Charles Darwin moved to crescent overlooking Meadfoot Beach

Torbay Weekly

The stories behind Torbay's blue plaques with Ian Handford, chairman of Torbay Civic Society. This week: Charles Darwin

The story behind this plaque is quite extraordinary. It started after Torbay Civic Society were contacted by Ian Davies, managing director of the Osborne Hotel, who at the time was in dispute with South West Water about the hotel's failing sewage disposal systems.

As a former chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, added to which this was a Listed Building in a conservation area, I fortunate to be able to give advice and this eventually brought a compromise with South West Water, who at the time were involved with the South West Clean Sweep scheme.

Mr Davies was, I discovered, also the head of the major Caparo Hotel Group at the time the largest hospitality company anywhere in Britain.

In wanting to do something for the civic society, Mr Davies now put forward the idea of arranging a blue plaque in honour of the famous Charles Darwin, who had not only been to Devon many times but more importantly had stayed at No 2 Meadfoot House, Hesketh Crescent, while convalescing in 1861.

He had remained a resident with his wife and ten children at No 2 for six weeks while his neighbour was another famous person of the age - Miss Angelina Burdett-Coutts of Coutts Bank, the richest woman in England, who later became Baroness Coutts.

The houses on Hesketh Road at that time were ideally suited to house large families and the Darwin's remained resident in No 2, a four-storey home for three months, being a period properties were normally leased at the time.

Although the blue plaque states the family 'lived here' for six weeks, a recently unearthed letter confirms they actually stayed much longer than this.

Letter writing and notes became a passion for Mr Darwin who, although in poor health, fully documents that he generally worked every morning for a few hours before then going out walking with the family or perhaps taking a carriage ride.

We also know he met William Pengelly of Torquay regularly because many years after his death a letter to Pengelly's daughter Hester surfaced dated March 19, 1873 - in which he remarked - “You must forgive me for differing from you on one point when you call yourself an almost total stranger for I, have a lively and very pleasant remembrance of seeing you some dozen years ago when in Torquay.”

Darwin's workday books also confirm he started to write a paper on orchids while residing in Torquay and that this was not completed until April the following year.

He also worked on a further book concerning primulas - more proof that his idea of convalescence never included rest.

He was, of course, a unique and extraordinary man who loved naturalism, botany, biology, geology and was a scientist who loved writing.

As late as March 1873, he was still corresponding with Pengelly even to the extent of penning a note on the odd subject of the sagacity (wiseness) of dogs penned only days before the now-bedridden Darwen whispered to Emma: “I am not in the least afraid of death.” On April 19, 1882, he died at age 73.

With the blue plaque fully sponsored by the Osborn Hotel and the usual pamphlet completed by Michael Thompson and myself, our plaque unveiling ceremony was carried out with the help of the Worshipful Mayor of Torbay Council Mrs Jenny Faulkner and her escort, Cllr Alan Faulkner on Thursday, September 30, 2004 at No 2 Hesketh Crescent.

Being an afternoon event and with the sun shining at 3pm, we all moved to the hotel patio bistro where refreshments were provided.

Today, the Darwin plaque plus the original Lord Haldon's plaque at the entrance to the Osborne still remain the only two to the many famous people that over the years have lived at this beautiful crescent overlooking Meadfoot Beach.