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KEVIN DIXON: Where was Torbay's ancient castle?

By This is SouthDevon  |  Posted: November 27, 2012

Old Harbour Livermead, Torquay

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ON AUGUST 1 1635 a letter was sent from aboard a ship called The James, writes local historian Dr Kevin Dixon.

It was sent “by your honours most faithful servant Will. Monson” and addressed to Sir Francis Windebancke, Secretary of State. It contained the following passage:

“Wee departed from Plymouth the 26th of July, beinge kept there longer than wee desired by fowle weather and contrary windes, for our victualles drawing to an end it be hooved our repayre to the Eastward.

“But in our way I desired my Lord to looke into Torbay, being informed of many abuses there comytted to the prejudice of the King’s service (as namely), that an auncyent castle being there seated that commanded part of the Road is quite abolished, and the iron peeces made into horse shoes.

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“Moreover, wee find that the stones of that castle to the value of £200 have been sold to a rich man of Apsome, whoe hath converted them to the making of Lyme, and many times the boates that carry them stones are forced with extremetie of weather to throw them overboard to the destruction in tyme of the Roade.

“And that I found by a Cable I had cut which cost much laboure of my marryners to recover it againe. I confesse it is fit to look to these things; no Road in England giveth that advantage to an enemye... all which may bee prevented, and the Cuntrie willingly drawen to bee att the charge of building and making of ffortressses if his Majestie would be pleased to furnish them with ordinance.”

It looks like Will was using the old term ‘Road’ to refer to a stretch of sheltered water near land where ships could ride at anchor. The ‘iron peeces’ were presumably cannon.

However, we don’t know where Torbay’s “auncyent castle” was.

There are the remains of a harbour at Livermead, which can still be seen at low tide when travelling towards Paignton. It’s unlikely that the castle was Torre Abbey - which, though it has defensive features, isn’t a castle.

The Abbey’s canons had surrendered to Henry VIII’s commissioner in 1539 during the Dissolution, and the church and east range had been demolished. Yet, the south and west ranges were mostly unscathed and, in 1598, these were converted into a house for Thomas Ridgeway. Presumably Thomas and his successors would have objected to the continued plundering of the estate.

Another possibility is Brixham, where a ‘castle’ could have been built to defend the harbour. It’s been suggested that the cottages at Overgang Steps incorporate some old defensive walls.

This could be supported by a letter from the Earl of Surrey to the King in 1522 in which the dangers to ships lying in the Dart are raised. The letter continues: "To avert this write to the Bishop of Exeter saying that you are informed they are making a blockhouse beside Brixham within Torbay and if they make another at Churston you would help them with ordnance and powder".

On the other hand, in 1539 it was reported to the King that Torbay remained “unprovided for" when it came to coastal defences. .

So where was the castle?

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