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HER Number:MDV61492
Name:Old Quay Head, Ilfracombe


Reputed to have been originally built in the 14th century, the pier was enlarged in 1760 and again in 1824-9. Present pier of slatestone rubble with dressed stone coping. Watching brief during refurbishment revealed several phases of construction including the remains of what is possibly the medieval structure within the centre of the pier.


Grid Reference:SS 524 477
Map Sheet:SS54NW
Admin AreaDevon
Civil ParishIlfracombe
DistrictNorth Devon
Ecclesiastical ParishILFRACOMBE

Protected Status

Other References/Statuses: none recorded

Monument Type(s) and Dates

  • PIER (Early Medieval to XIX - 1066 AD to 1900 AD (Between))

Full description

Bampton, J., 07/11/2013, The Old Quay Head, Illfracombe, Devon (Report - Survey). SDV355856.

The Old Quay Head was reputedly built in the 14th century by the Bourchier family, the Earls of Essex. This early pier may be represented by a wall that predates 1676, discovered during the installation of supporting anchors in 2001. The pier was reported as being 300 feet in 1676, and the structure was subject to further refurbishment and repair works, carried out by the Bourchier family who maintained a significant interest in the site, in 1760, the 1820's and again in 1870.

The first source depicting the Quay Head is Donn's map of 1765. The structure is clearly marked projecting to the south, but the map is without sufficient detail to inform on anything other than the Quay Heads existence at this time.

A visual inspection in 2013 found that 60 metres of the wall had suffered sufficient joint loss along its base; and 30 metres of substantial bulging along the harbour side of the wall. These indicated decreased structural integrity and may have been indicative of issues associated with the 2007 repairs. The seaward side, unsurprisingly, had suffered considerable erosion along the majority of the structure rather than significant bulging. The repairs to the wall in 2007 supposedly proved ineffective, and the failure of such substantial repairs on multiple occasions resulted in the pier being recommended for emergency repairs in order to avoid collapse and the piling of the inner-build debris at the base of the wall. Despite such dramatic inevitable collapse without repairs, the majority of the pier was deemed to be in a suitable condition.

The excavation of two test pits on the Old Quay Head was undertaken in advance of a proposed construction which would be used to preserve the historic, although numerously repaired, quay wall.

Test pit 1 was located near a fracture in the west wall of th epier, which was slightly bowed out at the time of the survey. It revealed a hollow on its west side that reached 0.30 metres from the western edge of the test pit to the inside of the wall currently visible on the outsiode of the pier. This indicated a need for consolidation and compaction of the material within the construction. The layers encountered to this depth had been disturbed by the installation of tie-bars to consolidate the structure in 2001. Test pit 1 did not reveal any earlier walls within the pier.

Test pit 2 revealed an earlier wall parallel to the existing east wall of the pier. This was constructed of shaped trap and granite stone blocks bonded with light yellow-white mortar. It was 0.35 metres below the current floor level and 0.36 metres west of the interior face of the existing eastern pier wall and it was abutted by construction fill on its west side.

A small assemblage of finds were recovered, which included mussel shell, coal inclusions and fragments of coarse lime mortar. The coal and mortar suggests a 19th century date. Unsurpringly, this supports the evidence that the interior and character of the pier has been disturbed or backfilled throughout the 19th century, potentially to a depth greater than exposed in the test pits. The other finds are undiagnostic, although they are heavily abraded, which suggests they were present in the landscape long before being deposited.

Cherry, B. + Pevsner, N., 1989, The Buildings of England: Devon, 502 (Monograph). SDV325629.

Built by the Bourchiers. Partly rebuilt and enlarged in 1760. Enlarged again in 1824-9. Low water jetty added in 1873. Slightly frivolous entrance at far end of main quay added in1952, in 1930's moderne style. Beyond is an incongruous group of ionic pilastered public conveniences, a bargeboarded lifeboat station and a mean 1930's café.

Department for Culture, Media and Sport, 1990, Ilfracombe (List of Blds of Arch or Historic Interest). SDV342320.

The quay from Royal Britannia Hotel on west to Pier Hotel on east including Old Quay Head. Quay, extending across the north side of the harbour, together with the pier projecting at right-angles from the east end, known as the Old Quay Head. 17th century or earlier; the quay widened in mid 19th century, possibly more than once, the pier partly rebuilt and enlarged in 1760 and 1824-9.
Materials: built of local slatestone rubble with coping of dressed stone, probably limestone; east side of pier faced with large, squared blocks of limestone, these rising to form a parapet wall finished, at the northern end, with a round coping. Quay now has a mid or late 20th century parapet wall of stone; the surface of the quay is covered with tarmac and there is a pavement along its north side. At the western end the quay wall curves round to form a slip running down in to the harbour. This may be a later addition, since there is a straight joint at the point where the curve begins. Some of the earlier coping stones appear to have been re-used at the top of the slip, but the surface of the latter is composed mostly of dressed blocks of hard slatestone polished by the sea.
At the north end, the east wall of the pier is recessed to accommodate a steep flight of stone steps. At the south end, also on the east side, a long, shallow flight of stone steps projects, curving round towards the north-east. On top of the pier, close to these steps, the parapet wall has a semi-circular projection on the west side, this bearing a slate tablet (possibly re-set) inscribed: 'This extensive Pier built some Ages since by the Munificence of the BOURCHIERS Barons of FITZWARINE EARLS OF BATHE and Vice ADMIRALS of this Place was in the Year 1760 partly rebuilt lengthened and enlarg'd by Sr. BOURCHIER WREY Bart. of the present Lord & inheritor of the Pier and Manor. A further enlargement of this Pier was commenced by Sr. BOURCHIER WREY Bart. in the year 1824 & completed in 1829 by Sir Bouchier Palk Wrey Bart. the present Lord of the Manor.' The last Bourchier (Henry, 5th Earl of Bath) died without issue in 1654; Anne, third daughter of the 4th earl, married Sir Chichester Wrey, Bart. The borough manor of Ilfracombe was acquired by the Bourchiers in about 1435; John Bourchier, Lord Fitxwarren, was created Earl of Bath in 1536.
The quay appears to have been widened by the Wreys after 1870, but comparison of maps of 1862 and 1869 suggests at least one
earlier widening.
Ilfracombe was a port of some significance by the 13th century and it is possible that the medieval quay survives, buried by later additions. Illustrations of the pier as remodelled by Sir Bourchier Wrey show it with a battlemented parapet and a small tower at the end of the quay. These features lasted until at least 1805, but had gone by 1829 when the pier acquired most of its present appearance.
(Ilfracombe, A Pictorial Record, 1986: Horridge GK: Plates 1-6; Kelly's Directory of Devonshire: 1883-: 240; Visitations of the County of Devon: Vivian JL: 1895-: 107; Ilfracombe, 1984: Lamplugh L: 9; 'The Hundreds of Braunton, Shirwell and Fremington': Reichel OJ: Transactions of the Devonshire Association, Extra Volumes: 436). Other details: LBS No 390271.

Unknown, 1994, Watching Brief at Ilfracombe Harbour, Photos (Report - Watching Brief). SDV342306.

Record of watching brief on test pits around Ilfracombe Pier. Other details: Photographs.

North Devon District Council, 1997, Ilfracombe Harbour Conservation Area Character Appraisal (1st Draft - June 1997) in Ilfracombe Harbour Conservation Area Partnership Bid Preliminary Application (Un-published). SDV345949.

Other details: 4.3.

North Devon District Council, 1998, Restoring the Heritage of Ilfracombe Harbour. Business Plan, 10 (Un-published). SDV347082.

Weddell, P. J., 1999, Archaeological Assessment of Proposed Repairs to the Old Quay Head, Ilfracombe (Report - Assessment). SDV336347.

According to tradition the old pier was built in the 14th century. There is a documentary reference to quays and a pier in 1676. In 1700 the pier was said to be 300 feet long. A plaque on the pier head records its extension in 1760. this probably refers to rebuilding rather than extension. An illustration of 1774 shows the outlook wall to be castellated with a building towards the pier head. Some rebuilding seems to have taken place in the 1850s. The pier survives today relatively unchanged from its 18th century appearance.

Dyer, M. + Gent, T. H., 2001, Archaeological Watching Brief at The Old Quay Head, Ilfracombe (Report - Watching Brief). SDV342307.

A watching brief was carried out from September 2000 - January 2001 during the refurbishment of the 'Old Quay Head' pier on the north side of Ilfracombe harbour. The eastern outer pier wall consisted of uniform limestone ashlar masonry. The end walls, the slipway and the innter walls were of stone rubble construction. Fishermen's huts along the eastern side of the pier were demolished and the single-roomed stone pier-head building carrying a slate commemorative plaque was renovated and reroofed. Three phases of development were identified during the watching brief. The last known major redevelopment took place in the 1870s and the refacing of the outer pier wall was probably undertaken in the 1820s. In 1760 the pier was extended to 90 metres. The pier is reputed to have been built by the Bourchier family in the 14th century. A series of trenches excavated across the surface of the pier revealed the remains of possibly the earliest 14th century structure within the centre of the pier and a later structure within the southern end of the present pier. The earlier build was of stone rubble with yellow lime mortar and the upper courses forming a unifom layer in herringbone-type construction.

Context One Archaeological Services, 2008, Ilfracombe Bus Station, Ropery Road, Ilfracombe, Devon. An Archaeological Desk-Based Assessment, 7, 28 (Report - Assessment). SDV342172.

Unknown, Unknown, Ilfracombe Quay (Ground Photograph). SDV355442.

East side of pier shown in undated black and white photo.

Sources / Further Reading

SDV325629Monograph: Cherry, B. + Pevsner, N.. 1989. The Buildings of England: Devon. The Buildings of England: Devon. Hardback Volume. 502.
SDV336347Report - Assessment: Weddell, P. J.. 1999. Archaeological Assessment of Proposed Repairs to the Old Quay Head, Ilfracombe. Exeter Archaeology Report. 99.45. A4 Stapled + Digital.
SDV342172Report - Assessment: Context One Archaeological Services. 2008. Ilfracombe Bus Station, Ropery Road, Ilfracombe, Devon. An Archaeological Desk-Based Assessment. Context One Archaeological Services Report. COAS/DBA/08/IBD. A4 Stapled + Digital. 7, 28.
SDV342306Report - Watching Brief: Unknown. 1994. Watching Brief at Ilfracombe Harbour. Unknown. A4 Stapled + Digital. Photos.
SDV342307Report - Watching Brief: Dyer, M. + Gent, T. H.. 2001. Archaeological Watching Brief at The Old Quay Head, Ilfracombe. Exeter Archaeology Report. A4 Stapled + Digital.
SDV342320List of Blds of Arch or Historic Interest: Department for Culture, Media and Sport. 1990. Ilfracombe. Historic Houses Register. Website.
SDV345949Un-published: North Devon District Council. 1997. Ilfracombe Harbour Conservation Area Character Appraisal (1st Draft - June 1997) in Ilfracombe Harbour Conservation Area Partnership Bid Preliminary Application. North Devon District Council Report. A4 Stapled + Digital.
SDV347082Un-published: North Devon District Council. 1998. Restoring the Heritage of Ilfracombe Harbour. Business Plan. North Devon District Council Report. A4 Comb Bound + Digital. 10.
SDV355442Ground Photograph: Unknown. Unknown. Ilfracombe Quay. Photocopy + Digital.
SDV355856Report - Survey: Bampton, J.. 07/11/2013. The Old Quay Head, Illfracombe, Devon. Southwest Archaeology Report. 131107. Digital + A4.

Associated Monuments

MDV53808Related to: HARBOUR in the Parish of Ilfracombe (Monument)
MDV75409Related to: The Quay at Ilfracombe (Building)

Associated Finds: none recorded

Associated Events

  • EDV4499 - Desk-Based Assessment of Ifracombe Bus Station
  • EDV6377 - Archaeological Monitoring, The Old Quay Head, Illfracombe (Ref: 131107)

Date Last Edited:Aug 1 2018 1:30PM