Powderham Boathouse

A Nostalgic Reflection 

For those whose knowledge of the site at Powderham Point is its function as a venue for a very successful Yacht Club, it may be of interest to learn of the past use of the original building, both as a residence and base for a small family fishing business. I have strong family connections with the occupants of the building that span 130 years and have many pleasant memories of the Powderham Boathouse and its grounds, during my formative years. I will attempt to illustrate the lives of the family that occupied the premises in some form of chronology of the passing years.

Powderham Point appears to have been used as a convenient access to the River Exe by the Earls of Devon. There were previous buildings at the site but probably not providing living accommodation. I have been unable to establish when the present premises were built but can narrow it down to the first two decades of the 19th century.

I can begin in 1837 when Thomas Scott McClaughlin, my great great grandfather, was first granted the tenancy of the Boathouse, he having been appointed ‘Boatman to the Earl of Devon’. He had been born at Lympstone where he had completed an apprenticeship as a mariner but had suffered hard times. He had crossed the river in search of work. As Boatman his wages were four shillings per week and as his hours of work were not set it is assumed he worked at the discretion and requirement of the Earl. This would have left him with time to use the River Exe as a means of supplementing his income by fishing and harvesting shellfish. Between 1817 and 1834, ten children had been born to Thomas and his wife, seven of who were surviving, albeit, only two were living at Powderham in 1841. Another child was born at the Boathouse in 1839 but only survived for two years.

The family were often referred to as ‘Scott’. This was due to nearly all children being given a second forename of Scott that originated when Edward McClaughlin, a Royal Naval Surgeon, had married Ann Scott of Lympstone in 1766 and their son was named Thomas Scott, it being practice to use the mother’s maiden name as a forename for children. It may also have been a much simpler use for Devonshire folk than the pronunciation of McClaughlin.

The living quarters he occupied were on the north side of the building, whilst a family named Toogood occupied the south side. Two of Thomas’ sons were to remain resident at the Boathouse and join with their father in growing the business of inshore fishermen. Their success permitted the acquisition of boats, sails and nets. They probably owned at least three boats. The Earl of Devon owned almost all land on the west bank of the Exe Estuary. It included the foreshore and riverbed uncovered at low tide. Dues were extracted from the functions of landing, anchorage, seining, recovering sand and gravel and even the removal of seaweed. It seems that Thomas acted as eyes and ears for the Bailiff who enforced these tariffs. He, and his sons, being linked with the Lord of the Manor, were probably not popular with some other mariners. Labour accounts from Powderham Castle have survived for the years 1847/48 and they show Thomas Scott and his elder son, William Scott being paid various amounts for landing coal and stone at the rate of 1/-d (5p) per ton. 

In order to develop the nurturing and marketing of shellfish, portions of the seabed were rented from the Earl. Mussels and oysters were prevalent in the Exe and the family had beds on which they grew and were harvested. There are many examples of when all did not run smoothly, however, that are illustrated by court cases reported in local newspapers. The first proceedings heard at Starcross Petty Sessions in 1852, involving a Topsham man and his son, each in a boat, who were seen collecting mussels with a spear from a bed and placing them in their boats, just north of the Boathouse. Thomas and his younger son, also Thomas Scott, approached them in their boat and asked them to leave. They refused but despite being threatened and stabbed at with the harpoon, the father and son managed to relieve them of it and took charge of the defendant’s boat. The case was found proved and the offenders fined £1, including expenses of 15s 6d. (17 1/2 p) Thomas informed the Magistrates that he had previously lost mussels including four bushels the previous Sunday.

A family named Ellis had replaced the Toogoods but in 1856 they left and the eldest son William Scott, who had married, was granted the tenancy of the living accommodation on the south side of the Boathouse. This situation of all living accommodation being occupied by the family then continued until 1956. Also in 1856, William Scott was appointed ‘Ballast Master’ for the Manor and Royalty of Kenton. This was confirmed by the display of posters that stated that he was “… the only person authorized to receive the Dues for Ballasting, Anchorage, and other Dues payable to the Lords of the said Manor and Royalty…”. It also added “Any person or persons breaking ground or otherwise trespassing on the Bank or Banks of the River Exe, within the Manor Royalty of Kenton, either for the purpose of taking Ballast or otherwise, without permission from the Ballast Master or Water Bailiff of the said Manor will be prosecuted according to Law.”

Another legal case took place in May 1858 when a Starcross fisherman summoned both Thomas and his son William for using abusive language and for theft of crab traps. That case was dismissed. In December that year, the situation was reversed when the same Starcross fisherman was himself summoned for stealing oysters from the bed of William Scott. He was bound over to appear at the next Exeter Assizes. The year of 1858 was a busy one for the local legal system for in November four Lympstone fisherman, who had dredged half a ton of oysters and mussels from William Scott’s oyster bed were charged with illegally dredging for oysters. They too were bound over to appear at Exeter Assizes. Their subsequent trial was reported verbatim in the Exeter Flying Post. Barristers represented all parties and much argument ensued as to the validity of the charge and whether or not William Scott’s oyster bed was sufficiently marked or, indeed, whether it could be legally defined an oyster bed. The judge decided for the defence and the prisoners were discharged. It does appear that legislation at that time offered little protection against the theft of shellfish, despite all the back breaking work of laying them on the bed, nurturing and collecting them. 

In 1859 disaster befell the family whereby virtually all their meagre possessions were lost. During a southeasterly gale with spring tide a massive storm had lashed the coast causing severe damage from Turf on the River Exe to Teignmouth. The South Devon Railway was badly affected with the line flooded or washed away in many places, resulting in traffic being suspended for four days, between Exeter and Teignmouth. A large breakwater at Starcross was completely knocked down. The following extract from the Exeter Flying Post of 7 November 1859 explains the effect of the storm at Powderham:

“….At Powderham point there were strong evidences of the height to which the tide had risen and the violence of the waves, which had ploughed up the roadway, and had left rude tide marks inland. A little distance below the boathouse some fifty yards of the inner side of the line were undermined and washed away. The sea had come through the archway left for a small dock, had broken over the old boundaries, washed a gap through a couple of stone-faced dykes running at right angles with the line and had undermined the earthwork in a very brief space of time. …At the Boathouse, occupied by Scott, the water was very high in some places, and having no upstair rooms, the whole of the domestic furniture was floating about in all directions. Earl Devon nobly came to the assistance of Scott, and by means of a boat the inmates, who were much exhausted, were conveyed to Powderham Castle, where every kindness was shown them. The whole of the bed furniture of the inmates was entirely immersed in water, and from the quantity, which rushed through the house, it was feared the building would be washed down….” 

In another criminal case in 1861 three Topsham fishermen were charged with stealing a ton of mussels from a mussel bed belonging to the eldest son, William Scott. The offenders were seen at 3am by him loading the mussels. William and his brother gave chase and caught up with the men just before Topsham. They refused to give them up. On the shellfish bed in question there were some fifty tons of mussels and seven tons of oysters that had been obtained whilst young from Teignmouth and over the Bar. Legal argument concerning appropriate legislation for a charge resulted in the Magistrates stating they were averse to giving any opinion on the question and considered the best course they could pursue was to discharge the summons. They suggested proceeding through the County Court for a trespass. It is not known if the advice was followed.

The second son, Thomas Scott, was particularly skilled at sailing and was called upon by owners of racing craft to sail their boats. An example of his success was the award of a silver cup inscribed “Presented to Thomas Scott for sailing the “Kathleen” July 27th 1882 also Starcross Regatta August 28th 1882.” It is known that he also skippered a boat named “Deborah”, a sleek black racing yacht owned by Captain Hooper of Cockwood. She was deep keeled so local fishermen would be used to navigate the Exe. There are also reports in local newspapers of his success in racing his own boat “Esther” in Topsham, Lympstone and Starcross Regattas in 1871/1873 when he always finished in the top three, with prize money of between £3 and 10/- (50p).

After the death of Thomas Scott, senior, in 1870, the fishing business was continued by his two sons and around this time three more sons were born to Thomas Scott, junior. Predictably, they were named Thomas Scott, Walter Scott and William Scott (my grandfather). When all three were of an age, they were introduced to the business. However, Walter left at the age of 21 years to join the Great Western Railway. The other two sons provided continuity of fishing the Exe until their retirement in about 1935 and they remained living at the Boathouse until their deaths in 1955 and 1956. It is known that several fishermen from Lympstone were employed in the work of harvesting shellfish and salmon fishing. My father informed me that at peak times as many as sixteen persons were employed. Alf Pearce, who became skipper of the Starcross to Exmouth ferry, recalled that as a young man he had assisted with the mussel harvest and would be invited into the living room of the bungalow on the north side where a breakfast of eggs and bacon would be cooked for them all (from home grown pigs and poultry) and beer was drunk. Two barrels of beer were kept in a cupboard beside the coal burning range.

Salmon fishing was another important aspect of income. The family, owning boats and nets, operated a crew that, at the turn of the century and beyond, included the younger Thomas and William Scott and three Lympstone fishermen. Licences granted by the River Authority permitted unrestricted salmon fishing within the river. Revenue received from fish sold was divided into seven. Each crew member receiving one seventh with the remaining two sevenths going to the owner of the boat and owner of the seine. There was an accepted agreement with other Lympstone boats that the first boat home would be permitted to “shoot” first on the following day. Salmon were then in more abundance and my grandfather stated that the largest catch had been 95 salmon in a single shoot. Amazingly the Lympstone crew that took the following shoot netted a little over 100 salmon. The Exe Board of Conservators reported that in 1924 the brothers took the largest individual haul of salmon. Also, in 1935 only one salmon over 30lbs was reported taken by net, by T.S. McClaughlin capturing a fish of 30 1/2lbs.

The nurturing of mussels - by this time oysters were no longer kept - remained a large contribution to income. When bagged they would be carried to Lympstone and transported by train to Billingsgate. Just prior to 1920, disaster befell the mussel industry when mussels were found contaminated. Legislation was passed that all mussels sold from the Exe had to pass through cleansing tanks and these were erected at Sowden End on the south side of Lympstone. Assurance was given to fishermen that better prices would be obtained for the hygienic mussels when they bore a certificate of purification. The process took a minimum of 48 hours and there was a fee of 1/- to 1/6 per bag. The capacity of the tanks was, however, limited and fishermen could only be guaranteed that a certain number of bags could be purified each week. With the delay of processing and restriction of quantity, the already minimal profitability was so drastically reduced that the backbreaking work was no longer worth the meagre return. The promised higher price never materialised and the mussels gained a distinct chlorine flavour. The fortunes of Thomas and William were seriously dented and they struggled financially from that point on. They continued until 1935 but the business declined. William had three sons but none could have followed the family occupation, even if they had wished to.

The roles and duties of the Earl’s Water Bailiff and Ballast Master seem to have reverted to an appointment of “Steward of the Dues of the River Exe”. This Office appears to have been granted to the senior member of the family for three generations. A badge of office in the form of an oar made of solid silver, some 26 cm in length, provided the authority of the Lord of the Manor. During the 19th century it appears to have been produced by Water Bailiffs - and accepted by those called to pay levy - as proof of their authority. It may have been that the introduction of the railway and motor vehicles that caused a considerable reduction in trade by sea, thus reducing the levy paid to the Lord of the Manor. This made the call on the Steward virtually negligible and ever reducing. My father was the last holder of the title, together with oar, and whilst little or no action was required on his part, he was able to provide advice and a wealth of experience of the river when required.

My memories of the Boathouse began in the mid 1930s. I grew up at Starcross where my father was a railwayman. He had been born and raised at the Boathouse and as a family we made frequent trips there. Almost every Sunday afternoon meant a visit to grandparents and staying to tea. When I was old enough to cycle to Powderham on my own I would visit there on many days during school holidays, sometimes with friends or to play with other children in Powderham village. Those with long associations with the Starcross Yacht Club may remember my father, Reg, who operated the rescue boat and had responsibility for security for many years.

The building was equally divided into two single storey living quarters (bungalows) with the central area serving as a boathouse with cobbled floor. My grandparents occupied the quarters on the north side whilst my grandfather’s elder brother and his wife lived in those on the south side. I have been unsuccessful in dating the erection of the building but it appears to have been built early in the 19th century, certainly between 1800 and 1836. Both households had large fruit and vegetable gardens that spread from a path surrounding the building to two plantations of trees. The harvest they produced provided near self-sufficiency. In earlier years livestock by way of poultry and pigs had been kept. The plantation on the north side had random planting and was more dense. That on the southern side was formally laid out with trees in line. There was a central slipway to the beach and offset to the left were a few remains of a landing stage reaching out to the tide. An Ordnance Survey Map of 1905 shows a substantial landing stage of some 50 yards in length. Areas of grass bordering the sea wall spread from the slipway either side to the limit of the plantations.

The Boathouse site was an idyllic location in which to enjoy childhood with its spaciousness and privacy. There was always so much to do, including swimming, boating, fishing, beach combing, crab collecting, train spotting, bird nesting and, on occasions, family games of cricket. However there were no basic amenities. The family would have been in residence some time before a supply of fresh water was available within close proximity. Originally water was obtained from a point within, what is now, the enclosed Powderham Park. The closer source was a well at the edge of the south plantation immediately adjacent to the railway embankment. This was still the only means of obtaining water and was done by drawing it up through a cast iron pump and collecting it in galvanised metal buckets. This was still the situation when the last family members vacated on 5th November 1956. Electricity or gas? There was none. Cooking was done by means of a coal range and water for washing was warmed in a large cauldron with a fire beneath. Light was provided by oil lamp or candle. Privies were situated at the back of each bungalow and were very basic.

Prior to the building of Brunel’s South Devon Atmospheric Railway in 1845, the site would have been a continuation of the Park. The curvature of the railway embankment isolated the crescent of land that comprised the site. The reaction of the family to the construction of the embankment and railway track by Irish navvies is not known. It can be imagined that when the first train was driven past in 1846 with Brunel and Railway Executives, attired in their stovepipe top hats, looking down on them, together with a number of other passengers, that members gathered outside the Boathouse to see it, possibly regretting the incursion of noise and loss of privacy. The access beneath the railway, that still exists, was prone to flooding and a timber footbridge spanning the railway was built. It was situated where the north plantation was allowed to evolve and went from a footpath inside the Park to the riverside. However, it only lasted until 1860 and although plans were drawn up in 1859 for a replacement cast iron bridge 100 feet long and five feet wide. This was never built, together with another bridge of 100 feet span proposed in 1871.

To those of my generation the Boathouse is viewed with great affection. It was a focal point and the family’s tenancies of the site from 1837 to 1956 were good ones.

Douglas McClaughlin