Beer History

Beer's History is influenced by its Geology

Beer’s geology has directly influenced it’s history and population over the last 6,000 years; fishing, mining, flint tool-making, quarrying, stonemasonry, winemaking, arms production, architecture, agrochemicals, raw materials for industry, smuggling & tourism

All this makes Beer distinct from the surrounding Triassic & Jurassic

Geology also influences the flora and fauna, which in turn influences the farming economy and scenery 

Link to   Link To Beer Online Museum

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Tythe map of Beer 1841

Spaniards in Beer

You may well already know the following story, but perhaps not in the version told by POH (Peter Orlando Hutchinson) in his diary:


Tuesday Oct 4th 1874. – Drove over to Beer to spend the day with C. F. Williams, who is again there. [Oct. 8. 1872.]  The weather lately has been very unsettled, but I seized on today, as it was fine and calm.  Went up Salcombe Hill, passed Trow, Hangman’s stone, and then turned down by Bovey House to Beer.  Of late years many new houses have been built, so that the ancient quaintness of the place is lessened

I was told a tradition in Beer today which is worth mentioning. I was told that traces of Spanish blood and a Spanish type of countenance are to be observed among the inhabitants of this secluded place; and the story runs as follows. At the time that the plague was raging here in the year 1646, (see April 20 1870) the panic was so great that many of the inhabitants fled to the neighbouring hills, and made tents of sheets or blankets, or ran up sheds or huts of such materials as they could collect together. Whilst they were thus encamped on the open down upon Beer Head and other hills, a Spanish ship, being overtaken by a storm, was wrecked on the coast, and the crew got on shore at Beer. Going into the place, they found half the houses empty, and dead lying in many of them. These they buried and then ensconced themselves in the houses. When the danger was over, and the inhabitants returned to their homes, the settled down with the Spaniards, and intermarried with them, and the foreigners were well content to remain where they were. The descendants of these people are said still to linger here, and to show traces of their foreign origin, by the type of their features, and the swarthiness of their complexions. On another occasion, if I have the opportunity, I will endeavour to find out whether there are any Spanish names to be met among them. – Nov 4. 1875. Spent a pleasant day, and got home by moonlight before nine.

Brief Pre-history

New Stone Age, The Neolithic, 4,000 BC to 2,000 BC, the time of early Stonehenge. They were the first farmers in Britain. There is plenty of evidence of  Neolithic Man's presence in Beer. Man-made flint tools, cores and flakes are found all over and at Bovey Fir Cross, just north of the caves, there is a Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age burial mound.

Martin Tingle did an archaeological dig in Bovey Lane in the 1990s and found evidence of Neolithic Man eating mussels, winkles, limpets and oysters. Amongst many other finds was a Neolithic bone button.

Beer is the last place going west with plenty of flint bearing Cretaceous rock. For top quality tools you need virgin mined flint still with its cortex. Beach pebbles are not good enough. They have been exposed to frost and battered by the sea. Probably most of Devon and Cornwall, in Neolithic times, would have traded with the Beer area for high quality, black, unpatinated flint for tool making. Beer flint has been found as far west as Carn Brae in Cornwall.

Bronze Age, 2,000 BC ‘til 600 BC, Beer was still an important source of flint. Not everyone in the space age has been into space, and not everybody could afford bronze. A Bronze Age palstaff has been found in Beer, now in Seaton Museum.

The Iron Age, 600 BC ‘til the Romans. The flint and turf banks on Beer Head are believed to date from the Iron Age. In the surrounding area there are numerous Iron Age hillforts, Blackbury and Musbury Castle, Hawkesdown Camp and many others.

Roman times, 2,000 years ago. They started Beer Quarry Caves for building stone. The Cretaceous also yields sandstones for sand and chalk for lime providing them with all the building materials they needed; plaster, mortar, stone and nearby, the red Triassic mudstones of Seaton provided clay for roof tiles. There is some clay with flints in Beer, on top of the Cretaceous from the Tertiary above.


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Neolithic Arrowhead

found in


Beer Lace

The controversy in East Devon over lace is what to call it.  Beer always insists it is Beer Lace.  Lace was made in the surrounding villages, but Beer’s claim is based on the fact that Huguenot refugees settled in Beer, when they introduce the skill of pillow lace to the area c1567 and Beer is where the Lace Shoppe used to be.  The major point of local collection for trade and retail lace.  Honiton’s name has been attached to the lace, as it was the staging post on the main road (A303) to London, where most of the lace was ultimately sold.  The truth is that pillow lace was made all over East Devon, but it was still taught at Beer Primary School right up until the 1970’s.

The following is based on an interview I had with May Wakely years ago…

May was born in Restorick’s Court in 1912.  Her Aunt Caroline (Bartlett), who lived there, would sit all day by the window making lace as her only means of support.  The house was of local flint with a slate roof where Beach Court is now.  They considered themselves lucky as they shared an outside flush toilet with only four other houses and had a standpipe for water not far from their front door.  The local ladies made lace to supplement the family income in times of poverty.  As an infant she could remember being asked on several occasions to go up to Miss Newton’s (where the Mariners’ Hall is today) with a piece of lace to bring back some tea or sugar.  This would be wrapped up in a screw of newspaper and gives some idea of how hard it was scraping together a living in those days, but the best lace was taken to Miss Allen who owned the Lace Shoppe.  In the 1920’s she left Restorick’s Court and lived in Gravel Cottages, which were thatched then.  She shared a bedroom with her brother and the roof was so low you could only stand in the doorway.

She learnt lace at school as did all the Beer girls then, and although too young at first, she kept on to the teacher until eventually, just before the age of eight, she was allowed to join the older girls in the Music Room (Berry Hill) and learn to make Beer lace.  Later in life May was asked, by the County lace class inspector, if she would like to take the class.  She declined and suggested Mrs. G Restorick, but was herself eventually persuaded to teach, which she continued until her death.

She was commissioned by Princess Margarita of Yugoslavia to make a lace picture for the Royal Wedding of Charles and Diana.  Seventeen of May’s pupils took part in the production.  It incorporated the Prince’s plume of feathers, the date and a surrounding border.  Delphin Franklin and May went to Buckingham Palace to hand it in, they didn’t meet anyone famous, but they did get a royal cup of tea.  May and her class also made a present of twenty-five tiny motifs for Prince William’s Birth.

Later she made, with helpers (Jessica Green was one of them) the lace motifs for the Beer Parish Council Chairman’s chain of office.

Before May’s time, Beer had made part of the flounce for Queen Victoria’s wedding dress in February 1840.  Made in Beer with contributions from neighbouring villages, the flounce was returned to Beer in July 1982 for a special one-off display in St. Michael’s Church.  Volunteers (my wife Carol was one of them) spent the night in the Church to guard it as a condition of the insurance company.


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Lace Lugger


Janet Bevis

New book by S. White

Jane & Ida

Beer lace manufacturers to Royalty

The Beer Lugger

The Beer Lugger is not just any old lugger with the word Beer stuck in front of it, but is a design and rig type-specific to Beer.  The archetype is documented in the Science Museum as the Little Jim of Exeter.  Exeter is the port of registry.  Owned by H. Bartlett it was built by Lavers of Exmouth in 1916.  However, even this long ago the angle of the yard had started to steepen as is the modern trend.  There are other luggers on the South Coast and many of them may look similar, but to the informed eye there are differences.  Further down Cornwall way for instance, they set a jib outside the vor's'l (foresail) so the sail cannot be dipped when going about.  The Penzance Lugger is an example.

There are some lovely old pictures in circulation of luggers years ago with three masts and very square sails, but the ones you will see racing Regatta Day or Monday nights will only have two masts with a much steeper angle on the yard, the latter is a modification to make them sail better to win'rd (windward).  The Beer Lugger is a working boat rig.  In a two-master the foremast is set right vor'rd (forward) and the mizzenmast is set right aft, often outboard.  This leaves the boat uncluttered for working.  In the three-master the main mast amidships would often be unshipped when working so as to clear the decks.  The vor's'l and mains'l are called dipping lugsails and the mizzen a standing lug.  There is no boom on the vor's'l or the mains'l and when under way the sail is completely outboard.  Even when close hauled the foot of the sail will never come inboard of the gun'l (gunwale).  This means that when going about there is nothing to bang you on the head and the whole sail can be turned inside out around the vor'rd side of the mast, so no part of the sail has to cross the working area of the vessel.  Those of you who have sailed naval luggers will note the difference.  The mizzen sail is self-tacking.  There are other advantages to the rig: all the spars are short enough to fit in the boat when unshipped, the short mast does not require a sophisticated system of stays or spreaders to support it and with such a rig it is possible to set a large powerful sail despite the low mast.

The Beer Lugger is, I believe, a direct descendant of the Viking rig introduced to Southern Britain by the Normans in 1066.  The Bayeux Tapestry shows the rig in detail.  The sail is square and set on a yard, the mast is short and is unshipped on reaching shore, there are no stays only a few shrouds, and it appears they used the halyard as an extra shroud to win'rd, this is a real old Beer trait forced upon poor fishermen who could not afford enough rope.

As mentioned before, the rig has changed over the years, the angle of the yard has steepened and the luff has become shorter to aid speed when beating and to ease going about (with a steep yard there is no need to slacken the halyard when dipping the lug).  In the old days they had a special spar stuck in a cringle on the luff to help keep it tight and to win'rd.  This was called a vo'g'rd and is a local corruption of fore-guard.  The rules of Beer Lugger racing still encourage many old skills; they are allowed no mechanical advantage on the sheets, they must attach the sail to the yard with robands (twine lacings tied with a reef knot), the shrouds must be of rope and held taut using only a rolling hitch.

Beer is the only place I know, where they race dipping lugsails, so keep a good look out Monday evenings in the season and on Regatta Day for the Beer Luggers.  Particularly watch them when they go about (i.e. change direction), that's when the "fun" starts.      


A Beer man is the only person you are ever likely to meet that can tie a rolling hitch "correctly".  The real use of a rolling hitch is for when one needs to tie a loop with only one end, under tension and at the same time keeping the tension.  In Beer it has one very old and traditional application, that of keeping the rope shrouds tight on a Beer Lugger and one more modern, but still of some decades of use, that of tying the landing stage up so that it does not run down the beach.


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Carol Green


Jack Rattenbury - The Rob Roy of the West

Beer on the Jurassic Coast with its magnificent white cliffs (the last in England going west)  is a classic example of where geology has impacted on the life, culture and history of its inhabitants.

Beer Head, formed from Late Cretaceous chalk is harder than the surrounding red Triassic cliffs of East Devon.  This resistance to erosion has left a headland protecting Beer Roads from the prevailing So’ westerly winds and seas, lending itself as a safe haven for boats.  This the bright white chalk headland also served as an outstanding navigational aid.

Along with the spirit of the inhabitants its geology contributed to Beer being a successful fishing port; one of the most important on the south coast where the boats are beached every night.

The success of the fishing industry meant Beer was a ready source of highly skilled seamen; which drew them towards privateering and smuggling in the late 1700s to early 1800s and at times being pressed into taking the King’s shilling.

John, known as Jack Rattenbury “The Rob Roy of the West” was born into this community in 1778.  He was the son of a fishwife and a father who was shipped aboard a man o’ war before his birth and never seen again.

Jack went to see at the age of 9 as an apprentice fisherman and turned out to be an outstanding rogue of high intelligence and industry.  His life became the epitome of the word swashbuckling.

On his first foray as a privateer (still as a boy) he ended up in jail in France, but managed to escape to America

On his many adventures he subsequently sailed to Norway, Spain, France and the Channel Islands

He made many of his smuggling forays to Cherburg (Cherbourg) most of which were highly successful, though some were not and cost him dearly.  Sometimes losing his boat or cargo and occasionally his liberty.

His resourcefulness though always enabled him to either get discharged for lack of evidence by the magistrates or to escape.

More than once he was pressed into service in his Majesty’s navy, but escaped.

On one occasion he was given a pardon from the King after a petition from the MP for Lyme.

The heyday of these smuggling escapades was during the Napoleonic wars when all manner of cargo was carried besides the usual spirits; lace, tobacco and escapees and I suspect spies.

In later life he was twice called as a witness to Parliament to give evidence for an act of parliament for a canal to Beer; the Act was passed, but the project was never taken up.

Although at times a ruthless rogue he was certainly also a humane man.  As a pilot he saved many a ship from foundering , often without hope of reward. This was obviously recognised by Lord Rolle who eventually allowed him a pension of one shilling per week for life.  One presumes this was partly out of generosity and humanity, coupled with a thank-you for services rendered.

mjlg  - sourced mainly from his book Memoirs of a Smuggler

For those of you interested in reading a novel about the notorious smggler extroidinaire, Jack Rattenbury, known as "the Rob Roy of The West - use the black button below


Sedimental - Rocks and Humans

Beer is an unconformity in the Walk Through Time along the World Heritage Site, where the greensands and chalks of the Cretaceous period come out to the sea at Beer Head and sit next to the Triassic sandstones at Seaton Hole. So what opportunities has this presented to people throughout history?

Neolithic man came to Beer 6000 years ago. He knew that black flint can be shaped and sharpened to make cutting tools and axes. He may have realised that flints are often associated with chalk, and noticed that Beer Head has the most westerly white cliffs. The cliffs themselves may have been a good source of flint, although he will have discovered that flints which have been rolled around on the beach are difficult to knap. We know that Stone-Age man made tools from Beer flint and took, or traded, it over a wide area indicating that the people in Beer were in contact with other groups. Neolithic man also used chert for scrapers, which have been found locally. New Stone Age (4000 -2000 BC) tools made in Beer have been found at Hembury, Haldon and as far away as Carn Brea in Cornwall. In 1645 Beer flint was used in flintlock guns for the New Model Army, and black flint is apparently still used today for scalpels for eye surgery.

The next recorded inhabitants of Beer were the Romans who quarried stone, creating the first of the underground caves for which Beer is famous. They realised that the Beer freestone has such a fine grain that it can be carved as well as being used as a building material. They found the other ingredients for buildings locally – sand from greensand, chert, chalk for lime wash and mortar, as well as gypsum from Weston. We know that the Romans built a villa at Honey Ditches in Seaton, and possibly one in Beer, and they also used Beerstone to make small items like lamps. The Saxon church of St. George's in Exeter is partly built with Beer stone that was recycled, having been used originally in a Roman building.

We know that the Romans were around Beer for at least three hundred years because coins for each of the 3 centuries have been found at the caves. What we don't know is where they used all of the stone which they quarried. While they sought Beer stone below ground the Romans also realised that the south-west facing slopes of thin limestone soil were ideal for grapes, and so they brought vines to grow. We assume they were successful, because much later, around 1200, Beer provided wine for Sherborne Abbey.

Beer Head stands out because the late Cretaceous chalks have not eroded as much as the Triassic sandstones to the east. It provides a natural shelter from the prevailing winds, which means that fishermen can launch and recover their boats at most states of the tide. We know that this is an ancient occupation as in 1145 Beer fisheries and salt pits were ceded to Sherborne Abbey.  Beer still has a fishing fleet and was, of course, also famous for smuggling.

Today, local stone in Beer is still making history. Small pieces of greensand from the village have recently returned after 18 months in space. Scientists have ascertained that the microbes in the greensand have survived their epic journey. So, when your great-grand children blast off on a journey to Mars or Venus, where they will have to grow their own food, you will know that Beer provided the evidence that organisms can survive and grow in space.

Norah Jaggers, Ambassador for the East Devon and Dorset World Heritage Site. Beer Village Heritage.  

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For more information visit the display in the

Self Shelter

in the Jubilee Gardens at Beer, East Devon

A jingle written in 1920 by Kenneth Lindsay, at that time an undergraduate but who became a barrister, a K.C. and the Labour MP for Kilmarnock

sung to the tune of “Clementine”


          Down in Devon, down in Devon

          There’s a village oh so dear

          Sure it’s just a bit of heaven         

          And the angels call it Beer.


          Mr. David, the schoolmaster

          Is a Jack of every trade

          Always shiny like the briny

          Sticks to jobs like marmalade


          The fishermen will kindly

          Take you anywhere for a bob,

          Except old (blank blank), their Charlie Chaplin

          Who charges eighteen pence without a sob.

The present version was written in the late 1970s by Mike Green & Gayle Chapple - The original is over 100 years old


(Beer’s Anthem)


Sung to the tune of “Oh! My Darling Clementine”


Down in Devon, down in Devon,

There’s a village by the sea.

It’s a little piece of heaven

And the angels call it Beer


They call us Spaniards, they call us Dutchmen,

But we’re English evermore.

And we live here in God’s Country,

And we love our Devon shore


(Chorus - Down in Devon…)


I’ve been thinking, while I’ve been drinking,

‘Bout our haven by the sea.

In the whole of Devon county

Nowhere else I’d rather be … than …


(Chorus - Down in Devon…)


Written for one of the early Panto People pantomime productions