Following in the footsteps of Florence Nightingale and caring for "Gentlewomen of Limited Means"

Torbay Weekly

In this series of features about ‘Torbay Civic Society Blue Plaques’, Ian Handford (Chairman of the Society) gives us the who, why and how each plaque is chosen.

Erith House, Torquay

This Blue Plaque was asked for to celebrate the 150th Anniversary since the founding of Erith House in Acadia Road, purchased in memory of the late Lady Eardley of Erith Kent.

Having visited Erith Home many times to see the son of its then Matron-Manager Mrs Johns during the 1980's when resident in Wellswood, twenty years before I would be elected Chairman of Torbay Civic Society, I was completely unaware of the astonishing history of Erith House, which was the third premises founded to help "Gentlewomen of Limited means". Its full history can be read by sending for our pamphlet entitled ‘Erith House’.

It was Dame Florence Nightingale who founded a first nursing institution in London to help "Women of limited means" in 1853. The London institution was the precursor to Torquay's first Care home in 1854 after Lady Eardley (a member of Florence's London Committee and wife of Sir Culling Eardley) decided to establish an identical complex in Vaughan Parade Torquay.

Having appealed to the generosity of the Torquay gentry, Lady Eardley established her first "Care" home, which was quickly oversubscribed. It was then re-established at Hazelwood House on Warberry Hill - being a neighbour of Wellswood Manor.

Both homes were set up to assist "Women of Limited Means" suffering from serious chest problems and both were similarly overwhelmed when increasing numbers of patients moved to Torquay.

Through the generosity Sir Culling Eardley, a new home was finally purchased in 1861 "Erith House" in memory of his Lordships now, late wife. Set up as a Registered Charity, Erith could accommodate up to thirty women (but no men) and took its name in honour of the Eardley ancestral home in Kent.

In appreciating the 150th Anniversary of the founding of Erith House was approaching, the Directors asked the Society to see if a Blue Plaque would be appropriate. It was now through the generosity of Miss Alethea Orbell that the full sponsorship was given in memory of her sisters Mary and Dorothyn, who had been connected to the home for many years.

My next task was to contact Torbay Council Conservation Officer (the house was Listed) and also make sure the Mayor would be able to attend the unveiling. With that done and the date agreed, the plaque was ordered from the manufacturer.

After obtaining special access to the original documents and Deeds, and especially the Underlease of the Property (which involved Mr Herbert Minton of Pottery/ Porcelain fame), this enabled me to write a text for the official "collectors" pamphlet.

Once the plaque had been received, it was officially unveiled on the front wall of the Listed Building at 3.30pm on Wednesday July 14th 2004 by the Mayor of Torbay Council and the senior partner of Hooper and Wollen (Solicitors) - Mr Nigel Wollen.

With members of the society and the public in attendance, our President Mrs Ena Hocking and myself oversaw the formal ceremony. Finally, everyone present was invited to tour the house and meet some of the residents before returning to the lounge, where a special iced-cake (courtesy of the Management) and refreshments were served. Most of the visitors then toured the garden.

It would take another 140 years before the founding principle to help "Gentlewomen of Limited Means" was finally overturned when legislation of 1997 involved the new Trust Deed ensuring men could at last apply for accommodation and care at the home.

Today, though part of the voluntary edict ensures the home is run by a Manager and her staff, it still retains a non-resident committee and ‘offers modern day quality standards yet still has a feeling of friendly security’ - the intention of the founding ‘mothers’ of the Victorian era.