Ian Handford, chairman of Torbay Civic Society, on the who, why and how each Torbay Blue Plaque is chosen. This week, Isambard Kingdom Brunel in Paignton
With an iconic name and a high-profile career, this engineer, architect, surveyor, designer of tunnels, railways, bridges and in Torbay a viaduct, in addition to his famous railways and ships, surely means everyone knows about the amazing Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
Yet, not everyone will know he also had a major connection with central Paignton, no - not his railway or rail station but homes he built for his chief engineer, chief architect/surveyor, the company doctor and chief procurer (to us supplies manager).
He provided a terrace of four homes and now No.1 has a Blue Plaque to commemorate the Brunel connection and the story behind this makes it like its namesake, interesting.
The land for the terrace of homes was purchased by Brunel from the Church of England, although not without some difficulty even for this man of importance.
He wanted to house his professionals - the men who were to construct the extended branch line from Torre in Torquay to a Kingswear rail station alongside the River Dart.
The four new homes were to a terrace adjacent to the Coverdale Tower in Paignton and No.1, being the house the nearest the tower, was for the company doctor.
Interestingly, it remained a doctor’s residence from the 1850s to the present day, albeit latterly when converted into medical centre/surgery, housing a number of doctors.
Each of the four homes were provided with servants’ quarters at the rear and No.1 also had a stable and a coachman’s area. No.2 was for the architect/surveyor - it had enjoyed a private reservoir fed by a natural spring. No.3 was for Brunel’s chief engineer and No.4 was allocated to his chief procurer (supply man).
The first thought of a Blue Plaque at No.1 had started in 2001 when the medical centre practice manager rang me to ask if a plaque was possible.
She informed me the contractors carrying out the conversion for the doctors, had discovered various historical documents while removing fireplaces etc, which seemed to prove a Brunel connection.
Knowing absolutely nothing about a Paignton connection to this important man-of-history, the researching was on. I soon discovered that past historians had completely missed this aspect of Brunel’s work, and with the proof became acceptable, a plaque honouring him there seemed most appropriate.
With the surgery confirming it would fund the cost, in true Brunel fashion the job was on - full steam ahead for a Blue Plaque at No.1 Bishops Place, Paignton.
In keeping with a man of his style, Isambard Brunel had built his terrace homes with high ceilings and decorative cornices and plasterwork, all rooms very elegent.
The terrace still exists, although No.1 as a medical centre closed last year and for the first time in 170 years, it no longer houses doctors but a business - Miss Jenny’s School of Dancing.
The society had already honoured Brunel at Barn Close, Barton, in 1988, when a plaque was unveiled for the homes, estate and chapel built in Torquay in Brunel’s name.
Having this second plaque in Paignton made it a bit special. Years later, we would put up a third plaque to Brunel at Hookhills Viaduct in 2006 and a fourth at his first home, Vomero in the Warberrys in 2009, so IKB really is a bit special in Torbay, with four plaques bearing his name.
With my research done, Torbay Council and the elected mayor, Nick Bye, were contacted and we eventually unveiled the plaque on Friday, November 8, 2003.