Shelley's History

Who really was Percy Bysshe Shelley?     Who was Harriet Westbrook?

'Shelley’s' takes its name from the 19th century "romantic" poet Percy Bysshe Shelley who honeymooned here in the summer of 1812. Further investigation however reveals a much earlier history to the property, with records dating back to 1721 - "an indenture dated the twenty-seventh day of March One thousand seven hundred and twenty-one and made between Anna Street of the one part and George Ley of the other part certain hereditaments and premises in the County of Devon and in the Schedule hereto more fully described were together with other hereditaments demised unto the said George Ley, his executors, administrators and assigns for the term of One thousand five hundred years from the said twenty-seventh day of March One thousand seven hundred and twenty-one free from rent."

Later mention of the property, then known as "Woodbine Cottage" and owned by a Mrs Hooper comes with the arrival of the near 20 years old Shelley and his entourage on honeymoon. Shelley had set out from Nantgwillt for Chepstow in Wales with his 16 years old child bride Harriet Westbrook, her sister Eliza and their Irish servant Dan Healy. Unfortunately the cottage they found there was quite unsuitably small. Shelley was not thinking of his present restricted means as dictating his way of life; he would be twenty-one in little more than a year and, surely, in better circumstances. He could not wait until then to start his multiple household, he also wanted as well under his roof not only Elizabeth Hitchener, a fellow egalitarian lady friend ten years his senior, but also the liberal thinker, William Godwin, his second wife, Mary and their miscellany of children. With themselves and Miss Hitchener this added up to eleven people. Even if all the Godwins did not come at first, he hoped for some of them; and there would be others.

They came to Lynmouth on their way to Ilfracombe and
"...the beauty of it made us residents here for the summer months...It combines all the beauties of our late residence with the addition of a fine bold sea. We have taken the only Cottage there was, which is most beautifully situated, commanding a fine view of the sea with mountains at the side and behind us."
The Shelleys found Mrs. Hooper’s Lodgings not large enough, but with several bedrooms; Harriet called the smaller bedrooms ‘servants’ rooms’ regarding them inappropriate for important guests like the Godwins, they concentrated on securing Miss Hitchener. Elizabeth Hitchener, purportedly the daughter of a retired smuggler from the Sussex coast, was a schoolmistress at Hurstpierpoint and in contact with the radical Godwinian circle in London.   Sometime in June 1811 she met and developed a close friendship with Shelley, he mentored her and they shared many intellectual and political interests, which are reflected in their intimate correspondence.   Eventually in mid-August Elizabeth joined Shelley, Harriet and Eliza in Lynmouth, where a communal circle was in the making.  Differences of opinion, jealousies, and other tensions soon forced her return to Hurstpierpoint, where she was the subject of scandalous gossip and for some time quite poor.

Below high hills Lynmouth rests on the shore of an exquisite bay, blue as the Mediterranean. Ten years hence Shelley was to spend his last summer in a startlingly similar location in Italy, so much does the Bay of Lerici resemble that of Lynmouth. To see in close point of time the two bays scooped out of the hills is to have the curious sensation of having stayed in one place. Shelley’s determined choice of Lerici would seem to have been dictated by this resemblance, by the desire, whether or not fully conscious, to recapture the sunny earlier days of Lynmouth. Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote of his new lodgings in a letter to William Godwin dated 5th July 1812,
"We now reside in a small Cottage, but the poverty & humbleness of the apartments is compensated by their number,..."

In the spring of 1812 Prime Minister Spencer Perceval was assassinated, workers were being urged to seek political power and the government were anticipating riots. Here was work for Shelley’s pen. Lynmouth provided the right atmosphere and for Shelley and his writing projects it offered undisturbed quiet and the joys of the sea. Here Shelley composed early radical poetry, "Queen Mab - A Philosophical Poem", a poem full of paranoid rhetoric that failed to challenge, merely taking an oppositional stance.

Shelley wrote a seditious paper, "Declaration of Rights", and was observed launching copies sealed in bottles wading out into the bay to set them afloat, and sealed in boxes tied to balloons setting them aloft from the foreshore. Shelley was being watched, and the Town Clerk of Barnstaple felt it his duty to report to the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth, that revenue cutters had picked up two bottles containing the pamphlets. Fortunately Shelley had taken the precaution of omitting his and the printer’s name from the paper, and there was still respect for rank and wealth to save him from prosecution.

Shelley sent Dan Healy, his servant, to Barnstaple to distribute and post up the pamphlets. He was promptly arrested, fined two hundred pounds and sentenced in lieu of payment to the common gaol for six months. Shelley visited him the next day, but lacking funds could only alleviate the rigours of his confinement by contributing fifteen shillings a week.

The arrest of Dan Healy had increased Harriet’s fears for Shelley’s safety and he did not enjoy being under observation. Borrowing money from their landlady, Mrs Hooper and two of her neighbours they bribed a boatman to take them across to Wales and so made their escape. Upon Shelley’s eventual return to London some weeks later he wrote to his former landlady,
"Dear Mrs Hooper, I send you £20, out of the debt of £30 that I owe you. The remainder I will send as soon as I can. Your well-wisher, P.B. Shelley." It was however over one hundred years later that the family of P.B. Shelley repaid the outstanding debt.

This was not however the end of P.B. Shelley’s association with the property and Lynmouth. Some three years later in 1815 having left Harriet Westbrook for William Godwin’s daughter Mary, who later became Mary Shelley and found fame as the author of Frankenstein, he also became involved with Godwin’s stepdaughter, Claire Clairmont. Certainly Claire was in love with Shelley to Mary’s irritation and to resolve the matter it was agreed to send her away from London. Shelley underwrote Claire’s excursion to Lynmouth and for her to stay at the same cottage, Mrs Hooper’s Lodgings, where he and Harriet had been so happy in the summer of 1812. Claire described Lynmouth as a place of...
"a few Cottages, with rosy-faced children, scolding Wives, and drunken Husbands - I wish I had a more amiable & romantic picture to present to you, such as Shepherds & Shepherdesses, flocks & madrigals but this is the truth, & the truth is best at any time..."

Here Claire found her own peace of mind, but there are signs that she looked back on Lynmouth as a time of loneliness for she was to write later…
"a life of sixteen years is already to much to bear.” On her return to London Claire Clairmont would soon meet again and become the mistress for a while of that other great romantic poet, George Gordon, Lord Byron. After a short romance with Byron - whom she saw first as early as 1812 - she gave birth to his daughter Allegra after travelling through Europe in 1816 with Mary and her husband to be Percy Bysshe Shelley.

In 1854 Woodbine Cottage, subsequently to be known over the following ninety odd years as Woodbine Villa, Woodbine-Shelley’s Cottage, Shelley’s Cottage-Woodbine and Shelley’s Cottage, was purchased by Welshman Mr. Andrew Richards, a local property owner.

Confirming the property’s history on the 23rd October 1901 the North Devon Herald newspaper reported… “Miss Agnes Groves a native of Lynmouth attains her One hundredeth birthday to-day(Thursday). The old lady who is living and under the excellent care of Mrs Thomas Oxenham is in splendid health and retains the full possession of her faculties. At ten years of age she lived at “Woodbine Villa” with a Mrs Hooper and remembers the poet Shelley lodging there. This should settle the argument as to which is the “Shelley’s Cottage” described in guide book”.

There are references to a fire on the site in 1907 that destroyed it North Devon Journal 2nd May 1907 "Shelley's Cottage at Lynmouth is destroyed by fire"

Mrs. Mary Blackmore, Mrs Hooper’s daughter was a close neighbour of the Richards family, and in her old age took up residence in a cottage on Mars or Mer(s) Hill along from the Rising Sun Inn, which being a Shelley enthusiast, she named “Shelley’s Cottage”.
Mrs. Elworthy, Mrs. Blackmore’s daughter, died at the age of ninety in 1917, with the North Devon Herald reporting,
“Mrs. Elworthy’s mother (Mrs Blackmore) formerly lived at Woodbine Villa now known as Shelley’s Cottage from the poet having resided there. Consequently, the deceased could relate much about Percy Bysshe Shelley whose entry can be seen in an old Visitors’ Book in the possession of the family…”

he Richards’ family continued to run the property as a guesthouse right through until the late 1930’s by when it had become popular with the many cyclists. Over the following sixty years after WW2 the business was let to tenants and the term hotel was added in the 1940’s to become Shelley’s Cottage Hotel.

The devastating  Lynmouth Flood in 1952, that took the lives of 33 people, caused substantial, almost irrevocable damage to the entire building especially the west wing where the whole of the façade was torn off.  The property was so severely damaged it was almost demolished; all properties more severely damaged were in fact pulled down.

After a succession of owners the hotel fell into serious disrepair in the 1990’s eventually being sold at auction in a derelict state. Some two years on following major restoration work and a complete refurbishment Shelley’s opened it's doors again at the start of the millennium.