Babbacombe in 1905, postcard. Image Source: Babbacombe and St Marychurch.
Here is a tale about how things can go wrong, and change the fate of a town - Babbacombe, England - over the course of a century.
In late 18th century England, attitudes changed toward the environment. Where the sea had once been seen as a source of danger to be treated with caution, it slowly became perceived as a place of wild beauty. This was part of the trickle-down effect of Romanticism, a reaction against the Enlightenment, against the Industrial Revolution, and against the scientific rationalization of nature.
Under the influence of this shift in attitudes, the village of Babbacombe near Torquay in Devon, England, began to prosper. It sits on a bay on the southern coast of the country, around a cove once known for fishing, smuggling and nearby quarrying.
By the early 19th century, however, the houses huddled around the bay under remarkable rust-red cliffs acquired a new reputation. From A Guide to the Watering Places on the Coast between the Exe and the Dart: including Teignmouth, Dawlish and Torquay, published in 1817:
Over the next few decades, Babbacombe became popular with Romantic tourists. The site Babbacombe and St Marychurch quotes: "The Teignmouth, Dawlish and Torquay Guide: 1829 by Carrington and others [which] says,‘you ascend on the down, overhanging those stupendous cliffs, which terminate in the pebbly beach of Babbicombe (sic), on which, and amidst the cliffs of the beetling rocks, stand some picturesque cottages, which the romantic situation of this hamlet has induced the owners to build for their summer residences; but the most beautiful is that of Mr. Cary, constructed of the rudest materials … The two sitting rooms are ornamented with highly finished sea views in one and landscapes in the other;…The summer residences of Mr Cosserat, Mr Hubbard and Mr Atkins are laid out with much taste, but though they tend to embellish the spot, they take away from the wilderness of the scenery, which has constituted its most attractive feature. It is difficult to find a view more pleasing than that of Babbicombe; the bold projecting rocks around it, which terminate in the Ness, and afford a partial view of Teignmouth, the line of wavy hills that stretching from the mouth of the Exe, and reaching the white cliffs of the Dorset coast, in one glance portray the most frequented and most beautiful part of the south west coast, whilst the shingle beach beneath, glitters with the broken fragments of the marble rocks.’
So far, so good. Ironically, the very tourists who came seeking seclusion began to ruin that mood with their presence. But for a time, Babbacombe struck a Romantic balance. An annual regatta was founded there in the early 1820s. The village had a few ornamental houses on the bay, along with some fishermen's huts to lend a (genuine) air of authenticity. The allure lasted at least up to the time of the post-Romantic Pre-Raphaelites at mid-to-late century.‘Proceeding onward we reach Babbicombe, a romantic rocky glen, twenty years since there were only a few fishermen’s huts, but the beauty of the spot having excited attention, several ornamental cottages have been built, and gardens formed along the steep sides of the hill and amongst the rocks, which have to great degree destroyed the beauty of the scene, depending as it does on its wild secluded character’."
Drawing Room at The Glen around the time of royal visits to the house. Image Source: Torbay Library Services via Bytes of Torbays Past.
Perhaps the nicest house built on the bay was 'The Glen.' It so exemplified the aesthetic of the time that it and the wild little fishing village attracted royal notice and eventually several royal visits. This was also partly due to the fact that the Glen was occupied by the Whitehead family, one of whom had been a lady-in-waiting:
When the Royal Yacht sailed into Babbacombe Bay in 1846, Queen Victoria recorded in her journal:Mrs Whitehead attended the baby princess Victoria and was a lady in waiting to the princess’s mother. The young princess was driven out from Torquay to visit her in 1833.
While she was queen, Victoria visited the bay twice, once in 1846 when she did not land and again in1852. This time the queen was taken close to the shore in a rowing boat so that she could admire and sketch the scenery.
Prince Albert with their sons Edward, Prince of Wales and Prince Alfred went to visit Mrs Whitehead. Edward came to Babbacombe twice more, in around 1856 and again in 1878. He was staying at the Imperial Hotel and was driven to Oddicombe and from there was rowed across to Babbacombe bay, he met Emma Keyse, the niece of Mrs Whitehead at the Glen and was invited for tea.
According to local accounts, Victoria's son, later Edward VII, was again received at The Glen in 1879 and visited Babbacombe once more in 1880.'It is a beautiful spot... . Red cliffs and rocks with wooded hills like Italy, and reminding one of a ballet or play where nymphs appear - such rocks and grottoes, with the deepest sea on which there was no ripple.'
The Glen and its boathouse (right) in 1870. Image Source: Murder Research.
By 1884, Emma Keyse, niece of the original owner, had inherited the house. Then the fate of the locality changed: on 15 November of that year, she was found in the house with her throat slit and several stab wounds.
Her servants' versions of what happened that night were inconsistent. The only man in the house, John Lee, was the half-brother of the cook. The cook was pregnant and Keyse had had angry altercations with the cook over the pregnancy. The picture - described at length here, here and here - is one of a bad atmosphere at The Glen and restive servants leading up to their mistress's murder. Keyse, a gentlewoman, also had had conflicts of some kind with local smugglers. The most thoroughgoing analysis of what happened is at Murder Research:
In the midst of the murder, The Glen caught fire. Two of the servants continued to live in the burned out husk of the building - crime scene, charred sections and a missing roof notwithstanding - for the next two years.Emma Keyse was broke and wanted to sell the property. She was in a constant battle with the local fishermen at Babbacombe, who were trying to make a living. She was definitely witness to the thriving smuggling industry at Babbacombe Bay over the years. I think the thorny issue of money (of which Emma had so little) had been the main topic that day. I have a feeling the ‘staff’ were on notice anyway. I believe Emma discovered on the night of the murder who the father of her cook’s child was. I think the general atmosphere in the house with the servants was not at all good. All these issues had been building and building in this stuffy claustrophobic community at The Glen.
So, on that dark Victorian autumn night on Babbacombe bay, Emma Keyse came face to face with her murderers. More than one person was directly involved in assassinating Emma Keyse – one of them tried to hack her head off and the other(s) started to attempt to destroy some evidence by lighting fires around the property. ...
The identity of the man responsible for Elizabeth Harris’ pregnancy and another, probably, embittered person, killed Emma Keyse – whether one of these was John Lee is now the issue as is the other person. And it’s the ‘other person’ that’s so intriguing. The young fisherman, Cornelius Harrington or the youthful Solicitor Reginald Gwynne Templer immediately come to mind as do the numerous other local characters who provided their evidence at court.
After spending so long trolling through so much archive and exploring every avenue I have come to the conclusion that John Lee was, at the very least, somehow involved in the killing of Emma Keyse.
The Glen in ruins (right) after the fire. Image Source: Babbacombe Beach and The Glen.
Despite the likelihood of the murder having involved another man or other men who fled the scene, Lee was found guilty of the crime and sentenced to death on 23 February 1885. Lee became famous when the trap door on the gallows at Exeter Prison failed to open, despite three attempts by the executioner. After this bizarre malfunctioning of the gallows mechanism, Lee's sentence was commuted by the Home Secretary and he spent the next 22 years in Portland prison. Oddly enough, Lee's second lawyer, Herbert Rowse Armstrong, was later found guilty of murdering his wife in 1921, and was executed in 1922.
When Lee emerged in 1907, he became a minor celebrity in the press - feted as the 'man they could not hang.' (See 1910 reports: April 23, April 30 Pt 1, April 30 Pt 2, 7 May Pt 1, 7 May Pt 2, 14 May, 21 May, 28 May, 4 June, 11 June, 18 June.) Shortly after this flurry of attention, he emigrated, apparently to the United States under a different name. Researchers who have tried to trace his fate believe that he ended his days, sometimes known as 'James' Lee, and is buried at Forest Home Cemetery, Milwaukee. His life became the subject of a play, a song, a 1912 Australian silent film (The Life Story of John Lee, or The Man They Could Not Hang - it is considered a lost film), a folk opera, and a teleplay.
The cook's lover, Gwynne Templer, who may well have been the actual murderer, curiously represented Lee in court, and did little to defend him. Templer died at the age of 29 on 18 December 1886 at Thomas Holloway’s Sanatorium in Surrey: "the cause of death was 'general paralysis of the Insane – 1 year.'" Murder Research points to another mysterious possible perpetrator, cited from a contemporary source:
Whatever murderous violence dwindled down to ugly secrets in this little cove, most researchers focus on Lee and leave the story there. But what happened to the town after this dark twist of fate?About the year 1890 there stood at the side of an open grave, in a South Devon town, a well-known and local resident and his two sons. The man who had been buried was a public man of the town who had been very well-known, highly respected and very popular throughout South Devon. The young men were, also, in their turn, to become public men in the area. As they were moving away from the grave and the mourners were disbursing their father turned to them and said “we have buried this afternoon the secret of the Babbacombe murder."
After the murder, the attractiveness of the village slowly declined from its Victorian heyday. The 'Garden Room' at the Glen was bizarrely transformed into a 'beach cafe'' by the local council. The cafe was "destroyed by fire in April 1928." The spot that The Glen occupied became a parking lot.
In 1926, a cliff railway was built so that tourists could ride up the cliff and see the view of the sea. The area still attracted those seeking holidays from the cities from the 1930s up until the 1950s; but by the 1960s, Babbacombe gradually became run down. In 1963, a historic model village was built nearby to attract tourists.
In the early 2000s, there was a concerted effort to beautify and refurbish the area with footpaths and similar wild garden attractions. Now the town invites Scuba divers, anglers and boating enthusiasts. Those Romantic Victorian ornamental cottages have been renovated into B&B's. The local theatre, built in the 1930s, was finally renovated in 2009.
But there is still a darker current here, some odd echoes of the murder case at The Glen. Perhaps it is just the bad economy, or maybe some uneasiness persists between those who appeciate the local wild area and those who seem shaped by it. In the 2000s, areas of planted woodlands were cut down without permission. There are ongoing problems with vandalism, sexual activity and syringes on the footpaths, such that the council decided to wall off the footpaths to prevent access from the surrounding brush. The old cliff railway was covered with graffiti in 2006. In July 2007, vandals destroyed traditional wattle fencing constructed in a nationally funded garden project. In July 2010, vandals destroyed a local garden, pulling up 300 flowers, amounting to £3,000 of damage for the disabled owner, who had spent years carefully cultivating the much-photographed site.
This dark theme has appeared in local fiction. Torquay is the birthplace of author Agatha Christie. The area is not so far from Daphne du Maurier's famed Jamaica Inn. There are Babbacombe roots in Edgar Wallace's The Law of the Four Just Men (read it here), a 1921 vigilante story, "the prototype of modern thriller novels."
Babbacombe's red cliffs. Image Source: Panoramio.