Palace Hotel was once home to incredible benefactor to Paignton

Torbay Weekly

The stories behind Torbay's blue plaques by Ian Handford, chairman of Torbay Civic Society. This week: Washington Singer at the Palace Hotel

A blue plaque to honour Washington Singer came courtesy of owner of the Palace Hotel, Steve Furness.

Having been requisitioned during the Second World War for the Canadian Armed Forces, the hotel was eventually purchased by Trust House Forte Group in 1950 until they sold the Regal Hotel Group, who later sold it to Mr Furness and his company, the Duchy Group, in May 1966.

Torbay Civic Society then realised that since placing a plaque at Oldway Mansion to honour the Singer family in 1988, two of their six children - Washington and Paris Singer (his picture still adorns the lounge wall in the Palace Hotel) - had never been honoured in Torbay in spite of the fact the brothers had been incredible benefactors to Paignton and both had owned major property on the Paignton Esplanade.

Washington Merritt Singer was born in Yonkers, New York, in June 1866 and named in honour of the city, while a third Christian name was to honour the famous General Grant - later President Grant - a friend of his father Isaac.

With his middle name being ancestral, this went back to Alice Eastwood Merritt (1851-1890) and any plaque would become an important part of this extensive family history.

Today, there are no honours that remind us of Isaac Singer's six children except the few names on roads like Paris Road, Mortimer Avenue, Washington Close, Rhodanthe Road and places like the Merritt Flats or their home Oldway Mansion on Oldway Road.

Washington was the first president of the swimming club in Paignton and president of its rowing club, plus a steward at the Newton Abbot Racecourse and Master of the South Devon Hounds.

Later, his main pre-occupation became horses as he would ride and hunt well and eventually established a racehorse stud at Newbury.

He became an early member of its Jockey Club and adopted as his turf colours myrtle, green and white always popular with local punters, although not lucky at winning until his horse Challacombe won the St Leger in 1905.

At Newbury, he established an event named The Washington Singer Stakes, which still survives today.

In Paignton, he left us stables near the junction of Manor Road and Old Torquay Road and in Steartfield Road - today the Coach House - while as a major benefactor he built the town's first cottage hospital while also funding the organ at St John's Church.

Finally, in 1906, he funded the construction of the Merritt Flats in Totnes Road - built for the poor who were desperately in need of new accommodation.

However, his most prestigious venture was the laying out of Preston Green before establishing one of the UK's first private aircraft hangers, built near what is now Redcliffe Hotel.

Today, the only break anywhere in George Bridgman's wonderful long seawall can be seen near The Boathouse, which gave access to the beach for Mr Singer's private aircraft, which eventually offered some of our country's earliest public flights in an aeroplane.

With our request to honour Mr Singer with a plaque, this was finally unveiled on the entrance wall of what had been his home, Steartfield House - today the Palace Hotel - on Thursday, August 1, 2002.

The formal event was led by the Worshipful Mayor of Torbay Mrs Heather Buckpitt and her escort David Buckpitt.

Mr Furness also took the opportunity to formally open his new swimming pool at the hotel, which was then toured by all attending the plaque unveiling, before returning to the hotel ballroom where a buffet luncheon was provided and finally further presentations made.

Torbay Civic Society's pamphlet, written by John Wilson, a long-term friend of the Singers, was given out freely.

Over following years the society held many functions at the Palace until eventually it was sold by Duchy Hotels.