Dawlish is a town and civil parish in the Teignbridge District on the south coast of Devon in England, 12 miles (19 km) from the county town of Exeter. During the 18th century, it grew from a small fishing port to become a well-known seaside resort. The population at the 2011 census was 13,161.
The area covered by Dawlish today was part of the ancient division of Devon called Exminster Hundred. From 1894 until 1974 it was made up of the two parishes of East Dawlish and West Dawlish. It was absorbed into the Teignbridge District in 1974.
Before Dawlish itself was settled, fishermen and salt makers came down from the higher ground where they lived, to take advantage of the natural resources available on the coast hereabouts. They built salterns to produce salt and stored it in sheds nearby. The unpredictable nature of the stream, Dawlish Water, during floods is likely to have led to nearby Teignmouth being the preferred site for salt-making, and the practice stopped at Dawlish during the Anglo-Saxon period (AD 400–1000).
The earliest settlement at Dawlish grew up almost a mile away from the coast, around the area where the parish church is today. There is evidence of early settlements at Aller Farm, Smallacombe, Lidwell and at Higher and Lower Southwood, where the ground would have been fertile and not subject to flooding.
The land that includes present-day Dawlish was granted by Edward the Confessor to Leofric, later the first Bishop of Exeter, in 1044. After the Norman Conquest, Leofric gave the land to the Diocese of Exeter, which held it until it was sold, in 1802.
Little of note happened at Dawlish until the end of the 18th century, when seaside locations on the south coast started to become popular with the wealthy, mainly caused by George III making Weymouth in Dorset his summer holiday residence from 1789. In May 1795, the antiquarian and topographer John Swete spent some time in Dawlish and reported that although not long ago it had been no more than a fishing village, and the best lodging house would not cost more than half a guinea per week, it was now so fashionable that "in the height of the season, not a house of the least consequence is to be hired for less than two guineas a week, and many of them rise to so high a sum as four or five."
In the first decade of the 19th century the land between the original settlement and the sea was "landscaped"; the stream was straightened, small waterfalls were built into it, and it was flanked by a broad lawn and rows of new houses: The Strand on the north side and Brunswick Place on the south. The entire layout survives remarkably unchanged today, despite severe damage caused by a torrent of water coming down Dawlish Water from the Haldon Hills on the night of 10 November 1810.
Also worth noting are Manor House and Brook House (both about 1800) and some of the cottages in Old Town Street surviving from the old village. Dawlish's transformation from a fishing settlement to a watering hole for Victorian celebrities is documented at the Dawlish Museum.
In 1830, Isambard Kingdom Brunel designed a railway, which operated on a pneumatic principle using a 15-inch iron tube. One of the pumping stations was in this town. The line ran right along the sea-front of the town, but Brunel ensured that the line was carried across the mouth of the stream on a small granite viaduct, leaving access to the beach. The atmospheric railway opened on 30 May 1846 and ran between Exeter St. Davids and Newton Abbot. The first passenger train ran in September 1847, but the project was besieged with problems mainly with the leather sealing valve, which after 12 months use needed replacing at a cost of £25,000. South Devon Railway directors abandoned the project in favour of conventional trains: the last atmospheric train ran in September 1848.
In February 2014 the small granite viaduct across a stream was washed away by a storm leaving the railway tracks suspended in mid-air. The line through Dawlish is the main line between London and Cornwall and trains had to be diverted over other lines further inland until the repair could be made. This was accomplised in May 2014 and the scenic mainline route just above the beach at Dawlish is now usable again. The re-opening ceremony was typical of anything that might have been put on in the 19th century. (Source: viewer of BBC Television News) [Further discussion in Wikipedia under Transportation. Wikipedia also has a photograph of the Dawlish seafront showing the railway track.]
From 1894 until 1974 Dawlish was split into the two parishes of East Dawlish and West Dawlish for registration purposes.