The area now known as Seaton and its immediate surrounds have been inhabited for over 6000 years, as evidenced by remains dating from the Neolithic, Beaker, Bronze and Iron Age periods, and the existence of still-visible Iron Age forts in places like Blackbury Camp.
The River Axe, which flows into the sea at Seaton, was an ancient buffer between Celtic tribes living in the West Country in pre-Roman invasion England, separating the Durotriges, whose turf lay to the east of the river, and the Dumnonia, who occupied land to the west, right down into Cornwall. It’s thought that the Phoenicians were familiar with this coastline too, as they travelled throughout Devon and Cornwall sourcing tin.
The Roman invasion began in 43 AD, and extensive remains from this era have been found around the town. In 2014, an amateur treasure hunter armed with a metal detector discovered one of the biggest stashes of Roman loot ever found, when he uncovered 22,000 coins dating from the reign of Emperor Constantine in Honeyditches, just off Seaton Down Road.
For centuries there has been speculation that Seaton could have been the site of the Roman station Moridunum (also claimed by others places, including Carmarthen in Wales), and the landing-place of the Danes – along with their Scottish and Irish auxiliaries – prior to the epic Battle of Brunanburh in 937.
These theories are somewhat speculative, but on 25 August 1836, an anchor was discovered on the seabed around 900 metres offshore from Seaton’s ‘Chan’, which excited much curiosity. It was considered to be of considerable antiquity and foreign make.
Whether Seaton enjoyed a former life as Moridunum or not, a significant Roman settlement or villa of some sort certainly existed on the west side of the town. William Stukeley, a pioneer in the field of archaeology and one of the first people to conduct thorough investigative work at Stonehenge, spent the summers of 1723 and 1724 in Seaton, where he identified Honeyditches as a site of historical interest.
Roman-origin stone foundations were unearthed at the site in 1859, and subsequent digs – led by the Lord of the Manor, Sir Walter Trevelyan, and involving well-known East Devon artist and amateur archaeologist Peter Orlando Hutchinson – found mosaics, evidence of a Roman bath and a hypocaust (underfloor heating system). Another hypocaust system was discovered on Seaton Down in the 1920s, and a large-scale excavation in the 1960s found evidence of occupation from the 1st to the 4th centuries AD, including the remains of a prehistoric (Iron Age) round house and a Roman bathhouse.
The first recorded mention of the name Seaton was in a Papal Bull issued by Pope Eugenius III in 1146, but the town was founded as ‘Fleet’ or ‘Fleote’ (from Fluta, the Saxon word for creek) by a Saxon charter in 1005. In the Domesday Book – completed in 1086, two decades after the Norman Conquest of England – Fleet was assessed as being worth £2 to the lord, and the population was listed as comprising of: ‘6 villagers. 19 smallholders. 2 slaves.’
Seaton through the Mediaeval, Tudor and Elizabethan Eras
Originally, Seaton, like Beer, belonged to the Priory of Horton. This later became part of Sherborne Abbey, which was surrendered to the crown during the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII in 1539. Much of the area – including all of Beer – was given to Henry VIII’s sixth wife Catherine Parr as part of her dowry.
A sizeable fort was constructed on Seaton seafront around this time. It was finished in 1544, and Henry VIII himself came to inspect it. Not far away a lighthouse – known as The Burrow – stood perched on a large earth mound, until it was replaced by a Martello Tower during the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815). All trace of these historic buildings has sadly disappeared, with the whole lot being demolished when the Esplanade was built.
Undoubtedly one of Seaton’s oldest buildings is St Gregory’s Church on the Colyford Road, which has managed to endure the town’s expansion and development. Depending on what source you choose to believe – this church either dates from the 12th Century (having replaced an even earlier wooden building) or is a 14th century structure with a 15th century tower.
Either way, it’s a beautiful and charismatic church, with a fascinating history. According to Seaton Museum, the list of vicars here includes mention of the Rev. Francis Drake, said to have been killed by smugglers on Bosshill in 1769. The graveyard is well known as the last resting place of Beer-born smuggler Jack Rattenbury, sometimes called the Rob Roy of the West, who spent three decades landing contraband along this coastline, stashing the illicit goods in the chalk caves that pockmark the cliff-face and even allegedly accessing Beer Caves via a secret route from the sea. A rascal and raconteur, Rattenbury settled down and authored Memoirs of a Smuggler before dying on 28 April 1844 and being buried at an unmarked spot close to the north transept of St Gregory’s.
Regardless of whether it dates to the 1100s or the 1300s, the church has survived huge changes all around it. When it was first built, it would have stood on the west the bank of the River Axe, which at that time ran into the English Channel through the wide mouth of a great open estuary. The river was navigable for large ships, which could sail all the way up to Colyford, and throughout the Iron Ages and well into the Middle Ages the mouth of the Axe boasted one of the most important harbours in the west of England. An important medieval shipbuilding industry grew up here, supplying craft and crew for campaigns including Edward I’s wars against the Welsh and the Scots in the late 13th century.
During the 14th century, however, heavy storms caused a major landslip at Haven Cliff. This partially blocked the estuary, and the river mouth subsequently silted right up, thanks to an east-to-west tidal drift, which all combined to create the wide shingle beach you can see today.
Salt had been harvested from the tidal estuary since the Iron Age, but in the 1660s work began on a reclaiming bank to protect the salt marshes from flooding. After the water was evaporated in pans, the salt was scraped up and taken away in buckets to be boiled and refined. This would have been laborious work, but a sizeable industry was established around the lucrative mineral, giving Seaton serious value to investors such as John Frye, a landowner from nearby Membury, who bought the manor from Catherine Parr in the 16th century.
Frye subsequently sold Seaton on to a John Willoughby of Payhembury, who lived in the Manor house, which dates to the 16th century and can still be seen on Fore Street. Willoughby’s granddaughter eventually inherited the house and the manor, and when she married Sir George Trevelyan of Nettlecombe in 1656, an association between Seaton and the Trevelyan family began, which still exists today.
The Trevelyans are credited with turning Seaton from a fishing village into a popular Victorian seaside resort. This transformation is unlikely to have taken place, however, without the arrival of the railway in 1868, when Seaton was patched into the London South Western Railway main line running between London Waterloo and Salisbury to Exeter, via a branch line umbilicus from Seaton Junction, 4 miles to the north of the town.
The railway spelled the end for one of Seaton’s other industries however. Despite the changed conditions of the River Axe and its estuary, shipbuilding and maritime commerce had continued to be important to Seaton well into the 1800s. The owner of Stedcombe Manor and the Ship Inn – one Mr Hallet – financed the construction of new docks on both the eastern and western banks of the river in 1806, which meant huge 100-ton ships could load and unload here, and a passenger boat ran a weekly service up and down the coast to London.
The arrival of the railway in 1868 put an end to this, of course, offering a cheaper and more reliable route to the capital for both travellers and cargo. Trains transported dairy and other farm produce from the region up to the Big Smoke, and brought visitors from London down to the visit the seaside. It was during this period that Seaton first became a popular holiday destination, a tradition that survived the decline of the railway, which ceased to visit the town when British Rail closed the Seaton Junction branch line as part of the Beeching cuts in March 1966. You can still travel along part of the old trackbed, which is used by the iconic Seaton Tramway, which runs trolleys to Colyton all year round.
For many years a ferry transported foot and horse-powered traffic across the river, but in 1877 this was put out of action by the construction of a toll bridge. This graceful structure, which decisively ended any prospect of large ships ever again sailing further up the river, is still standing, and is England’s oldest surviving concrete bridge. You can only cross on foot or by bike now, with the main road running across a more modern bridge built alongside it in 1990.
Seaton celebrates it’s Victorian Heritage each year at Christmas with a special Victorian Artisan Market which takes place on Windsor Gardens on the Second Saturday of December.
Seaton During War and Peace
Seaton lost many of its sons during the world wars that ravaged Europe in the first half of the 20th century. The names of 32 men killed in World War I and 30 who died during World War II can be seen on the poignant memorial close to the front door of St Gregory’s Church.
Between the wars, during the 1930s, tourism went up several gears and large-scale holiday camps began to be built to service growing demand for accommodation and entertainment along the English coastline. The first chain of camps was launched by Harry Warner, who pioneered the concept on Hayling Island in 1931. Warner built a second camp in Seaton in 1935 (with the help of Billy Butlin, a funfair entrepreneur who liked Warner’s idea so much he took the workers he’d employed in Seaton up to Skegness, where he built the first Butlins in 1936).
When World War II erupted in 1939, Warner’s Seaton site was commandeered and used as an internment camp, where people deemed as ‘enemy aliens’ – a mixture of Germans, Italians, Japanese and other Axis Power nationals who were resident in Britain at the outbreak of the war, plus people considered to be politically dangerous, including some anti Fascists – were imprisoned.
Seaton, along with other places in East and South Devon, also played host to large numbers of American troops ahead of the Operation Overlord and the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Soldiers from the Free Polish and Free Spanish armed forces were also stationed here. Tragically, many of these men lost their lives on the beaches of Northern France. A memorial to the fallen and a thankyou to the town from the North American servicemen can be seen in Windsor Gardens in the centre of the town.
In 1940 a German attack was highly anticipated and Seaton, with its broad beach area, was deemed at high risk of invasion. In preparation, large concrete tank traps were seeded across the beach, backed by thick nests of barbed wire. Searchlights were mounted at various spots, including one at Check House. A defensive pillbox was built on Castle Hill and a gun emplacement was established on top of the hill, disguised as a destroyed building. The hexagonal base for this gun placement can still be seen on the cliff above the West Walk. Seaton’s firepower included two quick-firing 6-pounder Hotchkiss guns, which had a range of over 4 miles.
During these darkest of days, a ‘Stopline’ was established from coast to coast across Devon, from Seaton to the Bristol Channel. In the event of the Germans staging a successful land assault on Cornwall and Devon, where the coastline was extremely difficult to defend, the Stopline would become a last line of defence, where the enemy would be prevented from getting any closer to London at all costs. The Stopline Way is a long distance cycling route tracing the route of this defensive line, with Seaton forming the southern terminus.
For more information on Seaton and East Devon throughout the ages, explore the excellent Seaton Museum on the top floor of the Town Hall on Fore Street, Seaton. The museum is open from Monday to Friday, 10.30am to 12.30pm and 2.15pm to 5pm between late May and October; admission is free (although donations are gratefully accepted). Alternatively, visit the highly informative website at any time: www.seatonmuseum.co.uk