Barn Close - first of four blue plaques honouring work of Brunel in Torbay

Torbay Weekly

The stories behind Torbay's blue plaques by Ian Handford, chairman of Torbay Civic Society. This week: Barn Close

Earlier features about Torbay Civic Society plaques have generally centred on a single plaque person, monument or building.

However, with Isambard Kingdom Brunel we have already installed four plaques in Torbay to honour this amazing engineer.

First came Barn Close, Barton, one of our earliest in 1988 and unveiled by Mrs Ena Hocking, then chairman of Torbay Civic Society.

The second plaque to Brunel came during my early years as chairman when unveiling it at the Terrace Houses on Bishops Place, Paignton, which I featured sometime ago.

Then came a Brunel plaque on the Hookhills Viaduct at Broadsands, which turned out to be his final idea in the year of his death.

Finally, the fourth plaque was unveiled at his first home, Vomero in the Warberries, Torquay, when we also expected a fifth to be put on Brunel Manor, although after a change of ownership this never came to fruition.

Barn Close field was, in fact, purchased by Brunel in 1852 and his intention was to establish an estate of homes, a school and a chapel - today on Church Road - before even starting to build his own retirement castle on land opposite.

Having recently visited the Barn Close plaque and cottages and spoken to one of the owners, I discovered that only two of four now survive due to alterations over the years.

After the completion of these homes, Brunel experienced planning problems and never lived long enough to complete his estate, school or chapel or indeed his own castle home.

Following his death, his wife Mary ensured her sons Isambard and Henry fulfilled, in part, her husband's wish and, although our plaque erected on what was his planned school/chapel building, by 1988 the building had been adapted for residential use.

The plaque at Barn Close confirms 'Barn Close an estate of homes, schools and chapel - planned for his workers by I.K. Brunel 1806-1859' and being sponsored by Torbay Borough Council, they also produced a heavy paper pamphlet, now out of print, which was also sponsored.

The photograph used on its front cover shows Brunel at his drawing board, a picture that was loaned by the National Railway Museum York.

Today, the Brunel estate and what is now the manor and the woods comprises a large plot of land from Seymour Drive and Moor Lane, Barton, with steps from the turnpike, which were created by Brunel.

Fortunately, he lived long enough to use his contacts at Kew to supply trees to Devon and later the deeds of the estate also confirm he established the pumping station which would ensure water could be pumped to the higher ground and his hoped-for castle.

The Brunels were known to be always concerned about the employees and their cottages at Barton were not the first homes built for workers.

An estate was built for employees working on the Great Western railway at Swindon 'further up the line'.

Meanwhile, in 1851, Mary and Isambard actually took all their Torbay employees to London where having been met by an official guide at Paddington, he took them to Crystal Palace, the British Museum and Brunel's famous Thames Tunnel and, finally, they toured the Great Exhibition.

Wages lost and expenses incurred were all generously reimbursed and later a lavish garden party was held for the 70 children, events proving of the Brunel's care for their staff.

After his death, Mary visited Torquay for another 20 years while her son Henry, at age 18, even completed the small bridge spanning the Teignmouth Road started by his father.

Meanwhile, the school/chapel were eventually completed by both sons.

Today, higher double-decker buses and pantechnicons ensured the demise of Henry's bridge, while in the Brunel Woods in recent times, the council erected a totem pole, carved by a sculptor who depicted Isambard Kingdom Brunel's many industries that he became involved with.