Vomero and Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Torbay Weekly

In this series of features about "Torbay Civic Society Blue Plaques" Ian Handford (Chairman of the Society) gives us the who, why and how each plaque is chosen.
This Blue Plaque arose after a call from the owners of Vomero Holiday Apartments - Mr and Mrs Bunce in 2008. A large Villa situated on Stitchill Road Torquay, it was not a property I knew at all, although many years ago as a visitor I had stayed at The Spa -Holiday Apartments opposite.
Brunel was one of Devon's most famous Victorians and this made any connection to us worthy of a Blue Plaque. Brunel lived at the Villa between July and November 1848 while planning his Watcombe Estate retirement home.  
Likely to be a castle on Watcombe Hill, he was shocked to learn that Exeter Vestry opposed his plans and this had brought him to Torquay in 1846. Formal planning refusal came in early June 1848 and now with his wife Mary and son Isambard they stayed at Webbs Hotel Torquay until leasing Vomero Villa in July that year, while negotiating with planners and the Vestry. Eventually, Isambard saw the Vestry authorities remove their objections and the planners approve his application.
One hundred years later, Vomero was to become a Listed Building, which meant my first task was getting permission from the same local authority that our Plaque could be added to the house. The owners eventually decided they would like it fitted on the left gatepost of their drive and, although Listing approval was now not required, the Conservation Officer suggested the right side of the curved boundary wall was more appropriate.  
Having no jurisdiction over the matter, he nevertheless was officially invited to the event and would have seen the plaque on its right post (the left gatepost which was the owners John and Angela's first choice).
The couple researched the history of their house well, discovering a Captain Charles English RN (who was in the Napoleonic Wars) was probably the past owner who had named the Villa - Vomero having lived on a hill high above Naples named Vomero in Italy.  
Many decades later in the Second World War, Emperor Haile Selassie (a personal friend of the owners) stayed at Vomero, who, with the Isambard Brunel connection, made this property a very special find in Torquay. I now asked long-standing associate and historian Geoff Tudor to write up Brunel's early connections to our town for inclusion in the Society's pamphlet.
With the sponsorship and pamphlet achieved, I agreed a date, timing and details of the formal official unveiling ceremony with the owners and Council. By the Spring of 2009 with the pamphlet written, the plaque was ready at the foundry.  
Geoff had done a wonderful biography of Brunel's early years in Torquay and copies of this colour pamphlet "Vomero and I.K. Brunel" are available on request (see below for details).
With Isambard Brunel "now in town so to speak" he and Mary became very involved in local events and, although having won his appeal and witnessed a start of his housing scheme for his employees, sadly Isambard did not live long enough to see either the planned school or chapel or his retirement home built.  
They all emerged years later after his sons Isambard (Jnr) and Henry, together with their mother, completed part of the complex.
In appreciating Vomero had minimal parking, I approached Mr and Mrs Frank Nixey (previously of The Manor House Chelston - plaque owner) who now owned Bishops Court Hotel Lower Warberry Road. They kindly agreed the Society could use their car-park for the formal afternoon leaving adjacent roads available for public use.  
The unveiling ceremony started at 3pm on September 22, 2009, when the Chairman of Torbay Council Martyn Hodge with Escort and our Chairman Mrs Ena Hocking and Mr G Tudor assisted. Lady Thomas (Brunel's great,great,great grand-daughter) was also invited to the ceremony, which was finally attended by over 60 locals.
Our Society pamphlet "Vomero and Isambard Kingdom Brunel" be obtained by sending two 2nd class stamps plus a S.A.E to: Torbay Civic Society No 1 Office = 4 Palace Avenue, Paignton TQ3 3HA