By the early 14th century Teignmouth was a significant enough port, second in Devon only to Dartmouth, to have been attacked by the French in 1340 and to have sent seven ships and 120 men to the expedition against Calais in 1347.
Three hundred and fifty years later and Teignmouth suffered again. During the Nine Year War in 1690, whilst William of Orange was successfully fighting the usurped James II at the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland, the French were gathering a large fleet in the Channel. They engaged the joint smaller force of English and Dutch vessels at the Battle of Beachy Head, near Eastbourne. Within eight hours the French, under the French admiral Anne Hilarion de Tourville, were victorious and the allied fleet was forced to flee to the shelter of the Thames estuary. However, disastrously, the French failed to take advantage of the situation and instead of following them east, chose instead to head west and anchored in Torbay. Some of the galley fleet travelled the short distance up the coast and attacked Teignmouth. A petition to the Lord Lieutenant from the inhabitants described the incident:
… on the 26th day of this instant July 1690 by Foure of the clocke in the morning, your poor petitioners were invaded (by the French) to the number of 1,000 or thereabouts, who in the space of three hours tyme, burnt down to the ground the dwelling houses of 240 persons of our parish and upwards, plundered and carried away all our goods, defaced our churches, burnt ten of our ships in the harbour, besides fishing boats, netts and other fishing craft …
After examining ‘creditable persons’ the Justices of the Peace concluded that:
by the late horrid invasion there were within the space of 12 houres burnt downe and consumed 116 dwelling houses … and also 172 dwelling houses were rifled and plundered and two parish churches much ruined, plundred and defaced, besides the burning of ten saile of shipps with the furniture thereof, and the goods and merchandise therein …
As a result of this statement The Crown issued a church brief that authorised the collection of £11,000 for the aid of the town. Churches from as far afield as Yorkshire contributed, and the collections enabled the further development of the port.
Although they had won the Battle of Beachy Head, the French had failed to exploit their success. To the fury of Louis and Seignelay, the sum of Tourville’s victory was the symbolic and futile burning of the English coastal town of Teignmouth in July, and he was relieved of command.
This was the last invasion of England but in 1774, the inhabitants of Teignmouth and Shaldon presented a petition to Sir Wm. Courtenay, that the French had plundered and burnt the place, in the second year of William and Mary, and that they then threatened a second visit; they, therefore, petitioned him to allow them to build a small battery on the beach, at East Teignmouth, where it still exists (From White’s Devonshire Directory of 1850 (Source GenUKI))
French Street with its Heritage Centre is named in memory of the occasion.
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