Hallsands: The Village That Fell Into The Sea

Jul 9, 2018 0 comments

The island of Great Britain is shrinking. Every year several feet of land is washed away by the pounding waves of the Atlantic Ocean. Every few decades a village is lost. From the coast of Yorkshire in the north, to the iconic chalk cliffs on England's south coast, the sea is gaining land at an average of five feet on the northern end to eight inches at the southern. The Holderness coastline in particular, on the east coast of England just north of the Humber Estuary, is one of the fastest eroding coastlines in Europe due to its soft clay cliffs and powerful waves. Since the late-Roman times, some five kilometers of land were taken away by the sea including at least 23 towns and villages. Overall, more than a quarter of the British coastline experiences erosion at rates higher than 4 inches per year.


The view looking down on the village of Hallsands in Devon. Photo credit: Herbythyme/Wikimedia

While coastal erosion is an inevitable natural process, sometimes human activity fueled by greed can cause it too. Quite a famous example of human-caused erosion is the now abandoned coastal village of Hallsands in south Devon. At the turn of the 20th century, it was home to a small fishing community with around forty structures and a population of 160. By early 1917, only one house remained. But Hallsands’ erosion was not gradual, spanning several years that happens naturally to villages built too close to an eroding shoreline. It was abrupt—Hallsands disappeared during the course of a single stormy night.

Hallsands was built on a rocky ledge under a high cliff, on the coast of South Devon, by the English channel. It was a secure location. The sea wasn’t too rough, and there was a wide shingle beach between the village and the sea that provided a protective buffer from the powerful waves coming from the east. Even the Great Blizzard of 1891 that struck south England and sunk dozens of ships in the English Channel could cause no harm to the precariously built little village. But that was to change three years later.

In 1894, the Royal Navy proposed to expand the naval dockyard at Keyham, near Plymouth—a project that would require around 400,000 cubic meters of shingle. It was decided that the shingles would be extracted from Start Bay, just north of Hallsands. Work began in April 1897, and soon an average of 1,600 tons of material was being removed each day. The effect of the operation was felt on the village of Hallsands almost immediately. The beach began to lose its shape and level, which alarmed the villagers and they asked the local MP to intervene. An enquiry was held but the engineering firm to which the dredging contract was awarded maintained that the beach would be naturally replenished with new sand and shingles in just a matter of time, so dredging continued.


Hallsands before it was swept away to the sea. Photo credit: hallsands.org

What was not understood at the time—or maybe understood but ignored—was that the shingles on Hallsands beach originated thousands of years ago by rising seas following the ice age. There was no stock of shingles somewhere out in the channel that could wash in and replace what was taken. So when the shingles were removed, waves and currents simply filled in the holes with shingle from the beach, making it narrower and causing the high water mark to creep up the shore towards the village. The spring high tide that had stayed 70-80 feet away from the village before dredging began now came within 3 feet. By 1900, cracks started to appear in houses at the south end of the village and the sea wall was swept away.

Eventually, opposition from several fishing villages also affected by the dredging forced the Board of Trade to revoke the dredging license in 1902. In these five years, 660,000 tons of material had been carried away.

Hallsands suffered a few casualties. Their public house, called London Inn, lost the kitchen, a bedroom and the cellars. A couple of families were relocated, and population fell to 93 and then to 79 in 1906. A new stronger sea wall was also put up, and the villagers believed that their worst days were over.

But the worst was yet to come.


Photo credit: hallsands.org

On 26th January 1917, a violent storm hit the east coast with strong, easterly wind blowing across the Channel. The gale wind drove huge waves up the non-existent beach and crashed into the houses at roof height. The houses built on the ledge collapsed and those on the rocks above were battered by wind, waves and stones. Miraculously, all 79 villagers survived and scrambled to safety. The following day, the sun rose up to a devastating sight. Many houses were gone. The seawall had held otherwise many more would have disappeared, and many lives would have been lost. Two days later, on 28th January, a high tide broke the already weakened seawall and the entire village, except for a single house— the highest in the village—collapsed into the sea.

That week, Kingsbridge Gazette, led with the headline “The beach went to Devonport and the cottages went to the sea”, referring to the new dock at Devonport, Plymouth, that was built out of shingles from Hallsands’ beach.

An inquiry was held but the reports were never made public. The Board of Trade denied responsibility but eventually agreed to pay £6,000 to the villagers as compensation.


Photo credit: Andrew/Flickr

Today, there is a new village built higher up the cliff face overlooking the scene of the disaster. From the viewing platform one can see some of the ruins of the old village that still stand as reminder to the man’s folly of meddling with the forces of nature.

A plaque on the viewing platform carries the prophetic verse from a poem by John Masefield written fifteen years before the tragedy. It reads:

But that its wretched ruins then,

though sunken utterly

Will show how the brute greed of men

Helps feed the greedy sea.


Photo credit: Matt Buck/Flickr

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