Lyme Regis - A Retrospect
By C Wanklyn, 1927
LYME REGIS is in Dorset, not Devon. Dorset is not to be robbed of its prize, even by those whose geography is weak. Devon, with its double seaboard, can boast of watering places enough and to spare. Dorset has few such luxuries, and Lyme Regis is the most interesting of all.
A comparison of the respective beauties of rival seaside towns is a ticklish subject. Lyme Regis, indeed, has such beauties, and some (perhaps partial) folk say that they are above the average. Monmouth, for one, ' thought it wondrous pretty.' But he was there only for the inside of five days and had a personal interest, too, in speaking well of the place, so that what he says is, perhaps, not evidence. The question of beauty, however, can be put aside, because the town has never arrogated to itself the titles which others sometimes claim. Such headlines as 'The Queen of --- Watering Places', 'The Belle of the --- Coast', 'The Leading Health Resort of the --- Counties' leave Lyme Regis quite unruffled. The town has no use for boasts.
Lyme Regis has a historic past, more than one strong link with English literature, and no wooden pier. That last fact is of itself sufficient to lift it above the generality of watering-places. The coasts of these islands are to-day thickly studded with seaside resorts, either ready-made or in the making. Most of them either have, or aspire to have, the usual modern and repellent wooden pier, with its hideous bandstands, penny-in-the-slot machines, side-shows, and pavilions. Instead of these commonplace excrescences with their tawdry outgrowth, Lyme Regis has a picturesque, and romantic harbour of solid stone, a harbour from which a fugitive monarch might have left these shores, and near which a would-be usurper landed when he tried to seize the Crown. The town, too, in size and general appearance is still not very different from what it was three or four hundred years ago, but it is not unprogressive where progress is required. It has, of course, good houses and modern comforts, and in recent years has received the additional blessings of a Railway Station, the Electric Light (thanks to a certain thrice-repeated Mayoralty of 1921-24), Golf Links, a Tennis and Croquet Ground, a Sailing Club, and - a Cinema. But here Lyme Regis stays its hand. It will have no wooden pier. After all, there is only one Cobb.
The history of Lyme Regis is the history of a town which was of importance-relatively of great importance - in the middle ages and up to the beginning of the eighteenth century. Then for various causes, the least important of which was the failure of the Monmouth rebellion, it fell from its high estate to the lowest depths of poverty and depression. But towards the end of the eighteenth century it began once more to raise its head. It has never looked back, and has now regained its cheerfulness of old time. The raw material of Lyme Regis once was wool. Its raw material now is visitors. The latter take the place of the cloth which the town manufactured and exported years ago, or of the wines, tobacco, and other foreign products which came in. Lyme Regis still flourishes. The staple commodity alone has changed.
Any town like Lyme Regis, which was an important harbour at least as early as the reign of Edward 1. (1272-1307), and remained an important harbour up to the middle of the eighteenth century - say a period of 450 years-necessarily touches English history at many points. Thus, for some years before the Spanish Armada, ships of Lyme were already busy in the joyous game of 'singeing the King of Spain's beard,' and the Spanish Ambassador had frequently complained of Lyme in 1581. Three vessels, paid for by a levy of ship-money on the district, were ordered to be out of Lyme by April 25th in the Armada year (1588) and to join Sir Francis Drake at Plymouth. In April, too, Sir John Norris and others came down to Lyme in order to place the town and district in a state of military defence against the then expected invasion of England. When, therefore, the Armada actually arrived, three Lyme vessels shared in the long running fight up-channel from Plymouth to Portland on July 21st, which was clearly seen from the town, and that too without telescopes, which were not yet in use. This fight was the first of the series of encounters that the Spaniards had with British seamanship and the British climate. Two months after the fleets had passed Lyme, the Spaniards had still failed to make any landing here except as wrecks. Moreover, they had lost 100 out of their 130 ships, together with thousands of lives either at sea or on the west coasts of Scotland and Ireland, and the survivors were only too glad to get back to Spain. Persistent rumours of a second Armada kept England on the alert for many years after 1588, and any sighting of Spanish vessels from Lyme was, during Elizabeth's reign at any rate, always reported to London. Even so late as 1601 orders were sent down from the Privy Council to Lyme to 'sett foorth a barque or other meete vessel for the discovery of the Spanish fleet.' But the Spaniards never came again.
Again, in the Dutch War of 1672, when Charles II., in return for a large sum of money from France, had agreed to desert Holland in her extremity and back Louis XIV., an indecisive engagement between squadrons of the two fleets was witnessed from Lyme Regis. But these are mere incidents in the history of Lyme such as might have occurred in those times in the view of any seaport, and affected the fortunes of the town neither more nor less than they affected the fortunes of the entire kingdom. There are, however. two occasions on which Lyme Regis stands out more prominently in our history. The first occasion was when the town was besieged by the Royalists in 1644, and the second was when it welcomed Monmouth in his attempt to seize the Crown in 1685. Both these events will be dealt with in greater detail. For a proper understanding of them the close connection between Lyme Regis and what is known as Dissent must be explained.