The River Dart is the historical highway upon which the early invaders of this region travelled. The river has seen much through the ages; legend has it that Pheonician galleys traded in the area and it is believed that Viking long boats have explored it reaches, on raiding forays further inland. The Cog boats of the middle ages traded wine from the continent to Dartmouth and up the river to Totnes. The golden era of the 16th century explorers brought Elizabethan ships regularly to the Dart, and coming more up-to-date, the square riggers, coal-burning paddle steamers and American landing craft of the 2nd World War, have all sailed between these wooded banks – Dittisham has seen them all pass by.
The village is believed to be named after ‘Deedas’, a Saxon chief, who probably settled here soon after the Saxon invasion of Devon, in about 660 A.D. The County was not finally overrun by the Saxon’s, and the original Celtic tribes conquered or driven out, until 755 A.D. – some one hundred years later. The Saxon influence was all around, with a settlement at Totnes and a ‘burh’ or defended centre was set up in the year 900 at Halwell five miles to the west of the village. This was in the reign of Edward the Elder, son of Alfred the Great. The Domesday survey carried out in 1085-86 records the village as ‘Didashim’, meaning homestead of Deedas.
Although the Saxons were originally pagan, the conversion to Christianity is shown by the record that a church existed here in 1055, and that at the death of Edward the Confessor, on 5th January 1066, Dittisham Manor was held by Bishop Leofric.
There is no evidence of Viking attack upon the village itself, but it is believed that at a place not far to the north – quite near to the river – a great battle took place between the Saxons and Viking invaders. It is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle under the year 851: ‘Alderman Ceol with the men of Defensoir (Devonshire) fought the heathen army at Wicganbeorg and after making great slaughter obtained the victory’. Whether they ‘visited’ Dittisham on their way up river, one can only speculate.
In 1190, during the reign of Richard Coeur-de-Lion, the Third Crusade sailed from the Dart. Again no record survives, but it is probable that Dittisham experienced some effect of this large concentration of armies, shipping and the provision of food and supplies for such an enterprise.
The Black Death was first reported in Devon in 1349, during the reign of Edward III. It is believed that it depleted the local population severely and large numbers were buried in the area. It has been a known burial ground for a thousand years and it is estimated that some 18,000 people were interred around the village.
On the hill to the south of the village is Bozomzeal and the remains of an ancient manor, owned in the 15th century by John Bozum, whose daughter Elizabeth married Sir Baldwin Fulford-Knight, who became sheriff of Devon in 1459. On the death of John Bozum, Sir Baldwin inherited through his wife the estate of Dittisham. They had four children, two sons and two daughters. His second son John (1445-1518) became Canon and later Archdeacon of Exeter, and his first daughter Thomazin married John Wise of Sydenham in Marystow and from whom the Earls and Dukes of Bedford are descended.
With the coming of the Elizabethan era, three famous men who lived here by the Dart were to influence history. Sir Humphrey Gilbert was born at Greenway House, just across the river. His father died when he was only eight and his mother, Katherine Champerdowne of Modbury, married Raleigh of Hayes Barton, near Exmouth. They had a son named Walter, who spent much of his time at Greenway with his half brother Humphrey. Just north of Dittisham, across the river at Sandridge, the boys had a younger friend called John Davis.
Sir Humphrey Gilbert (1539-1583) became a navigator, who after many setbacks, led an expedition which founded the colony of Newfoundland, while searching for the North West Passage. He was lost at sea near the Azores while returning to England. His one-time home, Greenway House, was rebuilt in Georgian style on the original foundations and became in modern times the home of the late Agatha Christie (and has now been left to the the National Trust).
Sir Humphrey’s half brother, Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618), became one of the first explorers of Virginia and established the first English colony in North America. Soldier, sailor and historian, he led an expedition to the north coast of South America in 1595 and introduced tobacco and mahogany into Europe. In later years he became ensnared in politics and in one of the most infamous acts ever carried out by government and monarchy he was imprisoned and then beheaded in 1618.
Just south of Dittisham, overlooking the Dart, on the side of the wooded hill and built on the foundations of an old chapel, stands Hamlyn’s Coombe, one-time hunting lodge of the Gilbert and Raleigh family. It is believed that in the grounds, Sir Walter experimented with the cultivation of potatoes. Land to the west of this spot is still today owned by descendants of Raleigh.
John Davis (1550-1605), became a navigator and Arctic explorer. He carried out an expedition in search of the North West Passage – discovered and gave his name in 1587 to the Davis Strait, between Greenland and Canada. In 1592 he left on an expedition to the South Atlantic and discovered the Falkland Islands.
These three, combined with their contemporaries Drake, Hawkins and Grenville, all of Devon, changed the map of the world and ensured a British foothold on world history.
There are so many houses in Dittisham that it is difficult to say which is the oldest. Certainly the church is most likely to be the oldest building. Many of the cottages near the church are also very ancient. Some buildings are not what they were – like the building next to the Ferry Boat Inn on The Quay – which in the last century was the Golden Lion Inn. It lost its licence for allowing unruly behaviour! In the village you will notice cottages with names like Otago, Dunedin, Dundora, etc. – these were bought and named by village men who returned from the gold rush in the 19th century.
Invasion from the sea was a constant threat in bygone days. Downstream at the narrows, on this side of the river, is Vipers Quay. Until 1960’s this was the site of an old gun battery, probably 16th-17th century. There was also believed to be a chain that could be stretched across the river to Greenway to prevent any hostile ships getting through to Totnes. While on top of the hill behind the village, near Bozomzeal is “Fire Beacon Hill”, one of the chain of beacons prepared to warn of the approach of the Spanish Armada in 1588.
The Civil War touched the village when it is believed Fairfax and his soldiers visited the church, which was probably in 1646 when Dartmouth fell to the Parliamentarian Army. They defaced the figures on the screen and burnt the rectory containing the records. The reason for the attack was the loyalty of the Rector, John Strode, to the King’s cause.
Since early times a ferry must have existed between Dittisham and Greenway. In the days before motor transport, goods, people and cattle were carried by boat between local villages and towns. At the beginning of this century it was a common sight to see cattle driven down Manor Street; sometimes penned overnight, in what is now the Pound House and taken on the horse ferry to Greenway Quay, to be driven to the Tuesday market in Galmpton.
The horse ferry was a float propelled by two extra long oars – and very strong men! This was succeeded in later years by a float pushed by a launch which could carry two cars. This in turn was replaced by a ‘water jet’ ferry which carried six cars. That ferry finally finished in 1974. There is now only a passenger ferry, and it is traditionally still summoned by ringing the bell.
In the middle of the river, near Vipers Quay, is the ‘Anchor Stone’ or ‘Scold Stone’ as some of the old books call it. Legend has it that the unfaithful wives of the village were tied to this as a ‘punishment for their sins’. In bygone days Dittisham men used to sell their wives – presumably the unfaithful ones! The last recorded sale was in the middle of the 19th century.
The advent of the Second World War brought change to this area, as it did universally. The shipyards down river were pressed into service to produce rapid shipbuilding programmes for the war effort. Volunteers and little boats from the Dart joined in the miracle of the Dunkirk rescue in 1940.
American service personnel began to arrive in the area in ever-increasing numbers in 1943, for the build-up to the invasion of Normandy. South Devon became a vast army camp, with soldiers bivouacked in the surrounding countryside and the narrow lanes choked with convoys of lorries, tanks and jeeps. The river at Dittisham again played its part in providing safe anchorage for large numbers of the invasion landing craft which crowded the Dart. On the opposite bank at Sandridge and at Greenway Quay, the craft were provisioned and repaired. What is now The Anchor Stone Cafe, opposite The Ferry Boat Inn, was often pressed into service as a first-aid post after enemy raids on the invasion fleet. On June 5th, 1944, 485 landing craft and support vessels, left the Dart to join with thousands of others to carry out the greatest amphibious landing in history.
Many evacuees came to live in the village during the war years, and some still return after more than 60 years, to relive old memories and look up old friends.
The life in the village changed dramatically after the end of the second world war. In earlier times Dittisham enjoyed near self-sufficiency in craftsmen, supporting carpenters, tailors, stonemason and coffinmaker etc. Also many farm labourers and shipyard workers who were employed at the Noss Shipyard two miles down river. For example, in the late 40’s and early 50’s, as many as thirty village men were taken by boat to the shipyard each morning. Those prosperous days changed in not much more than a decade; shipbuilding declined and the jobs disappeared; farms became more mechanised and no longer had the need for so many labourers. In human terms it meant change – the people left the village to find work elsewhere, particularly the young. With the population depleted, craftsmen were forced to leave or retire and the village school to close.
Also, in the years following the war the tourist trade flourished, reaching a peak in the 50’s. In that era, as before the war, the beautiful old paddle steamers plied the river between Dartmouth and Totnes and, if a flag was raised, calling at Dittisham Pier for passengers on the way. The famous plum crop, baskets of daffodils and snowdrops also travelled to Totnes market this way. The existing pier is all that remains of a much longer one which served the village for many years. In those days as many as six tripper boats, from Torbay and Teignmouth, used to tie up – three abreast against the pier – and there were three large and two small cafes to cope with the flood of visitors. In the late 50’s the pier was sold privately, after first being offered to the village. It was turned down due to the cost of repairs – it is still in private hands and no landing is permitted.
The advent of the car for every family gave people freedom from public transport and meant they could commute to work from the village. This brought new families to these picturesque surroundings, and with them, some modest rebuilding took place. In recent years the village has become a popular place to retire or have a second home, this has meant the value of village property is relatively high. It also means the village can be quiet and peaceful but at other times busy and vibrant, also the number of moorings and the quantity of private craft using the river have increased enormously. The village – and the river – still cope, changing with the times, as it always has, to survive.