Thursday, June 18, 2020






16TH MARCH 2005

AM  If you would like to make a start.


Well my parents are both real Brixham, family tree goes back to 1600 and something, my father was born in 1879 and my mother in 1880.  My grandmother, his mother, is 1853.

AM That’s amazing isn’t it.  What was your Maiden name?

SG Tyrer

AM Tyrer – how do you spell it?

SG Tyrer. It’s a fairly unusual name, but there were some in Liverpool but we don’t really know much.  Somebody remarked to my mother (called Tarley?)  - you tar? anybody (laughter).  They both grew up in Brixham.  My father went to America in a sailing ship when he was six weeks old, so goodness knows how he survived that. (AM – oh yes, amazing).  But he survived.  There were eight of them in his family, and they seem to be dotted about.  There were twins and one died and was buried in Malta.  Four of them survived, two girls and my father and another brother, the twin.

AM And they were born in Brixham were they all the family?

SG Yes.  And I don’t know where exactly my father was born.  My mother was born in Waterloo House, that’s opposite the Coastguard station (stands back from the road) and there were seven of them, five girls, two boys, one boy died on his first voyage at sea.  He had yellow fever.

AM  What was your mother’s Maiden name?

SG Dugdall, I can’t find anything much about the Dugdalls.

AM It’s still a well-known family in the area isn’t it because you sometimes see it mentioned in the papers?

SG There aren’t any around.

AM There aren’t?

SG No. Stanley Churchill, that business, you know the estate agents, that was originally my grandfather’s business.  He was a registrar of births, deaths and marriages, and apparently he sold houses, and he was an auctioneer on the quay as well. And I don’t know an awful lot about them, but obviously my parents remained in Brixham.     (AM – no)

AM So when your father went to America how long did he go for?

SG Well he just went on a voyage.  When they left this country you never knew when they were coming back.  (AM – no). But this is terrible for a baby, six weeks old, on a sailing ship.

AM I suppose people were much more intrepid in those days.

SG Yes they were tough, really.  If Grandma was on another voyage, she’d make her way to somewhere in Spain to wait for Grandfather, she’d get there, and I mean it’s most amazing.

AM So whereever your Grandfather was sailing to she would try and get there to meet him?

SG Yes if she didn’t go with him, she’d probably meet him.  But they were quite callous with their children.  My father was out at Belstone on the Moors for a long time, living and being educated.  You know they were really quite callous I think, to children.

AM That’s amazing isn’t it.  So did you have relatives out at Belstone?

SG No.  I think this was the village school or something.  It was when he was quite young.  He couldn’t have minded it because we used to go back and see where he lived and the schoolmistress when I was quite a child.  My mother went to some local school I think. She did.  Some of her sisters went away to school.

AM What age was she when she left school?

SG I don’t know.  Then she worked at the Post Office when she left school.  She was a Civil Servant.

AM Yes that was quite a respectable job for a nice brought-up lady! Where was the Post Office then?

SG Where was it?  When I remember it. Do you know the Methodist Church, it was next door to that, the vegetable shop, that side (AM Yes I know Stokes), then it moved to where the undertaker is, then it went back Fore St, but there were quite a few friends who all knew each other in the Post Office.  My father was a grocer, he wasn’t in good health.  I think it was probably due to Granny, his mother, but she got fed up with Grandfather having shipwrecks, it was only my thinking that she got him to go into business and come ashore, because once when she was with him she had a baby washed off her lap, in the wheelhouse.

AM And what happened to the baby, did it drown?

SG Yes, Grandfather and another man were washed overboard but of course they could help themselves, and hang on, but the baby was lost  (it was terrible).  But apparently she had been through a fortune teller who said if you take a baby away with you, you won’t bring him back.  I’m surprised that she went!

AM Can you remember the names of any of the ships that your Grandfather sailed on?

SG Yes, a lot of houses, they used to call the houses when they came ashore. Roxborough up Victoria Hill (AM Yes I’ve seen that), that one, my father grew up there, there’s only a tiny bit left of the original they built all around it, I’ve got a photo of that somewhere.  Our house was Rothiemay Castle.  They were all Castles, Union Castle line, and you know they came ashore and called their houses after their ships.

AM  It’s nice to have the link between the sea and the land, it was very interesting. I think it’s extraordinary losing a baby like that.

SG Like I said, they were callous and there were plenty more where that came from (laughter). (AM I suppose they were weren’t they.)  If my parents were away abroad with friends, “oh you’re always looking for someone’s grave somewhere”! (laughter)

AM So when your father finished his education in Belstone did he come back to Brixham then?

SG Yes, mind I shouldn’t think he remained with Belstone the whole time.  Somebody told me he went to Lauriston Hall, the school in Torquay.

AM Is the school still there?

SG No. I never heard him mention it.  As I say, Granny (interruption) .. you know.  Another time he was run down.  They were in sail then Grandpa went into steam, Granny said she felt she’d lost all her dignity when they went into steam.  When he was in steam, a most unusual thing, he was run down by sail.  You know the rule is steam keeps out of the way of sail.  There was a big lawsuit up in London and the sail was in the wrong.  We had all the details but unfortunately one of my brothers lent it to somebody, he couldn’t remember who he lent it to and it has been lost. (AM What a pity.)  I’ll try to get my niece to find out. I know roughly the date, there will have been something in the newspapers I suppose.

AM Roughly what date will it have been do you think, can you remember the name of the sail?

SG Well I’ve got it somewhere.  She’s a journalist and she’s in a good position to go poking around but she hasn’t done anything.  Well I’ve got something somewhere about it.

AM It certainly sounds the sort of thing that would have been reported in a newspaper, particularly if there was a lawsuit as well.

SG As I say, I  presume Granny got the money to buy a business which was, do you know St Peter’s Hill or Sheepy Lane Hill?  (AM I don’t but I’ve heard it mentioned.) That’s St Peter’s Hill. (AM Why was it called Sheepy Hill?) Well they sent the sheep down there. (AM Well it’s an obvious thing.) I’ve got a feeling I drove a car down there once.  I’m almost certain I drove down there.  It was very narrow.  This shop was where the Co-op tourist place is. (AM Yes I know.) I’ve got .. there’s a photo of it in… one of Chips Barber’s books,  he’s got quite a few things about Brixham. And then my father was sent to Slades in Torquay, who were a very good grocers, to learn his trade. Then when my Grandparents retired he took over.  Then he got married about 1903 I think, and he had built three shops opposite.  You know there’s rather a nice sort of gift shop (AM Yes) down the front, and then a mucky shop, you know selling holiday stuff. (AM Is the shop you mean Trudi’s, with the double-front, (SG Yes) – it has all sort of foreign carvings and that sort of thing (SG yes better than some of them in Brixham) and then you say there’s the cheaper shop next door isn’t there.  SG And then there’s the Pilgrim Restaurant. Well he had the double-front as a grocer, the next one was a chemist and the next one was a bakery and a restaurant and he put managers in all these.  It amazes me because he was in very poor health; in fact my mother told me that the doctor said he shouldn’t hear a baby cry.  They had three young sons then.  It just amazes me that there were very good people who lent him money for all this.

AM Well he must have been a very respectable gentleman, mustn’t he, for people to have a} lent him money and b) to support a chap who wasn’t terribly well.

SG Yes you know I think it’s very good of people and of course everybody knew everybody (AM Yes they did didn’t they.  He must have been a very good businessman though to have had help.) SG Yes my husband used to say he must have been very good. He was very keen on Brixham, Brixham needs this you know, because he was involved at the Berry Head Hotel when he retired.

AM How do you mean involved? Did you mean he started it up.  SG Yes.

SG It was just vacant, empty you know after Miss Hogg died.  First of all, he had a grocery and also a coal business as well.  And trains used to come into Brixham with trucks with coal and sacked up.  Think of all the work they had to do.

AM He must have employed a lot of people in Brixham?

SG Yes I suppose he did.

AM He must have been a great benefactor to the community in that respect mustn’t he, of course.

SG He used to help the trawlers after the first World War, and I know he couldn’t lend them money because he didn’t have that much, you know helping them with mortgages that sort of thing.  They had this coal business, and when he retired from the shop he had an office at the bottom of King St, well I suppose it was where the hairdresser is at the bottom of  (Temperance) Steps.  We said he kept this office (coal) so he had somewhere to write his letters. But he couldn’t keep still. He had to be getting on with that.. Do you know Breakwater Court, (AM Yes) well that was a field, and he thought what Brixham needs, this would have been in the thirties, Brixham needs a nice café/restaurant, and he got three others, a solicitor, a man from Paignton who had a bakery and a restaurant, and another man from away perhaps he put some money up..I don’t know if he had any particular put into it, and they built a café. There was a nice big room so that they could have dances and things in the evenings.  A big piece in front, a garden, but it was summer.  (AM How wonderful!) – it was where Breakwater Court is. And that went on for a bit.

AM Is that the place you see sometimes in local history books, that had people walking around and car park and all sorts of activities and things, like fetes?

SG Rather had dances there.  (AM Yes dances they had)  That sort of thing. And he was most particular that Broxholme, the house the other side of the road, that their view was not blocked. (AM That was very nice of him.)

SG The main building was sort of close to the entrance of Shoalstone.  Anyhow it wasn’t a very high building.  I don’t know how long that went on.  When that was doing well they put that money they made to buy Berry Head House, they made that into a hotel because Brixham needed a hotel.  There was the Northcliffe at that time. And I don’t know whether the café went on being a café, but the army had it during the war as a canteen you know and  Berry Head was a family hotel, it was difficult to get a licence in those days, but they didn’t want a licence anyhow. It was very difficult to get drink licences during those days (AM Yes) they refurbished it.

AM So what did your mother do all this time, stayed at home and brought up the children?

SG Four brothers.  She used to help in the business I think in the early days because they lived over it I suppose.

AM So where do you come in the order of children?

SG The last! (AM So you are the baby!) Yes my youngest brother was six years older than me, the eldest was 12 years older.  When the family got a bit big they bought a cottage up at Furzeham, opposite the railway, I don’t know if you might recognise it. It had got a big wide door, solid door at the top of the hill. (AM At the top of Ropewalk Hill? Is it the one next to the school?) Yes,  (AM Yes I do know it.)

SG  We used to go up there in the summer, a nice big garden, mother used to pay us so much for catching snails. (laughter)  And the horse that drew the coal thing, delivered the coal, the horse lived there, used to come in.  I said we were the first to have a second homes.  (AM It sounds like it doesn’t it)  

AM So where the children’s football pitch and that sort of thing, was that still a local space for that sort of thing?

SG Yes it was always a green.  But my brothers went to school at Furzeham you know in the early days.  One of my brothers took me in once.  I was very small. I don’t know just to see what happened so, but I didn’t like it so I had to come back. But we moved out to Berry Head Road and I think I was about three years old but I can remember a long way back, just odd things.  Because you know Callaghans went there.  (AM Yes)  I think my grandfather nearly went to prison over something over there, because he reckoned they weren’t educating the children, and he wouldn’t pay his rates.  Anyhow it’s still going strong I think, isn’t it? (AM Yes) They had some characters, some of the headmasters were characters, Spot Smardon, have you heard of him? (AM I have heard of him yes) Well he was more or less my father’s generation. (AM I often wondered why he was called spot) I don’t know.  Whether he had a bald spot.  He was quite a character.  Well he’s got a grand-daughter in Brixham  (AM Is that Isobel, Barker, yes I do know Issy Barker).

AM So which school did you end up going to?

SG Well I went.  It was called Hillside College when I first went.  You know those Saxon Heights (AM Yes) well it was there. The grounds were a bit of a mixture, then it became Parkham Wood School.  I didn’t go to school until I was about seven. I don’t know.  You walked in, you walked home to lunch, you walked back again. Then I went to Boarding School when I was eleven.

AM Was that a boarding school in Devon?

SG   No, Bristol. Badminton, you know, it’s not a very big school, it’s a very good school but it’s not one of the big thousand ones.  That was very tough.  When I had sort of been the queen at Brixham, then I was nothing (laughter).

AM So were you terribly homesick?

SG We had cold baths every morning at school and ran up the drive before school.  I said it was a female Gordounstown really.  But it was a very good school but oh you did work hard, you never had a minute to yourself. (AM I think we call it character building) Something like that.  I think there were lots of other things, that I would have liked to have been in the choir but I just felt that I haven’t got time, you had to do three quarters of an hour music practice every evening.

AM Did your brothers go to boarding schools?

SG Yes They went to Queens College, Taunton, that’s the Methodist or was a Methodist, because my father was a Methodist. My mother was actually was Church of England but latterly she only went to the Methodist. I think there was some talk of my eldest brother going to the Exeter Cathedral because he had quite a good voice.   My grandfather blew up I think because he was a Methodist.

AM So as a family were you church goers?

SG Well we used to go every Sunday more or less, when we were young. You had your own pew or whatever.

AM As a family which church did you go to?

SG The Methodist in Fore Street.  I was christened there, I was married there.  It used to be full up in those days.  It had a very good choir.

AM When you eventually left school, how old were you when you left school?

SG I was 17, just, so actually the last year I had peritonitis in the Easter holidays, and in those days there were no drugs, you had to fight it yourself, I was in hospital for 8 weeks.

AM Is that in Brixham?

SG Yes.  I came down for Easter, I missed the summer term entirely. I went back in the autumn just to take the schools certificate, Matric, you know. I just did the bare five, we had to have five subjects you know, Maths, English, Latin or French. I took the bare ones and then worked in the sixth form with the people I had been with before.

AM Do you remember any of the names of the staff at the hospital, any of the doctors?

SG Miss Emsley, she was the Matron.  I think there was a nurse Kappler or something.  I don’t think they had a very big staff, there was Matron and another Sister, I think, and a couple of staff nurses, and a couple of students.  I knew I was worried I thought what am I costing my father all this time?  It was four guineas a week.  That was quite a lot then.  (AM Yes it was, wasn’t it.)  Yes because we forget we are so used to the National Health Service we forget before it came into being that everybody had to pay for their own treatment.  Well the hospital was ‘voluntary’. But if people couldn’t pay I suppose they were taken in.  But I had a private ward, they also did maternity there.  I had this pain and the doctor came and told me I had got appendicitis, and the surgeon came from Torquay to look at me.  And I went and had the operation that evening at about 8 o’clock.

AM What about anaesthetic? Did you have anything like that?

SG Yes But I had tubes in the stomach, it was quite painful (AM I’m sure).  It was funny, another brother of mine, we liked to have an operation to see what it’s like, a funny idea, and we both did and we both had pretty rotten ones because he had much the same thing.  He nearly died actually, but we both survived.

AM So what did you both think of your operations after you had them. Was it worth wishing for?

SG I don’t think so.  I think M&B had just started then, the drug, there was nothing for me, because I can remember when the hospital was a field as well.

AM When was the hospital built?

SG Around about 1928 perhaps.  Yes, probably around about 28.  I can remember going to a circus in this field when I was very young, Bronco Bill something was on.  Because the old hospital was up Cavern Hill, you know that don’t you. Miss Hogg donated it.   Charlie Hellyer gave the new building – he was the husband of my Great Aunt.  Grandpa didn’t like him very much.  He gave it, had it built, but Brixham had to do the endowment fund you see there was no health service, and they raised about £25,000 or £35,000 as an endowment (AM that’s a lot of money), they worked and they worked.  A friend of mine who lived up Manor Road, she gave – they had a biggish house with a billiard room – she gave that up and they had sold clothes to order like, you know, they made and made things and then they had a two-day sale in the Town Hall, the main hall, and I don’t know, I think they must have almost raised it.  I can remember, I don’t know how long they were, I can remember my mother working at this lot.  Of course they’d get other people to do things.. You know I can remember having some pyjamas that were beastly (laughter).

AM Were you very fashion conscious as a young girl?

SG I don’t know about fashion, but when I was a child I wouldn’t wear things I didn’t like, because mother had made, knitted me a jumper or something, and I threw it on the fire.  I know my brothers were horrified. I liked blue and mother didn’t think blue suited me.  She was going to buy something for a frock, velvet, and she came home with pink and so I was furious.  And something else, an ordinary frock, had a sort of cape on it, I wouldn’t wear it, I had to take the cape off.  You know.  So I suppose I was fashion conscious.

AM You said before we started recording that Brixham was very self-contained, as regards the shops and things.  So presumably anything that anybody wanted you could get locally?

SG Yes, I think she’d go to Torquay to buy materials perhaps, but there were a couple of drapers, shoe shops, I don’t know how many grocers shops, ours, the Co-op, Lees in Bolton Street, Perkes, Chards and another one if I can remember. In all that number there was only about 10,000 population.  Three or four grocers, butchers.

AM What about the shops around the harbour area?  Were they all to do with the fishing industry and boats and things?

SG Well there was nothing very much.  They were very small shops, you know the sweet shop.  I don’t remember. A lot of it was stores round the harbour.  The fishermen’s institute was more or less facing as you come round from Fore Street, right up the end the fishermen’s institute was there, then they moved away. I can’t remember an awful lot about the harbour.

AM What about the trawlers?

SG Well we all took a great interest in the trawlers.  If one was lost, you know everybody, the whole town mourned.  (AM Yes)

AM Did you ever go on one as a child?

SG Yes I raced, when I was grown up.  The regatta was marvellous.

AM Tell me about the regatta because it must have been very different from the one they have these days.

SG I don’t call it a regatta now! Well I think the shops closed in the afternoon anyhow it was all put into two days: sailing, both starting each morning.  In the afternoon of the first day was the swimming sports; depending on the tide where they held it, you see, it was in the harbour.  [In the afternoon of the second day] the athletic sports up at Furzeham.

AM Was this for adults, or children or both?

SG Well youngsters. And the Navy came in for the regatta, that was marvellous. The Bay was full of naval ships, really full up, and they had such nice searchlight displays in the evening. And the sailors were all over the town and they’d come up to the athletics and lark about you know (laughter). You know it was lovely, I say I preferred the regatta to Christmas, you know, you looked forward, they had a fair, that’s still on but it’s a very poor affair now, that was solid, packed, and you saved up your money to go on things.

AM Was it in the same place, up on Furzeham Green?

SG Yes and people working away would try to get home for the regatta.  You’d meet all the people you hadn’t seen for ages, you know.  Well as I say it was lovely, and two or three times I raced on a trawler for THE, you know THE? (AM No) Well no. I don’t know, I think my father must have helped on Bill Harris? Because he was always in on anything that Dad was doing, so we raced on THE once or twice. They took out everything down below to lighten the boat, you know, there wasn’t very much down below anyhow.

AM How many members of crew did they have?

SG I don’t know.  There’s a photo of me in one of Chips Barber’s with Tom ? and another friend, on Guess Again (AM Yes I’ve heard of Guess Again) We were down in Cornwall somewhere (St Ive’s you know..      after the war, there was a boat there and I said that’s a Brixham Trawler, you can tell by the lines, and it was Guess Again! (AM Amazing!) I know you only remember the nice things but it was such a community, you know, in Brixham.  A child was quite safe, because people, everybody knew who you were, I mean if there was the likelihood of any danger.

AM What happened, if for instance, you had a very very bad winter and the boats couldn’t go out and catch fish, how did people manage, how did they survive for their income?

SG I don’t really know, but, because there wasn’t any, you know, nothing, unemployment pay. I suppose they saved up when they were [fishing] because they used to go across to Newfoundland to trawl, and also to South Wales.

AM Did you get the impression there was any great hardship?

SG Oh yes I should think there was a lot of hardship.  But I was born in 1917 towards the end of the war, and I should think things were very hard.  A lot of the trawls got damaged with wrecks, with used trawls.  I don’t know people got on with their lives then, they had to.  I think they are made very soft now, you know, (AM I quite agree) this nanny business, conkers might fall down and hurt the children .oh ..

AM Did you and your brothers play conkers and marbles and that sort of thing?

SG Played Marbles, I don’t know..  Iron hooks, you never saw.. (AM Yes I have seen) the boys were than the girls, (AM Were you a bit of a tomboy do you think?) Oh I should think so, yes, I had an aunt who was very sniffy, and she’d meet me, Where are your gloves!!  But I suppose with four brothers they used to knock me about.

AM So you must have grown up quite a tough lady?

SG You know one of my brothers said if you don’t do this by so-and-so, (by?) the time I could, he would do something to me.  He was the one who was most fond of me.

AM So apart from the regatta were there any other celebrations that the town used to hold as a regular event?

SG The Operatic.  That’s still going on.  That was excellent. They used to win the West of England competition.  They had all the church choirs, they had wonderful voices, it was good I mean it wasn’t just that we were local. But that was funny because one time they used to run Thursday to Saturday, and then it got further back, it ran for so many days. And you had to queue up to book and the booking

AM What about the Cinema?  Do you remember when the Cinema opened or had it been opened for quite a while?

SG Oh yes! I remember the Cinema, I remember about it being opened. But it’s roughly where Woolworths was (not Woolworths now), further on, the Community Hall, more or less about there.  We used to go on Saturday afternoons for sixpence I think and we would go in the balcony and throw stink bombs down below (laughter).

AM Did you ever get chased by the Manager and booted out?

SG No! We didn’t.  I also remember, I don’t know how old I was, they used to (evidently) have showings occasionally, it must have been in the Scala, and I can remember my father taking me and one or two brothers to a Charlie Chaplin film, it would have been the Scala, so that would have been before the Cinema was opened.  I can remember going to that and I think there was a hut on a precipice and I think it kept tipping over!  But it was only that one occasion I can remember.  There was the pantomime at Torquay at Christmas,  that was the highlight, on Boxing Day we would go to the pantomime.  But along Berry Head Road there were all retired sea captains, and I’d go along with them sometimes, a lot of us were related.

AM What about the other side, the Furzeham side?

SG Well it was not antagonistic, but it was more-or-less separate, you know. And then there was Higher Brixham, that was more a separate part.

AM So really Brixham was three little chunks was it? It was sort of Higher Brixham, Furzeham and the town area? (SG Berry Head)

SG Berry Head was supposed to be the smartest area – it certainly isn’t now!

AM They’ve certainly got some very beautiful houses up there now though haven’t they?

SG Yes, the ones that had turrets, a local man built most of them; apparently his sister used to do the plans.  She was a school teacher, and they had a tea place, at the very end of Berry Head Road where they knocked the house down, and it’s a car park now. (AM Yes).  She taught at Furzeham. (AM Do you remember her name?) SG Hayman, do you know the name? (AM No) And she’d walk up to Furzeham, come home to lunch, walk back again. And all that. And lots of his houses you can tell Hayman built that because there used to be a turret. (AM That was his signature was it, the turret?) SG Yes. The one next to us I suppose.

AM Did your father have anything to do with Uphams at all?

SG No. We were related to them, Percy’s wife was Dad’s cousin, I suppose.  But, they had the first cars in Brixham. 

AM It must have been quite exciting to have had a car. Do you remember the first time you rode in one?

SG Well the first one I can remember was a Beardmore, in fact they had one before but I can’t remember that.  Beardmore was a Scottish firm, in fact they built all the London taxis, and they started building private cars when Dad and Mr Seagrim in Paignton (he built the Breakwater), they had one of these cars each, and the firm asked Dad to take his back after a year or something, so they could have a good old look at it, and they went up to Scotland, drove up, and left the car there, you know, they lent him one for going about. When I went to London, I was eleven, I said oh Beardmores and saw the taxis!

AM So were there garages locally where you could buy cars or did you have to go somewhere else to get it?

SG No, there weren’t any, nothing.  But  petrol

AM So what was the first garage in Brixham, can you remember?

SG There was one, you know, Bells? Garage. There was one in Berry Head Road – Rollings – but I mean that was quite comparatively recently. I don’t really remember.  Oh Rutter, that was Bells, you know, next door to the Conservative Club he was the first one I can remember.  I don’t remember much about cars, I don’t like cars anyway.

AM Do you hate them even now?

SG Yes, I mean I learned to drive when I was young for a job. But, funnily, my father didn’t like driving, but he was one of the first.  And he and Uncle Percy used to go up to the motor show every year and they’d go up, I remember they’d go up overnight, and stay there and come back again next day.

AM I think that’s a good enough place to stop, I think.

PS  May 1st was ‘ducking day’ – the fire brigade hosed Prince William and the Town Hall.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Surgeon George James Guthrie at the Berry Head Forts, Spring 1801

Featured in the Berry Head Forts display at Brixham Heritage Museum, there is a short account of surgeon George James Guthrie and his role at the battle of Albuera, the “bloodiest battle” of the Peninsular War (1808 – 1814). This article presents a more detailed examination of his connection with the Berry Head Forts, and also briefly reviews his later accomplishments during the Peninsular War and afterwards, in civilian life.

Button illustrated above was discovered by the museum's Field Research team during the 2005 Berry Head excavations. This may have been from the uniform of an army medical officer based at the garrison hospital, accidentally lost during a routine or emergency call-out to attend to a soldier in the southern fort(fort1). 

Surgeon George James Guthrie at the battle of Albuera May 16th 1811 [Reconstruction drawing by Rose Coulton]

Berry Head House 1906, built as the garrison hospital, in 1809. [vintage postcard; collections Kate and Phillip Armitage]

Who was George James Guthrie?

George James Guthrie (1785 – 1856) is regarded by modern medical professionals and historians as “the greatest British surgeon of the Peninsular War”, who revolutionised surgical procedures on the battlefield and in military field hospitals and, later, in his civilian career, became renowned as “a master of ophthalmic and general surgery”. 1

Entry to the army medical services – and arrival at Berry Head 1801

Guthrie began his military career, joining the 29th (later Worcestershire) Regiment of Foot as the newly appointed assistant surgeon, when the headquarters staff and five companies of this regiment were stationed at Berry Head, in May 1801, under the command of Lt. Col. Frederick Montagu. 2 Other companies of the 29th were sent at this time to Totnes and Dartmouth and detachments to Exeter and Paignton. The regiment’s presence in Devon was in response to the rioting and civil unrest then breaking out throughout the west country, ignited by escalating grain prices (following poor harvests in 1799 and 1800), high taxation and low wages.3

Remarkably, Guthrie was just 16 years of age when he took up his new position, having previously (June 1800) gained some experience of working as a surgeon’s mate at the York Hospital, Chelsea, and then demonstrating his surgical competence by passing the qualifying membership examination set by the Royal College of Surgeons, London. Guthrie’s age on his first military appointment would not have been considered unusual, however. As discussed by Howard. 4 for the ambitious young men at that period, age was no bar to entry to the army medical profession. A slightly older contemporary of Guthrie’s, James McGrigor, in 1793, first purchased his commission in the 88th Foot (Connaught Rangers) when 22 years old. McGrigor went on to become Director General of the British Army Medical Department.

“Sharp winds” on Berry Head, Spring 1801

What was facing young Guthrie on the windswept headland occupied by the two Berry Head forts 5 that Spring?

It would have been immediately apparent to him on arriving, that even the familiar, basic medical facilities he had previously had access to in the York Hospital in London were lacking; there was not a purpose-built garrison hospital until 1809, eight years after Guthrie had left with his regiment for service overseas. He would have therefore had to examine and treat sick or injured soldiers in their barracks, an entirely unsatisfactory location for any medical practitioner, owing to the often, deplorable conditions to be found in army barracks at that period.

Like many other semi-permanent barracks hurriedly erected elsewhere in Britain in response to the French invasion threat, those at Berry Head consisted of single-storey, prefabricated wooden hutments. These hutments were found to be far from ideal, as is evident from complaints by Lt. Col. Bastard, who commanded the 1st Devon Militia garrisoned at Berry Head October 1798 6 – who reported that the barracks were in need of whitewashing, the windows of barrack no. 1 leaked, the chimney of no. 3 smoked, and the guttering (drainage) unhealthy and offensive. A further unfavourable observation of the Berry Head barracks comes from Ensign Thornton William Keep of the 28th Regiment (who was there in 1811), which he described as “mean diminutive wooden sheds…composed of thin planks”. 7  

Crowded together in each of the five barracks at Berry Head (in 1801) would be upwards of 100 soldiers, together with wives and children of the married men. 8 Here the occupants ate, slept and spent much of their off-duty hours confined in an environment with very limited personal space or privacy. Lack of inside washing and toilet facilities further rendered such barracks insanitary. An indication of the deplorable state of such quarters is evident from a report by the Army Medical Board in Dublin, in 1799, which declared “the filth and unventilated state of a barrack room can only be conceived by those who have frequently visited such apartments before cleansing day”. Typhus and other contagious diseases often ran rife through such overcrowded barracks, resulting in high frequencies of death. Newly arrived militia recruits coming from isolated farming communities especially were prone to these, as they did not possess any degree of acquired natural immunity

compared to their contemporaries from the towns.  

There was, in many barracks, a high incidence of “diseases and complaints of the lung”, which Guthrie also encountered at Berry Head - as he reflects in his seminal work A Treatise on Gun-Shot Wounds 1820”: 9

In the spring of 1801, the regiment to which I belonged was exposed to the sharp winds on the Berry Head, the southerly headland of Torbay, and many suffered from inflammation of the lungs, some strong, some weak persons, others old, others young, and of various constitutions. I treated them as I had been taught in London; almost all of those who were first attacked, young and old, died”.

Clearly, not an auspicious start to his military career, and the officers and men “began to feel uneasy” as to his qualifications and skills, as Guthrie himself admits. However, Guthrie was only following what was then the common medical practice of bloodletting (also termed venesection or phlebotomy), applied to treat many ailments and even major traumatic injuries (including severe battlefield wounds!), in order to remove impurities from the blood. 10 Guthrie, rather than abandoning completely the procedure, modified the bleeding regime for another patient with “pleural inflammation”, drawing a smaller quantity of blood and only until “an obvious effect was produced, and his breathing became free, and the pain was nearly or entirely removed”. Guthrie recorded, “The man rapidly recovered; so did others to my satisfaction”. 

Encouraged by this apparently evident success at Berry Head, Guthrie, throughout the early stages of the Peninsular campaigns, continued to carry out the practice of bloodletting when treating battlefield casualties. Modern medical commentators suggest that, in patients with incipient heart failure associated with pneumonia (as at Berry Head, in some of the soldiers treated by Guthrie), bleeding may indeed have proved beneficial. However, while Guthrie went on to revolutionise traumatic battlefield surgery and was rightly acclaimed for this, he was certainly in error to continue this practice of bloodletting more generally - it was not the “universal panacea” he believed. 11   In Guthrie’s defence, it should be noted he was not alone among the British army surgeons, who, throughout the war, continued also this mis-guided, potentially fatal practice.  It is significant that, by 1827 - 1828, when working as surgeon at the Royal Westminster Ophthalmic Hospital (see below) Guthrie was no longer following the practice of bloodletting carried out in cases of inflammation of the eye and, instead, had formulated specific ointments for applying directly to the eyes of those affected, with a series of notable successes, as reported in the contemporary medical journals. 12

 Military career after Berry Head 13

Halifax, Nova Scotia 1802 – 1807

In early June 1801, the headquarters staff and eight companies of the 29th Regiment marched to barracks in Plymouth, leaving three companies on detachment at Berry Head. It is not apparent, in the available records, whether Guthrie remained with the detachments at Berry Head, or went with the headquarters and eight companies to Plymouth.   However, it is recorded, the entire regiment was garrisoned in Plymouth by October of that year. Then, on 24th June 1802, the regiment embarked on transports at Stonehouse, bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia, which would be the regiment’s home base for the next five years. Whilst in Canada, in 1806, Guthrie (aged 21) married Margaret Gordon (aged 27), daughter of Walter Patterson, The Lieutenant-Governor of Prince Edward Island.

The regiment departed Halifax in June 1807 bound for England, where they stayed in various barracks until embarking on transports at Falmouth on 25th February 1808, sailing to Spain to join the fighting in the Peninsula.

Surgery in the Peninsula 1808 – 1814

Two episodes serve to illustrate Guthrie’s organisational abilities, surgical skills and fortitude in dealing with battlefield casualties during the hard-fought campaigns of the Peninsular War.

During two days of the Talavera campaign, 27th and 28th July 1809, the 29th Regiment had 36 rank and file killed, and of the wounded, 1 captain, 1 lieutenant and 140 rank and file. Following the fighting, the small Spanish town of Talavera became crowded with the great numbers of wounded. It was noted 14 that the regiment’s surgeon, Guthrie, “through his action and energy” was, however “soon able to lodge them” and attend to their wounds. By ensuring wounded from his own regiment were collected and treated in a single building in town, serving as a temporary hospital, their care was far better than that experienced by others, who had been scattered indiscriminately in the general treatment locations. 15

At Albuera (May 16th 1811), the scene of the bloodiest and for several British regiments, arguably the most costly-won battle of the Peninsular War, 16 Guthrie (now promoted to Staff Surgeon) was the most senior surgeon present and found himself with overall responsibility for 3,000 wounded, with only four wagons for their removal to the village of Valverde, the nearest shelter, seven miles away. For three weeks, Guthrie and the regimental surgeons worked unceasingly on the wounded, with only limited surgical equipment available.  

In 1812, Guthrie was appointed Deputy-Inspector of army hospitals, in charge of seven divisions of cavalry and infantry, and a large hospital at Madrid.

Return to civilian life and Waterloo contribution 1814 - 1815

Guthrie left the military and returned to England in 1814 and had to rely on numerous former friends made during his years in the army for financial support. 17 Guthrie was in London at the time of Waterloo (Sunday June 18th 1815) and played no role at the battle, but hastened to Brussels immediately in the aftermath, in order to assist in tending to the wounded, performing what was at the time regarded as his most remarkable feat of surgery. A severely wounded French infantryman, François de Gray, captured during the battle, had been struck by a small cannon shot that shattered the head of his right femur. Guthrie successfully performed the highly dangerous procedure of removing the affected limb at the hip joint, and the man survived where others, in which this form of surgery had previously been attempted by fellow surgeons, had perished. 18 

Highlights of his post-war civilian career 1816 – 1856

In 1816, Guthrie founded the Westminster Ophthalmic Hospital, situated In the Strand, London. In 1823, was elected assistant surgeon at the hospital, and subsequently, appointed as full surgeon in 1827. In the same year, he was elected to the Royal Society. He was three times President of the Royal College of Surgeons of England (in 1833, 1841 and 1854).  

Guthrie died on his birthday in 1856.


 It is interesting that George Guthrie took the trouble to include a mention of his time at Berry Head in what became one of his major published works on surgery: A Treatise on Gun-Shot Wounds, on Injuries of Nerves, And on Wounds of the Extremities (1820). This seems to indicate that his experience as a young assistant army surgeon with the 29th (Worcestershire) regiment, garrisoned at Berry Head in the Spring of 1801, had left a lasting memory and influence on his later career.

Sources and Notes to the article

1 – Yearsley (1892: 9); Howell (1910: 40); Watts (1961: 22); Howard (2008: 156); Hurt (2008: 78); Crumplin (2010).

2 - Guthrie (1820: 38); Everard (1891: 250 – 251).

3 - In April 1801, a riotous crowd from Brixham protesting against high grain prices had been led by three officers of the Brixham Quay volunteers: Capt. George Sanders (a butcher), Lt. Peter Pridham (who kept a shop) and Collier (a schoolmaster) and also included all the men of the local Sea Fencibles (Gee 2003: 241).

4 - Howard (2008: 27).

5 – In 1794, a year after the French Republic declared war with England, the Ordnance Board established a coastal defensive gun battery at the tip of the headland at Berry Head, overlooking the important Royal Naval anchorage in Torbay. Protection of the gun battery from overland attack was provided by a permanent main fortification designated as Fort 3. Two smaller redoubts (Forts 1 and 2) were planned but only Fort 1 was built. Wooden hutments within the forts (four in Fort 3 and one in Fort 1) provided accommodation for the garrison of infantry soldiers and artillerymen. Pye (1989); Lawrance (2019).

Tiverton merchant Martin Dunsford provides an eyewitness account of the Berry Head fortifications and garrison at Berry Head c.1798 or 1799? (Dunsford 1800: 123). At Berry Head “was a battery of twelve pieces of cannon, forty-two pounders, each sixty-five hundredweight, and two or three smaller batteries, at several different places, on the descent towards Brixham, with the guns pointed in different directions towards the bay. Within the fortifications (earthen rampart) on the summit of the hill, are five barracks for about five hundred men. The Berkshire Militia were in them at this time and had a fine band of musicians”.

6 – Letter from Lt. Col. Bastard to the Board of Ordnance, dated October 8th 1798. Evans (1986: 17); Pye (1989: 7).

7 – Fletcher (ed.) (1997). Ensign Keep in a letter to his mother, written at Berry Head Oct. 27th 1811.

8 – While the wives of enlisted soldiers had to suffer the inconveniences of barrack accommodation, officers’ wives generally preferred to stay in lodgings in Brixham.

9 – Guthrie (1820: 38 & 39).

10 – Howard (2008:173).

11 – see Watts (1961: 767); Howard (2008: 174).

12 – For example, ten such cases are detailed in Johnson (ed.) 1828: 569 -571.

13 – Based on various sources, including Everard (1891); Yearsley (1892); Howell (1910); Watts (1961); Howard (2008); Hurt (2008); Crumplin (2010).

14 – Everard (1891: 308)

15 – see Crumplin (2010: 44) who also discusses Guthrie’s pioneering and successful approach in addressing what Guthrie considered the unnecessary delay in the amputation of arms and legs in battlefield casualties (which often resulted in complications from sepsis and infection), in favour of immediate aggressive surgery (ibid: 47).

16 – Among these regiments – The Fusilier Brigade lost 1,050 men out of strength of 1,500 and the 57th lost 23 officers and 400 men out of a total of 570. Everard (1891: 307).

17 – Hurt (2008: 75).

18 – Hurt (2008: 66 – 68); Crumplin (2010: 146).


Guthrie sources:

Crumplin, M. 2010   Guthrie’s War. A Surgeon of the Peninsula & Waterloo. Barnsley:  Pen & Sword Books Ltd.

Guthrie, G. J. 1815 reptd.1820 A Treatise on Gun-Shot Wounds, on Injuries of Nerves, And on Wounds of the Extremities. London: Burgess and Hill, Medical Booksellers. Second Edition (1820).

Dr Howard, M. 2008 Wellington’s Doctors. The British Army Medical Services in the Napoleonic Wars. Brimscombe Port, Gloucestershire: The History Press Ltd.

Major Howell, H. A. L. 1910 George James Guthrie, F.R.S., F.R.C.S.  Journal of the Royal Army Medical Corps Volume XIV No.6: 577 – 587. Downloaded from htt://military [accessed 03/05/2020]

Hurt, R. 2008 George Guthrie Soldier and Pioneer Surgeon. London: The Royal Society of Medicine Press.

Johnson, J. M. D. (editor) 1828   The Medico-Chirurgical Review and Journal of Practical Medicine. New Series. Volume Nine (Being vol. XIII of Analytical Series). New York: Republished by Richard and George S. Wood.

Downloaded from Google Books [accessed 25/05/2020]

Colonel Watts, J. C. 1961 George James Guthrie, Peninsular Surgeon. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine vol. 54 (9): 764 – 768. Downloaded from Sage Publications [accessed 28/05/2020].

Yearsley, P. M. 1892 George James Guthrie: A Biographical Sketch. London: Printed by Jas. Truscott & Sons. Paper read to the Guthrie Society on 9th June 1892. Wellcome Library. Downloaded from [accessed 25/05/2020].

Berry Head and Military sources:

Armitage, P. L. 2006   Excavations on Berry Head, 2005. Part 2: The “Old Redoubt” (Fort No. 1) Council for British Archaeology South-West Journal No.17, Summer A.D. 2006: 9 -13.

Dunsford, M. 1800 Miscellaneous Observations, In the Course of Two Tours, Through Several Parts of the West of England. Printed and Sold by E. Boyce, Fore-Street

Evans, D. 1986   The History of the Berry Head Fortifications. Report for the Bridge Agency {copy held by Brixham Heritage Museum].

Major Everard, H. 1891 History of Thos. Farrington’s Regiment subsequently Designated The 29th (Worcestershire) Foot 1694 to 1891. Worcester: Littlebury and Co., The Worcester Press.

Fletcher, I. (ed.) (1997) In The Service of the King. The Letters of William Thornton Keep, At Home, Walcheren, and in the Peninsula, 1808 – 1814. Staplehurst: Spellmount Ltd., pp. 71-72.

Gee, A. 2003 The British Volunteer Movement, 1794 – 1814. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lawrance, E. 2019 Defending Torbay. The Berry Head Fortifications. Brixham: Brixham Heritage Museum.

Pye, A. R.   (1989) Berry Head Fort, Brixham. An Archaeological Assessment. Exeter Museums Archaeology Field Unit Report No. 89.04.


My deep gratitude is expressed to Rose Coulton for producing the illustration of Guthrie at Albuera and sincere thanks are due to Cathy Craig for kindly reviewing and commenting on the draft. The illustrations of the Albuera scene and the Berry Head Hospital Staff button are the copyright of Brixham Heritage Museum. Any errors or omissions remain those of the author of the article.

Research & article by

Philip L. Armitage

31st May 2020

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Boat building in Brixham

By 1850 it would be safe to say that Brixham was probably the richest town on the south coast. This was due to the take-off of the fishing industry on a vast scale thanks partly to the new fishing grounds located at the Dogger bank and the introduction of the railway. It would also be true to say that the Brixham trading vessels, both fruit schooners and general trade vessels, were bringing in as much, if not more, than the fishing industry. This would not have been possible if not for the local boat builders who supplied some of the best designed and highest quality vessels there was at the time.

In 1804 an Admiralty survey identified 95 shipyards in the West Country with 7 of those located in Brixham. These yards would vary in size and manpower for instance the Benjamin Tanner yard in Dartmouth employed 68 shipwrights and 13 apprentices where the Richardson yard in Brixham relied on just 5 shipwrights but was offset with numerous apprentices. By 1821 Dartmouth, Brixham and Plymouth were the nation’s leading schooner builders. In the 1831 census there were more boat builders and shipwrights in Devon than in any other county apart from Kent. The years between 1824 and 1854 there were over 24 boatyards operating in Brixham.

It is not easy to say when boat building started in Brixham. Boats did not need to be registered till late in the 18th century. As fishing was around long before that it could be argued that many boats would be made locally at either Brixham or Dartmouth. Early registration also only denoted what town the vessel was made and not the actual boatyard this was also the case of the owners. An early boat built at Brixham was the ‘Two Brothers’. It was built in 1784 weighed in at 28 tons and was approximately 46 feet in length. In 1795 we see the owner mentioned for the first time and a fishing smack made in Brixham. The owners from new were Thomas and George Moses.

The Furneaux Family were the first to be documented as boat builders with Robert in 1798 located at the Kings Quay. The yard seems to have continued with various family members until ending as the ‘Furneaux Brothers’ from the early 1860s until 1874. The next two families created a local dynasty. The Mathews family seems to have started at Fishcombe Cove around 1815. The Dewdney family started around the same time at King Street upper yard and continued until 1906. The Matthew Family then seemed to merge with the Dewdney family and became the Dewdney Matthews and located beside the Dewdney boatyard at the King Street lower yard.

At the museum we are always being asked by model makers if we have any plans for the boats made at the Brixham boatyards. The answer is that most of the boatyards did not work from plans. They worked to solid wooden half models of the hull for which they scaled up measurements (we have a number of these half models at the museum) or chalked the measurements onto a floor. The hull was finished first and then launched and final fitting of the mast and all other equipment added afterwards.  

Not a lot of capital was needed to set up a boatyard or shipyard. All that was needed was suitable ground facing deep enough water to launch the boat. An old shed or two sheltered stores to work under cover with a partitioned off area to use as an office and even the tools that were used were owned by the shipwrights or carpenters themselves

            One of the main pieces of equipment that was required was an old vertical boiler attached to a long steam cabinet. This was used to steam long planks of wood to be able to bend them straight onto the hull of the boat and attach. The appearance of the yard was secondary it was the work that was produced there that spoke volumes for the yard and how skilled the builder was at choosing the timbers used. The wood was chosen from trees as they stood in the woods as opposed to a supplier’s catalogue. The builder could use his own judgement as to what would be of use and how bent branches or trunks could be used advantageously to add strength or be used more easily and economically. Edgar March writes;

‘’ These graceful curves came from the natural growth of timber, from age-old monarchs of the woods that long ago had stood in summer sun and winter cold, gentle rain and perishing blizzard, living out their lives in God’s free winds. Then, felled at the choice of men steeped in the lore of centuries of woodcraft, handed on from father to son- which fields and slopes provided trees most suitable for their requirements, as texture varies according to nourishment given by the soil-how long the logs should season in the rough before the slender saw ripped through the fibres and revealed the heart of oak, never before seen by mortal eyes, which started to form 120, 150 maybe 180 years before. As the keen blade cut its way through the baulk the very tang of the forest rose when the sweet scented dust fell in a gentle shower on the bottom sawyer.’                                                                                                                                          

Most of the shaping of wood was done with the aid of a tool called the Adze, a large broad bladed pickaxe type affair with smaller single handed ones used for more controlled or detailed work: planes, chisels and hand drills of various sizes were also used.

In 1853 to 1854 the boats coming out of Brixham yards were as follows;

Name of vessel
John Richardson
Sam'l Dewdney Matthews
170 ton
2 mast
Chris. Adams Green + 5 BM. Owners.
John Edw'd.Purchase.
Geo. Buckingham.
Nicholas Smith Drew & Wm. Drew.
Jeffery  & Wm. Jeffery Sanders. BM.
Peter Loye & James Evans
Galmpton & Dittisham owners
240 ton
Wm. Dart &  F.W. Baddeley
 ( 16/64 ea. ) + 5.
233 ton
Dan'l. Dewdney Matthews + 10 BM. Owners.
Witch O' The Wave
270 ton

Brixham was a small town so when it came to boatbuilding in respect of the intentions of the builder would be shared among the population. How could it not when most of the building was accomplished in the open. The people were well educated with the ongoing procedure and were there to celebrate with the builder the stages of production.

Elizabeth Ann Hall was born into a fishing family in 1895, and in her memoirs writes;

‘I remember how excited we were as children when launching was due to take place. Should it happen to be a vessel made to order by one of our relations, then, of course, we might have been on board for the ceremony. The ship would be standing upright in the shipyard, secured by strong stanchions or heavy planks. We would all be on board waiting for the last retaining plank to be knocked down, the christening ceremony having been carried out by the owner’s wife or daughter. The last blow was struck and the ship started slowly away down the slipway, gradually increasing speed until at last we slid into the sea and the ship was rolled gently by the waves.’

This was by no means the end product. The inaugurate launch was merely the hull which had to be steered into the inner harbour for fitting. The mast had to be ‘chipped’ at a local ‘chip yard’ to a smooth finish and then fitted into sockets on the deck. Next the rigging had to be fitted followed by the canvas. The sail maker would come onboard to measure for a suit of sales that were individual for every boat and also taking into account the shrinkage of the dyeing stage. The sailmaker would make the sails at his sail loft and then when completed they would be moved to the barking yards. The sails were laid on the floor and dyes of various pigments would be spread over the sails with mops. After this they were finished the sails were hoisted onto rigs with pulleys to dry. Blacksmiths were involved to make iron fitments for the mast and rigging. The nets were made by various people, some would be old fishermen no longer actively fishing.

1926 saw the last trawler to be built came out of the Upham yard. The ‘Vigilance' like the 'Pilgrim' she is now one of the heritage fleet still sailing today but for a different purpose. Although 'Vigilance' was the last of the working trawlers, in 1935 Uphams built, along the lines of a fishing boat and is classed in the Upham yard book as a trawler, a boat being a 64 ton yacht called the 'Cachalot.'

The Second World War gave an upsurge in boat building at the Upham’s yard. During the progression of the war 39 boats were produced at the yard for the Royal Navy and the Royal Dutch Navy and the Free French Navy. The Fairmile class boat was cheap to fabricate and could be produced in many variations from the standard motor launch, the motor gun boat and the motor torpedo boat. The most famous of these to come out of the Upham yard was a gunboat of the Fairmile D class the HMS MGB 658 commissioned in April of 1943. Its first Commander was T/Lt. Cornelius Burke RCNVR who was awarded the DSC twice for his service in action but it was under its second Commander T/S. Lt. Leornard Charles Reynolds RNVR where the boat was to see most of its active service in very hostile action. The Boat was operating in the Mediterranean and during its service it damaged or sank over 25 enemy craft.

The last major project was the Mayflower II built in 1957 that was built using traditional methods as far as possible. The Mayflower II proved a great project for Brixham and its boat builders but was not a great financial success for the Upham yard. The yard struggled on for a few years but was sold on and closed finally a few years later. Now in its place is a posh marina with even posher plastic and fibreglass pleasure crafts tied up alongside.  

At the Brixham Heritage Museum we have details of every wooden vessel built, registered and owned by Brixham people as well as photos of many of the craft. We are happy to pass on any information we have and this can be accessed through our Family History service either through our website or at the museum itself when we are able to reopen.

                  Written by Martin Smith