History of Rotary unravelled - but what happened to the brown plaques?

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.


This week I feature the third of just six Blue Plaques in Torbay that were NOT installed by Torbay Civic Society.

Any institution or person outside of the Greater London area can put up a Blue Plaque if they wish to commemorate a person, premises or monument, provided it is not erected on a Listed building.

Currently, there are no controls or restrictions for plaques put on any building owned or managed anywhere outside of the Greater London area. Inside that area, English Heritage legally have absolute control over any plaque erected and, generally speaking, they are the authority who make all arrangements, including the unveiling ceremony.

Local Authorities currently have no say whatsoever on plaques erected on a domestic or commercial building unless it happens to be a monument, bridge, viaduct, tree or perhaps a community Church or Hall, or is a Listed building.

The Blue Plaque erected in Torbay in 2005 by the Rotary Club of Torquay in fact celebrated the centenary year of "Rotary International 1905-2005".

The plaque was established at what then was the St James Hotel (today Harbour Point) on Victoria Parade - a time when it sported a grand ballroom ideally suited for functions and banquets etc.

In 2020, because everyone was caught up in the world pandemic, only selected members of the Torquay Rotary Club were allowed to meet outside the Harbour Point building on Victoria Parade to celebrate the centenary year.

This had been the building where members had held their first club meeting in 1920 (1920-2020) and it was hoped a larger celebration involving all members would be arranged in 2020 and then later 2021, which is when our society became involved. Yet, the ongoing pandemic restrictions cancelled the idea of any celebration for a second time in 2021.

The background to this Blue Plaque is interesting when you realise that it was Torquay Rotary that initially formed the idea of erecting commemorative plaques. Initially, made in bronze, they were not painted blue. It would take until the 1980s before Torbay Civic Society finally endorsed the idea of a Blue Plaque scheme and put together a list of future potential plaques.

When, in 2021, a full colour A5 official document became required by the Rotary Club, it's main historian Mike Thompson, with our help, put together the detailed document outlining how the Rotary movement commenced in Chicago in 1905 before the concept came to Great Britain in 1910. It was then that Torquay Branch became the 31st club to be established anywhere in Britain and apparently today is still recognised as the oldest club anywhere around the Western peninsula.

Having been asked to speak at numerous Rotary Club's around South Devon and particularly those in Torbay at Babbacombe and St Marychurch, Brixham, Paignton, Preston and Torquay, I am pleased to confirm they all do sterling work in supporting all sorts of charities, institutions and causes in our local area.

They also raise money at garden parties, fates and in raffles etc, which will be used to support worthy causes that include Torbay Hospital a main recipient.

In 2005, a plea went out to the Rotary members asking if anyone knew the whereabouts of any of the three original bronze plaques. Outcome of the "plea" unknown.

Over recent years, even the Torbay Civic Society has lost three of its formally unveiled Blue Plaques for a variety of reasons. The first lost was to William Kitson on Vaughan Parade, the second when the St John Ambulance Brigade HQ on St Marychurch Road was sold and the third most recent plaque lost was to Bishop Phillpotts when the Palace Hotel on Babbacombe Road was demolished last year.  

Fortunately, we are well aware of who removed this Blue Plaque and hope that it may be reinstated once the new five-star hotel is built.