Torbay learns to defend itself


For over a thousand years the folk of Torbay feared the sea and what it might bring- invaders, raiders, slavers and pirates.

And come they did, though not at first by sea. The Anglo-Saxons took 300 years to occupy and reshape the Bay, but they came mainly by land, slowly encroaching on Celtic Dumnoniian territory.

In Anglo-Saxon England an ongoing sea-borne threat came from slavers. Up to 30 per cent of England’s population were slaves, with people being seized in raids. In 1052, the future King Harold raided the coast and, “seized whatever he pleased, in cattle, captives and property”. This was a society where settlements could be attacked at any time- possibly one reason why Torbay’s original communities were sited inland.

Yet the attacks we most remember came from further north. The Vikings launched raids all along the South Devon coast, and inland at Exeter, Tavistock, Lyford and Kingsteignton. However, the Vikings weren’t always victorious. In 850 a battle was won by the good men of the Anglo-Saxon ‘fyrd’, the locally mobilised militia. Although the battle site has not been identified, it has been suggested as modern day Weekaborough near Marldon.

After the Battle of Hastings in 1066 England didn’t immediately capitulate. In 1068 King William had to march a combined army of Normans and Englishmen loyal to the King west to force the submission of Exeter- an Anglo-Saxon stronghold. But this wasn’t the only resistance. Harold’s royal refugee sons sought the support of King Dairmat, and a fleet then plundered the coasts of Devon and Cornwall. South Devon was “laid waste by Irishmen”.

For centuries England’s wars would be seen in our Bay.

One morning in 1576 residents woke to find an unfamiliar large and well-armed fleet anchored in the Bay. Their initial concerns increased when they discovered that these unexpected visitors were the fearsome Watergeuzen, or Beggars of the Sea, carrying with them a reputation for piracy and murder from their base on the Scheldt River. No wonder folk were concerned at their arrival in our Bay- the Watergeuzen would become allies of Queen Elizabeth, but still to be much feared.

For over a hundred years Torbay was terrorised by North African Barbary pirates. All along the coast these raiders burnt settlements, sank ships and carried off men, women and children into slavery. There were large numbers of pirates – in 1640 it was reported that there were 60 “Turkish men-of-war” off the coast.

For decades pirates anchored in the Bay and sailed out to attack ships in the Channel. In 1625 the Mayor of Poole demanded that protection be supplied for the ships returning from their Newfoundland fishing expeditions, “Twenty-seven ships and 200 persons had been taken by Turkish pirates in ten days”. The same year there was a petition to London from the wives of 2,000 West Country sailors pleading for their ransom or rescue.

At the same time there were Dunkirkers in the Bay attacking merchant shipping and fishing vessels. These were raiders in the service of the Spanish monarchy during the Dutch Revolt (1568–1648) when the Protestant Provinces rebelled against the rule of the Catholic Habsburgs of Spain.

The Dunkirkers severely damaged English trade – our coastal shipping being at constant risk of attack, with Torbay frequently seeing the Dunkirkers’ sails. Trade almost came to a standstill and in 1630 the Mayor of Exeter warned that unless protection was offered, “the merchants will be undone”.

The Second Anglo-Dutch War of 1665–67 saw Torquay attacked by two Dutch warships. Our harbour was entered and two ships burned, though fortunately the village itself wasn’t damaged. The Dutch also, “shot at a gentleman’s house near the water.” It’s believed that the house in question was Torre Abbey. Following that incident the Bay was made ready for any Dutch return: “The place is in good condition having 150 guns, 1,500 landsmen, and 800 seamen”.

In 1690 it was the French fleet that was in Torbay, and it launched a devastating attack on Teignmouth. It was reported, “On the 13 of July the French fleet was seen riding in Torbay, where all the forces of Devon were drawn up to oppose their landing. Several of their galleys drew off from the fleet and made towards a weak, unfortified place, called Teignmouth, about seven miles to the eastward of Torbay.”

The French ransacked the town for twelve hours and destroyed eleven ships, “burnt down and consumed 116 dwelling houses and also 172 dwelling houses were rifled and plundered and two parish churches much ruined, plundered and defaced”.

It looks like the fortified gatehouse at Torre Abbey, made to withstand a medieval full-scale attack, dissuaded any French landing force.

And we also had our own pirates. By the latter years of the sixteenth century there had been a significant increase in piracy due to the expansion of nautical commerce. Pirate Captain John Nutt operated from his headquarters in the Bay and for over three years was known to take 10 or 12 vessels a week. His eventual arrest and conviction in 1623 caused a scandal in the English court.

Yet John Nutt wasn’t seen as a threat to local folk. Piracy meant that acquired goods could be sold cheaply and supplies purchased from the traders of the Bay, so developing the local economy. Accordingly, we hear that John was provided with all necessities- “The pirate had been lately in the habit of making his retreat at Torbay, near which he had a wife and children, and of occasionally landing there.”

During the eighteenth century the Royal Navy gained control of the English Channel. Attention then turned to another threat – the smuggler.

On May 13, 1783, there was a sea battle in Torbay; and a mass fight on Paignton’s beach. There were two vessels on each side. One side consisted of the Revenue Cutters ‘Spider’ and ‘Alarm’. Facing them were ‘The Swift’, with 16 guns and a crew of 50, and a sloop under the command of Thomas Perkinson of Brixham – these two ships were smuggling a huge consignment of illicit goods. There then followed an exchange of fire between ‘The ‘Swift’ and ‘The Alarm’. However, the Revenue ships were supported by the cannons of the garrison at Berry Head, and the smugglers eventually retired. Meanwhile, on shore a hundred local men were waiting for their consignment of 4 tons of tea and 9,000 gallons of spirits. During unloading, fighting on the beach ensued.

This was one incident in the long cat-and-mouse game between Torbay’s smugglers and those responsible for dealing with tax evasion.

Indeed, for some locals, the main threat came not from any foreign power but from their own armed forces.

During the wars against Napoleon, many were forced into joining the Royal Navy. In 1805 the Navy waited for the fleet to return from the Great Fishery on the Dogger Banks. 96 fishing smacks were boarded off Torbay, and so many men were seized that room could not be found for them on board the Navy’s ships.

By this time Torbay was a base for the world’s most powerful fleet and we had leaned not only to defend ourselves but to project our will around the world.

By the seventeenth century pirate attacks had been eliminated. The Barbary Pirates had been destroyed in their home bases. In 1675 a Royal Navy squadron negotiated a lasting peace with Tunis and, after bombarding the city to induce compliance, with Tripoli. After another British-led attack in 1816 more than 4,000 Christian slaves were released and the power of the Barbary pirates was finally destroyed.

But there was still the threat from France. French invasion plans were drawn up in 1744, 1759, 1779 and 1803. The south east coast was heavily defended which suggested that an invasion force may target a place further along the coast – the prime contender was relatively undefended Torbay. Indeed, we had seen an ‘invasion’ before – in 1688 which started the Glorious Revolution.

In Torquay, orders were given by the town’s magistrates to make every preparation. Local Volunteers, then called the Fencibles, were held in readiness and plans were put in place for a large scale evacuation. It was planned to remove the inhabitants of Torbay, along with their goods, to Dartmoor.


The invasion never came but this was the last major challenge before the twentieth century. In the 1790s an impressive fort was built at Berry Head. At last, after a thousand years Torbay had learned to defend itself.

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Kevin Dixon went to Audley Park – now Torquay Academy – and South Devon College when it was at Torre. After studying at Birmingham City University, he returned home because there’s nowhere else quite like Torquay. He then became involved in community and adult education, completed a PhD at Exeter University , and started writing about the weird and unknown side of town. He now Chairs Healthwatch Torbay and is involved in health and social care in the Bay.