A short history of Brixham
The History of Brixham.
Today, Brixham is a thriving seaside town, always welcoming visitors and providing ice creams and entertainment. There are colourful displays outside almost every shop and offers for boat trips and excursions line the quayside. Two industries dominate this town’s economy – tourism and fishing. It is ideally located for both and Brixham could not be more successful in both. The attractions which have sprung up in the town reflect the history of Brixham. The Smugglers Experience, the Golden Hind boat moored in the harbour and the dozens of cafes and restaurants serving freshly caught Brixham fish from their menu shows just how well Brixham has skilfully managed to combine its two areas of expertise.
But what of the history of this town? It didn’t become a thriving tourist hotspot overnight or by magic. Somehow, the layers of historical culture that swathe this town have metamorphosised into a charming place to visit and, indeed, live in. So how was it created?
The very first reference to Brixham was in the Domesday book. It appeared as Briseham. And from the Middle Ages this town was vitally important in the fishing industry not just locally, but of the nation. It was the biggest fishing port in the South-West and at one point it was the biggest in England. Its boats seized this success and sailed all round Britain, helping establish fishing ports such Lowestoft, Hull and Grimsby – now famous fishing spots in their own right. It was actions such as this which helped Brixham gain the moniker “Mother of All Deep-Sea Fisheries.” By the end of the 19th century there was a fleet of over 300 trawlers in Brixham, all individually owned. Trawlers nowadays are diesel-operated, but there are a few of the old sailing trawlers which are being reconditioned and brought back to use. Not just within the fishing industry but also in the tourist one – offering excursions and trips to visitors.
The night of January 10th 1866 saw a maritime event which would affect Brixham forever. But not in a good way; this was a real catastrophe. A huge storm blew up at sea with no warning whilst almost all of Brixham’s fleet was out fishing. It was such a severe storm that most of the fisherman perished, there was nothing their families could do. It is said that the wives of the men gathered everything they had – clothes, furniture, bedding – and went down to the harbour to set it all alight in a huge bonfire, in the hope that it would guide their menfolk home. Sadly, it had no effect and there was a massive loss of life. In the aftermath of this terrible tragedy, the worst to ever hit Brixham, there was huge demand for measures to prevent it re-occurring and thus Brixham was given what eventually became the RNLI lifeboat for Torbay. In the years since this lifeboat and its successors have saved literally hundreds of lives.
Nearby Brixham in what is now the Berry Head nature reserve, there once stood twelve guns, loaded to protect British ships as they re-victualled in the harbour. This stretch of coast was important in the defence of the realm from the time of Henry VIII. These days it has some of the best preserved Napoleonic forts in the country and as such is an important historical site. In addition, Brixham has a wealth of fascinating personal history. The words to the famous hymn “Abide with me” were written by Rev Francis Lyte, vicar at All Saints Church as he lay dying and looking out over Torbay.
These independent sections of history form the basis of what Brixham represents today. Its place in the holiday brochures of the English Riviera is firmly established, as its reputation for ghostly legends and smugglers tales. This petite town simply revels in its colourful, chequered past and guarantees visitors that there will be something for everyone.