Star of mid-Victorian era who put Torquay on the map

Joseph Bulmer

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

A William Kitson plaque was unveiled in 1988 at 2 Vaughan Parade, Torquay, but removed by the partners of Kitsons Solicitors after Messrs Presso Restaurant took over the ground floor in 2006 after the solicitors moved their offices to The Terrace.

It was in 1987/8 that Kitsons approached Torbay Civic Society for plaque at their Vaughan Parade offices to honour the founder William Kitson.

This plaque was a no-brainer for the society as William was a known star of the mid-Victorian era, having put Torquay on the map.

As a local newspaper stated 100 years ago, Torquay was 'one of the most opulent, the handsomest and the most fashionable watering place in the British Isles' - mainly because of the hyper-vision of one William Kitson.

During the early Victorian era William was a land agent, lawyer, banker and the local authority chairman and when appointed agent for the Palk Estate - they owned most of the land in central Torquay - he then had the power, influence and, more importantly the vision, to create a town only he foresaw.

His trump cards ensured he made Torquay the genteel residential area he so much wanted.

As a solicitor and banker - with the E Vivian, H Wilson and J Kitson Bank - he was even chairman of the local Board of Health in 1835 and the senior churchwarden - in that era an important position.

Now he would build churches, lay roads that are still in use today and ensure all the main villas and homes built across the hills were in Italianate style.

His vision ensured only quality homes were built all with covenants.

Being a banker he provided the money or mortgage for the Palk leases and undertook the legal requirements as trustee of the estate.

For three decades Mr Kitson alone was setting the scene of Torquay that lasted 100 years.

With the sponsorship assured and literature provided courtesy of Torbay Council, Torquay Library, Torquay Museum and the Natural History Society were all involved with his event.

Society member Denis Walton wrote the biography and the research and editing was undertaken by Frank Cawson.

The plaque unveiling on the side wall of the old Lloyds Bank in 1988 was carried out by the Mayor of Torquay in conjunction with the society chairman Ena Hocking.

For all his success as so often happens with 'the greats', ultimately their time runs out.

That occurred when Mr Kitson's sponsor Sir Laurence Palk II died in 1860 and his son Laurence III, Lord Haldon, unjustly accused Mr Kitson of 'improperly benefiting from his position' as land agent and trustee to the family estate, resulting in him losing his land agency business and the chairmanship of the local Board of Health.

But residents did not forget William Kitson as most knew - although not his lordship - that in fact he was a most frugal man, often having been quoted in the press as 'penny bun Kitson and darning needle Kitson'.

Yet with his powers gone, retirement beckoned. Local residents, meanwhile, nicknamed him 'The Maker of Torquay' and in 1875 even arranged a gala dinner in his honour.

To a packed room, they then presented him with his portrait while a mile away on Corbyn Head, a gun salute fired in his honour. Speeches went on for hours to the huge gathering.

In retirement, William went to reside at Hengrave House and eventually died aged 83.

Amazingly 40 years later it was to be his nephew, Major Robert Kitson, who provided Hengrave House with its substantial estate, to assist Mrs Ella Rowcroft and her sister start the proceedings to establish our present day Torbay Hospital, where even now Hengrave House is recognised as the central building.

Yet, in spite of all our efforts, the plaque history of William and the Bank of Vivian, Wilson and Kitson have gone from Strand although who knows one day this may be resolved.

A William Kitson modern biography can be obtained by sending two second class stamps plus a stamped addressed envelope to Torbay Civic Society, 4 Palace Avenue, Paignton TQ3 3HA.