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About Torquay - History

Torquay and Torbay has a wealth of history:

44,000 - 41,500 BC

The first peoples in north western Europe settle at Kents Cavern

Early 19th century

Torbay is a large sheltered bay punctuated with the three coastal towns of Torquay, Paignton and Brixham. It is used as staged anchorage for many commercial and pleasure vessels. It was frequently used by the Channel Fleet which protected England against invasion by Napoleon. Officers' families would visit Torquay to be near their loved ones.

Tourism Begins  The Napoleonic wars dictated that wealthy socialites could no longer visit abroad and looked for home destinations to visit.

Napoleon actually helped the prosperity of Torquay. Local smugglers did very good business 'importing' French brandy during the war with Napoleon.

In later years Queen Victoria reviewed the entire British Fleet in the waters of Torbay.

The mild winter climate and clean, fresh sea air of Torquay attracted many visitors who came for health reasons. During the whole of the 19th century Torquay was considered a health resort where the wealthy would come in winter to recover from various ailments.

By 1850 there were about 2000 bedrooms in the hotels, inns and lodging houses of Torquay. The population of Torquay grew rapidly from 800 in 1800 to over 11,000 by 1851.

Late 19th century

The coming of the railways. In the 1840's railways arrived in Torquay. Railway technology demonstrated just how important railways were to the 19th century. An apt description from noted English historian, G.M. Trevelyan who wrote: "The railways were England's gift to the world." In fact, a large proportion of the world's trains still roll along tracks manufactured in the last century with the words "Made in Birmingham" stamped on them.

Torquay commerce knew that the railways would bring visitors and prosperity. In 1848, Torre station was opened and Torquay had communication with major centres of industry and population.

In 1852, a town meeting decided to continue the railway to the harbour. The delegates at the meeting envisioned Torquay as an manufacturing and import town, bringing raw materials through the harbour and transporting finished articles inland. Amid great controversy, another meeting was held to continue the railway to the sea but not to the harbour. As a result, Torquay remained a tourist town as it is today.

The railways also had a great effect on the surrounding area. Torquay grew in importance because it a had a railway station but not all towns were so fortunate. Many towns looked on desperately as the trains passed them by. These towns stagnated. Road road transport was reduced as many goods were carried by train. 

The 20th century

1902 saw the first advertising campaign to bring healthy visitors to Torquay - rather than those recovering from illnesses. Torquay changed in character from being a winter holiday resort to being a summer holiday resort. Rail traffic increased steadily until World War I. (During World War I soldiers were brought to Torquay to recover from their injuries.) After World War I an effective advertising campaign by The Great Western Railway Company was responsible for making Torquay a major resort. The busiest day was the August Bank Holiday in 1938, just before the outbreak of World War II, when 20,000 passengers arrived in Torquay station, followed by a further 50 trains the following day. 

Post World War II

Since World War II, tourist patterns have changed considerably. Many more people have the money to travel abroad for holidays. Everyone owns a car. This means that fewer people visit British holiday resorts. When they do, they usually travel by car. The British holiday has become a touring holiday with visitors staying a couple of days in each place. Visitors often don't to a hotel, but prefers to stay at one of the numerous bed & breakfast guesthouses.

In recent years Torquay has become better known globally. Torquay accomnodates more foreign tourists who usually tour by car like the British tourist. You will see cars with registration plates from Holland, France, Germany, Scandanavia, Spain, Easter Europe and occasionally further afield. For car, also read, caravan, camper van and motorhome.

Residential Settlers

The Westcountry has become an area that British people choose to move to when they want to improve their quality of life. Often after retirement. Families choose Devon to live in as their children have the opportunity in a better and more peaceful environment. People come from all parts of the country to live in the mild climate in an area surrounded by tranquil countryside and coast. Many new residents are of working age who have come to escape city life. The infrastructure is robust, the healthcare system excellent, and communications with other parts of the country are also good by air, rail and road. 



Torre Abbey opened in 1196. It was founded as a Premonstratensian Monastery and flourished under the influence of the White Canons. In 1539 it suffered the same fate as all other monasteries when Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of monasteries.


Torre Abbey was purchased by Sir George Cary and remained in the family until 1929. It was purchased by Torquay Corporation, now Torbay Council. The Carys also owned St Marychurch and Babbacombe but the family lost their lands at Cockington during the Civil War and the manor passed to the Mallock family in 1654.


‘The Maker of Torquay’, William Kitson, became chairman of the newly formed local authority. Acting on behalf of absentee landlord Sir Lawrence Vernon Palk, owner of the manor of Tormohun, an exclusive residential area was created in the Warberries and Lincombes. Several of these original properties still stand among the tree-clad hills, notably Hesketh Crescent. Completed in 1848 with its sweeping Regency facade it was described as the ‘finest crescent of houses in the West of England’.


William Pengelly co-founded Torquay Natural History Society (now Torquay Museum Society) and in 1865 began a fifteen year excavation of Kent’s Cavern.


The South Devon Railway arrived in December drawing many visitors of the ‘highest class’ intent on improving their health. A ‘wholesome Code of Byelaw’ was set up and some beaches were set aside for ladies and others for gentlemen. Mixed bathing was considerd inappropriate until 1899.


Two events took place which were to radically change both the appearance and outlook of Torquay. Through trains were introduced and Torquay was granted Borough status. The town was now ready for expansion and to start building a new image. The healthy were encouraged to come as well as the ailing. The Victorian watering place soon became transformed into a holiday resort adopting the Latin motto ‘Salus et Felicitas‘ meaning ‘Health and Happiness‘.


Babbacombe Cliff Railway began operating on the steep incline between Babbacombe Downs and Oddicombe Beach.


The XIV Olympiad yachting events were held in Torbay, 25 nations competed. The opening and closing ceremonies took place in the grounds of Torre Abbey.


The Princess Theatre opened alongside Princess Gardens and Princess Pier (in use since 1894 and 1895 respectively).


Responsibility for protecting Cockington and other local wildlife and heritage sites passed from Torbay Council to Torbay Coast and Countryside Trust.


Post 2000

In October 2005, Torquay as part of Torbay chose its first directly-elected mayor, Nicholas Bye, under an electoral system which was later described as "a total failure". Bye receiving votes from fewer than 7% of the electorate. He beat Liberal Democrat Nicholas Pannell in the second round of counting with a total of 7,096 votes to Pannell's 5,197. After the election, Bye noted that "it is quite clear from canvassing that a lot of people did not want an elected mayor."

Since the expansion of the EU in 2004, Torquay has undergone a significant demographic shift with large numbers of Eastern European migrant workers settling in the region. Prominent amongst this wave of newcomers are workers from Poland and the Czech Republic, with estimates in 2005 suggesting as many as 5,000 Poles in the region. Some such workers return to their native country after a period of work, while others settle in Britain. Reflecting this shift in population, the local newspaper The Herald Express started publishing a weekly Polish column (Polak dla Polakow), and a Polish shop (Polski Sklep) opened on Lucius Street.