History of Exmouth: the first known settlements


6:00 a.m. on January 8, 2022

Welcome to the first regular feature film on aspects of Exmouth’s history. Of course, a lot has been written about our city over time in books and magazine articles. At times the accuracy of these has been questioned, but as always, some historians have put their own personal perspective on that aspect of history they are writing about. The purpose of this column is to help those with a passing interest in the history of Exmouth rather than to provide a detailed scientific article. If that encourages you to want to dig deeper, so much the better!

Where to start then? It has been suggested that the history of Exmouth began around a thousand years ago with a crude ferry connecting Starcross and a landing stage on the beach. Photo shows the view from The Point across the estuary to Starcross as it is today. Another theory is that before this, fishermen worked around the area known as The Point and established a colony there. It is perhaps more likely that around 8000 BC. settlement in or around what we now know as Exmouth. Evidence of this exists in the thousands of flint tools found in the area and it is believed that they were the ones who built the first defensive works on Woodbury Common.

Around 2000 BC, people from the Bronze Age arrived here and a sword from this era has since been discovered on the Pole Sands. This is on display in the British Museum with a replica at the Exmouth Museum. These people established a settlement near the beach, but also moved inland and fortified land on Woodbury Common with the beginnings of a mound known as Woodbury Castle, which still stands today ‘ hui, as shown in the photo below.

Inside Woodbury Castle, the Iron Age hill fort
– Credit: Mike Menhennit

It sits 175 meters above sea level and offers stunning views of the River Exe. Bronze Age peoples settled on both sides of the Exe Estuary and it is likely that two of their routes passed through Woodbury Common and met at what is today called the crossroads of the four fir trees. The common at that time was largely wooded and there were few clearings as there are today. It was the people of the Bronze Age who built the many rows of stones, stone circles and burial mounds across Devon which were first built by much older people. The burial mounds are ancient burial mounds of which there are several on Woodbury Common and two of them are just a few steps north of the castle. Purchasing the Ordnance Survey Explorer map will allow you to walk around the township, find and appreciate these ancient monuments and imagine these ancient people walking where you do now.

Next time, we’ll explore the advent of the Iron Age and the Celtic tribes, and you’ll find out how Exmouth got its name.

Local historian and committee member of the Society of Exmouth Museum, Mike Menhennit

Local historian and committee member of the Society of Exmouth Museum, Mike Menhennit
– Credit: Mike Menhennit

About the Author: Mike is a local historian and committee member of the Society of Exmouth Museum. He grew up in the city from the mid-1950s and is related to the Clapp family of Clapp’s Café which was on the corner of Rolle Street and Strand for 200 years. His grandfather, Leslie Clapp, was the last member of the family to run the business until 1966 when, upon his retirement, the cafe went out of business and part of Exmouth’s history has ended. Mike’s mother, Pauline Clapp, lived in the town until her death in 2007 and after being absent for work since the early 1970s, Mike returned to live in Exmouth in 2020. He has published various articles from magazines as well as a book on the Menhenitt family, which he researched and traces his family’s history over a thousand years in Cornwall.


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