House History - the larger properties
In 1871 Isaac Singer bought the Fernham Estate which included "Little Oldway", "Fernham", cottages, the Rising Sun Inn and some surrounding lands. The inn and cottages were subsequently pulled down. The family moved into Little Oldway and commissioned George Soudon Bridgman to design a residence ("a big Wigwam") and a riding pavilion. The replica of the Coverdale Tower attached to Little Oldway is a folly concealing a water tower.
The Riding and Exercise Pavilion in the grounds towards the sea was completed in 1873, complete with a movable wood floor (now the Rotunda). At the time the construction was in progress, the public sewer was extended and the water company laid a main, in anticipation of the major work to come.
In February 1873 the contract for the building of the house was signed with Mr.J. Matcham of Plymouth. On 10th May the foundation stone laid by Mrs Isabella Singer. Plans of the building appeared in mid-1874 but the house was not finally finished until mid-1875, just a few weeks after the death of Isaac Merritt at the early age of 63. Built of yellow "Kingsteignton" brick, the ground floor had kitchens, servants' hall, wine cellars; etc. On the first floor was the main entrance, approached up a inclined carriage ramp to a porte cochere on the north side. At this level was a fully-equipped theatre, equipped with stage and wings. The second floor contained the family's rooms. On the third floor, on the north side, were the servants' quarters. The whole project was said to have cost £100,000.
It must have been a lucrative but frustrating contract for the builder. Singer himself worked out all the details and personally, supervising everything. When a part had been built but was not to his liking, it was taken down and rebuilt. It caused havoc to local labour relations. The Board minutes record that "the [town] surveyor having reported that he could not get men to work at the former rate of wages he was empowered to make such advances as may be necessary".
Except for the large octagonal palm house (which filled the area between the house and riding pavilion) and the long hall, the building was little changed until 1904. Between 1904 and 1907 it was "rebuilt" by Paris Eugene Singer in the style of the Palace of Versailles:
The north side (facing car-park) is in the "Composite Order" with the main entrance through what was originally the servants' hall; there is a portico with a decorated pediment.
The east side (facing the sea) has an Ionic colonnade forming a raised terrace similar to La Place de la Concorde in Paris.
The south side is in the Renaissance style based on the design of a small music pavilion in the grounds of the Petit Trianon at Versailles.
The west side remained as it was built originally. The "new" mansion had 100 rooms and became known in Paignton as "The Little Versailles".
Changes to the interior included the creation of the Grand Staircase, which was put in when the entrance was moved to ground floor, the theatre being dispensed with at the same time. The staircase was built to the plans of the French architect Lebrun, who had conceived an ornate design for Versailles (but which had not been constructed). The one at Oldway was built of Italian marble (the bronze balusters are still polished daily).
The ceiling is also a Lebrun design (which had been used). Paris was given permission to put scaffolding in the Galerie des Glaces so that his artist could work in the correct colours. This has been restored by Torbay Council.
The "Gallery" matches the staircase, being modelled on the Gallery of Mirrors at Versailles: the floor is parquet.
The ballroom walls have gilt panelling and mirrors and there is a sprung parquet floor. The oil painting is of Louis of Bourbon and is dated 1717. The Ballroom is now used as the Council Chamber as well as for many other events.
The grounds were laid out by French landscape artist, Duchesne. The Italian Garden on east side has fine traditional patterning with dwarf box hedging. The remainder of the grounds, steps and walls, are in keeping with the style of the building. There are also "Grotto Gardens", complete with rock garden and waterfall.
The Singers did not make Oldway their permanent residence after 1918. It was however not until 1929 that it was adapted to become the Torbay Country Club. It was still being used for pleasure and recreation when the RAF took it over in 1940. The airmen stationed there had access to all its sports facilities.
Post-war plans for the expansion of Paignton made the provision of new, and larger, offices imperative so an application was made in June 1945 for loan sanction to purchase the 20 acre estate (including the house, "Little Oldway" and the Rotunda. In May 1946 sanction was given by the Ministry of Health and the conveyance sealed in September. The building was opened officially by Lady Leeds on 18th December 1946. The purchase price was £45,000 and an additional £2,670 was borrowed for essential alterations. A clause in the agreement allowed the Leeds to continue their occupation of "Little Oldway". The famous painting The Crowning of Josephine by David was not part of the purchase; this was subsequently returned to France. Between 1968 and 1974 the Education and Community Services departments were housed there. The former Paignton Council Chamber became the Mayor's Parlour, the new Council holding its monthly meetings in the Ballroom. These arrangements were continued after 1974 by the successor Council.
Although this was purpose-built as a club for gentlemen, its architecture warrants its inclusion here. Described as "in the Classic style relieved in front by six columns supporting a balcony". These replaced a row of thatched fishermen's cottages which had fish cellars with direct access to the beach; these were said to have been used to store contraband early in the last century. It was noted that "a new club opened at the end of the Esplanade on 22nd January 1885. The Club has remained in use ever since.
This is situated in Totnes Road and was the home of the Belfield family for several generations. By the early 1900s the lease had passed to Herbert Whitley, who later bought the property. The house has been a retirement home for more than 20 years.