Hotel History - The Palace Hotel, Torquay
Since the 24th August 1921, Torquay's Palace Hotel has been a leading Torquay hotel set in the heart of the English Riviera, in the South West of England. Beautifully situated in extensive grounds, the pale green building is a local landmark with an enviable reputation for the highest standards of cuisine, accommodation and hospitality. Although opened as an hotel in 1921, the Palace is actually a considerably extended version of a private house built originally in 1841 and has a distinguished history to match its imposing facade.
The Original House
The popular misconception of many guests at the Palace, on learning that it was once the home of a Bishop, is that it was always the size it is now. Although substantial, in actual fact it bore little resemblance to the grand building with which we are familiar today.
“Bishopstowe”, as it was called, was built in 1841. Like many buildings in Torbay it was built in the Italianate style, reflecting the love of Victorians for exotica. In floor space it corresponded roughly to the central section of the present hotel, from the West Lounge by the Ballroom to the East Lounge outside the Restaurant, and was, in the main, two storeys, comprising of 9 main bedrooms, 11 servants' bedrooms and, most importantly, a large shed for washing carriages! Finally there were the magnificent gardens, 25 acres of private land stretching to the sea, and still a major attraction today.
The owner of this beautiful property was one Henry Philpotts, Lord Bishop of Exeter. Amongst his achievements were the creation of a separate diocese for Cornwall (with a cathedral at Truro) and, of course, the laying out of the lovely Bishop's Walk which winds from Ansteys Cove to the bottom of Ilsham Valley.
Bishop Philpotts died in 1869 at the age of 91 and the house was then bought by Sampson Hanbury, great nephew of the Sampson Hanbury who, together with Truman and Buxton, had founded the Brewery at Warley, West Midlands. In 1906 it was bought by a former Governor of Tasmania, Sir Arthur Havelock, and his wife, whose brother was W.E Norris, the Victorian novelist and frequent visitor to Bishopstowe.
Torquay's New Hotel
In 1920 the Bishopstowe estate was on the market again. This time it had attracted the attention of Mr George W Hands, an industrialist from Birmingham. He had begun to make bicycles at the age of 17 and ten years later had what was claimed to be the largest cycle company in the world. He then turned to the fledgling car industry where he pioneered the light car. The designer of the Calthorpe, he won 50 cups at the Brooklands Circuit. During the First World War he manufactured grenades (up to 35,000 per week). Not surprisingly, by 1918 he had decided to retire to Torquay, but in Bishopstowe he saw the potential to build a brand new Torquay hotel.
From the outset "value for money" was the hotel's prerequisite, together with the provision of almost endless facilities. By 1939 the hotel had a reputation far and wide, not only for its accommodation and food, but also for the range of activities available for guests. These included the golf course, a covered swimming pool (opened in 1928), covered and open tennis courts (the covered ones opened in 1936), bowling greens, squash courts, a gymnasium and even a cinema.
The Palace at War
With the outbreak of hostilities in 1939, many hotels found themselves commandeered for military use. With its excellent communications and equable climate, Torquay was an obvious place for the War Ministry to look for a building suitable for conversion to a military hospital. The Palace was selected as a hospital for RAF Officers.
On the 25th October 1942, a German bomber scored a direct hit on the East Wing, severing it almost completely from the rest of the building. Tragically, the hotel was full at the time with 203 patients. The result was that 64 people were killed, including nurses, with one person missing. The hospital was evacuated and a care and maintenance party installed while a decision was made regarding the building's future. However, on the 8th January 1943 there was another raid resulting in a direct hit and so the Palace was abandoned for the remainder of the war.
Once the war had finished, the Palace Hotel Torquay re-opened on Friday, March 5th 1948, although the East Wing was still unusable. The new General Manager, Mr George Conquest, who had himself been with the hotel for the past 26 years in various capacities, found many familiar faces amongst the staff as virtually all the pre-war personnel had applied to rejoin as soon as they had heard that the hotel was to re-open. With 70 staff and most of its facilities restored, the Palace was reborn as one of the South West's leading hotels.
Truly a Devon luxury hotel, the Palace is very much part of Torquay and, as one of the country's few remaining large independently-owned hotels, preserves its unique character and charm in an increasingly standardised world.