How William Kitson became ‘The Maker of Torquay’

Rev Thomas Kitson's Hengrave House enjoyed a sea view

Rev Thomas Kitson's Hengrave House enjoyed a sea view - Credit: Archant

The Kitsons played a large part in Torquay’s Victorian prosperity.

The lodge at the entrance to Torbay Hospital

The lodge at the entrance to Torbay Hospital - Credit: Archant

William Kitson was a solicitor and entrepreneur who, in the 1820s and 1830s, was instrumental in helping Torquay become the country’s premier resort.

He realised Torquay could become the place to live as a winter resort for the wealthy with its beneficial climate helping those of ill health.

As solicitor and the voice of the Palk family, who owned the land in central Torquay, he exerted huge influence over the development of the resort - he was basically given free will with it.

He was instrumental in creating the prestigious Warberrys and Lincombes developments with their sea views, tree-lined roads and warm climate.

Lee Godfrey

Lee Godfrey - Credit: Archant

He became chairman of the newly-formed council, implementing and improving the central road structure, sewer systems, water supply and street lighting.

He also ran Torquay’s first bank, imaginatively called The Torquay Bank.

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It’s no wonder he was unsurprisingly known as ‘The Maker of Torquay’.

As such, the population of Torquay increased tenfold in the first 50 years of the 19th century.

William Kitson died in 1883 at the age of 83.

William’s brother, the Rev Thomas Kitson, had inherited Shiphay House in 1846 and in 1865 William moved from his home at the solicitors on Vaughan Parade to new house on the estate. This is Hengrave House. Its own lodge, built of sandstone, is at the entrance to what is now Torbay Hospital.

I wondered why Hengrave was built specifically in this spot. after visiting I noticed it has a lovely sea view!

The houses and grounds were to remain in Kitson ownership until 1929 when told of the proposal to build new roads visible to the house, Major Robert Kitson, nephew of William, such was his dismay that he sold up the entire estate and moved to a smaller property at Henock.

This unfortunately ended the Kitson association with Shiphay Manor.

Major Kitson had inherited the estate six years earlier in 1922/23, and decided the estate should be broken up.

He sold Hengrave to Mrs Ella Rowcroft for £8,000.

Mrs Rowcroft was part of the hugely successful Wills tobacco family. She bought Hengrave with the sole intention of donating it as the site for a proposed new hospital.

In total, she ended up donating around £135,000 to the this, a staggering sum in those days.

Major Kitson later donated another eight-and-a-half acres himself.

Hengrave House and the lodges became part of the founding Torbay hospital, and survive to this day.

The sandstone lodge in easy view at Lawes bridge.

With the decision to sell taken, the large amount of land was quickly bought up by the council, with most set aside for residential and educational uses.

Many roads were named after Devon rivers. New schools, both primary and secondary, where built. Farmland and farms disappeared, the largest being Stanbury farm.

Shiphay Manor itself became a hotel and the remaining grounds part of an American encampment in World War Two. It then became a popular nightclub run by the Matthews brothers in the 1970s, a well-known riding stable, part of Torquay Girls’ Grammar School, and eventually taken on by Torquay Boys’ Grammar School.

By now, the manor was quite dilapidated. After some deliberation, the decision was taken to renovate it. The sale of the last remaining parcels of old farming land paid for this refurbishment.

And this brings us to the present. Hopefully, the manor will continue to be a focal point for the school and Shiphay itself many years to come and the trees will continue their slow magestic lives. I have planted many that should see out this century and the next.

• I have written from memory, and with a great deal of help from John Kelland’s book Shiphay Collaton. Also with grateful permission from Torbay Hospital. I apologise if any facts or dates are actually incorrect. This is unintentional.