The Building of the Dartmouth Embankment
Sometimes something is important enough to have an argument over.
In Dartmouth, very few things have caused as much argument as the building of the Embankment in the 19th Century.
Dartmouth looked very different at the time, with frontages of buildings forming the water front, which was exposed mud at much of the tide. Duke Street and the Butterwalk looked out onto the Quay which was not contained within the Boatfloat but open to the river. North of this, where the Royal Avenue Gardens are now, was the new ground, which reached to the edge of the current Mayors Avenue Road. Water encircled the New Ground, and it was joined to Duke Street by a bridge.
Many businesses received deliveries via the river, with ships landing goods often straight into the yards of businesses.
Despite the ‘New Road’ through the centre of town allowing carts to deliver to the town - where before only single horses could get up or down the hills around it – many businesses and businessmen appreciated the convenience of getting their deliveries by boat – especially of large loads. Boat builders could also launch straight into the river from their premises.
So when a number of notable and serious men of the town, not least Samuel Lake, the entrepreneur and boat builder who gave his name to Lake Street, suggested enclosing the whole frontage of the town with an ‘Esplanade’ some people began to worry.
And in 1880, when the Dart Harbour Commission and the Borough Council got together to not only suggest plans for a South and North Embankment, but also to show a detailed plan for how it would be paid for, people got good and angry.
Their fight would continue right up until the Embankment was built, and even beyond, as those who had ‘lost’ this long fight tried their best to exact revenge on the ‘winners’.
FC Simpson, of boat builders Simpson, Strickland and Son fame, realised that this Embankment plan was going to stop timber deliveries to his yards in Silver Street, and easy launching of the boats he built and repaired.
He was not best pleased. He started to lobby everyone who would lose out with the scheme, mainly businessmen with businesses that fronted onto the river, and yachtsmen who would be charged a mooring tax to help pay for the scheme.
He inspired three others along with himself to stand for election to the council, solely in an effort to scupper the scheme at source, and use their votes to bring down the scheme.
His opponents were clearly a bit worried by this: the ballot papers were mysteriously all spoiled and the election – in which they had been successful – was declared void. The culprit, Mr Simpson was sure, was the town clerk, Mr Hockin.
In 1881 the problems really began. The scheme seemed to be gaining popularity and to have sound financial footings as well, with the signs good that loans and the means to repay them could be found.
Mr Simpson formed an Anti-Embankment group, along with a man who wanted to use the money earmarked for the Embankment to dredge the river allowing bigger ships to enter and make more money bunkering coal.
They again stood for election, which was again administered by Mr Hockin, and again all the ballot papers were spoiled and the election declared void.
Mr Simpson was getting angry, but also seemed prepared to accept he might lose this fight, and moved his works to Sandquay to avoid being blocked in by the river. But his anger at being beaten by Mr Hockin was clearly not something he would let go of. He challenged the election result in court and got it run again in the following April.
Whilst these wrangles were going on, Mr Hockin, the council and the Harbour Commission prepared the plans, got them passed by council and put them before Parliament for approval.
Mr Simpson and his ‘group of four’ DID get elected in 1882, but were too small a group to stop the bill going before Parliament. They tried to stop it progressing through the House of Lords – a desperate, last ditch attempt which failed, but not entirely.
The bill was changed to say that any vote in council on the expenditure had to be won by a two third majority.
The race was on: Mr Simpson had friends who were to stand in the next election and. if they were eleted, the Anti Embankment group could probably defeat any vote for the Embankment.
Mr Hockin quickly put through a motion for £10,000 to £13,000 to be approved for the North End of the Embankment, which won, eight votes to six. The Harbour commission approved £24,000 expenditure on the South Embankment.
But the tale was not to end there.
In the November election, Mr Simpson’s band of friends did get voted onto the council. Mr Hockin was immediately dismissed, with his letter of dismissal apparently only taking up four lines of writing. He had been clerk for 21 years.
The next year Mr Simpson became Mayor Simpson, and tried to hamper and hurt the Embankment scheme as much as possible, even though he could not stop it. It was clearly a bitter and petty game of tit for tat.
Mayor Simpson installed his own man, the amazingly named Onesimus Smart Bartlett, as town clerk, who launched long and costly legal actions to try and overturn the decision to pay for the North Embankment – all were unsuccessful. Obviously someone trusted by Mr Simpson, it’s interesting to note that Mr Smart was jailed for embezzlement later in his life.
Mayor Simpson even got himself elected to the Harbour Commission with a fellow Anti-embankment councillor, a Mr Turner, to try and cause trouble.
Mr Turner then had a change of heart and embraced the Embankment scheme, helping the other Harbour Board members disqualify Mayor Simpson from sitting on the board.
The Harbour commission’s workmen were, throughout 1883 and 1884, working hard on the South Embankment, which was clearly going to make a massive difference to the town, its economy and its beauty.
Mayor Simpson then refused to pay. He said he would not authorise the payment of fees for the North Embankment. The contractors had a contract and duly continued to build, with the harbour commission paying the bills and slowly bankrupting themselves.
The contractors finished their amazing job in the Summer of 1885. They requested payment and were offered bonds in lieu of cash. They refused, and the Dart Harbour Board was forced to call in the receivers.
They were forced to borrow large sums and slowly worked their way out of the mire.
Despite the continued obsessive bitterness from Mayor Simpson, the Embankment was embraced wholeheartedly by the town, and in 1889 the first large imposing building was built on it – the Raleigh Hotel and Post Office.
Walking along the Embankment you could hardly believe anyone would be against it – but the scheme to build it seems to have brought more bitterness and dirty tricks than any other in the history of the town.
Good thing it was important enough to argue over, eh?
First Published September 2011 By The Dart