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Georgian Ilfracombe

By Local Historian Neil Holloway


Contemporary, cutting edge architecture, in any era, is expensive. Ilfracombe has seen fleeting wealth as prosperity has ebbed and flowed over the centuries. However, the good times have left us with a legacy of some exceptional houses amongst the usual, more modest buildings. Ilfracombe is best known for its fine Victorian buildings, but in earlier times, there obviously was enough wealth available to commission a number of very fashionable buildings. Two of my favourites are Russell House and Bath House: examples of cutting- edge design from the 1830s. The name says everything about Bath House. After Welsh miners were employed, in 1823, to provide access to the present Tunnels Beaches in response to demand for therapeutic sea bathing, some visitors required bathing without the coolness of the Bristol Channel water. Bath House was therefore built in 1836 to offer indoor, hot sea water bathing. The architecture of Bath House related to the then, hugely fashionable, Greek revival style; with Doric columns and fluting - very labour intensive and expensive to produce in days without machine tools. The design, in the style of the era, used pleasing symmetry. The baths were in the basement area; the windows for which have been mostly obscured by the build up of the street level – but can still be seen. These were the days when wealthy Bristol and North Somerset merchants brought their whole families to Ilfracombe, by boat, for the entire summer season - to benefit from the healthy, bracing properties of the town. Not for nothing was the town’s original motto ‘Ilfracombe potens salubritate’ adopted. Ilfracombe ‘Strong for health’: A fine marketing pitch to hitch ‘Combe to the latest Victorian health trend.


Russell House, a true gentleman’s residence, was built in fine 1830s style on the crest of Church Road. When first built, it would have enjoyed views across the Wilder flood plain down to the sea. The north façade is still a classic example of Georgian good taste, with beautifully proportioned windows and elegant roof lines. Bath House and Russell House have aged well and it is a pleasure to note the original Russell House wooden windows have recently been fully refurbished using, where necessary, recycled Victorian glass.


Of course, once the railway opened Ilfracombe up to Mass tourism after 1874, the money flowed in, and so many fine Victorian buildings were built. The majority from the creative efforts of the three renowned Ilfracombe-based architects: W.M. Robbins, W.H. Gould and Allen T. Hussell. Ilfracombe is lucky that the 1960s redevelopment phase virtually passed the town by, leaving us probably as the best remaining example of late Victorian architecture in a seaside town across the whole county.

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