APPLEDORE is different from the usual seaport of this type, for the past not only lingers but is linked with the present by its shipping activities. True, they are on a smaller scale, for but one large boatbuilding concern remains although there are dozens of smaller ones, but the Appledore tradition of hundreds of years of seamen and craft is carried on.
One has only to pass through any street in Appledore to realise that here is a town with a rich and varied history. Irsha Street is a typical example. Barely 10 feet wide, it has a gully running down the centre and houses abutting on to the street - for, of course, there are no pavements. But that is not all. There is a surprise for the visitor every yard of the way. Set back at the end of the only two gardens on the street are what might be termed neat dolls' houses. Within a few feet is a door which looks as if it was just another front door. Far from it, for it opens on to a flight of steep steps which lead down to a boatbuilding yard, and lapping the edge of that yard is the river. The explanation is that 50 years ago (i.e. prior to 1952) a row of houses flanked the river, with their doors just a few inches above high-tide. Twelve feet higher and back-to-back were other houses, which fronted on to Irsha Street. The difference in the levels between the river and the street is about 24 feet, and in days gone by (at spring-tides) the people in Irsha Street would come down to effect a neighbourly rescue of those in the houses on the riverside as an exceptionally high tide lapped their very beds.
Boatbuilding yards have now taken the place of these cottages, and there is at least one that has been flourishing through three generations. In 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition (at Hyde Park, London), the Duke of Northumberland, President of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, which had been founded 27 years before, offered a prize of 100 guineas (£105) for the best model of a lifeboat. There were 280 competitors from all parts of the world, and among them a design submitted by Henry Hinks. Many people thought he was wasting his time, for was he not, after all, just a small Appledore boatbuilder? However, he designed a boat for saving life at sea which embraced many new principles. It would carry 40 men and could be built for £110. That design brought the second prize to Appledore, and the book which describes the competition and the entries is to-day (1951) a proud possession of the designer's grandson and great-grandson, who still build boats in the little yard below Irsha Street.
The yard retains some of the features of the former dwellings and the boats are successfully launched on a high tide from what were almost the front door steps. The fireplaces of the cottages still remain and in the furthermost corner, almost hidden under a mountain of assorted junk and timber, is another relic of the past. It is a wooden wheel some six feet in diameter which, worked manually with a handle and connected by a belt, used to provide the power for a turning lathe. Installed by the founder of the firm about 1840, it still works, and the present principal of the firm recalls spending many hours of his youth providingthe motive power.
History was made in the vicinity, but it is true to say that the process was sometimes reversed, for in 1924, from an adjacent yard on the river, an associate of the firm of Hinks broke up one of the last of England's old "wooden walls" - the Revenge. A 74-gun ship of the line, she fought at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Her crew beat off the hundreds from a Spanish 3-decker which tried to board her, while on the starboard side, battle was maintained with a French 2-decker. If the Revenge HAD to be broken up, it was, after all, perhaps fitting that the operation should have taken place by the Torridge, where so much of England's maritime history has been mirrored.
Mr. J. Hinks has many memories, for he is (1951) in his late sixties and has been in Appledore all his life. He will tell you that 50 or more years ago there was little chance of those who lived on the river going hungry. There was salmon enough for all, and whilst the poaching was on a large scale, it seemed to make little difference to the number of fish which were caught legitimately. There were boat loads of herrings landed daily in the season and a maze of herrings (615 in number) could be bought for 6s. If you required a hundred, then you received good measure by having 20 more thrown in for luck. A sack of potatoes (140 lbs) cost 2s 6d.; coal 9d a hundredweight, and the seafaring men could get gloriously drunk on a Saturday night for less than a shilling. Though only 2d a pint, beer WAS beer. An ounce of tobacco cost 3 and a half pennies, and two boxes of matches a halfpenny (ha'penny). Those indeed were the days!