When I was looking for a subject to write a short story about Dawlish, Isambard Kingdom Brunel seemed to be the obvious choice. Not only is his name very well known, but his influence on Dawlish was immense during the 19th century. Even now, the railway through Dawlish regularly makes the national news, not always for the right reasons. Even so, each time the news cameras feature the railway, it is a terrific advert for the town and encourages visitors to come and stay. Not many people realise how great an influence Brunel has had over the last 175 years. This article will help to explain!

By the 1830’s, Dawlish had become a favoured seaside resort due to its long sandy beaches, mild climate, clean air and beautiful countryside. The visitors were wealthy factory owners, mine owners and landowners, who wanted to escape from the industrial cities of the Midlands and North. It would take 4-5 days to travel from London or Birmingham to the town by stagecoach, so the number of visitors was low as the stagecoach, which started in Dawlish in 1810, carried a maximum of 10-12 people. There would have been only 5 or 6 a day from Exeter during the summer.

This was all about to change. During the 1830’s, Isambard Kingdom Brunel had been building a railway line from London to Bristol and then to Exeter. By 1840 he was acquiring land to extend the line to Plymouth via Dawlish. Despite much opposition from various quarters, he was given the go-ahead and work commenced in 1843. He had little in the way of mechanical means, but around 2000 workers and plenty of dynamite.

Dawlish old print of seafront pre railway

As well as building the seawall from the Warren to Dawlish and from Holcombe to Teignmouth, he had to blast a gap in the Langstone Cliff and create 5 tunnels between Dawlish and Teignmouth. On the Exe Estuary there were embankments below the high tide mark and land had to be drained. It was a massive undertaking, but the section as far as Dawlish was completed by May 1846 and extended to Teignmouth by Christmas.

This brought the journey time from London to Dawlish down from about 4 days to about 6 hours, a huge reduction. The train could carry hundreds of passengers at a time rather than about a dozen by stagecoach. Suddenly, visitors started to arrive in greater numbers and needed places to stay and to worship. Hotels and lodging rooms were built over the next few years. It also made it necessary to build churches for different denominations: St Marks in 1850, Methodist in 1860 and Congregational in 1870.

At the time there was no electricity, gas, mains water or drainage.  However, the Dawlish Gas and Coke Co. started in 1847, so there was street-lighting and, in the wealthiest homes, gas lighting, heating and cooking.  It was still a very primitive lifestyle for everyone, despite the wealth of the visitors. Dawlish people had always lived on the poverty line and relied on agriculture and fishing for employment and food. They got up when it got light and went to bed when it got dark.

The coming of the railway soon changed many aspects of people’s lives. Employment began to grow: shop traders started to appear, as opposed to street markets and sellers, builders, blacksmiths, servants, hatmakers, sedan chair carriers, maids etc etc. The wealthy visitors could afford to buy goods and services, and a good number bought their own properties, boosting the population as well as employment.

Mains electricity, water and sewers appeared in the 1870’s, although only for the wealthy people. The town was becoming ever more popular for visitors and this brought a better standard of living for the locals. At the time, more people were moving away from agriculture and fishing, and new job opportunities appeared.

Until this time, most of the houses in Dawlish were built of cob with thatched roofs, as these materials were found close at hand.  The thatched cottages in High Street are a good example. Before the railway, most of the houses would have looked like this. The railway meant that heavy goods, such as bricks, stone, slates and tiles could be moved around the country easily and house building changed dramatically. Iddesleigh Terrace is a good example of brick and slate housing, although they have now been converted onto flats.

San Remo Terrace where the original San Remo Cam is located

The railway also meant that goods could be transported from here to other areas: fish to Billingsgate in London and flowers to Covent Garden are two examples. All of this became possible because the railway came to Dawlish. Few locals would have been able to afford to travel by train and would have rarely left the town.

In the early 1900’s, workers became entitled to a week’s paid holiday, which increased to two weeks in the 1930’s. Car ownership was for the wealthier members of society, so the train was the only way for most people to travel around the country. It was the dream of factory workers in the Midlands and the North to visit the seaside, so resorts such as Dawlish grew in popularity. This continued right through until the 1970’s when foreign package holidays became popular. Even so, Dawlish and the Warren continue to attract thousands of visitors every year, many of whom still travel by train.

David Force
Author and Historian

David’s books are available in our online shop and all profit goes to local charities. Click here to purchase.

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