Childhood memories inspire groundsman to discover history of Shiphay Manor

Shiphay Manor

Shiphay Manor - Credit: Archant

Groundsman Lee Godfrey uncovers the history of the his childhood play area:

Shiphay Manor. hotel, nightclub, riding stables, grounds depot, school art department. But for most of its life, home to the Kitson family.

Maybe a name not known to some but for 185 years one of the most influential families in Shiphay and Torquay itself.

Shiphay Manor and its grounds have long been part of my life. As a youngster in the 1980s, my bedroom overlooked the house and grounds.

I’d spend many hours climbing the trees, making dens, and camping out with my friends.

Trespassing, of course, meant keeping an eye out for the local beat Bobbie, PC Baker, broken glass concreted on top of walls, and the on-site council workers, who would chase you off if they saw you. Which they mostly didn’t.

But on the whole it was carefree fun. The kind of fun you only truly experience as a youngster.

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As an adult, I was back again, and this time with permission.

It was my affinity and memories of the grounds, my childhood that eventually drew me back.

Working at Torquay Boys’ Grammar School, in the privileged but taxing job as groundsman, I spent 16 years tending the same grounds I knew so well.

My interest in learning more of the history of the site grew. Finding out about the manor itself, the people who lived and worked there, from an upper class residence to a successful secondary school with 1,000-plus pupils and staff.

But some things haven’t changed so much, if you know where to look.

Shiphay Collaton, or originally Sheephay Coleton. Sheephay meaning sheep enclosure or sheep hedge, Colla (most likely the landowner) and Ton meaning farm or settlement. The name changing over the years.

It was via the abbots of Torre Abbey that the name most likely came into popular use.

People had lived here abouts since before the Saxons, most likely drawn to the area by the numerous springs.

It was the Normans who first introduced manors, normally a large area of land with a large main dwelling. The buildings would most likely have been timber.

But it was the abbots who built the first substantial buildings here, a grange with an orangery with enclosed land for sheep farming, as it had become a profitable business. They had a fairly large settlement here, which also included a tithe barn.

The abbots arrived around 1200 and stayed for more than 300 years, until 1539.

Henry VIII had ordered the dissolution of monasteries with Torre Abbey being one of the most prosperous targets. And 500 plus years after they left, the tithe barn is sadly the only visible remaining evidence of them. But, yes, monks in Shiphay!

Henry VIII leased his new estate to a John Ridgeway and its thanks to his exacting measurements that we know the extent of his estate - some 150 acres spread over 13 large fields.

Certainly into the 1960s, the area now the school’s main rugby and football pitches were still set out as a farming field.

The Ridgeways eventually sold the estate to the Carys of Cockington and they fairly soon after, to the Lears.

It was the Lear family who built the original Shiphay House in around 1660.

But in less than 100 years, the Lear lineage had came to an end. Representatives of the family sold the estate to the first of the Kitsons, Mr William Kitson, in and around 1740.

The Kitson family can be seen in formation outside the original Shiphay House. The Rev Thomas Kitson is seated, with three of his daughters, some villagers, members of staff, including Mr Inch the butler, and Mr Lowe the coachman.

Mr Lowe may have lived at Red Lodge in Shiphay Lane. The sandstone lodge still stands today, just back from the traffic lights at Shiphay Lane.

The Lowe name will be familiar, they owned land adjacent to the lodge, and as such the nearby bridge was named Lowes bridge, or Lawes bridge as we know it today.

The Kitsons were benevolent land owners and families living and working on the estate were treated with repect and compassion - so much so that in 1896 W.H. Kitson had St John the Baptist’s Church built for them in Cadewell Lane.

Shiphay was then within the parish of St Marychurch, another church parish being established would be an impossibility. As such, it officially went under the guise of a school but one that could easily be transformed for church use.

The previous school house was dilapidated and insufficient for the growing population, and the previous places of worship had been lost centuries befor, so St John’s was used as a school from Monday to Friday and then on Friday afternoons, the school tables and children’s displays were removed.

The desks and chairs rearranged in rows to face east, the pulpit bought out and the alter uncovered.

Next week: How the Kitsons played a large part in Torquay’s Victorian prosperity