The History of Beer Village
Deep in a winding valley amongst the cliffs with beautiful undulations, and against the craggy faces of which the ocean beats incessantly in vain, is the picturesque and ancient village of Beer. Beer is an almost hidden gem – from Seaton you can’t see it and approach from the East and you’re almost on top of Beer before you actually see it.
Its name has nothing to do with alcohol! The interpretation of the name is actually uncertain and is therefore open to debate. The Saxon version was Beerham and in Norman times it was Bera. Other variations have been Bere or Beare. It most probably means ‘wood’ although any forest in Beer is long gone now.
Beer has always been a small fishing village and remains so today. There is no port or harbour but its deep cove and good anchorage within the shelter of Beer Head makes it perfect for fishing. The Beer Head white cliffs stand at 426ft and are best viewed on the Beer to Branscombe walk, one of the best you can do on the Jurassic Coast and South West Coast path. You’ll often see the fishing boats on this walk as well as from the Garlands terrace and you can still buy fresh fish from the shack on Beer beach each day.
At the time of the Armada the crew of a Spanish vessel were wrecked and it is traditionally said that they settled in the village and took ‘native wives’. In former days when the coastguard were inefficient and the excise man lax, the Beer men were the very kings of smugglers. All the Beer trawlers were employed in ‘the contraband’. They were celebrated, as they still are, for their sailing qualities.
Jack Rattenbury, the ‘Rob Roy of the West’ was a native of Beer. He was born in the village in 1778. He was the son of a Beer shoemaker and began his adventures at 9 years old on a fishing boat. He later became one of the crew of a privateer and began his smuggling career. His numerous kegs of smuggled brandy were circulated throughout East Devon and have become a part of the history of Beer village.
The chief employment of women in the village was that of making the celebrated Honiton lace. They had the honour of making Queen Victoria’s wedding dress which cost £1,000, and also part of the bridesmaid dresses of the Princess of Wales and Princess Alice. The designs were destroyed afterwards so that they could never be copied. Lace making was introduced to the UK by Flemish refugees in the 17th century, and it was early adopted as a staple trade in East Devon.
Running along the main street is the Beer brook which flows out of the chalk hills and down the street to the sea. It is said that Beer boys cannot be regarded as a Beer man until they have fallen into the brook. The stream originally overflowed and fell in a cascade over a rock at the beach where it anciently drove a mill. It is now confined within a stone channel and enters the sea in a more gentle and picturesque fashion.
Many of the Beer houses are built of freestone from the famous Beer Quarry Caves which has supplied materials for many of the churches and other public buildings in South East Devon, including much of the old work in the interior of Exeter Cathedral. The ancient Crypt Chapel of St Stephens, Westminster, is built of Beer stone and also portions of St Pauls Cathedral. The quarry, which is remarkable and definitely worth a visit, is situated along the hills, a mile west of Beer. It is subterraneous and extends about one hundred and eighty yards. The roof is supported by large blocks of the rock thus the quarry resembles much of a coal mine.
Beer appears in the Domesday Book. The manor of Beer belonged, before the Conquest, to the Abbey of Horton, which in 1122, was annexed with all its possessions to the Abbey of Sherborne. After the Dissolution the King kept it and included it in the dowry of Catherine Parr. It was afterwards bought by the family of Hassard of Lyme Regis who later sold it to John Starr of Beer. The village was sold on many times until it landed in the possession of the Hon. Mark Rolle who lived in Bovey House.
The Rolle Family
The Rolle family were great benefactors to Beer. In 1820 Lady Judith Rolle gave the large sum of £7,000 to build the alms houses and school. The alms houses were for the use of 28 poor and infirm fishermen above 55 years old and 20 poor women of the same age, each of whom received a shilling a week for life, with other benefits. In 1907 when the then Lord of the Manor, Michael Rolle, died, his successor was Lord Clinton.
Clinton Devon Estates still own most of the fields around Garlands House and much of the land in Beer and the surrounding areas. The church of St Michael’s is a beautiful building dating back to 1878. Opposite and down the road slightly is the Congregational Church which is blessed with a Wurlitzer organ. It claims to be the first instrument of its kind to be installed in this country. The Mariners Hall was built in 1958 and was a gift to the village from Mr Arthur Edward Good, a mariner himself. It is frequently used as a venue by the village community with many groups meeting there; from badminton to keep fit, to a venue for bands, craft fayres and the hotly contested biannual horticultural show!
Also in the village is Pecorama – the world’s leading manufacturer of model railway systems. It is a major tourist attraction and houses the Beer Heights Light Railway opened in 1975 by Reverend Awdry, creator of Thomas the Tank Engine. It has lovely gardens and you can visit the tea rooms and have a cream tea in the old railway carriages.
Elsewhere, the historic Seaton Tramway is well known. The trams run from Seaton to Colyton past the Seaton wetlands and the trams are the only open top double decker Edwardian trams left to the world today.
In 1871, 1,142 people lived in Beer. In the 2011 census the population had only grown to 1,300 making it still a small but vibrant community who might forever tell tales of the history of Beer Village.
How to live in Beer
Living in Beer is easy. But just in case you find yourself stuck this page will help.
Our news section publishes notable stories from in around the village.