Monday, 2 March 2015

Guarding Budleigh’s coastline

Budleigh Salterton's Coast Guard crew at a firing exercise, in about 1909   Image credit: Fairlynch Museum  

During the previous century, as smuggling declined, oversight of the Coast Guard had been transferred from the Board of Customs to the Admiralty.  A new coastguard station had been built in the 1870s, linked to a boathouse on the seafront by a set of brick steps, and by 1890 it was being manned by eleven men and one officer.

By this time, the Coast Guard - or  Coastguard, as it came to be called - had began to function more like an auxiliary service for the Royal Navy, a recruitment ground for future naval personnel.

The Coastguard Station from the air
Image credit:
 © English Heritage

From August 1914, coastal waters were strictly controlled, recalled local resident William Cowd in his memoirs, in Fairlynch Museum.  “All through the war period there were restrictions on boating: permits were issued with registration numbers, the rules being to observe the times  of half hour before sunrise until half hour after sunset; after this period pleasure boating was forbidden. There were small naval patrol boats used to enforce these regulations.”

The local Coastguard Service at Budleigh was recalled for naval duties and replaced by volunteer coast watchers who patrolled the surrounding cliffs.

Another local resident, Jim Gooding, recalled how his father had served in what was known as the Coastal Patrol, formed by fishermen who were too old for active service. “Duty was twelve hours on, twelve off. The pay was small, but it was one way for the older men to do their  bit for king and country.”

The patrols were, as William Cowd recorded in his memoirs, “armed with a swordstick, a hollow walking stick containing a rapier type blade which could be withdrawn, and used as a weapon. Each man was accompanied by a boy, usually  a Scout.  The idea being that if anything suspicious was seen or heard, the boy could run back to headquarters with the report.”  

 One of these Scouts was a W.G. Clarke. Details of how the patrols were organised are given in his autobiography, published in 1983. The Budleigh coastwatchers would meet up at West Down beacon with patrols from Exmouth, to the west, and at Ladram Bay with patrols from Sidmouth, to the east, enabling 24-hour cover of this part of the coast. Scouts were expected to spend every third week at the Budleigh coastguard station, where they were supervised by a retired Chief Petty Officer Day from Watchet in Somerset, who had been brought out of retirement.

William Cowd could not recall if any report of suspicious happenings ever needed to be sent to headquarters.  However W.G. Clarke recalled being on duty at the coastguard station one night when a boatload of seamen landed nearby. Their ship, which had been carrying  a cargo of oil and tallow, had been torpedoed six miles off shore with the loss of the ship’s cook. 

Some months later, after another night’s duty at the coastguard station, he witnessed the spectacle of barrels floating in the sea alongside a man’s body.

“The police were informed and fishermen  were called out, but, eager though they were to salvage the barrels, they would not touch the body which was, naturally, badly decomposed. In fact they left it, hoping the tide would carry it away. So the body floated offshore all day.


The Unknown Sailor's grave in Budleigh's Burial Ground

The next morning,  a Sunday, I went outside at dawn as usual and, with the telescope, I saw the body washed up on the beach. This time it has to be picked up. Incredible though it might sound, although it was obvious that the body was that of the cook who went down with the ship, the body was never officially identified and it was buried in the local cemetery, where it lies with a War Graves Commission headstone which read: ‘An unknown Sailor. Known unto God.’”

‘The Great War at Fairlynch’ 2015 exhibition at Budleigh Salterton’s very special museum! Reviews included: “Wonderful display on WW1, informative, bright and relevant. Well done!! 

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