Watermouth Castle & The Sugar King
The castle was built in 1825 by Arthur Davie Bassett for his bride Harriet. Arthur had inherited the Watermouth Estate and much of Berrynarbor, from his father Joseph Davie Bassett, who had died at the age of 82. The castle is a Grade II listed building, it had additions made in 1845 when Arthur instructed a Plymouth architect, George Wightwick to complete the interior of the castle. The family apartments, kitchen and dairy indicated that around 40 domestics were employed to run the estate.
Arthur, his wife Harriet, and their four children (2 girls, 2 boys), would live in the Castle, sadly Harriet for whom the castle had been built died in 1863, and Arthur not long after in 1870. Arthur’s fortune was inherited by his son Reverend Arthur Crowforth and his son-in-law Charles Henry Williams. It was custom for only the man to inherit, hence the fortune being left to Charles and not his daughter.
Watermouth Castle was vacated by the family in 1916 when it was used as a convalescent home for Army Officers wounded in the First World War. It was shortly after this time, that the family started to sell the estate, which had become to difficult and expensive to run.
During the Second World War it was used as the HQ for P.L.U.T.O (pipe line under the ocean). PLUTO, was designed to supply petrol from storage tanks in southern England to the advancing Allied armies in France in the months following D-Day. In 1942 a long term trial of PLUTO, with a prototype pipeline stretching from from Swansea oil refinery via the Bristol Channel to Watermouth Bay near Ilfracombe in North Devon.
This 27 mile long stretch of 2-inch cable delivered 125 tons a day or 38,000 gallons a day for three weeks. In 1942 most of the Castle contents were sold. When the last family member died in 1943 the Castle began to decline and was eventually sold. The sale was reported in the local press on Thursday 23rd September 1943:
“Competition was keen for the 1,800 lots offered at the sale of the contents of Watermouth Castle, near Ilfracombe, the property of Lorna, Countess Howe, conducted by Messrs. Skinner and Squire Ltd. Auctioneers, of Ilfracombe. There was a representative attendance of buyers from London and the provinces. Among prices realized were: Set of eight Sheraton elbow chairs, £96 William and Mary writing cabinent, £57 10s Sheraton dining table £47 10s Queen Anne tallboy chest £76 10s Queen Anne chest on stand £75 Oak bureau £70 Mahogany bookcase, £39 French hall wardrobe £30 Wiltshire carved oak chair £14 Queen Anne toilet mirror £23 French boudoir suite £37 Bedsteads with spring interior mattresses up to £42 Turkey and Persian carpets and rugs up to £62 Axminister carpet £51 Axminister stair carpet £2 9s per yard Nuremberg dinner service £42 Crystal glass bowl £31 Ironstone dinner service £50 Dresden teaset £41 Dresden decorated plates and dishes £7 each”
The last descendent of the Basset family moved from Watermouth Castle to Scotland around 1945 and the castle then had a number of different owners. During that time very little changed to the building and gardens and as a result they began to deteriorate. It was in 1977 the castle was bought by Richard Haines, who with a lot of hard work turned it into the attraction that we see today. Throughout its history the family would let the castle out to tenants. In 1924, one such tenant would be the infamous, Mr Ernest Dunbar Cairns, known by many as ‘The Sugar King’ or ‘The Baron’.
Mr Cairns lived a very colourful life, much of which was documented in later years by his wife in the Sunday Post. Ernest had conducted many large scale scams which lead many people to think, he was a millionaire eccentric, which he certainly was not. When Ernest and his wife moved to his ‘beloved Watermouth Castle’ he had many plans for his new home, after a short period of time living in the Castle, a warrant was soon out for his arrest. Following a great escape to Holland and many escapades he was soon found back in the United Kingdom, where still things lead a merry tale!