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The History of Torquay



Torquay, a town in Torbay, has a rich history dating back approximately 450,000 years. Its historical development includes its early human artefacts, Roman and Saxon influences, the establishment of Torre Abbey, ownership by influential families, 19th-century development, popularity as a resort town, wartime activities, notable events, and recent trends.

Early History: Pre-Norman Conquest

  • Palaeolithic artefacts, such as hand axes, found in Kents Cavern suggest human habitation in Torquay around 450,000 years ago.

  • Roman soldiers visited Torquay during the Claudian invasion of Britain in 43 AD, leaving offerings at a rock formation known as 'The Face.'

  • Roman settlement evidence in Torquay is limited, but nearby areas like Totnes and Newton Abbot have yielded Roman finds.

  • The discovery of a large, well-constructed road during the construction of the Belgrave Hotel hints at the existence of a Roman road in the area.

Brythonic Kingdom and Viking Era

  • After the Roman administration departed from Britain around 410 AD, a Brythonic kingdom called Dumnonia emerged in the West Country, encompassing Torquay.

  • The region of Torbay received no mention during the Anglo-Saxon era and was not visited by Vikings during this period.

Medieval and Monastic Influence

  • Limited evidence exists of permanent occupation in Torquay until the eleventh century.

  • Roman soldiers and a small Saxon settlement called 'Torre' were known to have visited the area.

  • In 1196, Torre Abbey was founded and became the wealthiest Premonstratensian Monastery in England until its dissolution in 1539.

  • The Cary and Briwere families were prominent landowners in Torquay, with the Cary family acquiring the abbey's buildings in 1662.

Nineteenth-Century Development

  • Lawrence Palk, the 2nd Baronet, played a significant role in Torquay's development by constructing a new harbour.

  • William Kitson, Palk's solicitor, oversaw much of the town's subsequent building projects.

  • Torquay attracted visitors seeking a winter resort due to its fresh air and mild climate, leading to substantial population growth during the first half of the 19th century.

  • The town gained popularity among the upper classes and became a favoured resort.

  • Lawrence Palk, 1st Baron Haldon, built another harbour in 1870, making Torquay popular among yacht sailors and facilitating the import of coal and wool from Australia.

Wartime Activities

  • During World War I, Torquay housed hospitals and convalescent homes.

  • Between the wars, a major advertising campaign by the Great Western Railway promoted Torquay as a significant holiday resort.

  • In World War II, the town's abundance of hotels made it suitable for extensive RAF training, and American troops were stationed there.

  • Torquay experienced bombings during the war.

Notable Events and Recent Trends

  • In 1948, Torquay hosted the watersports events of the Olympic Games.

  • The European Broadcasting Union was formed in Torquay in 1950.

  • Torquay has seen an influx of foreign language students in recent years.

  • Since the expansion of the EU in 2004, Polish and Czech workers have settled in the town.

Medieval and Renaissance Era

This section delves into Torquay's history during the Medieval and Renaissance periods. It explores the ownership of the ancient manor of Tor Mohun, mentions various regions in Torquay documented in the Domesday Book, discusses the establishment and dissolution of Torre Abbey, highlights the development of Torquay around the Saxon hamlet of Torre, and touches upon notable events such as the housing of Spanish prisoners and the arrival of William III.

Ownership and Domesday Book

  • The present town of Torquay is situated on the ancient manor of Tor Mohun, which William Brewer owned until he died in 1226.

  • The Domesday Book mentions regions in Torquay, including Cockington (Cochintone), owned by an Anglo-Saxon named Alric during the reign of Edward the Confessor and later by a Norman named William de Falesia.

  • Maidencombe was initially owned by Elmer during the Anglo-Saxon period and passed to Hamond under William Chievre after the Norman Conquest.

  • The Bishop of Exeter owned St Marychurch (St. Marie Cherche) throughout the period.

Torre Abbey and Development of Torquay

  • Torre Abbey was founded 1196 as a Premonstratensian Monastery by William Brewer and became the wealthiest monastery of its Order in England.

  • In its construction, the abbey used quarried stone from nearby Corbyn Head, authorized by the De Cockington family.

  • During the dissolution of the monasteries in February 1539, Torre Abbey surrendered to Henry VIII's ministers.

  • The canons of Torre Abbey played a role in building the first fishing quay, leading to the name "Torquay."

The Cary and Palk Families

  • Sir George Cary purchased Torre Abbey in 1662, and the Cary family owned it until 1929 when the Torquay Corporation acquired it.

  • The Cary family also held significant land in Cockington since the 14th century, including modern-day areas like Shiphay, Chelston, and Livermead.

  • The family's ancestry can be traced to the son of Roman Emperor Carus, who served as a general in Britannia.

  • Henry Cary, a member of the Cary family, sold Cockington to Roger Mallock after the English Civil War, but the Carys retained holdings in St Marychurch through another branch of the family.

Tormohun and the Mohun Family

  • Tormohun belonged to William Briwere (Brewer) during this period, and later it passed to the Mohun family, leading to its name change to Tor Mohun.

  • John de Mohun gave the land to Torre Abbey after the Black Death.

  • John Ridgway subsequently purchased Tormohun, and his descendants became baronets and Earls of Londonderry, making Tormohun their seat until it was sold to the Palk family.

Notable Events and Figures

  • William Cary of the Cockington Carys married Mary Boleyn, Anne Boleyn's sister and Queen Elizabeth I's uncle.

  • The "Spanish Barn" at Torre Abbey housed 397 prisoners of war following the failed Spanish Armada in 1588.

  • In 1605, George Waymouth from Cockington explored the Maine coastline and returned to Plymouth with a group of Native Americans.

  • William III landed at Brixham in Torbay in 1688 during the "Glorious Revolution," passing through Torquay on his way to London, where he gained control of the country.

Napoleonic Wars and Early Development

This time highlights the influence of Napoleon Bonaparte on Torquay's growth, the efforts of Sir Lawrence Palk, the development of a new harbour, the impact of Admiral Nelson's visit, the rise of tourism, notable establishments, and the influential families that owned the town.

Napoleon's Influence and Growth

  • Torquay's development owes much to the Napoleonic Wars, as the wealthy elite sought local destinations due to travel restrictions.

  • With its sheltered anchorage, Torbay became a frequent anchoring point for the Channel Fleet during the wars, leading to visits from officers' wives and relatives.

  • The wreck of the Royal Navy ship HMS Venerable in Torbay on November 24, 1804, is notable.

Sir Lawrence Palk and New Harbor

  • Sir Lawrence Palk, the 2nd Baronet, played a significant role in Torquay's early development.

  • Palk initiated the construction of a new harbour to replace the old dilapidated one, leading to the commencement of actual development in the town.

  • John Rennie, the designer of London Bridge, designed the new harbour, which was completed in 1807 at a significant cost.

Architectural Influence and Exclusive Residential Area

  • Sir Lawrence Palk's Grand Tour of Europe influenced his architectural ideas, which were incorporated into the designs of villas in Torquay.

  • William Kitson, known as the "Maker of Torquay," brought these designs to fruition and played a significant role in the town's development.

  • The Warberries and Lincombes areas were developed according to the town plans, resulting in an exclusive residential area with notable properties like Hesketh Crescent.

Napoleon's Visit and Smuggling

  • After Napoleon's capture following the Battle of Waterloo, he was held on the warship HMS Bellerophon in Torbay for two days.

  • Napoleon admired the area, comparing it favourably to Porto Ferrago on Elba.

  • The Napoleonic Wars facilitated local smuggling, and Torquay's prosperity was aided by the "import" of French brandy.

Rise of Tourism and Early Establishments

  • In 1821, Torquay had fewer than 2,000 residents but experienced rapid growth in the following years.

  • Torquay's second hotel, located on the present-day Queen's Hotel site, opened in 1822.

  • Octavian Blewitt's book, "A Panorama of Torquay," published in 1832, reflects the atmosphere of the time and describes travel options.

William Kitson's Influence and Basic Amenities

  • William Kitson, known as the 'Maker of Torquay,' shaped the town's development throughout the 1830s and 1840s.

  • He was given free rein by the absentee landlord Palk, and as chairman of the local council, introduced basic amenities like roads, sewer systems, water supply, and street lighting.

Victoria's Visit and Health Resort

  • Princess Victoria visited Torquay in 1833, and the Victoria Parade was named in her honour.

  • The mild winter climate and fresh air attracted visitors seeking health benefits, leading to Torquay's development as a health resort for the wealthy.

  • The town's popularity resulted in a significant population increase, and hotel bedrooms grew.


Influential Families and Resistance to Change

  • During this period, Torquay was primarily owned by three families: the Mallocks (Cockington region) and the Carys.

Railway Expansion and Torquay's Golden Age

Railway expansion on Torquay during the 19th century provided the town's subsequent golden age as a popular destination for the wealthy and privileged. It covers the significance of railways, the arrival of the railway in Torquay, the development of tourism, the presence of influential figures like Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the living conditions of the working class, emigration, riots and social unrest, notable visitors and residents, literary connections, and the growth of recreational amenities.


Railway Expansion and Arrival in Torquay

  • Railway mania hit Torquay in the 1840s, reflecting the importance of railways during the 19th century.

  • On December 18, 1848, Torre railway station was opened, connecting Torquay to the rest of the country for the first time.

  • By 1850, Torquay was promoting itself as "The Queen of Watering Places" and "The Montpellier of England."

  • The town's population increased significantly, with over 5,000 people added each decade between 1841 and 1871.

Controversial Railway Decision and Tourism

  • In 1852, a town meeting decided to extend the railway to the sea, envisioning Torquay as an industrial town with a harbour for importing raw materials and exporting finished goods.

  • The decision caused controversy, and in the afternoon of the same day, another meeting cancelled the decision to extend the railway to the harbour.

  • Torquay retained its character as a tourist town and became what it is today.

  • The new railway station, opened on August 2, 1859, provided access to Paignton but remained far from the town centre and harbourside.

Influence of Railways and Economic Impact

  • The railways significantly affected the surrounding towns and countryside, leading to Torquay's growth in importance and the decline of other previously prosperous towns in Devon.

  • Isambard Kingdom Brunel played an essential role in the region, building the nearby Atmospheric railway and rail links to Torquay.

  • Brunel acquired large areas of land in the Watcombe district of Torquay, intending to retire there, but he passed away before retiring.

Living Conditions and Emigration

  • While the affluent enjoyed life in desirable areas like the Lincombes and Warberries, the labouring classes lived in overcrowded tenements with poor sanitary conditions.

  • The working-class residents faced challenges such as hunger and unsanitary living conditions.

  • Emigration became an option for many desperate Devonians, with ships like Elizabeth, Isabella, and Margaret transporting emigrants from Torquay Harbor to America and Canada.

Riots and Social Unrest

  • In 1847, a riot broke out in Torquay due to high food prices and distress among people experiencing poverty.

  • The rioters attacked bakers' shops, and a violent confrontation with authorities ensued.

  • Similar riots occurred in other towns in the region during that time.

Notable Visitors and Residents

  • Torquay attracted prestigious visitors, including the Russian Romanoff noble family, who built Villa Syracusa (now The Headland Hotel) and entertained the Russian royal family there.

  • Other notable visitors included the Prince and Princess Peter of Oldenburg, who laid the foundation stone of the Torbay Infirmary.

  • The Imperial Hotel hosted famous guests such as Emperor Napoleon III of France, the Queen of the Netherlands, and King Edward VII.

  • Writers like Charles Kingsley, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Rudyard Kipling, Oscar Wilde, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Charles Darwin had connections to Torquay.

The 20th-century Torquay


The early part of the 20th century marked a significant change in Torquay's character. In 1902, the town launched its first advertising campaign to attract healthy visitors rather than solely catering to people recovering from illnesses. This shift transformed Torquay from a winter holiday resort to a summer holiday destination aimed at families from the industrial Midlands and northern England. As a result, there was a steady increase in rail traffic to Torquay until the outbreak of World War I.

During this period, Torquay also experienced an expansion in size and political influence. In 1900, the regions of Chelston and Livermead, which were part of the Cockington estate, were annexed by Torquay. In 1903, the former borough of St Marychurch was amalgamated into the town. Rumours suggest that Torquay's desire for a steamroller, which it could not afford alone, was the catalyst for this merger. In 1928, Cockington was integrated within the town borders, further increasing the size of Torquay.

The outbreak of World War I brought significant changes to Torquay. In the early days of the war, many volunteers signed up for military service, and columns of young men marched through the town on their way to France and Belgium. Torquay started experiencing the effects of the war, and a Red Cross Hospital was opened in the Town Hall in August 1914. The first convoy of wounded soldiers arrived in October of that year.

Multiple war hospitals were set up in Torquay, including Stoodley Knowle, the Mount, the Manor House, Lyncourt, and the Western Hospital for Consumptives. Queen Mary visited Torquay in November 1914 to meet injured servicemen. The town also witnessed the arrival of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in December 1914, who were later involved in the ill-fated attack on Gallipoli.

The war continued to impact Torquay, with wounded soldiers from the New Zealand Expeditionary Force arriving in May 1917 and entering a convalescent camp at St Marychurch. A severe Spanish flu outbreak occurred in September 1918, claiming the lives of over 100 American servicemen at the Oldway Hospital. The war finally ended with the armistice declared on November 11, 1918.

During the interwar period, Torquay faced changes in tourism patterns. An effective Great Western Railway Company advertising campaign established Torquay as a major resort. The town hosted the International Summer School of the Anthroposophy Society in 1924, covered extensively in the local press and marked the final visit of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner to Britain. In 1938, just before the outbreak of World War II, Torquay experienced a surge of visitors, with 20,000 passengers arriving at the station on August Bank Holiday.

Political developments also took place in Torquay during this time. In 1926, Francis John Marnham, a former Liberal MP for Chertsey, served as the Mayor of Torquay for one year. Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists attempted to gain support in Torquay, but their presence did not succeed as in Plymouth. A.K. Chesterton, a prominent figure in far-right British politics, had connections to Torquay as the editor of the Torquay Times.

World War II brought significant challenges to Torquay. Training in air-raid precautions started in 1935, and recruiting for wardens and gas respirators began in earnest in 1939. Torquay became a target for German bombing raids, and precautions were taken, including constructing machine-gun posts and pillboxes along the coastline. The town also became a base for training RAF personnel, with several hotels converted into training facilities. Torquay played a role in Operation Overlord, with thousands of American troops departing from the town for Utah Beach.

After the war, Torquay faced changes in tourist patterns, with more people travelling abroad and car ownership becoming common. In 1948, Torbay hosted the watersports events of the Summer Olympic Games. The town also became known abroad and attracted more foreign tourists, particularly language students learning English. In 2005, Torquay elected its first directly elected mayor, Nicholas Bye.

In recent years, Torquay has experienced demographic shifts with the influx of Eastern European migrant workers, mainly from Poland and the Czech Republic. This influx resulted in the establishment of Polish businesses and services in the town until Brexit, when many seasonal workers did not return, and many residents required different paperwork to remain.

Torquay has undergone significant transformations throughout its history, from a small fishing village to a thriving tourist destination with connections to important historical events.

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