Controversial figure wrote about 'sexual swaps' among rich in Edwardian Torquay

The Blue Plaque honouring Beverley Nichols was unveiled on Tuesday, January 13, 1987

The Blue Plaque honouring Beverley Nichols was unveiled on Tuesday, January 13, 1987 - Credit: Torbay Civic Society

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

Built in Lower Warberry Road, Wellswood, in 1838, Kanescombe was later renamed Cleave Court, then Gay Court and finally Riviera Court in the 1960s.

Requisitioned by the War Department in World War Two, they had used it as a Ministry of National Insurance.

The Nichols family came to Torquay in 1904 when Beverley was six. He  attended the Wellswood Preparatory School for the Sons of Gentlemen while residing at Rockwood House in St Matthews Road, Chelston.

His father, a retired solicitor from Bristol, eventually purchased Cleave Court which today is a listed building, although now comprises apartments.

One of the owners of the late 1950s were Mr and Mrs M Winn and it was they who decided to sponsor a Blue Plaque to honour the successful author and national journalist Beverley Nicholls. Being sponsors, they fully funded the plaque and the publication.

Today, it is interesting to reflect that though English Heritage never allow Blue Plaques to be put on any listed building in the Greater London area unless the recipient has been dead for 25 years, plaques outside of London are not controlled.

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Beverley's plaque came just three years after he died and with all the required permissions achieved by chairman Mrs E Hocking, it was Torbay Civic Society president Mrs A. James Hardaway who - assisted by the mayor Mr R Fenton and the owner Mr M Winn - officiated at the unveiling on Tuesday, January 13, 1987.

With many dignitaries attending plus more than 50 Torbay Civic Society members and the public, Mrs Shelia Hardaway opened the proceedings by introducing the main guests before a few words from the mayor and Mr Winn were given.

Sheila then outlined a little of this famous author/resident of Riviera Court, before asking the mayor to formally  unveil the actual plaque.

Born in 1898, Beverley was rewarded for his writing prowess as early as 1912.

Having collected local postcards and created a private art collection of painters he wrote an essay on French impressionists.

Now with his mother, he went to London to receive a prize for his work before returning to Cleave Court. It was there he eventually completed his first book 'Prelude'.

By age 17 as an undergraduate at Oxford, he would often return to Torquay when life consisted of 'tea parties, dances and  gramophone hops' - early form of disco - and yet also observe the ever-increasing number of boarding houses in the town with servants dressed in colourful uniforms, rather than the more customary black dress.

Nichols was always a controversial figure. He said of Torquay it 'was lush, muggy and abounding in the rich, the eccentric and the elderly' and in his biography much later titled 'A Life', he wrote of the façade of Torquay saying 'Torquay is a nice place to go in the winter' although is racy, a very merry society, where sexual swaps among the rich occurs in villas and yachts. He continued the practise was apparently common place and that the Edwardians 'had nothing to learn about permissive behaviour, but it was all very discreet; and the chase and the intrigue were half the fun'.

The sheer breadth of his writing was amazing and very remunerative. He travelled widely, and had many famous friends including Hermione Gingold, Emlyn Williams, Somerset Maughan, Gladys Cooper, Jean Kent, Walter Pidgeon and Greer Garson.

He mixed with academics, politicians, writers and the Royals and yet his lifestyle was often  outrageous. He was an outspoken homosexual and had many liaisons, all fully documented.

He never married and as a prolific writer, his subjects were very diverse - children, crime, politics, gardening and travel. He even published six autobiographies, many dramas and two books on religion.

At age 83 he was asked what he thought of Torquay and replied: "I have about 100,000 memories but not the strength to recall them."

Then on reaching age 85 while living at Ham Common, he died in a local hospital on September 15, 1983.

A Torbay Civic Society pamphlet 'Beverley Nichols and Cleave Court' may be obtained by sending stamps to the value of 50p plus a stamped addressed envelope to Torbay Civic Society, 1 Palace Avenue Business Centre, 4 Palace Avenue, Paignton TQ3 3HA.