Wordsmith Eden was Agatha Christie's mentor

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: Eden Phillpotts

A blue plaque honours a man who wrote more novels and books than Agatha Christie and who lived 500 yards from her.

A skilled wordsmith, Eden Phillpotts was even a mentor to the young Agatha. The story of his plaque is as fascinating as some of his mysteries.

When BBC cameraman Ian Sampson contacted me concerning the writer of books on Dartmoor by Kenneth Day, he was living in East Preston, Sussex.

From Ian, I learned that Eden Phillpotts had been Kenneth's greatest friend.

In approaching 98 - the age that Eden died - Kenneth wished to leave a Blue Plaque at Eden’s home on Oak Hill Road, Torquay, originally a bungalow that had been on the edge of what became the site of South Devon College - now, of course, Torre Marine housing.

Ian's contact was opportune and being lucky, I visited the very day Barratt Homes were about to demolish the last piece of what had been Eden’s home, the garden wall.

It was early days and nothing was yet formalised although Barratt Homes promised to retain the wall and should the event go ahead, they would then strengthen it to display a plaque.

I visited Kenneth with Pat, my wife, and over the next eight years we became friends, as every time we visited our family in Worthing, we visited Kenneth.

With the sponsorship agreed and Barratt Homes funding the pamphlet, it was now all systems go.

It was discovered that with his daughter Adelaide, Eden had planted a special magnolia tree at Eltham, a 'Campbellii' in the First World War - few existed in the UK - and the tree later became subject to a Tree Preservation Order and was saved by the developer who agreed with the society, for a metal guard protection.

Our famous writer had arrived in Torquay in the 1890s and lived at first at Cosdonne, Wellswood, before moving to Eltham House in Oakhill Road, near to the Christie home at Ashfield on Barton Road.

From there, Agatha would often walk to visit her mentor.

Made a Freeman of Torquay, Eden nevertheless was in his senior years a total recluse, preferring only to write.

His huge book collection was left to Torquay Library and on the town hall wall you may read a few of his words carved in a concrete tablet - 'Read wisely for as good book is a faithful friend' put up in 1907, when the building was Torquay's first library, later converted to its town hall.

Mr Phillpotts’ output was astonishing. He produced so much, it was said he made it difficult for his followers to cope with his work - detective stories, travel books, novels, short stories, essays, plays and philosophical works as well as 18 special books entitled 'The Dartmoor Cycle', an exposure of the wonders of Dartmoor, walked when young with friend William Crossing, author of the Guide to Dartmoor.

The now frail Kenneth Day, like his great friend, never left his home at East Preston and when the day of the plaque unveiling came in November, 2007, Ian Sampson made a video of the ceremony so we could gift it to Kenneth.

It was a really super day and after Torbay Council mayor Mrs Beryl McPhail and her consort officially completed the unveiling we all moved on to take free refreshments in one of the new Barratt homes in Magnolia Square, noting the special tree as we passed.

Having thanked the sponsors including Mr Day, Dartmoor Preservation Society, Dartmoor Society, Dartmoor Magazine and specially Barratt Homes - supportive from the outset - I then related a little history.

One year later with committee man and great friend Russell Buckingham, we returned to Magnolia Square to affix a stainless metal notice to the tree guard offering a little history about the tree - well worth a visit - and its significance to the astonishing Eden Phillpotts.

The TCS pamphlet Eden Phillpotts (Eltham) may be obtained by sending two second class stamps plus a stamped addressed envelope to Torbay Civic Society, 1 Palace Avenue Business Centre, 4 Palace Avenue, Paignton TQ3 3HA.