Poet disowned by her father after finding love

Torbay Weekly

Ian Handford, chairman of Torbay Civic Society, gives us the who and how each of Torbay’s Blue Plaques was chosen. This week: Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The original blue plaque unveiled in 1988 on the Hotel Regina's west sea-facing wall on Victoria Parade over three decades had badly deteriorated and members of the public were contacting us which ultimately saw the society getting it refurbished.

It was only the second of three plaques we ever returned to in 40 years as once established, plaques become the responsibility of the sponsor as is always explained when fitting.

This one at the Regina was affixed to a hotel previously used as the Bath House in 1827 until 1857 becoming Victoria House and then Sea Lawn House before today the Hotel Regina.

Sponsored by the late Mr Tom Cropper and his wife Gladys, Torbay Council agreed to provide the pamphlet which were courtesy of Denis Walton with Frank Cawson being editor.

Being a very early plaque, sadly no original correspondence survives and we can only presume the plaque was unveiled done by the then Mayor of Torbay and Torbay Civic Society chairman Ena Hocking.

Poet Elizabeth Barrett was one of 12 children of a wealthy family. Sadly, her life was marred by four tragedies until eventually at age 39 having married 33-year-old poet Robert Browning, she found happiness.

The first two tragedies came in her teens when at just 15 a serious riding accident saw a burst blood vessel restricting her for life and yet within 12 months she also lost her beloved mother, bringing grief that ensured she did not leave her home in Wimpole Street, London, for six months.

In 1839, Elizabeth moved the family to Torquay so she could convalesce at No 3 Beacon Terrace, although within weeks moved to No.1 The Terrace - the Bath House, long before many of its neighbouring houses were added to make it a hotel.

The third tragedy came when losing her favourite brother Edward in July, 1840, who had gone sailing with three friends in Torbay aboard the La Belle Sauvage and did not return.

The whole Barrett family spent three days at the quayside awaiting news but that did not come for three weeks when Edward's body was found on Thatcher Rock off Meadfoot beach. Today, he lies buried in Torre churchyard.

A distraught Elizabeth entombed herself in her room for weeks before taking the family back to London in sheer despair.

In time and after much correspondence with an unknown poet Robert Browning, eventually happiness dawned.

But then the final tragedy, her father - who had ruled all his children with 'a rod of iron', believing they should remain children and never marry - disowned her and refused to speak ever again.

But Elizabeth eloped and having secretly married in London, moved to Italy.

Her father never spoke to her again and, worse still, even refused to correspond.

With her beloved dog Flush and husband Robert, she moved to Florence and later was blessed with a son Robert Wiedeman Barrett-Browning.

She travelled widely and survived for 16 glorious years before dying peacefully while held in her husband's arms.

All letters written to her father were lost for over 100 years until discovered in a secret drawer of his bureau in a large sealed envelope.

The bureau was sold at auction to a buyer who luckily discovered the drawer and its unopened bundle containing Elizabeth's letters. All were bordered heavily by black-mourning wax at each edge.

Fortunately, the buyer realised the significance and value of the letters to history and passed them to a museum and the rest, as they say, is history.

The restored, repainted plaque to Elizabeth Barrett Browning was replaced at Hotel Regina in Victoria Parade on the corner of Beacon Terrace in 2014, exactly opposite the quay to which she would never return, having died in her beloved Florence, Italy, on June 29, 1861.

The original pamphlet produced by Torbay Council entitled Elizabeth Barrett Browning is still available by sending two second class stamps plus a stamped addressed envelope to Torbay Civic Society, 4 Palace Avenue, Paignton TQ3 3HA