Skip to content

History of Wembury

View from Wembury Point, near Plymouth, Devon, with the Great Mew Stone in the distance
View from Wembury Point with the Great Mewstone in the distance | © National Trust Images/David Noton

Discover Wembury's diverse history, from holiday camp and inspiration for the famous Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy, to major naval gunnery school. The Great Mewstone also has a special history – although now a nature reserve, people did once live there.

Wembury: a timeline

Early history

Between 800 and 1300, St Werburgh Church above Wembury Beach was founded. The first mention of a mill at Wembury Beach was noted in 1283.

18th century


A local man is sentenced to spend seven years living on the Mewstone.

19th century


The artist JMW Turner lands on the Mewstone and makes several sketches.


Records report a short-lived furnace for barking nets close to Cellars Beach and a short-lived pilchard fishery.

November 1824

A terrible storm damages the Wembury mill and causes the brig 'John' to wash onto the Blackstone Rocks.


Samuel Wakeham marries and settles with his family on the Mewstone. While protecting the island from poachers he also lives a dual life as a smuggler.


The mill at Wembury falls into disuse.

A view of Wembury beach, Devon
A view of Wembury beach | © National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

20th century


Plans to build a huge passenger port here, stretching from Wembury Point to Gara Point, are rejected by the House of Lords.


John Galsworthy visits Wembury in order to research his family history. This provides the inspiration for Soames Forsyte’s similar quest in Swan Song, the sixth book of the Forsyte Saga.


The Langdon Estate sells the Mewstone.


Wembury Point is sold and developed into two holiday camps.


Ida Sebag-Montefiore gives Wembury Cliffs to the National Trust to protect them from development.


The National Trust acquires Wembury Mill, which is now used as a café.


The Ministry of Defence requisitions Wembury Point and builds a radar station, observation posts and anti-aircraft guns.


The HMS Cambridge Gunnery School is established at Wembury Point.

21st century


HMS Cambridge Gunnery School is decommissioned.


The National Trust buys both Wembury Point and the Mewstone, turning the latter into a nature reserve and returning the former to its natural environment.

The view from Wembury Point, Devon with the Great Mewstone in the distance.
The Great Mewstone from Wembury Point | © National Trust Images/David Noton

History of the Great Mewstone

The Great Mewstone is now a nature reserve, home to a range of seabirds. But did you know that people once lived there?


In 1744, a local man found guilty of a minor crime was sentenced to stay on the island for seven years. He had the last laugh, since he decided to stay on the island for the rest of his life, not once returning to the mainland. His daughter, known as ‘Black Joan’, remained on the island. She married and raised three children.

A new family arrives

By the early 1800s a new family had moved in. Samuel Wakeham and his wife, Ann, set up home on the island when Sam was due to be transported to Australia. Instead, he negotiated to live his years of exile on the Mewstone. They enlarged an existing house, the odd turret-shaped building that remains today, and cleared a garden to grow food and keep some animals.

Sam might have stayed on the island for the rest of his days, had he not been caught smuggling. He was lured into a trap by an excise man and had to leave the island.

Nobody is recorded to have lived on the island since. The island was sold in the 1927 sale of the Langdon Estate and bought by Mr Stansell of Heybrook Bay for £500. He sold it on a year later to a Miss Goldman of London for £575, who then presented it to her brother as a wedding present.

Recent history

The Great Mewstone was bought by the War Office, because it was in the line of fire from the HMS Cambridge Gunnery School, formerly based at Wembury Point. They restricted public access to the island, a move that greatly benefitted the wildlife living there.

Following the decommissioning of HMS Cambridge, the National Trust ran a successful fundraising campaign that resulted in the Trust acquiring both Wembury Point and the Great Mewstone.

The old gunnery school was demolished, with work put into reclaiming and encouraging a natural coastal landscape and preserving the island to protect the birds and wildlife that have flourished there.

Two adults and a child rockpooling at Wembury

Discover Wembury

Find out how to get to Wembury, where to park, the things to see and do and more.

You might also be interested in

Visitors at Wembury Beach, Devon

Things to do at Wembury 

There’s lots to explore when you visit Wembury and the surrounding areas. From water sports on the beach, to rock pooling with the family, there are plenty of adventures to be had.


The nature-friendly future project at Wembury 

Discover our nature-friendly approach to managing the land at Wembury, from creating new habitats for wildlife to improving accessibility for visitors.

A colourful tapestry of a Cambridgeshire landscape, with buildings in the centre and the words Newmarket above


Learn about people from the past, discover remarkable works of art and brush up on your knowledge of architecture and gardens.