Woody Bay's Victorian heritage

Find out more about Colonel Benjamin Lake and the Woody Bay Estate Company in a thrilling history of fraud, deception and embezzlement in Victorian Martinhoe.

The rocky beach at Woody Bay
Woody Bay beach

Colonel Benjamin Greene Lake was an ambitious man with a vision inspired by his era. He was born in 1839 in Orpington, Kent, two years into the reign of Queen Victoria. It was an auspicious time: slavery in the United Kingdom was abolished in 1838; steam railway and iron clad paddle steamers opened up the country and the seas; and there was the beginning of social and political reform. As a young man a visit to The Great Exhibition in 1851 at Crystal Palace must have left a lasting impression. The Crimean War, mutinies in India, followed by the Boer War may well have influenced his decision to join Her Majesty’s Auxillary Forces (the 3rd Mdx RV ). He rose to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel  and although the rank was an honorary one he later styled himself as Colonel Lake.

Under the long-term Liberal government of William Gladstone, and the enduring successful reign of Queen Victoria, Britain was experiencing an unprecedented period of stability allowing for exciting new discoveries and flourishing entrepreneurship. Benjamin Lake became a successful solicitor in a family business, at first with his father and after his death, with his cousin George Edward Lake at Lincoln’s Inn, London. In his lifetime he would have seen Darwin published ‘Origin of Species’, electric light installed for domestic use for the first time, Marconi discover radio waves and followed the building of the Suez Canal. He would have been driven by these exciting discoveries of his time to make his own mark on the world.

Following his dream, in 1885 at the age of 46, he purchased the Martinhoe Manor Estate from Sir Nicholas William Throckmorton, Baronet from Warwickshire. Described in the 1870 edition of John Marius Wilson’s Imperial Gazetter of England and Wales as,

 “…a parish with a picturesque little Village…Acres 2.549 Real property, £1,186. Pop 219. Houses 44. The manor was originally called Martin’s Hoe or Martin’s Hill; took its name from the family of Martyn, who were anciently its owners; went from them to Mauger St.Albyn, and remained with his descendents till 1422; and thence passed through various hands to Sir R Throckmorton. The living is a rectory in the diocese of Exeter. Value £109.”

Possibly emulating Sir George Newnes grand designs in Lyton and Lynmouth Benjamin Lake had his own ambitious schemes to develop the then named Wooda Bay as an exclusive holiday resort. Three miles west of Lynton and 8 miles east of Combe Martin it seemed to be an excellent location. Commercial paddle steamers were plying their trade along the south-west coast and it had become fashionable to ‘take the air’ at such sea-side resorts as Lynmouth and Ilfracombe.

That all was not well with his financial affairs may have been foreseen from the fact that Lake immediately mortgaged the estate for £25,000 to settle the debt he had incurred by speculating in Kent Coal shares in which he lost £28,000 in 1878. Further financial difficulties were to plague his development plans for the next five years.

He immediately embarked on an ambitious scheme of road building and construction. In 1888-1894 he converted the manor house, known as Wooda Bay, into the Wooda Bay Hotel which is now known as Martinhoe Manor. He planned and built eight houses including a post office and the Glen Hotel and the Stables now known as Woody Bay Hotel and The Coach House. In 1893-5 he built a 16ft wide road from Hunter’s Inn to Wooda Bay over the common to Martinhoe Cross and in 1896 a further new road running past the Glen Hotel to join the cliff road. A further coach road was built running between the bay and Hunter’s Inn.

Stunning views from the coach path to Woody Bay
Woody Bay Coach Path bench

November 23rd 1894 saw the plans for a grand pier, access and other works to the beach and the bay, posted in the London Gazette.

"To make, construct, and maintain an open pier, causeway, or jetty, to be constructed of piles strongly braced and supported, and with iron stairways…”

It was initially planned to be about 100 yards long with a dog-leg extension and a landing stage but due to financial difficulties he had to settle for a single pier 80 yards long. Construction stated in 1895 but in October a heavy north-west gale sprang up and drove ashore the vessel from which they were driving the piles. The contractors lost their pile-driver and steam engine and went bankrupt. It was eventually completed and officially opened 15th April 1897. However, bad planning meant that inclement weather and low tides prevented the first ships from docking and furthermore the pier was not long enough to cater for landings at low tide.

In 1895 Lady Newnes cut the first sod for the new narrow-gauge steam, Lynton to Barnstaple Railway. Lake agreed to allow the directors of the railway to locate a station at Martinhoe Cross on his land free of charge. In exchange he would be allowed to site a junction at the now renamed Wooda Bay Station for his branch line to access the bay. He also had plans for a cliff railway down to the bay based on the design of the Lynton-Lynmouth verticular railway that runs up the cliffs giving access between the two towns. Woody Bay station was finished and opened on 11th May 1898 along with the Lynton to Barnstaple Railway.

A steam train at Woody Bay station
Woody Bay Steam Train

Hunter’s Inn, situated in the Heddon Valley, was originally a thatched farm cottage on the Martinhoe Estate. It became a meeting place for local people and ale was served there from the eighteenth century by the Berry family, who were the original tenants. Sadly in 1895 it was almost entirely destroyed by fire. Not to be deterred Benjamin Lake decided to lay the foundations for a grand new Inn that same year. It was designed to look like a fashionable Swiss Chalet due to the district of Lynton and Lynmouth being known as ‘Little Switzerland’.

Colonel Lake continued pouring money into the area in an effort to see his dream become a reality. This included a small golf-course, opened in 1894, at Martinhoe Common, and a bathing pool on the beach at Woody Bay. His standing in the local community grew and he became chairman of the Law Society and a Devon Justice of the Peace. However, as it transpired, it wasn’t all his own money.

The Victorian bathing pool at Woody Bay
Woody Bay Victorian Bathing Pool

On Tuesday 22nd January 1901 he appeared before the magistrate court at the Old Bailey in London. Denying any knowledge of the misuse of funds he blamed everything on his cousin’s book-keeping, saying that any irregularities for which he had been responsible had been done at his cousin’s request, and that he only found out about the full extent of the fraud upon his cousin’s death in Berlin in 1899. It seems, from some sources, that controversy even surrounds his cousin’s death. George kept a mistress in a £3000 per annum establishment and was entangled with another lady. Even though a coffin and paperwork were flown back to England people were said to have seen him alive and well several years later. This claim, however, did not stop an official investigation by the Treasury and an indictment containing no fewer than seventeen charges. The jury were only asked to give their verdict on four cases, and in three out of the four the verdict was ‘Guilty’. Benjamin Lake was forced into bankruptcy with debts of over £170,000, amounting to six million in present terms. On the day Queen Victoria died 1901 he was sentenced to twelve years ‘penal servitude’ for using his client’s savings. The J, Mr Justice Wills, likened the case to that of Jabez Balfour, another late Victorian swindler and and in summing up the case showed little mercy.

Only a few years ago Mr.Benjamin Lake had been President of the Incorporated Law Society, and chairman of the Disciplinary Committee which investigates charges of alleged malpractice by solicitors and was a man of wide business experience, and especially versed in finance. Mr Lake’s punishment is severe, but it is not out of proportion to the far-reaching nature of his offence. His has not only cheated and ruined many of his clients, but he has, in the words of the Times, “done more than any living person to diffuse a sense of distrust and suspicion injurious to a profession in the members of which we must repose confidence.”

At the end of the trial, Benjamin Lake’s last words were;

“My Lord, I may, before I pass from the dock, thank you for the infinite pains you have taken. Those who may know my daily life know how far it is possible for me to commit such offences. If I have been guilty, as your Lordship is bound to assume, your sentence is a light one.”

Jabez Balfour who also served time in Portland Prison described it in his memoirs as “a heart-breaking, soul-enslaving, brain-destroying, hell upon earth".

Benjamin Lake served eight years of his sentence before obtaining an early release in July 1906 due to ill health. He died of general atheroma, influenza and apoplexy (stroke) coma on 22nd June in 1909 at his son’s home of Woodfield Lodge in Streatham, at 70 years of age.

So what happened to his grand designs? Any prospect of further intensive developments around Martinhoe sadly died with him. Wooda Bay estates including some 1930 acres, Wooda Bay Station Hotel, Hunter’s Inn and various other property and various plots of land in and around Wooda Bay were auctioned in 1900. Squire Charles Frederick Bailey bought the first nine lots including the Wooda Bay Hotel for £6500 along with the Wooda Bay Building Estate. A local brewery Starkey Knight and Ford purchased the Station Hotel and surrounding farmland which they put out to lease including the Wooda Bay Golf Links. 

The pier was severely damaged by a storm in 1899, followed by another one year later. It has been suggested that the locals ‘helped it on its way’ as it was never repaired and the remains were demolished for scrap by them in 1902. It is rumoured that the good pitch pine recovered from the pier can be found in refurbishments to local houses. The foundations and access can still be seen on the shoreline today and local fishermen and visitors alike practise their sport from the pier base at low tide.

Pier remains at Woody Bay
Pier remains at Woody Bay

Neither the branch railway line nor the cliff railway were ever constructed. Furthermore, despite a Royal visit to Woody Bay station in 1905 when Princess Christian and Princess Victoria left the train to take a drive in the countryside, the Lynton-Barnstaple Railway itself could not compete with the improving road transport and closed after only 37 years in 1935. The station was purchased in 1995 by the Lynton-Barnstaple Railway Trust and Woody Bay Station was opened for visitors in 2004.

The Hunter’s Inn was not completed until 1906 and when horses gave way to motor-vehicles drew an increasing number of visits from day-trippers in charabanc outings, reaching its peak in the 1970’s. It is today a successful business serving visitors, guests and locals all year round.

Some might say that divine justice was served in the end. History saw misappropriated public funds used to privately develop the area, but in 1965 it entered into public use when the estate was sold to the National Trust. Today thousands of visitors every year unknowingly enjoy the legacy that Benjamin Lake left behind when they walk the carriageway, visit the beach at Woody Bay, take a lunch at Hunter’s Inn or enjoy a ride in a steam train at Woody Bay Station. Perhaps a few of them might be inspired by his vision or find wisdom in this cautionary tale.