Sidmouth is situated on the unique World Heritage Jurassic Coast. Over the last 1500 years there is evidence of human occupation in Iron Age forts and Burial Mounds in the area.The evidence for Roman interest in Sidmouth is slight, although on the beach beneath the Salcombe cliffs in 1841, a bronze centaur such as may have been carried on a Roman military legion’s standard was found.
By the time of the Domesday survey, Sidmouth formed part of the Manor of Otritona (Otterton) which was given by Gytha, King Harold's mother, with the permission of Edward the Confessor, to the abbey of Mont St. Michel in Normandy. William the Conqueror afterward, renewed, or confirmed, the gift. Among its other possessions mentioned in the Domesday Book, we find that the Abbey received thirty pence from a salt works "in Sedemuda" (Sidmouth).
It is not known at what period Sidmouth had its market charter but historic records speak of the "mercato de Sidemune" as early as 1200. The market cross is mentioned in 1322, and was not removed till 1795. Nearby was said to have been the oldest ecclesiastical building in the town (before 1322), the chapel of St. Peter. It stood behind Marlborough Place, and some portions of walls were discernible in 1857. The local historian Peter Orlando Hutchinson wrote: " before it became so ruinous as to be pulled down in 1805, it had been used as an inn, known by the sign of the Anchor, and occupied as a dwelling house."
The Present Anchor Inn is in the Old Fore Street, but walls making the site of the chapel are nearer the sea front. The present market place was built in 1839. The cob-walled Old Ship Inn, originally thought to be a monastery, dates back to 1350 and it was certainly a Smuggler’s rendezvous in the days of ‘brandy for the parson and baccy for the clerk’.
During the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries the town supported a herring fleet, catching fish from Lyme Bay. As catches declined, possibly due to an increase in competition from other fishing communities around the bay, it was fortunate that an alternative was developing.
Following the French Revolution in 1795, and the tendency to send the wealthier members of the community to the guillotine for beheading, there was naturally disinclination on the part of British travellers to risk travelling abroad through France. Lord Gwydir who had a cottage orné in Sidmouth (now the Woodlands Hotel), invited the Prince Regent to holiday here, which he did. His interest encouraged other nobility and celebrities also to visit this quiet village by the sea.
In 1796 Emmanuel Lousada built Peak House, and in 1820 he also built Clifton Cottage for use as a beach house. From 1810 onwards, properties were being built as ‘country residences’ or cottage orné. The Duke of Buckingham built his in what is today Sidholme, and provided it with an elaborately decorated Music Room. Lord Le Dispenseur built his residence at the Knowle (now extended and used by the EDDC). The Beach House on the sea front became probably the first lodging house for visitors, and others followed, together with Assembly Rooms. Being further from London, Sidmouth did not expand so much as the other Regency resort of Brighton.
The rising popularity of Sidmouth meant that there was a need to refurbish an old rustic community into something better for the use and convenience of 19th century tourists and residents alike. In early September 1846 a notice of a Public Meeting appeared stating: 'A meeting of the inhabitants and those interested in the prosperity of Sidmouth will be held in the Town Hall on Wednesday, next, for the purpose of proposing Plans for the general improvement of the Place and the greater accommodation of visitors, also for securing to the Public the existing walks on the Cliffs Salcombe Hill with the paths leading thereto the Chair will be taken at 2 o'clock – Sidmouth, September 9th 1846,'
This was the first meeting of what became known as the Sidmouth Improvement Committee, the forerunner of the present day, Sid Vale Association, and at that initial meeting John Carslake of Cotmaton Hall was elected to the Chair. Discussions centred around the issue of footpaths and the attempts of the various landowners to enclose land, thus blocking the old rights of way.
John Carslake died at Clifton, Bristol in August, 1865 and lies in the Churchyard of Sidmouth Parish Church.
In 1912 Sir Joseph Norman Lockyer moved to Sidmouth to continue his astronomical research when the South Kensington Observatory was closed. He established the Norman Lockyer Observatory, and today it provides a facility at which individuals and groups may participate in projects, and pursue recreational study of science in a practical way. It is operated by The Norman Lockyer Observatory Society, a registered charity, and is staffed entirely by unpaid volunteers, many of whom are retired scientists.
Much of Sidmouth's more recent history is gleaned from the Blue Plaques on the buildings which mirror the era when the Nobility and members of London Society built their fine houses. Many such houses still exist, while others have become hotels without losing their Regency charm.
Reg Lane, the SVA ‘archivist’ at the end of the 20th century, wrote “What is so fascinating about Sidmouth’s history is that so much of the past is still present today”. The fine Fortfield Terrace is a continuing example of this. Here, a double-headed eagle commemorates the stay of the Grand Duchess of Russia in 1831. She brought a retinue of 100 gentlemen, ladies and servants and among the guests at a reception she gave was the Sidmouth artist and historian, Peter Orlando Hutchinson, whose diaries and sketches are a vivid picture of 19th century life in Sidmouth. Copies are among the treasures at the Sidmouth Museum (SVA), next to the ancient parish church of St. Giles and St. Nicholas. In the course of the rebuilding of the Chancel of the Parish Church (which was not without some heated argument!) the original church materials were ‘saved’ by Hutchinson, and incorporated into the Old Chancel building (near the bowling green) in Blackmore Gardens.
Behind the town lay water-meadows along the banks of the River Sid, ideal for dairy herds. Clotted cream was produced in local dairies, and a ton was sent each week for sale in London! The town was also recognised for the quality of its lace making, but lace goods were usually sent to Honiton to be sold to travellers on the London stage-coaches, where it became known as “Honiton” lace.
The band played and the bells rang out in December 1819 when the Duke and Duchess of Kent, with the infant Princess Victoria, arrived at Woolbrook Cottage, (now the Royal Glen Hotel). Their stay, however, was tragically short, for the Duke died in January from complications after a heavy cold. His coffin lay in state here for several days and was seen by some 3000 people. His funeral was delayed because of the death, six days later, of his father, King George III. Not until February 7th did the cortege leave Sidmouth through streets, where once jubilant crowds, stood in silent mourning.
In 1856 Edward, Prince of Wales, stayed at the Royal York Hotel, visiting Woolbrook Cottage where his grandfather had died, and where his mother, Queen Victoria had slept as a baby. A few years later the Queen donated the stained glass window which is set in the West end of the Parish Church.
Another royal visitor who favoured Sidmouth was Victoria’s third son, the Duke of Connaught, who subsequently gave his name to Sidmouth’s prize winning gardens.
That was the Sidmouth that captivated the Poet Laureate, John Betjeman every time he visited Sidmouth. Beautiful gardens and leisurely walks, regency history and fine hotels, clean and friendly shops. It's all here in the beaches and countryside of this historic and lovely seaside town that nestles beneath majestic red cliffs and the green hills of the glorious Sid Valley. Its timeless charm, which has captivated so many through the years, we are confident is due in no small measure to the voluntary efforts of so many members of the Sid Vale Association, providing over more than 160 years of dedicated protection and conservation of the local environment.
“There are two kinds of English seaside resort, Sidmouth, and the rest”
David McKie, Guardian newspaper correspondent (Aug.2003).