There was once a time when Torquay was home to the finest minds of their day – famous scientists and literary giants, world leaders, kings and queens all visited, and many stopped and made their homes in the area.
Here we take a look back at the great and the good – and the sometimes positively evil – people who have lived in the resort over the years. Some of them and their stories make shocking and surprising reading.
Rastafarian Emperor Haile Selassie
Haile Selassie, spiritual leader of the Rastas, lived in Torquay
Emperor of Ethiopia and spiritul leader of the Rastafarians Haile Selassie and his wife occupied the Villa Romero after Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935 under Mussolini. Haile Selassie spent his exile years (1936–41) in the Westcountry.
The same Victorian villa in Stitchill Road was also the first home in Torquay used by Isambard Kingdom Brunel who lived there with his family in 1848.
Donald Sinclair (aka Basil Fawlty)
The opening credits of Fawlty Towers in 1979 with the infamous anagram (Image: BBC)
The retired Naval officer – who twice survived the sinking of his ship in World War II – ran the Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay. He was the inspiration for the Fawlty Towers character created by comic writer John Cleese (whose character in the film Rat Race was also named Donald Sinclair in homage).
The Monty Python cast arrived in Torquay in May 1970 to film large chunks of Series 2 on location around the Bay and booked into the hotel – the rest of the team swiftly moved out and Cleese said Sinclair was “the rudest man I’ve ever come across in my life.”
But Cleese and co-writer Connie Boorh stayed on to observe his behaviour – which included his criticism of Terry Gilliam’s ‘too American’ table etiquette and tossing Eric Idle’s briefcase out of a window ‘in case it contained a bomb’. Sinclair justified his actions by claiming the hotel had staff problems.
Fawlty Towers (which was not filmed in Torquay) became ‘the greatest ever British TV sitcom’ and sadly the hotel was recently pulled down to make way for new apartments.
Sinclair died in Torquay in 1981 aged 72, from a heart attack and stroke “when some workmen he’d upset painted his patio furniture and car gunmetal grey during the night” according to Wikipedia.
The blue plaque on the Osborne Hotel, Torquay, where Charles Darwin once lived, being unveiled.
Charles Darwin, author of The Origin of Species, lived at Meadfoot House in Hesketh Crecent – now the Osborne.
Darwin, whose epic work shook Victorian orthodox society to its roots, arrived in the resort in July 1861.
A sufferer of nervous ailments, he also chose the town for health reasons. He stayed with his family for eight weeks at Hesketh Crescent, but he stayed away from the resort’s rock pools.
He spent his time revising his great book and preparing a paper on the fertilisation of orchids for a scientific journal.
Lauren Pope – model and TOWIE actress
This actress and glamour model, who made her name in The Only Way Is Essex, hails from the Torquay area.
She made her name as a DJ and has even released a couple of albums – as well as being romantically linked to Prince Harry (several years ago).
Oscar Wilde was jailed for his Torquay affair
Oscar Wilde lived in Torquay
Oscar Wilde’s notorious homosexual affair with ‘Bosie’ (Lord Alfred Douglas) began in this Victorian retreat near Torquay.
Babbacombe Cliff was home for Wilde, one of Britain’s most famous playwrights, during the 1890s, and Bosie often stayed there with him.
Later a hotel, it was bought as a private house by a distant relative of Wilde’s wife. Lady Georgina Mount Temple – whose good works and philanthropy were immortalised with a drinking fountain on Babbacombe Downs – leased the house to the writer and his family.
During his stay, Wilde completed his play “A Woman of No Importance” and attended some rehearsals of “Lady Windermere’s Fan” which opened in the Royal Theatre (now the Merlin Cinema) in Abbey Road, Torquay, in January 1893. But he shied away from taking a bigger interest in the production, preferring instead to loll about the theatre, smoking innumerable Turkish cigarettes and occasionally sipping a glass of hock and seltzer.
“[T]here was no time happier, more irresponsibly mirthful and untroubled by cares of any kind,” declared his biographer, Rupert Croft-Cooke.
But Bosie’s father, the Marquis of Queensberry, discovered what was going on and blew Wilde’s world apart with his outraged allegations of homosexuality.
Homosexuality was classified as a crime in England at the time, and Wilde was arrested, found guilty, and sentenced to two years of hard labour,after which he fled to France and wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898), about harsh prison life. He died destitute in Paris at the age of 46.
Miranda Hart is from Torquay but posher than she likes to admit
One of Britain’s best comediennes, Miranda Hart was born and grew up in Torquay where she descends from a highly aristocratic background, although she hates to admit it! She is a fourth cousin, twice removed, of Diana, Princess of Wales.
Her father was commanding officer of HMS Coventry which was sunk by the Argentinians in the 1982 Falklands conflict, and he was badly burned in trying to escape the stricken warship.
As well as starring in a number of comedy shows including Hyperdrive and Not Going Out, Miranda is also famous for her role in her BBC sitcom Miranda , which won 4 British Comedy Awards. She is also a straight actress and starred in the early series of Call the Midwife.
Beatrix Potter was inspired by Kents Cavern
Beatrix Potter was inspired by Kents Cavern in 1893
The children’s writer visited Kents Cavern in 1893 and many say it was the inspiration for her drawing of the entrance to Mrs Tiggy-Winkle’s house.
She wrote after visiting the cave: “I can imagine no more unlikely or unromantic situation for a cavern. It is in a suburb of Torquay, half way up a tangle bluff, with villas and gardens overhanging the top of a muddy orchard and some filthily dirty cows in the ravine below.
“I was pretty much exhausted when we found it, but by dint of eating cinnamon and the excitement of going into a cave, recovered.
“The dilapidated wooden door was flush into the bank. Outside an artificial plateau or spoil-bank of slate, overgrown.”
Brit winner Ben Howard
Folk musician Ben Howard has topped the album charts and won two Brit awards.
The surfer/singer/songwriter, who is a Torquay Boys Grammar School old boy, moved to Totnes at the age of eight.
He easily picked up the drums and contrabass, but after some time he decided to focus on the guitar. After attending King Edward VI Community College and Torquay Boys’ Grammar Schoolhe began studying Journalism at University College Falmouth
Agatha Christie learned about poison in Torquay
The young Agatha Christie, right, roller-skating on Princess Pier, Torquay, before 1914-18 War.
Agatha Christie is undoubtedly one of the biggest names in English literature and she was born right here in Torquay in Barton Road. She loved to swim in the sea and was one of the first women ever to surf.
The renowned crime novelist, short story writer and playwright is a legend in the world of literature and is best known for the creation her fictional detective characters Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple.
Her 66 detective novels and 14 short-story collections have sold over two billion copies — an amount surpassed only by the Bible and the works of Shakespeare.
She was born in the town and lived there during her early years and there is an Agatha Christie Mile, a tour with plaques dedicated to her life and work.
During the First World War she served as a nurse at the Red Cross Hospital in the Town Hall and she later dispensed medicines at the hospital until the end of the war – giving her a lifelong knowledge of poisons.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel moved a Torquay road out of his way
Isambard Kingdom Brunel (Image: Commons Wikimedia)
So famous he was chosen as the central figure in the opening of the Londond 20102 Olympics, played by Sir Kenneth Branangh.
The legendary British industrialist planned discovered the area while surveying for the Great Western Railway, and he and his family later spent many holidays in the town. He planned to retire to Torquay and bought up 500 acres areas of land at Watcombe Park, now known as Brunel Woods
It was because of Brunel that the coast road follows such a windy, circuitous route between Torquay and Teignmouth – Brunel didn’t want the road crossing his garden at Brunel Manor. Sadly he never saw the house and gardens finished as he died at the age of 53 before it was completed. Today it is run as a Christian holiday retreat.
Brunel had changed the face of the world with his groundbreaking Great West Railway, dockyards, steamships, bridges, tunnels and viaducts.
Charles Kingsley discovered Torquay’s hidden Hindu Caves
The Hindu Caves
In 1864 Livermead House was the home of Charles Kingsley (1819 – 1875) clergyman, naturalist and author best known for ‘The Water Babies’.
Born in the Dartmoor village of Holne, where his father was curate at the local church, Charles Kingsley knew Torquay well. The author once described the resort as “the Italy of England”.
He named the ‘Hindu Caves’ – a wild swimming spot around the corner from Torre Abbey Sands at Livermead during the year he lived at Livermead House after his wife suffered a miscarriage. Doctors advised her to winter in salubrious South Devon and the couple spent many hours exploring the beach beneath the seafront house.
It sparked Kingsley to write an article which he later expanded into “Glaucus: or the Wonders of the Shore,” a popular children’s book celebrating the miracles of nature.
Engraving portrait of Charles Kingsley (Image: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images)
The house where the poet Keats wrote much of his work
Keats’ House in Teignmouth, near The Ship Inn (Image: Reg Butler)
Just up the coast, at Teignmouth, the poet John Keats made himself at home.
A plaque is on the wall of his terraced home at 20 Northumberland Terrace – now called Keats’ House – where he penned a lot of his work.
He liked Devon, but in a letter, he described it as a “splashy, rainy, misty, snowy,foggy, haily, floody, muddy, slipshod county.”
Model and muse Lily Cole
The Torquay-born red-head is most famously known for her modelling work with fashion brands including Alexandra McQueen, Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Jean Paul Gaultier, however, she has also pursued a number of other ventures.
Not only did the supermodel graduate from King’s College, Cambridge with a double first in history of art but she is also the founder of socially networked gift economy website impossible.com as well as a budding actress. In 2017 Cole portrayed Elizabeth I in Channel 5’s eponymous docu-drama that looked at the rule of the last monarch of the House of Tudor.
Peter Cook cared more for the Gulls than anything else
Peter Cook and Lin Widdecombe
The Torquay comedian dubbed ‘the funniest man who ever drew breath’ is honoured with not one, but two, blue plaques in his home town.
Famed for his work with Dudley Moore and as the financial backer of Private Eye, he once told reporters at a crisis meeting over the future of Private Eye that he was far more concerned with how his beloved Torquay United Gulls would do in their match the next day.
There is a blue plaque close to the home in Middle Warberry Road where Peter Cook was born, and another at Plainmoor, home of Torquay United.
Rudyard Kipling wanted to dance naked through Torquay
Still one of the most popular British authors and poets – Jungle Book author Rudyard Kipling and his wife lived at Rock House, Maidencombe from 1896-1898 on his return from America.
Although he described the Rockhouse Lane house as his ‘dream home’ this was an unhappy spell for him, as he often suffered from depression.
He rented Rock House in Maidencombe, but despite its idyllic spot on cliffs overlooking the sea, he and his family were gripped by “a gathering blackness of mind and sorrow of the heart” every time they entered it.
Kipling’s experience undermined the Victorian view that the English Riviera was always good for the heath.
In a letter he wrote: “We are a rummy breed – and, O Lord, the ponderous wealthy society. Torquay is such a place as I do desire to upset by dancing through it with nothing on but my spectacles.
“Villas, clipped hedges and shaven lawns; fat old ladies with respirators and obese landaus. The almighty is a discursive and frivolous trifler compared with some of ’em … but the land is undeniably lovely and I am making friends with the farmers.”
Tennis ace and ‘Paignton Peach’ Sue Barker
Sue Barker famously learned to play tennis at the Palace Hotel
Before achieving fame as a top BBC sports presenter, Sue Barker was amongst the world’s top women tennis players in the 1970s and she won the French Open in 1976.
From Paignton, Sue’s career began under the eye of top Torquay coach Arthur Roberts at the Palace Hotel – now closed and about to be redeveloped.
After her career in tennis she became an inherent part of the BBC annual Wimbledon coverage and host of A Question of Sport.
The King whose first Parliament was in Torbay
William of Orange statue on Brixham harbour
Prince William of Orange landed with 500 ships in Torbay and 14,000 troops at Brixham on November 5, 1688 and overthrew King James II in the ‘Quiet Revolution’. He was welcomed unopposed in the South West of England.
The Prince and his men brought fame to Newton Abbot by proclaiming his intention to become King for the first time. The declaration was read to the public at St Leonard’s and the future King then went to Forde House and was entertained by Sir William Courtenay while his army was camped at Milber Down.
On the way William stopped and held his first Parliament at Longcombe, near Stoke Gabriel.
Where was Charles Babbage ‘The Father of the Computer’ really born?
Charles Babbage – the founder of modern computers
Babbage’s parents were from Totnes, his first school was in Exeter and he lived in Teginmouth. His son insisted that he was born in Teignmouth.
In the latest book on ‘The Father of the Compouter’ Lucy Simister writes that, while studying mathematics at Cambridge, Babbage was inspired to build a computer to aid shipping. He kept a yacht in Teignmouth harbour and had studied navigation and knew the calculations needed to get shipping in and out of the dangerous port.
He also knew that on board every ship was a person called the computer, responsible for calculating tide times, wind speed and ships’ draft laden and in ballast, the ships position whilst on passage and other computations. They relied on a logarithm table which was appallingly inaccurate.
Charles wrote ‘what a breakthrough the corrections of these tables would mean to the safety of tens of thousands of ships’.
For the rest of his life he worked to perfect a ‘difference engine’ which was the basis for today’s computer technology. Sadly engineering was not ready for the leap forward in science.
Babbage was friends with Darwin and told the author of ‘The Origin of Species’ that he saw God as a deity that was constantly changing and updating species, like a programmer allowing for the evolution of nature to replace itself with a stronger species. Darwin agreed, saying he was coming to the same conclusion – which predates Darwin’s own theory on natural selection.
Both men were born before their time.
The haunted life of dancer Isadora Duncan
Dancer Isadora Duncan is one of the most tragic Devon women to grace the pages of the county’s history.
The legendary but controversial Isadora died horribly in 1927 after a silk scarf she was wearing caught around the wheel of an open top car, pulling her from the open car and breaking her neck.
In an earlier tragedy both of her children had drowned in the care of their nanny in 1913 when their runaway car went into the Seine in Paris.
Paris Singer, the wealthy heir to the Singer sewing machine empire, had properties at Redcliffe and Oldway. He spent many years and much of his fortune decorating Oldway Mansion in the style of the Palace of Versailles – painting the ceiling alone took six years.
The ornate interior at Oldway Mansion
Therefore when he fell in love with Isadora Duncan – one of the founders of modern dance – it was natural that he would eventually bring her to live in Devon where a huge mirrored ballroom was the centrepiece.
After the birth of their son Patrick Augustus on 1 May 1910, the summer was spent in Devon. It is easy to imagine Isadora, famously dressed in classical Greek robes, floating around the Italianate gardens and spacious ballroom at Oldwsay.
Recently when a ghostly figure was spotted at the window of the abandoned building, some thought it was the troubled spirit of Isadora .
Campaigners working to restore the historic mansion had been hoping that the public would get their first chance to see inside the mansion for several years this month – but sadly open days have been scrapped for safety reasons.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning – tragedy struck in Torquay
Elizabeth Barrett Browning lived in a house on Beacon Hill for three years
The poet and short story writer Elizabeth Barrett Browning stayed for around three years in Torquay – in Beacon Terrace to be exact. She was sent to the resort on her doctor’s advice, as it was felt the fresh air would improve her health.
But she hated the place. She arrived in Torquay in 1838, but her stay was a tragic one, as one of brothers drowned in an accident in Babbacombe Bay.
She is remembered for such poems as “How Do I Love Thee?” (Sonnet 43, 1845) and her work to abolish slavery.
Georgia ‘Toff’ Toffolo
Georgia Toffolo looked flawless (Image: ITV)
Queen of the Jungle Georgia ‘Toff’ Toffolo was born in Torquay and her rise to fame started on the BAFTA award-winning channel 4 reality series Made in Chelsea.
The This Morning presenter denied she is now a millionaire. After winning ITV’s I’m a Celebrity get me out of Here, insiders predicted that Georgia would get a huge pay out in modelling and sponsorship deals, but the star insists that couldn’t be further from the truth.
The reality star told Femail that ‘it’s the most ridiculous rumour I have heard about myself is that I am worth £1M’.
Muse frontman Matt Bellamy paints a sheep guitar near his home in Teignmouth
The multi-award winning rock band Muse – Dominic Howard, Matt Bellamy and Chris Wolstenholme – all hail from Teignmouth. Matt still lives and farms on the hillside above Bishopsteignton and both of the other band members still have families in Teignmouth and love to come home.
As well as winning several prestigious awards including two Grammy’s, two Brit Awards and five MTV Europe Music Awards, the band have sold 20 million albums worldwide – not bad for a bunch of Devonshire dumplings!
Arthur Conan Doyle’s inspiration for the Hound of the Baskervilles
Holy Trinity Church at Buckfastleigh (Image: Google)
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s The Hound of the Baskervilles are
The creator of Sherlock Holmes used Dartmoor as the inspiration and backdrop for his most famous tale, the Hound of the Baskervilles.
He stayed in Princetown, while carrying out research for the book. There are many theories about where the book was based, but it is widely believed that Fox Tor Mire was the setting for the fictional Great Grimpen Mire.
The tale is thought to be based on the legend of local squire Richard Cabell, buried at Holy Trinity Church, Buckfastleigh. He had an evil reputation and legend has it that when he died in the 1670s, black dogs breathing fire raced across Dartmoor, howling.
Baskerville Hall itself may, in real life, be either Hayford Hall or Brook Manor – both of them near Buckfastleigh.
Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli loved the town
Benjamin Disraeli started to visit Torquay during the 1850s. Unlike Elizabeth Barrett Browning, he loved the town and came back many times, staying at the former Royal Hotel (later the Imperial Hotel). He was twice Prime Minister, before he died in 1881. He was bequeathed Mount Braddon, a villa on the Warberry hill, by an elderly widow friend in 1863 but sold it. The house was once an upmarket restaurant called Disraeli’s.
The Oliver Heaviside blue plaque on the house in Lower Warberry Road, Torquay , where he lived until his death in 1925. (Image: Herald Express)
The mathematical genius lived in Lower Warberry Road, Torquay, in the 1920s.
He was an oddball, hermit-like figure to his neighbours but a hero in the world of science, who has craters on the Moon and Mars named after him, and is recognised as the man who laid the foundations of modern telecommunications whose research into electromagnetism transformed international communications.
He discovered the Heaviside Layer – a layer of ionised gas occurring between roughly 90–150 km above the ground which reflects medium-frequency radio waves.
To this day his grave in Paignton cemetery is often visited by admirers, including many from America and Russia.
‘The wickedest man in the world’ Aleister Crowley
One Torquay resident revelled in his reputation as an occult practitioner of ‘Magick’.
This was Aleister Crowley, (‘the wickedest man in the world’) who lived in Barton. Crowley (1875-1947) was responsible for founding the religious philosophy of Thelema and is now seen as one of the most famous occultists of all time.
Crowley moved to Torquay to avoid the Blitz in London. Some described Crowley as a satanist and he used Satanic imagery and called himself ‘the Beast 666’.
Later in his life he sent ‘Antichristmas cards’ to friends.
In the 1960 when he was at the height of his fame as an ‘international entertainer’ Max Bygraves had a house in huge grounds at the far end of Ilsham Marine Drive in Torquay.
In the Sixties Torquay was the most glamorous seaside resort in the country as captured in this video (below) which also shows Val Doonican, Arthur Askey and Sid James playing golf.
Jimmy Savile kept a penthouse suite at the Imperial Hotel
Jimmy Savile (Image: Mirror)
But not all of Torquay’s visitors were wanted. After years of fame as a DJ, children’s TV presenter and charity worker, the truth finally emerged about Jimmy Savile’s dark, hidden lifestyle as a sex offender who preyed on vulnerable and young children.
Investigations into Savile after his death in 2011 estimated he assaulted hundreds of women and children – some as young as eight.
Savile kept a suite of rooms at the five star Imperial Hotel and was often seen in his trademark silver tracksuit on Torquay’s coastal paths around the holiday resort where he had holiday homes for 40 years. He He also had caravan homes at Dawlish and Shaldon.
Even Napoleon and Admiral Nelson were once in Torquay
An aerial view of Torbay (Image: TCCT)
After Napoleon was captured following the Battle of Waterloo he was held on the warship HMS Bellerophon , nicknamed Billy Ruffian, offshore in Torbay for two days.
Once word leaked out that Bonaparte was on board the whole of the free world swarmed on Torbay for a glimpse.
It is said that on first sight of the Bay on the moring of July 24 1815 the former Emperor said “Quel Bon Pays” (“what a lovely country”) and he compared it favourably to Porto Ferrago on Elba.
In Ellis’ account: “They reached Torbay on 24th, where Maitland took up position near the Orestone whence his masts could be seen from Teignmouth Den over Hope’s Nose. In reply to his signals he was ordered to prohibit communication with the shore and await Admiralty orders three leagues out at sea.”
However, John Smart’s version shows the Bellerophon dropped anchor off Brixham, where a number of local victuallers sailed out in the hope of selling produce to the crew. Very soon, the man who once waged war across Europe soon became a must-see tourist attraction.
He often walked the ship’s decks, and was soon receiving gifts of flowers and fruit from well-wishers.
At six o’clock the bell rang, dinner was announced, and he went below.
A Letter From Torbay published in ‘The News’ said: “Our jolly tars, with their usual good humour, put out a board chalked ‘he’s gone to dine’.
A letter from Napoleon’s guardian Lord Keith to the First Lord of the Admiralty informed him: “You cannot imagine what a crowd we have here. The inns are full and the sea covered with swarms of small boats. I conceive that I must be particularly vigilant, for the ‘General’ and his suite are convinced that once they set foot on shore, no power on earth can bring them back again. They are determined to disembark. It is all they talk of and they are becoming very aggressive.”
The reply from Lord Melville was unequivocal. “On no account,” was Lord Keith “to permit Bonaparte to come on shore.”
Napoleon also helped the prosperity of Torquay in another way: local smugglers did very good business ‘importing’ French brandy during the Napoleonic Wars and since then smuggling of one kind or another has not completely stopped.
It was during these wars that Admiral Nelson visited the town on 18 January 1801, visiting Torre Abbey Mansions and later dining in Cockington.