A Fascinating Glimpse At Old Photos From Devon

A Fascinating Glimpse At Old Photos From Devon
  • PublishedMarch 8, 2022

Photochrom was an early type of colour photography that brings to life scenes from an era that we usually visualise in black and white. The technique was mainly used for postcards and as a result the photographers concentrated on subjects of interest to the visitor and hopefully the recipient of their card; beautiful locations and the seaside are natural favourites, but also historic and civic landmarks, social scenes, parks and train stations.

These photographs give us a special insight into the period. In this article we explore some of those images relating to the Devon coastline.

The bulk of photochroms were produced between 1890 and 1910 by two publishing companie, Photoglob Zürich AG and the Detroit Photographic Company (later the Detroit Publishing Company), Michigan. The photochrom printers bought in existing black & white negatives for colourizations and also commissioned photographers to capture scenic views aimed at the tourist industry. Photographers travelled extensively throughout Europe and America and exotic locations further afield.

In Britain the most prolific and well-known early photographer was Francis Frith (1822–1898), who built up an extensive archive. After touring many exotic locations and producing photographs for the home market from Egypt (including images of the Nile Valley), Ethiopia and the Holy Land, Frith dedicated himself to depicting the beauty of his own country. He toured the British towns and villages with his family and four photographic assistants, producing much loved photography of pretty much every town and village in Britain.

Several of the photochroms of Devon can be identified as taken by Frith and his associates as they compare very closely with known black & white images from his archive.

Six historic early photographs of the Devon coast


Brixham is synonymous with fishing, and its red-sailed trawlers have become iconic. This image of the trawlers in the harbour captures its lively character. These characteristic vessels, designed for speed and deep-water fishing, became so successful they were copied by other shipbuilders countrywide. Brixham trawlers could be found in Lowestoft, Grimsby, Hull and Great Yarmouth and in its heyday, Brixham boasted a fleet of 400. The distinctive colour of the sails is due to the local red ochre, a pigment mined locally. The sails were in fact made of pure white cotton, and treated with the pigment to protect against the effects of seawater in a process known as ‘barking’; the boiling of red ochre with tallow, tar and bark that produced the unmistakable reddish-brown effect beloved by artists. A striking example is ‘A Brixham trawler’ by the maritime painter William Adolphus Knell (1801-1875) that adorns the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

Trawlers take their name from their large nets called trawls. When operating in other parts of the British Isles, Brixham ‘smacks’ (large trawlers) could be identified by the capital letters DH, standing for Dartmouth. Many larger trawlers fished from North Sea ports or on the other side of the Bristol Channel, for example Tenby, Pembrokeshire. Smaller ones (‘mules’) gathered oysters and lobsters in the inshore fisheries. Features from these old vessels, such as wooden panels and sails, have found their way into existing Brixham properties particularly the seafront cottages.


Paignton, with its golden beach and clear waters, is one of the jewels of the English Riviera. It benefits from a mild microclimate suitable for tropical trees and palms. Like many of its neighbouring towns, Paignton has a history of fishing; its harbour was built in 1847. Its popular 240m long pier, designed by the local architect and civil engineer, George Soudon Bridgman, opened to the public in 1879, having taken a year to build. The beautiful Paignton sands were as popular in the 1890s as much as they are today and so was its long esplanade. As the photograph shows it was ideal for parading in fine clothes and shielded from the sun’s glare with a colourful parasol – and for cycling.

Bicycles had become popular at this time for both sexes. By the 1880s their design had moved on from the early prototypes such as the penny-farthing and the tricycles such as the country tricycle and the Royal Salvo favoured by Queen Victoria. By the time of this photograph the liberating two-wheeler had become the norm and enterprising locals in seaside resorts such as Paignton would have supplied bicycles for hire by eager visitors.

The Beach, Teignmouth

Prior to the 19th century, Teignmouth was a shipbuilding and fishing town associated with the cod industry and an active port, exporting clay and granite and importing coal. The granite was brought to the docks from the quarries at Haytor, Dartmoor on the Haytor Granite Tramway built in 1820 for this purpose. During the Georgian period it also gained popularity as a fashionable resort and the arrival of the railways in 1846 increased its popularity further.

This view of Teignmouth with its boats, children and bathing machines underlines its importance as a destination reached for pleasure. Sea bathing had become popular after it was promoted as being beneficial for health in the 18th century, but modesty had to be retained and so bathing machines were introduced for this purpose. Women could change into bathing costumes in private and then be wheeled far enough out so that they did not expose themselves to the gaze of onlookers before entering the water. Public opinion and local authorities were united against bathers being observed changing into their swimwear and fines could be imposed. The ubiquity of their use is attested in photographs of other seaside resorts around the country such as Brighton and Bognor Regis. When not in use for bathing, the machines could double up as storage spaces for the family and many were later transformed into modern beach huts. Many have become a desirable item when now put up for sale and attract handsome prices, especially if they possess electricity and other modern comforts. One of the original Georgian bathing machines can be viewed at Teignmouth’s Museum. 

Train Station, Dawlish

Bathing cove, Dawlish showing one of the train tunnels

Train travel brought not only new opportunities for tourism, but for general mobility and employment, including of course the need for railway staff. The building of south Devon’s scenic railway, with its route right along the seashore was particularly challenging for the railway engineers and mechanics. The striking location of the train station which dominates the lovely seaside resort town of Dawlish is a case in point. Despite its breathtaking beauty, to build this railway line meant a constant battle with nature and the elements, which continues to this day. The famous railway line (running from Exeter to Plymouth) is only a few feet above the crushing waves and is complemented by a footpath offering amazing views to walkers. The footpath forms part of the South West Coast Path, one of the longest and most arduous in the country.

Designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806–1859), the line was built along a sea wall. The first train carried 1,500 passengers in 21 carriages on 30 May 1846 and the first paying customers boarded in September 1847, an event that was slightly preceded by the use of a goods service (freight). The South Devon Railway originally used an atmospheric (vacuum) system that required air to be pumped between the rails, a technology so revolutionary it operated for one year (September 1847–September 1848), after which conventional trains were used. To the south of Dawlish station, the train line goes through five tunnels along the coastline through spectacular cliffs. Being so close to the sea, the line suffered damage since the beginning. Rough weather caused closures and severe problems such as landslips and rock falls in 1852, 1855 and 1859. On 25 October 1859 The Illustrated London News reported a terrible storm, the worst Devon had seen in 35 years: ‘Such was the terrific force of the impelled water that along the sea-wall and railway huge coping-stones, probably averaging one ton each, were tossed about like corks’. The latest extensive disruption was due to rock fall and damage to the sea wall in 2014. To counter the elements, new proposals for strengthening the sea wall and moving parts of the line further from the cliff are in place. Tidal levels are carefully monitored and only sea-salt proof trains operate on that stretch of coast under extreme weather conditions.

From the River Exe, Exeter

A very similar black and white image of this lovely view of Exeter from the River Exe in the Frith archive has the addition of a sailing barge, which underlines the importance of the estuary for the commercial activities of the region. In his History of Exeter, George Oliver (1781–1861) wrote that one of the many attractions of the city was its ‘rapid and navigable river’. The fast flow of the river made it an important source of water power during the early Industrial Revolution. River sports also thrive in the Exe and the City of Exeter Rowing Regatta has been in existence since the 1860s.

The Romans used Topsham, 5 miles downstream, as a port and it was easy from there to bring goods from seaports to the heart of the city. In the 16th century a canal was built to allow larger vessels access to the city and Butts Ferry, an ancient cable ferry, has been crossing the River Exe since 1641. Topsham is still a centre for shipbuilding as well as being a fishing town. One of the meanings given for the name Exe is ‘abounding in fish’ from the ancient Celtic, and apart from salmon and trout, bream, perch, pike and grayling all populate its waters. Just below Topsham, the River Clyst joins the Exe, a home for eel, mullet and flounder. 

The Beach, Exmouth

This image of Exmouth combines work with pleasure. Boatmen inspect their fishing boats or prepare to take families on pleasure trips while ladies protect their milky complexions under their parasols and a little girl is exploring the rocks at the shore. Exmouth is thought to be one of the earliest seaside resorts in England and boasts the longest promenade in Devon. At low tide a wealth of molluscs are exposed on which wading birds rely for feeding. 

Exmouth and Dawlish Warren on the opposite side of the River Exe are famed for their wading and migrating birds including avocets, curlews, oystercatchers and ringed and golden plovers. The oysters are not just for the oystercatchers though. Human oystercatchers are after them too, as they are after the cockles and whelks in the mudflats. A memorable image from the Frith archive shows a mature lady, perhaps a fisherman’s wife, racking the mud and collecting cockles for sale in her basket. Another significant bird of the Estuary, the pied avocet (a great swimmer with a loud call), has given its name to the Avocet Line, which connects Exeter to Exmouth by rail. The first train of the line reached Exmouth in May 1861. The spectacular osprey (fish hawk), known for its impressive dives to catch fish, can also be seen in the Estuary during migration periods.

Eugenia Russell is the author of Photochrom photography 1890 – 1910: The British Isles in Colour a series of books featuring a form of early colour photography used in postcards and prints. These beautiful photographs of Devon above are from the first in the series South West England and the Scilly Isles, featuring the counties of Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Wiltshire and Dorset.

Written By
Eugenia Russell

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