Although Paignton is conveniently situated in the centre of Torbay, it received less attention over the centuries from both the Navy and merchant fleets. They preferred to use the more sheltered quays at Torquay and Brixham for water and supplies. There must have been many times, particularly in the 17th and 18th centuries, when large fleets lay at anchor quite close to Roundham Head. Paignton possessed a harbour in the 16th century but it probably offered little shelter from easterly gales. The Pembroke Survey in 1567 records "land lying at Rowneham, which they hold for the convenience of fishermen for the sale of fish". Later there was a "kaywarden"; he was John Barons and a fragment of his account book for 1621 still exists. The "right of wreck" was vested in the Manor Court (the records of which survive from the 1660s to the 1920s). There was a "peece of timber" washed up on the Sands in 1668 which was recorded therein. There is evidence that in 1673, a ship's mast and, in 1677, a "capston" were cast up "att Gurrington Sand".

The presence of so many vessels in the Bay and the frequency of storms inevitably led to ships on passage or sheltering in the Bay being driven ashore and the crews aboard drowned. From the parish church account books it is possible to see the procedure which was followed when a body was found on a Paignton beach:

Man & Horse to go to Totnes for the Coroner 0 2 0
Gave Nich. Veale for watching Man drove on shore 0 1 6
Drawing him to the Churchward [sic] 0 1 0
Brandy & Beer when put in coffin and burried 0 4 2
Paid for makeing a Grave for -ditto- 0 1 2

Over the years these records show that bodies were recovered from Goodrington, Broadsands, Saltern Cove, Polsom Sands and "hole" [possibly Hollacombe].

Maritime happenings to the south of the town included the wrecking, on 24th November 1804, of the 74-gun ship-of-the-line HMS Venerable at Roundham Head. The local population behaved badly by flocking to the scene in large numbers and pillaging the vessel of its contents.

The "Coastguard Rocket Apparatus Station" was established on land owned by the Harbour Company. Little is known, however, about the Service in the town; indeed, when the station was established is not certain. However, there were officers there in 1856 when Captain Bouverie and Lieutenant Haswell were joint commanders. The men at first lived in a row of cottages that were demolished when Paignton Club was built. New cottages were built in Roundham Terrace but were not occupied at first, possibly because they were substandard. During the "Great Storm" early in 1866 many vessels were driven ashore at Goodrington, Saltern Cove, Broadsands and Elberry, as well as on the Sands.

The "Old Clink" was used as a mortuary but not for those rescued by the Paignton Coastguards. From the ten vessels stranded in their watch area, 54 men were saved and no lives lost. Just two months afterwards, in March, the Mary Louisa ran on sands opposite Torbay House at Paignton. There were serious problems encountered, although "the Manby mortar apparatus was operated by the Coastguard... 12 shots were fired, 3 of which were literally blown miles to sea, leaving the rope behind. Two hours were thus fruitlessly spent, and still no help given to the anxious crew... The recent agitation in favor of a Volunteer Life Boat and Mortar Apparatus, was again and again, recalled for us". The crew were successfully rescued through the bravery of a local seaman.

The first reference to the full establishment of the Coastguard Station is in the 1870s when Henry Steward was Chief Officer and had ten men. The rocket apparatus had been installed some time before this, possibly after the 1866 storm, although the official Return to Parliament refers to its formation as being in 1882. Mr Davies was Chief Boatman at that time. When the Station was finally closed is not known either. John Welch was in charge in 1914 but by the 1920s only the Board of Trade's Rocket Apparatus is recorded as available in the town. It is likely that it closed down in 1914 when the men were recalled to the Navy in 1914 and it never reopened.

The German Navy surrendered at the end of the War and among the spoils were torpedo boats, two of which went ashore on Paignton Sands on their way to the breakers' yard. Paignton Coastguard were called out and the Service's "Rewards for 1920", submitted to Parliament, show that George Pearce, Enrolled Volunteer, was awarded "£1 in addition to other allowances for going over the rocks and through the surf with lifelines by which the three men were rescued".

Another large vessel, the SS Lagan went ashore at Goodrington in February 1924. The most recent casualty was the Northwind which grounded off the gasworks at Hollacombe in 1964. Although the crew had to be rescued by breeches buoy, the vessel was "got off" without serious damage.

The Naval Hospital at Goodrington

During the first decade of the Napoleonic War the care of the sick from vessels anchored in Torbay was met by a "hospital ship which had been specially fitted up". In 1796 it was the Medusa. As the fleet was only blockading Brest there were no battle casualties but many sailors became sick of the scurvy, "catarrh", influenza, typhus and smallpox as conditions below deck were very confined, fetid and unhealthy. Scurvy sufferers were generally treated on their own vessels but those suffering from more serious complaints were transported to the hospital ship, most of the patients finishing up in hospital at Plymouth.

In 1799 the Commander-in-Chief ordered the withdrawal of this facility. This drove Thomas Trotter, MD. "Physician to his Majesty's Fleet", to press for a proper hospital to be provided on the shores of Torbay, saying that the sick had to be landed at Brixham and, from there, taken in open carts to Dartmouth five miles distance. There, he wrote, "they lay in Sick Quarters two and two in a bed". He therefore petitioned the Commander-in-Chief urgently. As a result, the "Commissioner for the Sick and Hurt" (the Navy apparently would not concede a man was wounded) came to "Peington" in August 1800 to search for a site. It appears that it was, as a result of this visit, that three acres were bought and "a large dwelling house near the beach was directed to be set up for the reception of our people".

Even then matters did not move speedily enough for the impatient Dr. Trotter, so joiners and carpenters were sent ashore from ships of the fleet to speed the work. When the first cases were admitted is not certain but naval surgeons afloat were sending men to "Mr Ball's Hospital", as it was known, before the end of the year. Until the burial ground was consecrated, burials took place in Paignton churchyard.

Among the early arrivals at the Hospital were "fifty people from the Majestic" with typhus; 28 from the Donegal and one from the Pompee with smallpox. One of the sick men from the Majestic infected Mr Ball himself and he, and others, had the disease "to a severe degree". Mr Stephenson, a surgeon at Haslar, Portsmouth had to be transferred to carry out Ball's duties for some time but he left after the outbreak had subsided. It is not known if Mr Ball recovered sufficiently to resume his duties; however, he was not there in 1808 because the surgeon at the time, a Mr Thomas Willes, died at the early age of 39, perhaps from some dread disease he had picked up there; however, a memorial tablet in the Church records "appoplexy". His body was one of the last to be interred in Paignton churchyard.

Whilst it is generally accepted that the burial ground was consecrated on 28th September 1808, there is neither mention of the event in Trewman's Exeter Flying Post, nor is there confirmation in Bishop George Pelham's journal. The Hospital at Goodrington complemented those in already existence at Haslar and Plymouth but was not considered to have the same status although, in 1809, the salary of Mr Wille's successor was increased to £500 a year, a not inconsiderable sum for those days.

The historian, William White, notes in his History of Torquay published in 1878 that, at the time of writing, some of the graves were still visible but the whole area was in a sad state of neglect as the sea was rapidly washing away the burial ground. The Admiralty, seeing that its final demise was imminent, authorised Messrs. Mountstephen and Bulley, two local builders, to rebuild the sea wall. This, however, did not prevent the destruction of most of the graves in the years that followed. The solitary surviving relic of the Napoleonic period is the memorial to Major Thomas Hill of the 47th Regiment of Foot who died on the 22nd July 1815 and was buried in the naval graveyard.

The hospital was, of course, closed down in 1816 soon after the end of hostilities and was later sold by the Admiralty in 1822 to Col. Drake of Ipplepen. He "re-edified the house and converted it into a marine residence". When the Paignton Tithe Map was drawn up in 1840 the "Burial Ground" comprised "2 acres 0 roods 5 perches" and was described as "pasture land". In 1855, what was described as a "large marine residence with 43/4 acres of the best pasture in the neighbourhood, adjoining Goodrington Sands" was for sale. It was sold again to James Brown about 1881. In 1910/11 it was still "Goodrington House" and was occupied by Order of the Sacred Heart.

Until the ground was consecrated, burials took place in the Parish Churchyard. The Burials Register has among its entries:

1793, 12 August. John Smith of Sandwich, Kent, mariner on board Brunswick, man of war
1793, 23 September. Grace Robertson, widow, from on board HMS London
1797, [No date] Andrew Johnston, of His Majesty's Ship Mars
1800, 13 November. George Coombs of HMS Prince of Wales
1808, 29 June. Thomas Willes, Esq., Surgeon, Paignton Naval Hospital, age 39

© copyright John Pike

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