The history of Salcombe Harbour and the Kingsbridge Estuary offers an insight into the area from the Bronze age onwards.
There are a number of shipwrecks off Salcombe. One is of a Bronze Age ship, one of only three known in Britain, which had weapons and jewellery made in what is now France. The Salcombe Cannon Wreck is of a 17th-century ship that contained 400 Moroccan gold coins and Dutch items. In 1936 a Finnish four-masted barque, Herzogin Cecilie stranded at Bolt Head. Also off Salcombe is HMS Untiring which is a Second World War submarine that was sunk in 1957 as a sonar target.
A description of the South Hams is given in the 9th century charter S298. This does not show Salcombe but its area is part of Badestone (Batson). “Salcombe” first appears in the records in 1244, on the boundaries of Batson and West Portlemouth. In 1570, there were 56 mariners while two years later another survey shows five ships under 60 tons at Salcombe.
During the English civil war the town sided with the Royalists and held out against the Roundheads. The ruins of Fort Charles remain towards the south of the town. It held out from January to May 1646 and was the last Royalist stronghold. This fort was built for Henry VIII to defend the estuary. It was slighted on the orders of Parliament.
There is little record of the town between 1650 and 1750, but it is thought that the inhabitants lived by fishing and smuggling. In 1764, the first holiday home, The Moult, was built in Salcombe.
In the 19th century, Salcombe was a major centre for shipping in the fruit trade. Salcombe vessels sailed to Iberia, the Mediterranean and the Caribbean as well as to the Azores and Newfoundland. The fruit cargoes were oranges and lemons from the Azores, and pineapples from the Bahamas and West Indies. Other cargoes brought back included sugar, rum, coconuts and shaddocks. In addition wood such as ebony and mahogany was brought for furnishing ships. Salcombe and Kingsbridge were busy ship building places, producing the Salcombe schooner. This was a fast boat that could be sailed with few hands. However, almost half the fleet were lost with all hands. A mutual marine assurance association had been established in 1811 to insure Salcombe ships.
The Salcombe fleet also was involved in the coastal trade supplying coal from Wales and taking away cider, malt, grain and slates. A ferry to Brest was set up in 1870 but did not last.
By 1871, the central part of Salcombe, excluding the outlying districts, numbered 776 people, with 34 shipwrights and 13 ships carpenters. There were also five sawyers, three block makers, two ship’s riggers, three sail makers, a tin plate worker and four blacksmiths. However, in the 1870s the fruit trade declined due to outbreaks of orange and pineapple disease and because of the advent of steamships. Some work was found taking salt to Newfoundland and returning with cod but by 1914 there were only three or four locally owned trading ships in the estuary. At this time there was the start of pleasure sailing at Salcombe with the yacht club being founded in 1874. One of the boats raced was the Salcombe Yawl for which an owner’s association has been set up.
Salcombe became a ship registry port in 1864, but still came under Dartmouth for customs. A customs house was later built at Salcombe which still exists. Between 1796 and 1887 at least 200 vessels were launched from Salcombe. To have more space the shipyards were extended by reclaiming the foreshore. These were later built over and new ones made in Shadycombe Creek. However, many vessels were lost, including seven local boats off the Azores in November 1851. There were four sailmakers lofts at Salcombe and three shipsmiths in 1851. The majority of the Victorian houses seen in Salcombe today were built by shipowners and masters. After 1880, with the advent of steam propulsion and larger ships, there was less new construction and repair work. Salcombe’s seamen and craftsmen moved to the deep sea fishing ports or to the dockyards.
A turnpike road was built to Salcombe in 1824. Originally Salcombe was part of Malborough parish but a chapel-of-ease was built at Salcombe in 1401. The parish church was not built until the 19th century. The population of Salcombe was 972 in 1841, but had risen to about 1500 by 1850. There is also a Wesleyan Chapel and a Catholic church.
Between the two world wars Salcombe developed as a holiday resort, with Salcombe Sailing Club being founded in 1922.
During the Second World War a radar station was set up on Bolt Head and Salcombe became an Advance Amphibious Base for the United States Navy in September 1943. The Salcombe Hotel became the latter’s headquarters and 60 other properties were requistioned, as well as Quonset huts being built on the hill near the Rugby Club. Whitestrand Quay and slipway was constructed. 137 officers and 1793 men were based at Salcombe. 66 ships and many auxiliary vessels sailed from Salcombe on 4 June 1944 as part of “Force U” which landed on Utah Beach, Normandy. Afterwards Shadycombe Creek and Mill Bay were used to repair damaged landing craft. The base closed on 7 May 1945. A plaque was set up in Normandy Way to commemorate the United States Navy. Salcombe and district suffered a number of bombing raids during the war and a list of the casualties is available online.
The former radar station at Bolt Head near Salcombe was set up to be used as the Regional Seat of Government in the event of attack during the Cold War. This has subsequently been dismantled.
There have been many changes to the Salcombe Waterfront since World War II, the most noticeable being the construction of the Creek car and boat park, and the road to Batson. Salcombe became an urban district following an Act of Parliament in 1972.