Ian Handford, chairman of Torbay Civic Society, give us the who and how each Torbay Blue Plaque was chosen. Any plaque erected, whether on a listed premises or not, has to be fully funded by the person or institution wanting a plaque
When local resident Eileen Mary Nearne was found in her Lisburne Crescent apartment in Torquay by Torbay Council staff in late 2010, they were surprised at what they found.
Authorised to break in by the police after they had been contacted by a concerned neighbour, they discovered Eileen had lain dead for some time, and then realised here was a lady of importance, as among her few possessions were three significant medals, two British and one French.
The lady had made headline news across the UK once an initial investigation was complete.
Eileen, at age 89, had always been a private lady some would say a recluse, beause during the last 60 years of her life no-one anywhere in the world knew the details of the important role she had played during the Second World War.
She had been a member of Winston Churchill’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) so-called special army, and in inaccordance with the modern day Secret Service Act, she had never mentioned any aspect about this era of her life.
A the time her death was being reported in the local and national press, my wife and I were on board a cruise, completely unaware of the unfolding saga back home.
Having returned, the funeral had already been held and as a practising Roman Catholic, and with a very special service arranged, this had attracted more than 1,000 people.
Dartmouth Royal Naval College had also been instructed to bring a vessel round from Dartmouth to Torquay, so that in accordance with Eileen’s wishes, her ashes could be scattered at sea.
From the huge quantity of emails, recorded calls and post, we were immediately aware we had missed out on a quite unqiue event while at sea.
The media now wanted to know if Torbay Civic Society was going to do anything to commemorate this lady’s amazing life.
Eileen had never married and it meant that only the TV Heir Hunters were able to find Eileen’s sole surviving relative, a niece Odile Nearne, now living in Italy.
On speaking to Odile by phone it soon obvious that a Blue Plaque was appropriate, perhaps unveiled the following year to coincide with Eileen’s next birthdate.
Born in Fulham on March 15, 1921, she was the youngest of four children, one sister and two brothers, and amazingly all four had fled France at the onset of war, and come to Britain, when three worked for the SOE - absolutely amazing. The fourth child Frederick, chose to join the RAF and staggeringly all four survived the war.
When in France for the SOE, Eileen had been caught by the Gestapo and tortured using the ‘baignoire’ system - head plunged into cold water and held down until lungs virtually burst - in an endeavour to ‘refresh the memory’.
In spite of this and other ordeals, Didi - as she was called - divulged nothing and forever convinced many interrogators she was a simple French girl with no knowledge of the resistance.
Yet she was still forced to work for the German armoury and later in August, 1944, was interred at Fresnes Prison before finally sent to the infamous Ravensbruck camp, where she met Violette Szabo, the celebrated SOE officer whose story was captured in the film ‘Carve Her Name with Pride’.
Odile had always annually visited her aunt to take her out and about to her favourite places like Teignmouth, where Eileen always admired the John Keats Blue Plaque, and Dartmouth because of its wonderful views.
Eileen had supported Animals in Distress and Save the Children Fund, yet in reality she was very poor and yes reclusive.
Her Blue Plaque was unveiled at Lisburne Square on March 15, 2011, to commemorate her birthdate.
Torbay Council were represented and Odile and her husband Enore’ were Torbay Civic Society’s special guests.
With radio, TV and the press out in force, even Heir Hunters came down from London to film the event.
Finally, everyone went to the Burlington Hotel just round the corner on Babbacombe Road, where refreshments were served and at last the story of Eileen’s remarkable war work was told.