Blue plaque at iconic Bay property that once viewed is never forgotten

Joseph Bulmer

Ian Handford, chairman of Torbay Civic Society, gives us the who and how each of Torbay’s blue plaques was chosen. This week: Oldway Mansion and the Singer family

The blue plaque at Oldway Mansion reads 'Oldway Mansion built by Isaac Merritt Singer in 1874 and adapted to its present form by his son Paris Singer in 1904'.

The plaque was unveiled as part of Torbay Civic Society's second batch of famous names during 1987/88, though none of the original correspondence now exists about who or why the request came.

What we do know is our pamphlet was sponsored = in a card format now out of print - by the Borough of Torbay print department with photographs taken and supplied by Marsden and Batley and Torquay Museum.

It was Paignton Urban District Council who in 1946 acquired the Oldway Estate from Lady Leeds for £46,000, she being the only surviving daughter of Paris Singer, Isaac's son, living in Torbay.

The estate comprised Little Oldway, the mansion plus rotunda and the adjoining stables and badminton hall.

The extensive grounds including the gardens with their ornate steps and ballustrades, the grotto and woodland all came part of the sale.

Initially owned by the urban council in 1948, the mansion was then used by Torbay Council as offices until eventually the whole estate was purchased by Torbay Council.

It was with the arrival of Isaac Singer with his young family to Paignton during 1873/4 that saw him start to construct what he called his 'wigwam' - an American house - although sadly within a year he would die before any major work was complete.

It was to be his son Paris who returned to Paignton 20 years later to spend much of his inherited fortune developing Oldway Mansion by remodelling it to mirror his most admired building of the world - the Palace at Versailles.

Its front walls were given iconic columns forming a colonnade which ensured the home/mansion was a place once viewed was never forgotten.

During the Great War, Oldway was used as an American women's war hospital and was even visited by Queen Mary.

After the war, a number of alterations were made though fortunately the spectacular staircase and Lister's Oil painting titled 'The Crowning of Josephine by Napoleon' did survive.

Then in 1929, the Torbay Country Club emerged before, in 1932, Paris Singer died.

During World War Two, the RAF used part of Oldway for training and with the war over, in 1946/7 the oil painting was returned to the French government.

What you see today is a massive photocopy of the painting commissioned by Torbay Civic Society for a cost of £12,000 which was believed at the time to be the largest photocopy ever produced.

Now bowling, croquette facilities, tennis courts and a large car emerged while the ornate gardens made for a wonderful backdrop for weddings when literally thousands of groups/and or families came to be married by the Oldway Register Office as it was known.

In 1988, Torbay Civic Society's blue plaque naming Isaac and Paris was finally unveiled at the entrance door to the mansion by chairman Mrs Ena Hocking and we assume the Mayor of the Borough or perhaps a representative of Torbay Council.

With the mansion now used as a civic community centre, we helped establish the small Singer family museum in the entrance hall while the ballroom - which could be hired - was used for conferences, dinner functions, dances and even provided a home for the annual chess championships.

Even a mayoral parlour room was created while the ballroom was eventually used for council meetings.

The mansion's upper floors had offices for council staff hidden behind a mirrored door closed to the public.

Finally, the register office on the first floor enjoyed joint use of the 'Winnaretta Singer' room which was used as a chapel for wedding ceremonies.

Torbay Civic Society continues to support Torbay Council in its wish to find a sustainable future for the estate and mansion, although unless millions of pounds are found through community grants or privately, its future remains uncertain.