A Brief History of the Kingsbridge Area.

The great ice fields of the last glacial age towered over southern England and Wales, but never reached South Devon.  The Channel was dry land and the British Isles were just an extension of Europe.  Before the last retreat of the ice 10,000 years ago stream and river valleys were carved through the rocks of the land to the south of the ice fields.  A complex of small streams occupied the valleys of the Kingsbridge-Salcombe area and as the ice melted a combination of rising sea level and sinking land caused the valleys to become flooded by the sea. The inlet is not an estuary as no large river flows into it, but is properly known as a ‘ria’ - a tidal flooded valley system.  This origin is obvious from a map of the area.

Humans have occupied the area for at least 20,000 years and by the Bronze Age the South Hams was well-settled.

Iron Age Celts built chains of hilltop forts for defence and settlement in Devon and vestiges of these remain around Kingsbridge and Salcombe.

The Roman and Saxon invasions started the assimilation and displacement of the Celts and their ancient way of life, and they were driven over the Tamar to their final stronghold in Cornwall. 

Kingsbridge first appears as ‘Cinges bricge’ in a 962 Anglo-Saxon charter of King Edgar.  The bridge appears to have connected the two Royal estates of West Alvington and Chillington.   There was no settlement here worthy of mention in the Domesday Book of 1086 although Dodbrooke appears as ‘Dodesbroch’.  Churchstow was the parish church.

The coming of the Normans brought major changes as they took over the country and established the pattern of settlement we know today

After the Norman invasion of 1066 lands around Kingbridge passed to the Abbots of Buckfast Abbey and it is likely that a settlement was established here by the mid-12th century.  The Abbot of Buckfast obtained a charter to hold a market in Kingsbridge in 1219 and it became a borough in 1238.  By 1250 it had its own chapel.  Portlemouth was supplying ships for the Crown as early as 1310

Kingsbridge prospered under the patronage of the Abbots who built corn mills and a banqeting hall in the hamlet and established it as an outlet for wool and other produce from the Abbey estates.  There have been mills operating in Mill Street continuously for 800 years originally using power generated by channelled leats and the tide.  The last mill closed in 1967.

The superior ports of Dartmouth and Plymouth and the inadequate road system inland meant that Kingsbridge was never to rise to prominence on the South Devon coast.   It remained a thriving distribution centre for local produce however and in the mid-15th century Henry VI granted a charter conferring the right for an annual fair and a weekly market to be held in the town.  Buckfast Abbey was forced in 1538 to give up its lands, including Kingsbridge, following the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the town passed into private hands.

This map of 1586 shows a well-organised main street with the market and pillory in front of the church  and long back gardens extending down to the streams on either side.  By the 17th century Kingsbridge had 100 houses.

After the restoration of Charles II in the wake of the Civil War South Devon became a stronghold of Nonconformism.  Baptists, Quakers and Methodists all established themselves in Kingsbridge.

For the next two hundred years life continued at a steady pace with local products such as barley and wool and high-quality cider from South Hams apple orchards being exported from Kingsbridge and Salcombe.  Piracy and privateering were constant threats along the coast, which in turn gave way to organised smuggling.  This was finally brought under control by efficient coastguards in the late 1800s.  The Napoleonic Wars in the years 1790 - 1815  resulted in increased trade for Kingsbridge; a ropewalk was built in 1783, followed by tanneries, foundries, flour mills and a sawmill.   Shipbuilding had always taken place on suitable beaches  between Kingsbridge and Salcombe, but now formal shipyards were constructed.  In Kingsbridge these occupied the foreshores known as Bond’s Quay, now the Crabshell. 

Sail gradually gave way to steam and during the 19th and early 20th centuries paddle steamers made daily trips between Salcombe and Kingsbridge.  Larger steam packets made the journey to Plymouth several times a week until well into the 20th century.

Date’s Shipyard closed in 1912 but by then other methods of transport were well-established.  The railway had come to Kingsbridge in 1893 and the first motor car appeared in 1898.  The poor state of the roads had always made travel inland slow and difficult and it wasn’t until the advent of the Turnpike Trusts in the first quarter of the 19th century that coach travel had become a viable alternative to journeys by sea.  Now trains and motor cars opened the area to the fledgling tourist trade.  The South Hams has never looked back.

First town plan of Kingsbridge
The head of the estuary in 1819
Early photo of Bondís Quay, Kingsbridge
The Kenwith Castle steam packet at Bondís Quay in the 1920s
Kingsbridge in 2002

First town plan of Kingsbridge  

The head of the estuary in 1819

Early photo of Bond’s Quay, Kingsbridge

The Kenwith Castle steam packet at Bond’s Quay in the 1920s

Kingsbridge in 2002

Photo credit: Tim Stanger

Images courtesy of Cookworthy Museum





Local History