14th August 1940 you would have heard three Heinkel He111 bombers approaching. (Forgive this somewhat tabloid photo. Actually the aircraft were at 16,000 ft and virtually invisible but for the purposes of illustration, bear with me). The Heinkels were suddenly attacked by Hurricanes of 213 squadron that had been scrambled from Exeter. One was shot down by Pilot Officer Harold Atkinson and it crashed into the sea about six miles south of Charmouth. The RAF Air Sea Rescue launch from Lyme Regis dashed out when it saw the parachutes. Two crew survived and were taken prisoner, two died and one was never found. Sadly Harold Atkinson, an air ace by virtue of having destroyed five aircraft, was himself shot down and killed off Portland just a week later.

The second Heinkel was damaged but continued north trailing smoke, eventually coming down in Somerset

As for the third Heinkel, it continued on to it’s target which was believed to be a factory near Chester located on an airfield which was making Wellington and Lancaster bombers. The Heinkel actually attacked the airfield next door, which unfortunately for them was a training school for fighter pilots. The instructors, who were having a pint in the mess tent at the end of the day, were soon airborne and quickly brought down the third aircraft.

The German crew survived a wheels up crash landing and managed to set off the demolition charges to destroy the cockpit of the aircraft and its top secret guidance electronics. This is a photo of the actual aircraft, you can just about see that the front end has gone. The girls, cousins Wendy Anderton and Cathie Jones,  lived in the farmhouse that the aircraft stopped just 20 metres short of. The girls made the German airmen a cup of tea while they waited for the Home Guard to arrive. The aircraft factory was unscathed and went onto produce many aircraft including the Lancaster bomber that we still see flying today in the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.

As a footnote: In 1988 four surviving members of the German crew returned to the site of the crash where they met up and reminisced with the Spitfire pilot who had shot them down as well as the two young girls. Strange thing war isn’t it?

So the only invasion we have to contend with today is the annual influx of holidaymakers. Although maybe some of the old ideas might be quite effective in protecting our cliffs from over eager fossil hunters.

Charmouth Volunteers weren’t the first to have had a cannon on the foreshore. In 1801, John Oliver, Master R.N., wrote to the Captain of the Coastguard Station at Lyme Regis.

MALCOLM ‘Sir. During the last war with France, a Privateer chased a Brig past the Town to the Westward within half a gun-shot of the batteries when there was not a gun serviceable to defend her, and the enemy captured her near Seaton. A small battery of three guns opposite the Cobb and another at Charmouth under the direction of the Coastguard service would be very desirable in the event of war.’

The threat of invasion by Napoleon continued to increase and so in 1804 the Charmouth lookout was built. A 32 pounder was installed and Customs men from far and wide came to be trained. Over a couple of months a dozen men at a time came for a week and learned how to fire it. They aimed at a target some 400 yards away on the beach and at low tide had to go and retrieve the 8” cannon balls. This photo shows how it might have looked without the factory building there.

On the night of Saturday week, three men of the Lyme Preventive Station were on the look-out near the mouth of the Charmouth River, where they captured 150 kegs and two men. They had not retained possession long before they were attacked by a party of smugglers 70 or 80 in number and as is usual in such adventures they appeared affected by liquor. They advanced with great violence. In defence, the officers were compelled to fire in the midst of them, in consequence of which, one man fell and was carried off by the party, who immediately retreated carrying with them all but 10 kegs and the two prisoners.

By the way, the superb photo of the night sky over Charmouth isn’t mine but can be found and purchased on the website of the It’s made up of 17 separate photos all layered together.

The customs men’s duties could be quite varied. On 6th February 1840 the Western Gazette reported…

MALCOLM A large female whale was driven on shore at Charmouth yesterday morning, and secured by the preventative men, who have been allowed by Mr Bullen, the Lord of the Manor, to exhibit it for three days. It measures 46 feet from the tail to the snout and 24 feet circumference.

It was displayed in Bullen’s orchard behind the Manor in The Street. To get it there it was chopped into four pieces which were carted up Lower Sea Lane separately in a wagon with four horses. It doesn’t say what happened to it afterwards.

Even the old Cement Factory has a link with Napoleon and our fears of invasion. It was built in 1854 by Giles Pryer for George Frean. Frean had bought the Manor of Charmouth in order to exploit its limestone and clay which was readily available on the beach. By burning them together in a kiln at high temperature and then grinding down the clinker, cement would be created. The composition of the rocks and clay around here made for a particularly fast setting cement, some 10-15 minutes. So it was handy for building fortifications at water level that were going to get covered by the incoming tide. Around the same time Frean also set up a much bigger cement factory in Lyme Regis.

By the way, it was George Frean’s son who went on to be the co-founder of Peake Frean biscuits.

The mouth of one of the two kilns can just about be made out in the top photo. On the right is the steam engine that turned the grindstones to crush the clinker. The immensely heavy grindstones can be seen when they were still on the top floor of the building. They had to be moved when the factory was converted in the 1980’s and Peter Press reported that…

MALCOLM  The stones were lowered through the joists to the ground floor with ‘great care… anxiety …and an excess of advice!’.

They can of course now be seen on the Green behind the Centre. The boiler chimney, seen on the left of the building, was taken down in the early 1900’s when it became unsafe, much to the disappointment of the local fishermen who used to use it as a navigation aid.

Limestone and clay would be collected from the beach. In Lyme they used to dynamite the cliffs to get at the stone as well as prising off the layers exposed at low tide. Smaller stones known as washers would be collected by hand, two women to a basket. They would receive three old pence for every 40lb basketful they collected. They used to do quite well when there had been a storm which swept the stones closer to the factory.

Sea weed would also be collected from the beach for use as a fertiliser on the land.

By the way, looking at that view, it hasn’t changed much since 1811 when JMW Turner visited and painted this view from some sketches he had made.

I did have to do some shoe horning to squeeze it in but there’s no doubting where it was painted.

The Cement Factory only operated for less than 20 years. It faced stiff competition from its much bigger sister factory in Lyme. Freane sold it and the subsequent Lords of the Manor had no interest in it, letting it become derelict.

You can see the holes already appearing here in the roof. On the beach is George Bugler’s traction engine, a familiar sight around the village, it would be led by a man with a red flag. It looks like he’s come to collect some sand and stone in his big wagon. Clearly, looking at the state of the cliffs, this photo was taken before any concrete walls had been built to stop the cliff wearing away.

This was the cement works in Lyme around 1900. It had a much greater supply of Limestone and clay and managed to survive much longer than the Charmouth works.

By the way, just as an aside. If you’ve ever taken your visitors to Lyme and had them do the compulsory walk along the Cobb, you may have noticed this curve of posts sticking out of the mud and wondered what they were. Well to make it easier to get materials to and from the cement works a tramway was built along the Cobb. They used  the standard gauge rails of 4ft 8 ½ inches. But the curve of the Cobb was too tight for the wagons to get around, they would have wedged between the tracks. So a timber deck was built out over the water to cut the corner and enable a gentler curve so that the trucks could run free. These posts were the supports for that deck.

This wasn’t the only rail system to be used at Lyme. The Cement Works owners laid tracks along the beach that was used by little wagons that fed limestone to the aerial ropeway that ran for 1500 yards to the Cobb. If you look carefully in the beach you can still see traces of the concrete and metal foundations. All this happened long after the Charmouth cement works had closed down but just indicates the scale of operation that it was up against.

This incredible layer of ammonites is Chris Moore’s latest find from Monmouth Beach. It’s just gone on display at the Heritage Centre. Chris is still scouring Monmouth Beach  for the ichthyosaur head to go with the rest of Attenborough’s Sea Dragon.

The old cement factory was becoming derelict but in 1908 Charmouth finally got a Lord of the Manor who actually took an active interest in the village. Douglas Pass was a metal industrialist from Bristol and he purchased the manor of Charmouth to add to his Wootton Fitzpaine and Monkton Wylde estates. He promptly set about repairing the old factory. Here we see outside the boarded up building a couple of bathing machines as well as a cart used to haul sand and stones from the beach for building.

MALCOLM Derrick Warren remembers ‘…it was used during this period by the fishermen for storing their rowing boats, nets and pots – it always had a wonderful smell of tarred rope. In the winter the men repaired their nets and made the willow crab pots’. Reg Pavey and Ron Dampier remember it in later years as a ‘wonderful place to play hide and seek’.

These are some of the workers from Pass’s estate who helped to repair the old Cement Factory. Stood on the right is Jim Powell who, while wielding a sledgehammer to try and break up the big flywheel on the steam engine, got caught when it disintegrated and broke his leg.

Down on the beach, bathing and paddling were popular, but just look at the clothes they wore. Not the sensible apparel we wear to go swimming today…

I wonder what people will think of us in a hundred year’s time when they come across pictures like this?

The Lord of the Manor Douglas Pass had been to the first training camp for future scoutmasters run by Baden Powell after the First World War and was very active in the organisation, eventually becoming County Commissioner for Dorset.

These photos were taken at the inauguration of the Charmouth and Wootton Fitzpaine Scouts.

Here are the proud parents in the grass car park. That’s the Red Bungalow you can just see behind them.

And here are the newly inducted Charmouth and Wootton Fitzpaine Scouts with a young Barney Hansford stood at the right hand end of the back row.

Douglas Pass encouraged many scout camps on his land around Charmouth and was actively supported in this by Reg Pavey. As you can see here it wasn’t just scouts but Girl Guides who came here as well. As well as camping the younger ones would stay in the top floor of the old cement factory. In 1923 young Dulcie Horsley came to the guide camp in Charmouth…

MALCOLM: ‘The camp took place in the upper storey of the Charmouth Barn as we knew it. Cooking was done on the fire with the chimney. As this was not usual Guide practice the cooking was done by a servant of the Captain’s who was also a Guide’.

Well before the scouts started to camp here, back in 1886, the fields we see here at West Cliff were the site of the annual Charmouth Regatta. Swings, roundabouts and shooting galleries would be set up and rowing races took place out in the bay. Several hundred spectators would watch from the cliff top. But it was the steeplechase at Charmouth’s Regatta that was to inspire one of England’s greatest ever sportsmen, C B Fry.

C B Fry’s career reads like a mix the Boys Own Comic and Monty Python.

MALCOLM: At Oxford Fry earned twelve Blues and was a brilliant track and field athlete. In 1893 he equalled the world long jump record of 23 feet 6 inches. In 1895 he was selected to play cricket for England, opening against Australia with W G Grace, and eventually become Captain with a batting average of 50. He narrowly missed out on playing rugby for England as he was concentrating on his cricket. He did however play football for England in 1901 and was also in the 1902 FA Cup final playing for Southampton. He was once offered the throne of Albania and in 1934 he unsuccessfully tried to persuade Hitler that Nazi Germany should take up cricket at Test level. His party piece was to leap from a stationary position backwards onto a mantlepiece.

And it was here in Charmouth that it all started. On holiday with his parents in 1886, the twelve year old Fry entered his first running race at the regatta. It was a mixed field and included a policeman, two coastguards, a gardener and several boys. The first obstacle on the half mile course was to run under Bugler’s traction engine! After that no one seemed to know the way but they eventually found the route and when they came to the straight Fry spurted ahead and won. The prize was half a sovereign but more significantly, it was the first time Fry experienced, in his own words, ‘the thrill of forging ahead at the finish’.

So, back to the shoreline. Erosion by the sea and storms was a continual threat - although Pavey also blames the problem on too much extraction of sand and stones for building. The sea wall at the time, such as it was, was made of piles and planks to retain the material behind it. It doesn’t look very strong to me. You can still see some of the piles down on the beach today.

To try and stop the sea eroding the cliffs away, in 1926 Douglas Pass had a groyne built with a concrete base topped with railway sleepers held by metal girders. The intention was to trap the stones and sand as they moved eastwards along the beach and build up a natural barrier. Unfortunately it had the opposite effect. The prevailing south westerlies swirled the sea around, scouring out the beach material that was already there. I don’t know when the wooden extension on the top of the wall was removed  but I presume it helped to reduce the problem.

Here’s another view of the newly built groyne

Down on the beach, as bathing became popular, bathing machines started to appear which would be hired out to those brave enough to take a dip. Ladies would bathe on the west beach and men on the east beach. Eventually these were replaced with tents and then the beach huts we see today.

While we’re looking at this part of the beach it’s worth mentioning that back in the 1830’s there was yet another scheme to build a railway to Charmouth by building a line along the bottom of the cliffs from Lyme. Not the wisest of schemes considering Black Ven is Europe's largest active coastal landslide. However if you look carefully you can see that this foolhardy proposal is commemorated down on the beach.

This photo taken in 1947 shows the girders still in place. Alongside the groyne are the remains of a submerged forest that occasionally gets exposed even today. Amongst the branches and tree stumps has been found a mammoth’s tusk. And you can still come across mammoth remnants, earlier in the year a visitor found a fossilised tooth.

So 40,000 years ago in the Ice Age, Charmouth would have looked quite different. The ice sheet didn’t quite reach this far but it would have been a bit chilly. At 40,000 years old the fossilised tooth was a mere youngster as far as fossils go. The ammonites and ichthyosaurs that we find around here today were formed in the Jurassic era around 180 to 200 million years ago,

So 40,000 years ago in the Ice Age, Charmouth would have looked quite different. The ice sheet didn’t quite reach this far but it would have been a bit chilly. At 40,000 years old the fossilised tooth was a mere youngster as far as fossils go. The ammonites and ichthyosaurs that we find around here today were formed in the Jurassic era around 180 to 200 million years ago,

As we know, in the early 1800’s, thanks to the likes of Mary Anning, fossil hunting took off. By the 1970’s some felt that the uncontrolled fossil hunters were becoming a bit over enthusiastic. Tensions were rising, with some residents even accusing the fossil hunters of dynamiting the cliffs, just like Frean had to get the limestone for his cement works – but the booming explosions turned out to be naval gunnery exercises out in Lyme Bay. It came to a head in 1982 when a Public Inquiry was held in Bridport to see if bye laws should be introduced to control fossil hunting.

The outcome was that it would be ‘better to educate rather than legislate’. This photo shows the first step that was taken towards this when an information table was set up in the summer of 1984. It proved to be a great success so buoyed by this, the following year the Parish Council offered the top floor of the old factory as an information centre and Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre came into being.

Here’s the Parish Clerk back in 1984 surveying the work to be done on the top floor of the factory building. Over the years it has taken an immense amount of work by hundreds of dedicated volunteers along with the Parish Council to develop it.

And here’s the same room today. The Centre, an Educational Charity, is thriving. At the end of the last talk I showed a video of Sir David Attenborough’s speech when he opened the Sea Dragon exhibit. In it he said ‘Congratulations to this town…for this splendid Centre. It’s a monument, a reminder of what local effort can do..’.

Well since that speech in January last year the Centre has had an astonishing quarter of a million visitors to see the display. It’s a lot of people and at times in the summer it can almost feel like the village is bursting at the seams. But we put up with it as it fulfils its function of encouraging safe, responsible fossil hunting as well as bringing vital money and jobs into the village and allows us to have the facilities that we can enjoy all year round. 

As we’ve seen Charmouth has a rich and fascinating history. It’s a small village with a big heart and I hope we can all play our part in giving it a rich and fascinating future.