An Historical Overview of Lyme Regis

Humble Origin

In the Middle Ages Lyme expanded rapidly as a port trading mainly wool for wine with our closest neighbours. It was granted a Royal Charter by Edward 1st in 1285 who also ordered a galleon of 120 oars to be built in the Lyme Shipyard.

Elizabethan Lyme

  In Elizabethan England the town reached its zenith of wealth and influence. The port in 1589 was listed as the third largest in the country, after London and Bristol.

The first ship to reach West Africa, the Gold Coast, as it was known, the 'Cherubim' was built by Lyme shipwrights. Many became wealthy through trade and buccaneering. Sir George Somers colonized Bermuda which he accidently discovered when shipwrecked on a voyage to resupply the settlement Sir Walter Raleigh, a frequent visitor to Lyme had established in Jamestown, Virginia.

Ships from Lyme were sailing the 4 corners of the known world.

The Civil War

  Ever nonconformist in outlook Lyme favoured  Parliament in the Civil War. In 1644 the town heroically survived an 8 week siege by Royalist forces of superior strength. The women of Lyme played a vital role in the town’s defence.

In the same turbulent century Lyme’s puritan credentials encouraged the Duke of Monmouth to land in 1685 to persue his claim to the throne against his catholic uncle James 2nd. During his three days in Lyme many local people flocked to Monmouth’s cause. After his defeat at Sedgemoor the whole of the West Country suffered in the bloody assizes which followed under Judge Jeffries. 12 local men were executed on the spot where Monmouth landed while Judge Jeffries dined in the Great House on Broad Street.

18th Century Fall and Rise

  The 18th century saw the decline of the Cobb as a major port as it became too small for the larger ships being built. The town fell into disrepair and mismanagement at the hands of a Bristol family, the Fanes, who were only interested in the 2 parliamentary seats.

On a lighter note, in 1725 a great scandal was caused by the attempt of a young Henry Fielding, (yes, he of Tom Jones fame) to abduct a young local heiress. 

In 1758 with the building of a carriage road and the vision and generosity of Thomas Hollis, Lyme’s great benefactor, the town was reborn as a fashionable Georgian 'watering place' described in one Georgian travel guide as 'the Naples of the South'. 

Hollis gave money for the Assembly Rooms and brought his friend prime minister Chatham (Pitt the Elder) and his son, later our youngest prime minister, William Pitt the Younger to the town. The Assembly Rooms gave Lyme a season, so vividly illustrated in Jane Austin's 'Persuasion.'

Jane Austin & Mary Anning

  Jane Austin danced in the Assembly Rooms in 1803 and 1804 and set “Persuasion” in Lyme and Bath. 

The young Mary Anning started her career as a 'fossilist' and as her fame and news of her discoveries spread, she was sought after in Lyme by famous visitors such as Frederick King of Saxony who visited her in her little shop on Broad Street.  She later complained he didn't buy much, but asked for her autograph.

Victorian Beach Culture

The Victorian era saw the beginning of a beach culture with bathing machines and indoor salt water baths. James McNeil Whistler painted, Franz Liszt gave a piano concert, and literary figures such a Tennyson and Browning passed through the town. 1903 saw the completion of a rail link with Axminster which brought in many new tourists. Sadly it was discontinued in the Beeching reforms of the 1960s.

Renewal and Reinvention

In 1927 the Assembly Rooms gave way to a car park to accommodate the 'new' motor vehicles. 

1974 saw the filming of 'Persuasion' for TV and in 1980 the iconic film of John Fowles ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ was made in Lyme. Fowles was a long time resident of the town and curator of Lyme Regis Museum. 

In the new Elizabethan age Lyme has recovered much if its former glory welcoming visitors from around the world. 

With new projects every season Lyme continues to reinvent itself to meet the challenges of every new season.  

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