Devon Perspectives

Brixham

a famous ship is replicated
Replica of The Golden Hind
Moored along the quayside of the inner harbour is a striking vessel of some grandeur; at first glance it seems that Sir Francis Drake's Golden Hind has been preserved for posterity miraculously. Sadly this is not so; it is merely a full sized replica on permanent display as a floating maritime museum.
It was Brixham harbour into which Drake sailed with the Capitana, captured from the Spanish Armada. She was left in the care of the Brixham fishermen who, on searching the ship, found a large amount of gunpowder on board. Knowing the scarcity of ammunition in the fleet they placed this on board the Roebuck, the fastest trawler in the harbour, and she started at once in pursuit of the Spanish fleet with devastating consequences.
The protestant invader is commemorated
Statue of William of Orange
On November 5th 1688 the Dutchman William of Orange arrived in Brixham with a large mercenary army with the intention of overthowing the catholic King James II of England. There were as many as 20,000 men and 5,000 horses in the armada that landed that day.
He succeeded in his ambition in what turned out to be a mostly bloodless campaign, and he was to become King William III of England. This was the last successful invasion of England; a statue of William cutting a pompous pose stands on the waterfront to commemorate this incursion. The block of stone on which he first set foot is preserved in the base of the monument.
Cormorants on raft in outer harbour
Brixham's enduring anthem
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.
It was on September 4th, 1847 when the Reverend Henry Francis Lyte, curate of All Saints church in Lower Brixham for the past 23 years, preached to the congregation for what turned out to be the last time. He was in poor health and was to leave for France the next day on route to Italy for a winter break where the climate would be beneficial for his tuberculosis, or consumption as it was called at the time.
Feeling that he had one more important task to accomplish before leaving, he walked along the seashore deep in thought. On returning to his study he sat down and wrote the first draft of the hymn 'Abide With Me'. His subsequent journey took him as far as Nice where he became seriously ill and died.
Every night to this day the bells of All Saints ring out to this tune. More surprisingly, in a wholly secular setting the capacity crowd joins in an emotional rendition of this hymn before the start of the FA Cup Final, and it has achieved widespread recognition as a sporting anthem. It even came second behind 'Jerusalem' in a 2003 St George's Day poll which asked more than 2,000 people in England which song they would choose to represent their countrynote1.
Brixham marina
Small boats in inner harbour
a fisherman's lot
WG Hoskins in 'Devon' (1954) affirms Brixham's long-standing fishing and maritime tradition:
The whole life of Brixham, for several centuries, was in fishing, shipbuilding, net-making, and all the subsidiary trades. William Brewer's foundation charter of Torre Abbey (1196) shows that fishing with nets in Tor Bay was even then an established practice.
Man painting boat in harbour
In the late 18th century the technique of trawling, or fishing along the bottom of the sea, was first devised in Brixham. The trawler-men followed the fish up the English Channel and then on up to the North Sea, where some of them settled in the ports of Grimsby, Hull, and Lowestoft, teaching the locals their trawling method. By 1843 Brixham was the largest fishing port in Devon, with some 1600 seamen employed, and according to Hoskins:
The Brixham fishing fleet returning under full sail in the evening was one of the great sights of the west of England, and a sight we shall never see again.
Man painting boat in harbour
The Brixham fishing industry continued to prosper until the start of the First World War. The Devon and Cornwall Survey of 1939 describes Brixham maritime life in Edwardian times:
In 1910 there were 213 trawlers of various sizes and types fishing from the port, and these boats were up to date and their crews young and keen....nine out of ten of the young men went to sea. Brixham men held a justifiable pride in their birth and town, and were respected in all the fishing ports of the coast from Bristol and South Wales round to Hull.
This was all to change dramatically in the years after the Great War; the industry entered a period of retreat with a dramatic decline in both numbers and condition of the boats, until in 1938 there were but six vessels left in the fishing fleet. The situation has improved and stabilised since the end of the second world war, and today Brixham fish market is thriving once again.
In 1971 a new fish jetty, office complex, fish market, and ice making plant were built; a further expansion to the fish quay and new jetty was made in 1985. Brixham is now one of the largest English fishing ports based on the value of the catch landed.
To illustrate the extent of the revival, the inventory for 1997 listed 45 beam trawlers, 65 day boats and 5 crabbers operating out of the port, backed up by 26 fish processing, packing and boxing companies. However, the long term viability of the fishing fleet, as in other ports, is ever under pressure from threats such as declining fish stocks, the vagaries of EU fishing quotas, and the rising price of marine diesel.
The EU fishing quotas agreed for 2008 will mean a cut of 80 tonne in catches landed at Brixham and Plymouth, with a likely loss of £1m in business for the year according to local fishermen's representatives. But the South West Fish Producer Organisation leader Jim Portus was guardedly optimistic in his response to the settlement: "It's an unwelcome situation to be losing quotas, but over the next 12 months we should be looking at quotas going up as stocks are replenished."
On a more positive note, there is some recent good news for the town's fishermen with the signing of a multi-million pound contract to regenerate Brixham's fish market. Work on this ambitious scheme which includes an upgrade of tourism facilities began in January 2008.
Brixham fish market
The town boasts a large number of chippies, fish restaurants, and pubs where it is possible to indulge yourself in a dish prepared from the locally caught fish.
Notes
1.
Long before Abide With Me became a sporting anthem it had an established place in commemorative ceremonies where it is usually performed by massed military bands. This tradition is particularly strong in Commonwealth countries such as India, Canada, and New Zealand. I am indebted to Nagaraj Prasadh, a correspondent from India, for pointing me to this video clip where the hymn is played at the end of the Beating of The Retreat during the closing ceremony of the Republic Day of India celebrations of 2011, as it has been since the 1950's. The video credits W H Monk as the composer; in 1861 he wrote the musical score that is used to this day to accompany Lyte's words. [return]
Acknowledgements
The historic image of the Brixham fishing fleet is shown by kind permission of ©The Francis Frith Collection.
The short quotations from Devon by WG Hoskins are taken from the reprint published by Phillimore, ©Susan Hewitt, 2003.
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