Ella Rowcroft;'s Torquay home featured one of Britain's finest air-raid shelters

Torbay Weekly

Ian Handford, chairman of Torbay Civic Society, on Torbay’s blue plaques. This week - Ella Rowcroft (nee Wills):

It was July, 1925, that Mrs Ella Rowcroft (nee Wills) became the first Honorary Freeman of the Borough of Torquay in 'grateful recognition of her bountiful generosity to the new Torquay hospital'.

Today, her name is now synonymous with Torbay Hospital and Rowcroft Hospice along the driveway off Avenue Road, Torquay.

It took until 1988 before Brian Bearne contacted us to sponsor a plaque to honour Mrs Rowcroft at her final home, by then the headquarters of Bearne and Co Auctioneers.

With the plaque accepted by Major J Wills, on behalf of the family, Torbay Civic Society chairman Mrs Ena Hocking officially invited him to the unveiling event due to take place in March, 1989.

Ena then arranged for Torbay Council printing department to prepare, publish and print a pamphlet to accompany the plaque, although today they are long out of print and are a collector's item.

Mrs Rowcroft and her sister Miss Violet Wills were two of the earliest philanthropists to step forward and fund the new hospital and eventually, in relative terms, they donated millions of pounds towards the design and construction.

Henbury House was sitting atop the hill overlooking Torre Station and with a huge tranche of land, was given by another Torbay philanthropist Major Kitson to start the property that became Torbay Hospital with its new Christian chapel alongside.

Both ladies inherited their wealth from W H Wills Tobacco Company and today it is very amusing to recall the buildings came courtesy of 'Woodbines', yet just a hundred years later everyone, patients, visitors and staff are  banned from smoking anywhere within its walls.

The foundation stone for the hospital was laid on June 23, 1926, before two years later on September 25, 1928, the first patients moved across from the existing private Castle Chambers Hospital on Higher Union Street.

By 1930, the Bishop of Exeter would dedicate the chapel also provided by Ella and Violet Wills in memory of their parents Sir Edward and Lady Payson Wills and later that same year, the Prince of Wales - later King Edward - came to visit the new hospital.

It would not be until 1933 that Mrs Rowcroft built her second home, Rainbow, adjacent to Pilmuir House for her companion and housekeeper Miss Mary Delve.

Sadly, though the house was built by 1934, soon after Mary died. Ella now left Pilmuir to make the Rainbow her main residence and, by 1937, she donated Pilmuir to the local authority so that a trust might be formed for women from Bristol and Torbay, to stay in what she named the Rowcroft Convalescent Home - established again in memory of her parents and to mark the coronation year of King George VI.

Torbay's amazing benefactor now constructed one of  Britain's finest air-raid shelters, having six main rooms and a complicated lift operated by pulleys and ropes as Ella was by now confined to using a wheelchair.

In spite of the threat of bombs already dropping on Torbay from enemy aircraft returning to Germany, Ella never slept in the air-raid shelter, much preferring her Rainbow home with the servants' company.

Mrs Rowcroft eventually died on January 26, 1941.

By 1948, the National Health Service was founded and, in 1954, a second Torbay woman Mrs Joan Williams created the Torbay Hospital League of Friends and was the second female Freeman of Torbay.

Strangely for all her goods works Ella Rowcroft received no national awards, yet her sister eventually became Dame Violet Wills.

The Rainbow, home of Ella Rowcroft, unveiling ceremony was fronted by Torquay mayor Denis Read and Torbay Civic Society chairman Mrs Hocking on the front entrance veranda wall of Bearne's on March 13, 1989.

Finally on September 21, 2018, and in partnership with Torbay Hospital Trust, the civic society issued a special 90-year history publication to celebrate the opening of Torbay Hospital in 1928.