The period of history known as the Napoleonic Wars (1795 - 1815) was a very dark
one for the merchants and residents of Looe. A visitor to Looe during this time
“ West Looe is a miserable town and despoiled of its trade by war, exhibiting little
else but poverty and discontent. In happier times an active Pilchard fishing was
carried on in Looe, but this is now at a stand, and we are told, almost with tears,
that a three year stock was on hand without the prospect of a single barrel being
disposed of. ”
Prior to this, Looe’s trade had been small but steady, and very varied – dealing
in iron, tin, lead, wine, soap, dowlas (coarse linen from Brittany), canvas, corn,
tobacco, fruit – not tomention fish - pilchards, hake, conger, and pilchard oil
– used for lighting lamps.
Now fishing and the curing of fish was at a standstill because of the blockade by
Napoleon which had closed the Mediterranean. Looe began to experience food shortages,
and the South Coast of England was under the constant fear of invasion by the French.
The Swan Hotel in East Looe was used as a recruiting station for the Navy during
the reign of George III. In 1803 a Volunteer Company was mustered in Looe known
as the East and West Volunteers. This unit consisted of sixty to seventy men, who
wore a uniform comprising a dark blue coat and pantaloons, with red facings and yellow
wings and tassels, white waistcoat. Captain Thomas Bond was the Commanding Officer.
These men soon learned to use great guns and small arms. Four eight pounder cannons
were sent to replace the old six pounders. Not one man of the company died during
the 6 years they were active.
Prisoners of War were constantly arriving in Looe, needing lodgings, before being
marched off to the prison hulks in the River Tamar at Saltash. In 1810 the Constables
of Looe received 5 shillings for guarding prisoners.
A few years earlier King George III had been recuperating from an illness and chose
to spend some time in Weymouth in order to take in the healthy sea air. This visit
was to set a new, fashionable trend ….. “Seaside Bathing”. In 1800 the first Bathing
Machine appeared on Looe beach. On the evening of the 20th August 1800 sea bathing
was officially inaugurated and -
“a party of ladies and gentlemen drank tea in it with much mirth and merriment”.
The contemporary Looe historian, Thomas Bond (mentioned above) recorded a verse written
by one of the gentlemen:
“ Bring the harp and bring the flute
Let none be silent, none be mute,
Sing the song and chant the air
Success attend our present measure
Health below's the greatest treasure.
What is Freedom, What is wealth,
Compared to thee, sweet blooming health?
May those who want thee, dip and find
Freedom, Wealth and Thee combined.”
Thomas Bond also wrote:
" From the situation of the two Looes, and the conveniency of sea-bathing, one should
have imagined that they would be more frequented in summer than they usually are.
It may be thought, perhaps that proper accommodation cannot be met with: but it
may be answered that few watering-places at their outset are furnished with better.
Tolerably decent lodgings may generally be obtained: and there can be no doubt that
accommodations would keep pace with the demand for them. Several new houses have
recently been built at Looe. When the bathing machine was in existence it could
have been used many hours in the day. It was let into the water and drawn out by
means of a capstan: and, owing to the convenience of the beach, the bathers did not
enter it till in its proper place for bathing, and then walked into it directly from
the beach "
However it would be many years before Looe was to become a popular holiday resort.
The first bathing machine was little used and fell into disrepair and was not replaced.
Peace eventually came in 1815, and with the end of the war Looe again began to flourish.
Note -Thomas Bond’s book on Looe : “A Topographical and Historical Sketches of the
Borough of East and West Looe, with an account of the natural and artificial Curiosities
and Pictorial Scenery of the Neighbourhood ” published - London, 1823.
The Golden Guinea is one of the oldest buildings in Looe, and was owned by the aforesaid
Thomas Bond in the 1820’s. It is said that a horse and cart full of golden guineas
was found in the house after his death, which was transported to the nearest bank,
at that time in Liskeard. How he came by this money is subject to speculation.
Thomas Bond’s tomb can be found on the north side of the graveyard at St Martin-By-Looe