Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Sea Lawn Gap: déjà vu at Dawlish

Sea Lawn Terrace, Dawlish, 4th March - click to enlarge
The Exeter Express & Echo just featured a report - Dawlish historian: Damage to rail line could have been prevented if Brunel's original plans were followed - on the 'Sea Lawn Gap' and its role in February's disastrous damage to the South Devon Main Line at Dawlish. But a look in news archives finds the incident is a repeat of one nearly 150 years ago, at the same location, and for the same reason - a historical decision that has repeatedly come back to bite.

The story of the Sea Lawn Gap is pretty well-known on the local history and railway history circuit. As quoted in the Express & Echo article via Bob Vicary, the historian behind the excellent Brunel Trail history boards in Dawlish, the saga begins with James Powell, who moved to Dawlish around 1826 and set up in a seaside mansion, Sea Lawn House (accounts vary as to whether it was already there, or whether he built it).
James Powell, a businessman from the Midlands, had moved to Dawlish because his previous property had been blighted by the building of the London-Birmingham railway, which passed through the grounds of his house. He set out to buy a house in a location where he felt certain this could never happen again. Unfortunately he chose Sea Lawn House, a charming property almost on the seashore near the Dawlish Coastguard Station.
- The Atmospheric Railway, Angela Marks, Genuki/Devon
The estate agent's ad for the sale after Powell's death stressed the idyllic ...
TO be SOLD or LET, all that beautiful Mansion, with
its Pleasure Grounds and Gardens, well known as
late the residence of James Powell, Esq., deceased.
This unique residence is delightfully situate on the
Beach, with a Southern aspect. The House, which has
been erected at a great expense, and is in thorough repair,
contains every accommodation for a moderate sized Family
of the first distinction. The Gardens and Grounds com-
prising about Five Acres, are most tastefully laid out, and
in the highest state of cultivation.
- Trewman's Exeter Flying Post, July 15, 1847
--- but there's an odd little aside in a contemporary book on architecture indicating that the aesthetics of Sea Lawn House may not have been to everyone's taste:
What one delights may be another's pain.*
* A house with this description of accompaniment is so situated at Dawlish in Devonshire, on the very edge of the sea, called Sea Lawn Cottage, belonging to a gentleman of great taste, of the name of Powel.
- page 133, Domestic Architecture, Richard Brown (architect.), pub. G. Virtue, 1841
Sea Lawn House - undated but post-railway
Dawlish Local History Group Newsletter, July 2009
There's a great deal more about the location history in the article Sea Lawn House and Sea Lawn Terrace (Tricia Whiteaway, Dawlish Local History Group Newsletter, July 2009). The above picture of the house shows what the estate agent's ad naughtily fails to mention: how Powell's seaside idyll was interrupted by the coming of Brunel's railway, which ran right past his house, cutting off the garden and beach access. Not unnaturally he had petitioned against the railway taking this route ...
A Petition from James Powell, esquire, alleging that the line, being proposed to be carried within 40 feet of Petitioner's house, cutting off his access to the sea shore, will render the house unfit for his residence, and destroy its value, and that a better Line may be found.
- page 293, Reports of Committees of the House of Commons on Railway Bills, 1844
... but this was unsuccessful. He got got £8000 compensation, and a dispensation - in the segment passing his house, the outer sea wall carrying the pedestrian walkway was lowered to nearly sea level so that passers-by wouldn't be eyeballing him (even if train travellers could). This measure, which reduced the railway's seaward protection to a single wall, is what came to be known as the 'Sea Lawn Gap'.
      James Powell died in 1846, and is buried in Dawlish; see Angela Williams's Literary Places weblog (R. H. D. Barham at Dawlish) for a look at his tomb and a bit of biographical detail. A few decades later, in 1888, Sea Lawn House was demolished for the building of Sea Lawn Terrace, the site of the houses damaged in February's storms. As mentioned there and in the Express & Echo piece, a long-standing puzzle is why the Sea Lawn Gap - a weak point in sea defences flanking the railway - wasn't remedied after Powell's death, when the GWR acquired the property.

Update, 2 May 2015: check out South Devon Railway: 1844 NIMBY list for a run-down of the longer list of objectors to the planned railway route.

While the February 2014 storm damage has been highly publicised, what appears less known is that the Sea Lawn Gap has been the focus for storm damage before. First, it happened in a winter storm in 1867:
On Tuesday, January 8th, 1867, a violent storm with a south easterly wind, raged with great fury along the coast, when about 60 feet of the sea wall in front of Sea Lawn House was torn up by the power of the sea; a facetious correspondent of the Press in describing the scene, says "It was curious to see the large masses of masonry severed from their foothold as if they had been severed with a knife—it seemed as if limestone and strong cement, were as yielding as a placeman's conscience."
- pages 12-13, Cornelius's Guide: Dawlish, 1869
This was just the precursor to further damage at the same location, a storm in February 1896 causing a disaster remarkably similar in description to that of February 2014.
The gale raged with great fury in Devon, and many places were flooded, Many disasters are reported. At Dawlish the gale culminated at about eight o'clock on Sunday, just after the passing of the 7.45 train for Exeter, when it blew a perfect hurricane from the south. The foundation of the railway sea wall from the coastguard station to Sea Lawn has for some time been exposed, owing to the subsidence of the the beach. On Sunday morning about the time named the sea made a small breach in the wall and washed over the line, and a short time after washed away the wood-supports of an inner wall, which had recently been erected by Messrs' Williams Brothers, of London, owners of the Sea Lawn. This wall fell with a tremendous crash, and carried away with it a large proportion of the sea wall and over a hundred yards of railway lines. Of course this at once put a stop to the down traffic between Star Cross and Dawlish stations and was the cause of no little inconvenience to the passengers. The news of the disaster was soon known by the railway officials, and a staff of men were dispatched with all possible speed to the scene of the occurrence. Amongst the persons who were thus rendering the best assistance in their power was a youth named Samuel Coombs, aged 17 years, and whilst at work another portion of the inner wall already mentioned gave way, and fell on the poor fellow, and such was the weight of the brickwork and masonry, that Coombes was crushed to death before any assistance could be remembered. Another man, named Woods, was close by him at the time of the fatal occurrence, and he received injuries about his legs, which though severe, are fortunately not dangerous. About noon the company's engineer (Mr. P. J. Margery) and Mr. Crompton, the traffic superintendent, arrived with assistance per special train from Plymouth; but prior to their arrival men had been set to work to clear the line, and to form a pathway, if possible, for passengers to cross from one perfect part of the line to the other. The whole line from the tunnel just above the station to some distance below was flooded, a vast volume of water being carried over the sea wall to the station, and it must be some days even under the most favourable circumstances before the line can be fully repaired, and the cost of the work will doubtless be very heavy. Some anxiety was felt for the safety of the railway station, which had a very severe shaking on Sunday morning. A sea wall from Dawlish to join the one near Fripp's house [RG - Sea Lawn House] would probably have been the means of saving the line from being washed away, and the cost of repairing the disaster will amount to as great a sum as the expense incurred by building that wall, which has long been desired by the inhabitants of Dawlish. In addition to the accidents mentioned the granite kerbing on the sea wall outside the viaduct was washed off, as if it had been mere earth, and the sea made a clean sweep over the railway near the tunnel end of the Marine-parade. Several of the gardens and the adjacent houses were flooded, and the inhabitants were necessitated to leave their dwellings by the back entrances. Such an occurrence has not taken place for several years. The embankment raised near the first tunnel some time since by the Local Board for the protection of the fishermen's boats has been nearly all swept away.
- "Great floods in cornwall", The Royal Cornwall Gazette, Truro, February 04, 1869
And it happened yet again over in 1930, following a storm in early January. It's a point of note that this was not as disastrous to the rail network as in 2014, since in pre-Beeching days the network could route around the damage.

During the gale on Saturday night a breach which had existed in the sea wall between Dawlish Warren Dawlish since Christmas Eve was considerably extended and caused a subsidence of the Great Western Railway Company's track. All traffic between the two stations had to be suspended and main-line traffic diverted. The subsidence left a large cavity beneath the down line, and at one point the rails dipped appreciably.
      The railway company promptly tackled the emergency. The local services were run with suspension only between the two stations, and these were linked up by motor-omnibus services. The main through trains were diverted over the Teign Valley line between Exeter and Newton Abbot.

The widening of the breach was discovered on Saturday night in time to prevent any accident. A promenade runs parallel to the sea wall and forms a buttress. The breach occurred at a spot where the promenade was discontinued for a short distance, owing to a private objection when the line was laid down. As a temporary precaution, workmen were drafted to the spot, and tried to fill the hole with boulders. They worked continuously duing the night when the tide permitted, and throughout to-day. Some time must elapse, however, before the damage can be repaired and the normal working of the line resumed.
- "Subsidence On G.W.R." Times [London, England] 6 Jan. 1930: 12. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 11 Mar. 2014.
The Sea Lawn Gap has never been properly remedied. Ian West's geological page Teignmouth to Dawlish, Devon; Geology of the Wessex Coast has section on the topic, with a clear image of the Sea Lawn Gap, and a list of historical breaches of the seawall at Dawlish:

1846 - Near Breeches Rock, southwest of Dawlish.
1869 - San Remo Terrace, not far from the recent breach (but southwest).
1872-3 - Breaches just southwest of Rockstone Footbridge. A new wall was built in 1873.
1930 - Riviera Terrace. Close to the present breach of 2014. At the Sea Lawn Gap where the footway at the base of the sea ends. This footway comes from near Langstone Rock and gives some additional protection.
2014 - The new breach at the Sea Lawn Gap, near Riviera Terrace, again and almost at the same site as the 1930 breach. 

- The History of Dawlish Sea Wall and Railway Line Breaches; data from Kay (1991) Rails along the Sea Wall.

I hope they've finally taken the hint after 150 years.

- Ray

Addendum: 22nd March 2014.  The Exeter Express & Echo caught up with the story on Thursday, when the Mike Byrne's Nostalgia section for Thursday March 20th featured some images sent in by Anne Tremlett of 19th century storm damage to the line. They're to do with earlier line damage on the stretch between Teignmouth and Holcombe, rather than the Dawlish section, but are interest. They've been on the Express & Echo site for a while: see New pictures of Dawlish rail breach - 150 years ago! (February 8th 2014). Thursday's story mentions that some images of the 1869 event are accessible at the Dartmoor Trust Archive, Chapman Collection, but their search system is so unhelpful that I'm darned if I'm going to browse several thousand images to find them.

I did, however, manage to trace a couple of the Express & Echo images to The Illustrated London News. The first is from the issue for December 2, 1859, page 531: a print titled "Injury occasioned by the gale of Oct 25 to a portion of the south Devon Railway Teignmouth".

The second is from the issue of March 3rd 1855, page 196, a picture captioned "Accident to the South Devon Railway, at Dawlish", and is again on the Teignmouth to Holcombe section: a collapse of the Holcombe viaduct just before the entrance to Parson's Tunnel.

My own pictures from March 4th:

repairs under way at the Sea Lawn Gap

This makes interesting comparison with the below photo from July 2013.

In the section between Dawlish railway station and the Kennaway Tunnel ...

... the storm has eroded the beach cover right down to the bedrock at the base of the sea wall, and there's some damage to the wall itself.

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