Local historian and Devonshire magazine history writer Ted Gosling, discusses…
Over the summer months Torquay’s a busy place, of course it’s bound to be, as one of the UK’s top holiday spots. But if you’re a Devon resident, rule out Torbay at your peril, there’s a reason why it’s been so popular for centuries, the micro climate, the beautiful sandy coves and rocky headlands, dramatic cliffs, it’s an interesting place with many spectacular pockets such as Kents Cavern, Torre Abbey, Cockington Village, Babbacombe, the Quay, and a myriad of interesting coves and bays worthy of closer investigation.
Torquay’s history starts some 450,000 years ago at Kents Cavern, a time when Britain was still connected to the rest of Europe via a land bridge with an ice sheet filling much of the North Sea. A large range of artefacts from human habitation at Kents Cavern have been found (numbering some 80,000 items), and it’s the only site in the world where three of the Homo genus are known to have occupied the same place over the millennia. Firstly, Homo Heidelbergensis, where hand axes were found, dated at 500,000 years old (see triptiyc overleaf). Next, Homo Neanderthalensis – again hand axes, this time dated at 90,000 years old, and finally Homo Sapiens, where a jawbone was found, dated at 41,000 years (now in Torquay Museum). It’s staggering to consider and I don’t doubt that famous local resident Charles Darwin (residing at Hesketh Crescent at the time), made the trip up to the caves and to Torquay Museum whilst completing the last section of his ground-breaking book, The Origin of the Species.
And of course, when you hear reference to the Devonian period, it’s because early geologists were studying very ancient rocks around Torquay, hence the ‘Devonian’ naming. The rocks in fact are between 350-420 million years old and Nick Powe at Kent’s Cavern, told me that originally, these deep red rocks would have been baked under the equatorial sun, the movement of continental plates eventually resulting in them making their way to Torquay!
There is evidence that Romans visited Torquay, both at Kents Cavern where they made offerings, and although there’s no evidence of any settlement, the remains were found of an old road, between fifteen and twenty feed wide, built in the same way that Romans were known to construct their roads. This road was mentioned in early mediaeval sources and it’s highly likely it was Roman.
Following the Romans, Torquay grew around the original Saxon hamlet of Torre (‘tor’ – craggy peak or hill). The next significant phase of Torquay’s growth is when Torre Abbey was founded in 1196 by William Brewer, a powerful baron, and when his younger daughter married, she brought ownership of Torre to the Mohun family, thus forming the name of Tor Mohun (see Benjamin Donn’s map – right).
The Abbey was founded by William as a Premonstratensian Monastery and became the richest of its type in England. The Abbey was also responsible for building the first fishing quay. The Abbey finally suffered dissolution under Henry VIII and was later purchased by John Ridgeway, then by the Palk family who were instrumental in major development such as a new harbour and an exclusive residential areas created in Warberries and Lincombes, a notable example being Hesketh Crescent which was completed in 1848, being described as “the finest crescent of houses in the West of England”. The Cary family were also prominent land owners in Torquay, owning St Marychurch, Babbacombe and Torre Abbey. It’s worth mentioning that during the Anglo-Spanish war, the tithe barn was used to house 397 Spanish prisoners of war and was subsequently called the Spanish Barn.
Torquay has seen many famous visitors including the likes of Napoleon Bonaparte, when he was imprisoned onboard the HMS Bellerophon which resided in Torbay for a couple of days (see devonshiremagazine.co.uk/napoleons-farewell-to-devon/). In fact, Torquay benefited greatly from Napoleon, it was during the Napoleonic Wars that touristic travel to the continent all but ceased, Torquay became extremely popular, and walking round the town you’ll notice that certain districts have some extremely grand residences that wouldn’t look out of place in London’s Mayfair (sadly many with very ugly extensions tacked on – council planning control?). There were other ways that Torquay benefited from Napoleon, one of those being smuggling.
Torquay became a very wealthy town and with the convenience of train travel, this exotic resort became easily accessible from afar, further fuelling the development as a resort. Visitors to the town included Queen Victoria, Napoleon III of France, Kind Edward VII, Grand Duchess Maria of Russia, Leo Tolstoy, Benjamin Disraeli, Admiral Nelson, Charles Kinglsey, Sir Arthur Conon Doyle, Oscar Wilde, the list goes on. In 1889 Torquay benefited from the construction of the Winter Gardens which could seat up to 1,000 people for concerts and suchlike. Sadly it wasn’t a great success ending with the building being sold to Great Yarmouth. By the 1850s the town was marketing itself under such phrases as “The Montpelier of England” and “The Queen of Watering Places”. The town attracted many visitors suffering ill health by virtue of its mild winter climate.
In the old photo below you are able to see Torquay Harbour before the building of the Pier. If you look carefully on the hillside, you can see the grandeur of the villas built for the wealthy. The arrival of train travel had much effect on Torquay, enabling long distance travel with ease, whilst also enabling heavy building materials to be transported over long distances, making the construction of the luxury properties much easier. As ever, whilst the wealthy enjoyed the views and the air, Torquay had a different kind of accommodation for the labouring classes, fetid slum where cholera took hold, claiming 66 lives in a single year. Many took the sail ships Elizabeth, Margaret and Isabella to Canada and America to escape the bleak conditions and pay.
Come the 20th century and there was a change in the way Torquay was marketed as a resort, which had been as a winter resort for the recovering sick. In 1902 the first advertising campaign was launched to attract the healthy to Torquay over the warmer months – it was particularly targeted towards the industrial heartlands across England. Tourism boomed and it wasn’t really until the advent of package holidays abroad before it suffered a decline although there were disruptions during the First and Second World Wars. Many of the hotels were used for convalescing soldiers during the wars.
(click on the images below to view the gallery at a larger size)
These days Torquay’s gathering pace again, massive development continues to take place, many of the hotels have realised that opportunities lie in improving their offering, with many being taken over and benefiting from the millions being injected to upgrade the accommodation facilities to visitors. It’s all great news, helped tremendously by the new link road that cuts the slow crawl in the car from Newton Abbot. The big mistake people make about Torquay is to get in the car and attempt to discover what it offers from the car seat. The coastline around Torquay is stunning, the fact is that most people don’t really have any idea how lovely it is as much of it is hidden down tracks and in coves. As always, the Ordnance Survey map reveals much more about Torquay more easily and quickly than any other method. Torquay’s terrific.