Salcombe-Kingsbridge estuary heritage

From : South Devon AONB

Our five estuaries form one of the most special features of the South Devon AONB. They each have a rich and distinctive history of their own. In June 2010 the AONB unit held an open evening for people interested in estuary heritage. Here are some of the memories and thoughts shared about the Salcombe-Kingsbridge Estuary.

Local History Society

There is a passion for local history in the area. The Kingsbridge History Society was started 20 years ago to record anything to do with place names and family history and to collect any books on place names.

One of the members (Stephen Pedrick) has recorded and edited the history of 100 men and 100 women and produced a book called ‘A century of memories’. These are coastal as well as inland.

There is also a book entitled ‘Sisters against the sea’, which was written by the nephew of the Trout sisters.


People (visitors) think that the Salcombe-Kingsbridge is a river and it is a difficult job to explain that it is ‘ria’. It’s not possible to get all round the estuary on foot because it’s a long way and there are so many different landowners. 

There was dredging carried out in the estuary. Horses and carts used to go down and take the edges of the mud. I suppose they dumped it on the land so that paddle steamers could come up the estuary.

They still carry out some dredging in the Salcombe-Kingsbridge today but it is conducted scientifically with models indicating where the mud will be moved to with the outgoing tide.


Farming and fishing was very much a seasonal thing, a cycle over the year.

There were fisheries from Salcombe to the mouth of the Avon, with seine netting right along the coast. For bass fishing the lost nets would rot (pre-nylon) and therefore there was limited ghost fishing.

Salcombe is part of Dartmouth (sub port) harbour. There was lots more fishing from local beaches.  Start point was the customs split. At Beesands dogs were used to bring the line in and then it could be pulled in from the shoreline. When beach fishing at Lannacombe, Beesands and Hallsands became unviable then Salcombe and Dartmouth were used.

Salcombe was the first fish port in the area but there was little infrastructure to get fish to market. Salcombe began life as a ‘fisher port’, initially small scale (John Leyland, 1517) but because it was so remote it never had access to big markets. From the 16th to 18th century pilchards were very important. 

There used to be lots of seine netting on estuary. It died out as gill netting came in up to 60’s. There was a salmon seine fishery on the Dart, but when people died off their licence died too. Thirty years ago it was very successful with salmon seine boats all the way up and into Totnes.

There was smuggling and my grandfather told a story of how an old Aunt was instructed to sit on a cover and not move when the customs were coming in to search the house.

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Salcombe-Kingsbridge estuary heritage

Across Salcombe, Dartmouth and Brixham up to 10,000 South Devon people were involved in the Newfoundland cod trade until local communities became more established around the 16th century.

There was a ‘Triangular trade’ in the Mediterranean which then developed into the fruit trade. Was Salcombe involved in the transatlantic slave trade??


Ship building could have been taking place anywhere up to the mid 1700s. They’d just mark it out in sand. After that there are then references to various yards. John Ball had the first yard by what are now the ferry steps. By the 1800’s there were three yards between Whitestrand and the ferry steps – Evans, Bankers, Viviens.

Boatbuilding was ostensibly for fishing but more likely for ‘free trade’. There was smuggling, particularly from the Channel Islands/ Brittany.

More points of interest

The trades associated with Salcombe ship building provided a tight knit community – rope making, block making and rigging. But the Salcombe ship building history is not really written

Kingsbridge was a thriving port for the hinter land and early 19th century exports included stone, malt, barley, cloth and cider

There were Mutual Associations. Ship owning was divided between 64 shares and everyone had a share. Local people all wanted a stake. Dress making was also an important trade in Salcombe, using imported cloth.

There are some unique features such as the Salt Stone. This is outside all the parishes so non-conformists could hold their services there.


My grandfather said the Salcombe to Exmouth route was easier by sea due to the state of the roads.

My mother-in-law used to take the ferry from Kingsbridge to Plymouth for shopping trips.

Thanks to Pam Westaway, Ann Lidstone, Paul Folca, Geoff Foal and Roger Barrett for sharing their thoughts and memories.

Do you have something to share about the heritage of the Salcombe-Kingsbridge estuary? We’d love to hear from you.

At the same meeting we discussed the other local estuaries. Use these links to read more: Yealm, Erme, Avon, Dart

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