Tour guide Sue take us back to the days of rich families with servants in the ‘ideal winter resort’ of Torbay

Tourist guide Sue SaundersTourist guide Sue Saunders

So what is a tour guide, essentially we are there to give you the best possible experience of a place, whilst keeping you safe and looking after all the logistics. We are a very curious breed, accumulating vast amounts of information which we feel we must pass on. I hope over the next few months to take you on a journey of discovery of Torbay and its surroundings, whether you live here or are just visiting.

Today in the UK, many of us take a holiday for granted but 200 years ago, holidays were only for the rich and they usually went on a grand tour of the continent, travelling by land and sea, and staying away for months. That was until the Napoleonic wars, when it wasn’t safe to venture abroad in case your head ended up in a basket.

Around about this time doctors came up with the idea that bathing in cold salty sea water was a remedy for many ailments and this started the move for the wealthy to visit the sea side and bathe in the sea.

Torquay was seen as an ideal winter resort, with its mild climate and fresh air, in a sheltered bay with rolling hills surrounding it. Of the three major towns that make up Torbay, Torquay was the least populated and was made up of a series of villages.

As the journey by horse and carriage might take several days rather than the few hours today, whole families, including their servants would decamp to the seaside for a whole season.

In 1807 a new harbour was built on the instructions of Sir Lawrence Palk, who owned a large part of Torquay along with The Cary and Mallock families. There were already fishermen’s cottages around the harbour area; he had these converted or demolished, replacing them with rows of terraced homes that might be rented. We may still see some of these in Palk Street that were completed in 1833. There were only two purpose built hotels by 1822.

Sir Lawrence saw an opportunity in these wealthy tourists and started building exclusive Villas in the Italian style to sell or lease in The Warberries and Ilsham Valley area. Other large houses were built on the hills around The Belgrave Road and Torre area. We have to remember that a household might consist of husband, wife, ten children and ten servants, so they had to be big.

Many royal, aristocratic and upper middle class families, visited, bought or had properties built for them in Torquay. Princess Victoria, who became Queen in 1837, visited in 1833, with Victoria Parade being named to commemorate her visit. The Russian Romanoff family had a private holiday home built up at Daddyhole, called the Villa Syracusa, now The Headland Hotel. The famous engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel bought land and designed a property to be built in the Watcombe area.

Torquay grew by over ten times between 1800 and 1850 as a popular destination for the wealthy health tourist to spend the winter season, with steamer ships travelling from Portsmouth and docking in the harbour making travel a little easier from London and the East of the UK. Torquay became known as one of the wealthiest towns in England.

In 1848 the railway was extended down from Newton Abbot, to Torre, and although it improved ease of travel to the town, it was considered too far out and a further stretch was proposed down to the harbour. However there was huge controversy between those who wanted the town to become industrial and those who wanted to keep its beauty. The latter won and it was extended instead to the seafront and then onto Paignton in 1859.

This growth was not to last however, as by the 1870’s it was deemed safe to return to the continent, and these same wealthy health tourists locked up or sold their large properties in favour of Switzerland, Italy or the south of France.