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Brixham. A Brief History.

Brixham is famous for its fishing industry, and described as one of Devon's pretty seaside towns.

Haunted Devon

Brixham. A Brief History.

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The name Brixham was derived from Briseham in the Domesday Book when its population then was just 39. 

During 1406 Brixham’s fishing community was regulated by the Bailiff of the Water of the Dart, Officer of the Duchy of Cornwall. In the following century Brixham with its superior harbour became the principal Torbay fishery with Hake being the predominant fish being landed.

William Prince of Orange (afterwards King William III of Great Britain & Ireland) landed in Brixham, with his mainly Dutch army, on 5 November 1688 during the Glorious Revolution, and issued his famous declaration "The Liberties of England and The Protestant Religion I Will Maintain". Many local people still have Dutch surnames, being direct descendants of soldiers in that army. A road leading from the harbour up a steep hill, to where the Dutch made their camp, is still called Overgang, Dutch for 'passage' or 'crossing'.

1760s saw the use of trawl nets first mentioned in fishing in south Devon; Brixham fishermen played a leading role in their development with highly valued fish like turbot, sole and plaice landed

In 1785 there were 76 decked trawlers that operated out of Brixham; improved roads allowed transportation of their fish catches to markets in Exeter, Bath and London which helped the economy of the town.

1815 and the tower of All Saints' Church was founded. It stands guard over the town. The composer of Abide with Me, Rev. Francis Lyte was a vicar at the church. He lived at Berry Head House (now a hotel), and when he was a very sick man, near to dying, he looked out from his garden as dusk fell over Torbay and wrote the words of that well known and loved hymn.

1820s and 89 decked trawlers operated out of Brixham, landing on average each week over 120 tons of turbot and sole. Brixham fleets now exploited fishing stocks westwards off the Irish and Welsh coasts, and eastwards off Hastings and Dover. This extension of fishing activity carried the trawling tradition to the east coast fishing ports, culminating later in 1858, in the emigration of Brixham fishing families to Grimsby and Hull earning Brixham the title of “The Mother of Britain’s deep sea fisheries” and the “Largest fishery in England” with more than 270 sail of vessels employing 1600 seamen, belong to the port, and a large number are engaged in the fishery trade…average weekly quantity landed 150 tons.” Catches of turbot, sole, whiting, plaice, mullet, burnards, flounder, herring etc. sent to Exeter, Bath, Bristol, and London.

The British Seaman’s Boys' Home was founded in 1863 by William Gibbs of Tyntesfield for the orphan sons of deceased British seamen. It was closed in 1988 after 125 years.

Brixham men have always known the dangers but even they were taken by surprise by a terrible storm that blew up on the night of 10 January 1866. The fishing boats only had sails then and could not get back into harbour because gale force winds and the high waves were against them. Things were made worse for them when the beacon on the breakwater was swept away, and in the black darkness they could not determine their position. Legend has it that their wives brought everything they could carry, including furniture and bedding, to make a big bonfire on the quayside to guide their men home. Fifty vessels were wrecked, and more than one hundred lives were lost that sad and fateful night; when dawn broke the wreckage stretched for nearly three miles up the coast. Hearing of this tragedy, the citizens of Exeter gave money to set up what became the Royal National Lifeboat Institution's Brixham Lifeboat in 1866.

February 1868 saw the arrival of the railway- the short Torbay and Brixham Railway from Churston but which was closed in May 1963-which would carry freight as well as passengers. Fish landed in Brixham (and packed in imported Norwegian ice) was able to reach London’s Billingsgate Fish Market in eight hours (compared to the three days it took by road). The rail link would prove to be an important factor in the expansion of the local fishing industry and the town.

In the 1890s the introduction of steam capstans in place of hand winches and replacement of cutter-rigged trawlers with larger ketch-rigged vessels able to haul longer beam trawls and increased catches. Despite these technical advances, Brixham’s fishing industry generally suffered a decline. Brixham sailing trawlers operating in the most lucrative fishing grounds of the Dogger Bank were unable to compete with steam trawlers from east coast ports.


1914-18 sadly saw the Brixham’s men leaving for war – a disastrous time for Brixham’s fishing industry with fishing smacks sunk by German U-Boats and trawlers’ crews called upon for naval service. The legacy of the war continued to prove detrimental with heavy losses of Brixham trawlers resulting from collisions from numerous sunken ships along the coasts, which also snagged and caused damage to many trawl nets.

1928 saw the start of the “Period of Collapse” in Brixham’s fishing industry. In this year 2160 tons of fish were landed at Brixham compared with 94,000 ton landed at Hull by that port’s fishing fleet.

1939, Brixham’s once large fishing fleet had been reduced to six vessels. The second World War brought the arrival of Belgian refugee fishermen to Brixham who were able to help revitalize the town’s fishing trade and bought with them knowledge of diesel engines.

2nd June 1958 saw Brixham Museum opening in a former pilchard press in Higher Street. The Museum was an early success and expanded into the first floor of two neighbouring cottages. 


The late 60s saw the value of fish landed at Brixham to £247,000. There were by then 70 vessels entered on the fishing boat register at Brixham. Of these 41 were full-time commercial fishing vessels, others used part time. The fleet was growing along with Brixham’s economy.

The swinging, psychedelic 60s bought an upturn to Brixham’s fishing industry fortunes after the adoption of the larger Dutch trawlers. A fisherman’s co-operative was formed in 1965 and by 1966 the fishing fleet had grown to forty-five boats a vast improvement to the previous number of six.

On 28 April 1967 a flying saucer reportedly hovered for 80 minutes over Brixham at an altitude of 15,000 feet

1971 not only bought with it the birth of Glam Rock, glitter, platforms, and long hair but also saw the fish market move from the inner harbour site to a new fish quay and market building, ice-plant, and repaired slipway.

In 1975, the rent at Higher Street became prohibitive, but Torbay Council offered a rent remission on the former Police Station and Sergeant's House on New Road near Bolton Cross, built in 1902. A public appeal helped to raise the necessary conversion costs, and the Museum opened at the present site in July 1976. Coastguard documents and memorabilia held previously at the Coastguard Training School moved into the new museum for the 1980s. In 1997 the loan of the archives of the Brixham Seamen's Orphan Boys Home added over a hundred record books to our collection. A blue plaque outside the building reads “1933 – 1945. Deprivation and War. Remembering Police Sgt A.G. Mock of this station, his regular, special and war reserve constables and their respect for the stoicism of the Brixham people in adversity.” A symbol of the town’s gratitude.

1991 saw the completion of £456,000 spent on improvements to Brixham fish quay (total cost over 20 years £4.6 million) with the fishing industry in Brixham employing directly and indirectly (in related jobs) over 836 people. The predominant fish landed being sole and plaice.


2000 a MAFF survey revealed Brixham to be the premier fish port in England and Wales with annual landings totalling £18.4 million from 10366 fish of all species.


2008 saw Brixham's fishermen celebrate the signing of a multi-million-pound contract to regenerate Brixham's fish market. Work on this ambitious scheme which included an upgrade of tourism facilities began in January 2008.

2011 once again saw another cause for celebration when the Princess Royal officially opened the new £20m Fish Market.


Although this covers just a small part of Brixham’s history it does show the need for what many would consider to be a quiet, quant holiday destination to have its own museum to protect and display this towns proud heritage and its accomplishments. One that continues to play its part in educating the children the adults of its future with the knowledge of its past.

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