A Storm in 1917

One Year in a paddle steamerís life is very much like another. The routines seldom change and, being on a sheltered river, the weather rarely upsets them. It did though on the 26th of January 1917, when the waters of the Dart chopped and foamed.

The Compton Castle had remained moored in a shallow creek but even there the waters were lapping over her sides. The little distance from water level to deck made her look very vulnerable. In such circumstances it was easy to see why she was suitable only for tranquil river travel not for the buffeting of the waves out at sea, and why a very calm day had been picked when she made her maiden voyage from Falmouth to Dartmouth.

A little way down the coast a village perched on a rocky ledge took the seas full force head on. Hallsands was virtually washed away. 24 of the 25 houses were damaged beyond repair, just one survived, that of the Prettijohn family. The power of natural forces was frightening to witness in the battered remains of Hallsands. Yet the families turned their accusing eyes in another direction, Devonport, and the naval dockyard. Among the most vocal was Mr Prettijohn, normally a quiet family man. Young Miss Prettijohn never forgot how her father had been incensed by this event.

The fishing village of Hallsands lay at the southern end of Start Bay, a few miles south-west of Dartmouth. By the middle of the 19th century around 130 people lived in about 40 houses, mainly fishing for pilchards.

Around 1895 and 20 miles west the Royal Navy were feeling cramped. Devonport dockyard wasn't big enough and they were planning to extend. A huge new dock made of concrete was being considered and the calculation showed that about 400,000 cubic yards of stone chippings would be needed.

Where was the cheapest and most suitable supply? On the seabed and shore around Start Bay lay shingle in abundance, and because it was below high-water mark, the owners were the Crown.

Dredging began in April 1897 and soon around 10,000 tonnes a week were being removed. The villagers were alarmed as their shore line began to change. The shingle wall that had protected the rock platform behind, and on which the village was built, was no longer there. The sea began to undercut the rocks. From 1900 onwards the village started to collapse bit by bit.

Officialdom was keeping an eye on events; bodies like the Royal Commission on Coastal Erosion. They finally realised the shingle which they had thought would be naturally replaced was not going to happen. After long negotiations compensation was paid out and new sea walls were built. Some sort of normality returned to the village. It remained that way for around 13 years until 26th January, 1917.

A storm was expected. The fishermen had hauled their boats to the top of the slipway. The seas were exceptionally high and a strong easterly gale was heading their way.

At dawn the next day, they could all see their homes had gone, except for one.

It took until 1922 before compensation was finally settled and 10 new houses were built in what came to be known as North Hallsands.

Miss Prettijohn continued to live on in the one remaining house. She died in the mid sixties, though some would say her spirit lived on.