Sidmouth, Dawlish & Weymouth
The Austens visited Sidmouth in 1801, before it became fashionable. Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Kent visited in 1819 with their infant daughter. the future Queen Victoria. The Duke of Kent actually died there in January of the following year.
Sidmouth, Dawlish and Weymouth are included among those seaside resorts that owed their popularity to Royal patronage.
The small, secluded, East Devon seaside village of Sidmouth suddenly and unexpectedly found itself a place of minor fashion after a visit by the King in 1791. It is a pleasant place, facing a beach nestled between low cliffs; a broad esplanade separates the town from the sea. By 1801, Sidmouth boasted gracious Georgian houses and many small cottages, an elegant ballroom, a commodious tea-room and accommodation to satisfy the most discriminating. The shops, though still comparatively few in number, met the needs of the locals and most visitors. According to a guidebook of 1810,
Jane, with Cassandra and their parents, visited Sidmouth in 1801 before they were permanently installed in their Bath home. ‘Sidmouth,’ she had written in a letter to Cassandra in January of that year, ‘is now talked of as our summer abode.’ They chose Sidmouth at the request of a former pupil of Mr Austen, the Rev. Richard Buller, vicar at nearby Colyton, who was newly-married and urged the Austens to visit him. Jane was happy to escape Bath which, even then, she found confining after the freedom of Steventon; and, furthermore, she liked Mr Buller and was satisfied, she wrote, that ‘he would not oppress me by his felicity and his love for his wife…he simply calls her Anna without any Angelic embellishments.’
It was at Sidmouth that Jane is reputed to have met and fallen in love with a young clergyman, of whose manners, intelligence and charm Cassandra most warmly approved. Having gained the permission of the family to continue the friendship later, he died suddenly. We are all familiar with the sad story.
Jane gives this attractive resort only one very brief mention in one novel, Persuasion. Mr Elliot had been in Sidmouth before coming to Lyme.
It was Jane’s hope that they should go to Dawlish; and she had written to Cassandra that the visit to Sidmouth ‘is a circumstance that may considerably assist the Dawlish scheme’; so it was at Dawlish that the family took their seaside holiday in the following year, 1802.
South-west of Sidmouth and across the inlet at the mouth of the River Exe, Dawlish was then a small fishing village. The population of the whole parish (taking in seven hamlets) was only 1,424. The guidebook tells us that
Strangely, the guidebook does not mention the pretty rivulet which meanders through the town and is crossed in several places by picturesque little stone bridges. The new buildings in 1802 were in what Maggie Lane describes as a ‘playful style of architecture so appropriate at a seaside place’ but a larger house, built in 1800 in the height of fashion, was Luscombe Castle, designed by John Nash.
The guide book of 1810 lists the library among the excellent amenities offered by Dawlish; but in a letter to her niece, Anna, in 1814, Jane wrote ‘the library was particularly pitiful and wretched twelve years ago’. She had been asked to read and criticise the opening chapters of her niece’s novel, set in Dawlish, which Anna had never visited. Jane tells her that ‘...Lyme will not do. Lyme is towards 40 miles from Dawlish. I have put Starcross instead. If you prefer Exeter that must be always safe.’ And later: ‘Twice you have put Dorsetshire for Devonshire. Mr Griffin must have lived in Devonshire: Dawlish is half way down the County’ and again ‘The more you can find in your heart to curtail between Dawlish and Newton Priors the better I think it will be.’ And she points out that it must take two days to travel from Bath to Dawlish as they are 100 miles apart.
In Sense and Sensibility Jane Austen sends Lucy Steele and her new husband Robert Ferrars to honeymoon in Dawlish; which, you may remember, he believed to be near the Dashwoods’ cottage in Barton; and she also subtly demonstrates the true value of that public school education, with which the younger Mr Ferrars was so completely satisfied, when she tells us that: ‘It seemed rather surprising to him that anybody could live in Devonshire without living near Dawlish.’
About 75 kilometres due east of Dawlish, across Lyme Bay and on the other side of a narrow peninsula, is Weymouth in Dorset, used as a port since Roman times when galleys sailed up the River Wey to discharge their cargoes for transport to Durnovaria – now called Dorchester. Events of national importance have been many in its proud history.
Among its many attractions, Weymouth has fine sandy beaches but, because of its distance from London, it might well have remained insignificant but for the patronage of George III, who first visited the town in 1784. The locals took full advantage of this opportunity, giving him a most enthusiastic welcome. Fanny Burney reported that every child wore a bandeau with the legend: ‘God Save the King’, which same loyal prayer appeared
These demonstrations of loyalty were well rewarded by regular royal visits and, in due course, by the right to add the prized ‘Regis’ to the name of the town. Here was a prime example of the commercial value, to any watering place, of Royal patronage. In time, of course, the seaside playgrounds of royalty became so popular and fashionable that they lost the quiet charm for which they were chosen. Queen Charlotte complained that every remark she made on Weymouth Esplanade got into the papers and that ladies listened to her only to tattle to the Press.
In 1804 Cassandra Austen, who was staying at Weymouth with brother Henry and Eliza, wrote to Jane, who replied:
It is clear that, by this time, Weymouth had achieved that level of popularity which Jane, with her well-known and commendable preference for quiet villages and stretches of unspoiled coastline, would have found far from pleasing.
In her novels, Jane Austen refers often to Weymouth without ever taking us there. It was at Weymouth (in Sense and Sensibility) that the amiable but silly Mrs Palmer was staying with her uncle instead of with her sister, Lady Middleton, at Barton and thus did not meet Willoughby when he visited Allenham. It was at Weymouth that Tom Bertram squandered his time and money and met John Yates, who left Weymouth to join a theatrical party which broke up, so that Mr Yates, accepting Tom’s invitation, arrived at Mansfield Park ‘on the wings of disappointment and with his head full of acting’, which led to the multiple disasters attendant upon the rehearsals of Lovers’ Vows.
But it is in Emma that Weymouth is most favoured. It was at Weymouth that Frank Churchill met and became secretly engaged to Jane Fairfax, who was in the care of Colonel Campbell; and it was where Mr Dixon’s prompt action saved her from falling overboard in rough seas. It was from Weymouth that Frank wrote a charming letter to his stepmother, Mrs Weston (poor Miss Taylor), and it was partly (but only partly) because of his Weymouth association that Frank was considered trivial, shallow, insincere and untrustworthy by Mr Knightley. Frank recalled that a piece played by Jane on the pianoforte was played at a dance in Weymouth. And Mrs Bates’s large shawl, a gift from Mrs Dixon, was bought in Weymouth.
Sidmouth, Dawlish and Weymouth, three seaside towns which owed their popularity to Royal patronage; all known favourably or unfavourably to Jane Austen and appropriately mentioned in her works; all eventually, by their very success, losing their Royal favour, which was then bestowed upon other, more secluded locations; a process which continued well into the 20th century.
I well remember (if I may be permitted to refer briefly to one more resort) that by the 1930s, Bognor Regis had earned royal patronage. And when King George V died in 1936, our family, in hot, dusty, outback NSW, clustered around the wireless and listened, in respectful silence, to the BBC’s solemn report of His Majesty’s last words: ‘In a weak but firm voice he asked, "How is the Empire?" His equerry replied, "All is well, Sire, with the Empire" and the King gave a faint smile, closed his eyes and peacefully expired.’ At which we loyally and dutifully wept. Some 40 years later, Lord Ted Willis gave us a rather different version of that sad event. ‘The King’s physician said: "Come along, Sir, rally round. We’ll soon have you back at Bognor"; to which His Majesty responded softly, with those unforgettable last words: "Bugger Bognor!"’
05 July 2003