Torbay's Forgotten Voices

Torbay's Forgotten Voices

Dr Kevin Dixon guides us through Torbay's distinct culture and forgotten history in the first of his contributions to The Shorely. What this man doesn't know about Torbay... probably isn't worth knowing. 

It’s difficult writing about the culture of Torbay. One reason is that Torbay is an invented place. The three towns of Brixham, Paignton and Torquay were brought together for administrative convenience – ultimately as a Unitary Authority in 1998 - but each retains its distinct identity and culture. What those communities do have in common, however, is that the past is intimately connected to our present.

Another challenge is in what to include in a cultural history. There’s just so much to choose from so it’s necessary to focus on a particular theme. Certainly the Bay has its well known dynasties such as the Carys, the Palks and the Singers, and their patronage of the arts. But let’s concentrate here on the lesser known facets of the Bay’s evolution, and on those individuals that can illuminate the hidden and forgotten.

We shouldn’t forget those that were here first and their artefacts and art which can be viewed at Torquay’s Museum. We can still see our ancestors’ presence in the ancient places of the Bay, in Kent’s Cavern and Brixham’s Windmill Hill cave. Ancient peoples put a great deal of effort into burying their dead and we have their monuments at Broadsands and Beacon Hill. Bronze Age and Iron Age field systems can be found on the Churston plateau and on Babbacombe’s Walls Hill. These are the settlements and religious sites of the Dumnonii people.

Before we look at those who have come to the Bay, let’s consider the many that have left.  We seem to breed extraordinary people who go on to make their mark on the world. Explorers such as Richard Burton - the inspiration for Indiana Jones, and the promoter of the Kama Sutra - and Percy Fawcett who disappeared into the Amazon jungle. And there are those creative folk who looked for fame elsewhere, such as iconic comedian Peter Cook and Blade Runner cinematographer Roger Deakins.

Of course we’re fortunate to have also produced the world’s bestselling author, rightly celebrated at the International Agatha Christie Festival. But let’s remember those many other famous literary figures that have visited or lived here, including:  Mary Shelley; Robert Louis Stevenson; Charles Dickens; Arthur Conan Doyle; TS Eliot; Rudyard Kipling; Oscar Wilde; Willkie Collins; Henry James; James Joyce; and many more.

Paignton and Brixham were our original settlements. Then came along the brash upstart newcomer, Torquay.  It was the Napoleonic wars that really led to the town’s rapid growth as a resort. The rich, denied their visits to continental Europe, were compelled to find leisure closer to home and so Torquay grew into a premier health resort. From a small fishing village with a population of 838 in 1800, Torquay’s residents numbered over 11,000 just 50 years later.

Along with other pleasure-towns, Torquay and Paignton acquired a reputation for Bohemianism. Like-minded people gathered around musical, artistic, or literary pursuits.  For the prosperous, Torquay and Paignton were attractive destinations while Brixham was an idealised working town.

Yet, for many, the Bay could be a harsh place. Torquay claimed to be the wealthiest in England and the affluent needed a large, mostly female, servile class - in 1871 there were 12,772 females to 8,885 males in Torquay. If any of those women, many from Devon’s villages, couldn’t find work, there was often only one alternative.

Along with the many attracted by opportunities for employment, advancement and creativity, our towns also became the home of those who lived on the margins – the criminal,  the vagrant, the addicted, and the unemployed. These were, and still are, the truly excluded. No one recorded their lives and how they celebrated and mourned. It’s through their folk songs and myths that we can glimpse into a world of poverty and can hear distant often unheard voices – stories such as the sheep hangs man legend at Gallows Gate, and Matilda and the Devil at Daddyhole Plain.

We now strive to celebrate creativity and work to nurture artistic innovation.  This wasn’t always so, however. Outdoor revelries were suppressed during the nineteenth century for being dangerous remnants of rural times, and a cause of drunkenness and indiscipline. Now festivals are back and we have a whole range of outdoor festivities - from Brixham’s Fishstock to Torquay's Grinagog.  We’ve not always been open to cultural offerings either - for example, Monty Python’s Life of Brian was banned in Torbay from 1979 until, remarkably, 2008.

Most histories of Torbay emphasise a peaceful collection of communities gradually coming together to become what we know today. Yet, we also have a history of civil unrest and of campaigns demanding the rights we now take for granted.  Trouble flared in Torquay in 1847 and 1867 when rising prices caused real distress to the working class and Bread Riots broke out.

Other local people resented the lack of democracy in England. In the 1840s the Chartists were active in the Bay and in 1867 a thousand strong demonstration of “working men of Torquay marched through streets lined with spectators”. More violent conflict, bizarrely, came in 1888 when the Salvation Army challenged the ruling against parading on a Sunday. Over 100 Salvationists were eventually imprisoned. In response, sympathisers defended the Salvationists and a good deal of street violence ensued before the law was changed.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century the Bay’s Suffragettes demanded the right to vote for women. In June 1914 Torquay’s pillar boxes were sabotaged. Though this sounds trivial, it wasn’t an easy struggle for many involved. Paignton and Torquay Suffragette organiser Elsie Howey,  “in the vanguard’ of militancy”, was imprisoned at least six times, went on hunger strike and was force fed on a number of occasions  – she never fully recovered.

While political beliefs have always divided opinion in the Bay, after the Second World War came other divisions.  A growing generation gap emphasised differences between the young and their elders. So let’s not neglect the teddy boys, beatniks, mods, hippies and punks who created their own counter cultural scenes.

Perhaps it could have been so different.  The Bay was used as a filming location since the very beginnings of cinema. After the Great War it was hoped that Torbay would be the British Hollywood - we had the natural light and scenery that could be utilised by inventive local directors. The first Bay film production was Nelson in 1918 and, over the years we’ve seen a variety of Bay-set movies:  Alec Guinness in Last Holiday (1950); Oliver Reed’s The System (1964); and Ray Winstone in That Summer (1979).

And there was always TV where the Bay stood in for more exotic – and expensive – locations. Accidentally making a bit of history were the Monty Python team who filmed in Goodrington, Paignton and Torquay. It was their stay at a local hotel that inspired Britain's favourite comedy series... but that’s another story...

Kevin Dixon went to Audley Park – now Torquay Academy – and South Devon College. After studying in Birmingham, he returned home and became involved in community education, completed a PhD, and started writing about the weird, unknown and forgotten side of our towns. He now Chairs Healthwatch Torbay and is involved in health and social care in the


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