Honouring Stella Gale, the country’s first harbourmaster

Torbay Civic Society's Stella Gale leaflet

Torbay Civic Society's Stella Gale leaflet - Credit: Archant

The request for a Blue Plaque to honour Stella Gale of Paignton came from Torbay harbourmaster Kevin Mowatt, who informed us that Stella had in fact been the first female harbourmaster anywhere in the United Kingdom, when taking up her the appointment at Paignton harbour in 1929 at age just 21.

Amazingly in researching her career, we discovered there was a still a strong family connection with Paignton harbour through its harbourmaster who had retired in 1941.

Stella’s granddaughter, Mrs Karen Harding, still lives in a house alongside the harbour and she and eight members of the family would eventually join us for the unveiling, which certainly in terms of a direct connection to any recipient who had been given one of our Blue Plaques, was a first.

With sponsorship courtesy of the Torbay Harbour Company and Blue Sea Food Company in place, we agreed with Torbay Council that the Blue Plaque to Stella would be erected on the eastern entrance wall of the harbour, on what then was still the external wall of the Harbour Light Restaurant.

Stella had served as harbourmaster with the Paignton Harbour Company from 1929 until 1936 when the Paignton District Council took over ownership of the harbour and its surroundings buildings. She then continued as Paignton harbourmaster until finally retiring in 1941.

Today, her family still own and reside at one of the nearby terraced houses alongside the harbourside road of Roundham, which obviously became the centre of operations for the ensuing arrangements that needed to made for this very public event.

Knowing this event would be highly popular with locals, we all agreed we would need to use the lower room of the Paignton Club at the harbourside after the official unveiling, by moving to the club for the formal presentations and refreshments that were to be given, irrespective of whether the weather was good or not.

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That was a very fortunate choice as unusually although good weather had been forecast, on the day of the unveiling at the harbour restaurant wall, we were all caught up in appalling rain and wanted nothing more than to move off quickly to the meeting room at Paignton Club.

The official unveiling was carried out on Sunday, February 22, 2015 and then I welcomed everyone to the presentations in the club room by firstly welcoming the family and then the Torbay Council representative Councillor Nicol Amil in her capacity as the cultural spokesman, before finally introducing Torbay’s new harbourmaster Simon Pinder.

Various presentations then followed from the family and others, including a little of the history of the family. We all learned that Stella’s father Louis Gale had been known as the uncrowned King of the Harbour years ago, due to his long connection to the harbour through his boat-repair business there.

Stella who was born in Paignton, had attended the Marist Convent School in Fisher Street and later having worked in her father’s business, she learned about maritime matters and, in time, was also a keen local sailor when using the family yacht Blue Bird.

During the Second World War, Stella had been strong enough to take on the Royal Navy when as harbourmaster she refused to give them permission to mount a mobile gun on her harbour wall.

Stella lived to the age of 78 and left us two children Graham and Chris and through them a number of great grandchildren, some of whom were at our ceremony.

A TCS pamphlet ‘Stella Gale’ is obtainable by sending stamps to the value of 50p - plus a stamped addressed envelope to Torbay Civic Society, Suite 1, Palace Avenue Business Centre, 4 Palace Avenue, Paignton TQ3 3HA.