Isaac Merritt was born in 1811, the eighth child of destitute German immigrants, Adam and Ruth Singer. However, he left home at the age of twelve when his divorced father remarried. In Rochester (NY) he apprenticed himself to a lathe operator and showed such aptitude that he soon became a journeyman machinist. Whilst there he went to his first play and became captivated with the theatre, a love he was never to lose. [When he built his "Wigwam" in Paignton, he incorporated his own theatre in the design]. At various times he worked as ticket-taker, scene-shifter and prop-boy, using his lathe skills only when he was desperate for money. He finally played minor parts, being physically suited to being an actor on stage. Of Herculean build, he had a mass of auburn air and prominent features. His vitality was enormous, which was probably hereditary as his father lived until aged 102 and his mother until 96. Known on stage as "Isaac Merritt", he craved to play Shakespeare. When he did eventually play Richard III, it was said to be "more with enthusiasm than skill".

At the age of 19 he married Catherine Haley (who was only 15 years old). Soon afterwards and having two children, he returned to his lathe where he acquired additional skills in cabinet-making and printing, both of which were to prove useful to him later on.

When aged 21 he joined a New York theatre company and with it went barnstorming across America, leaving Catherine and family to fend for themselves. In Baltimore he met Mary Ann Sponsler, who was not aware he was married and, over a ten year period, she bore him ten children. During this time he sired six more children by two other women.

In 1839, when stranded in Illinois, he became a labourer on the Illinois-Michigan Canal project. The massive boulders to be moved inspired his first invention, a mechanical excavator. Patented later, he sold it for $2,000 and, with the proceeds, founded the Merritt Players and, with the faithful Mary in tow, toured the "wilds" of America. This enterprise eventually ended in a welter of debts in Fredericksburg. Whilst living there, he invented a type-carving machine which he took to Boston to sell. His landlord made and sold SEWING MACHINES which were grossly unreliable and always being returned. Although Singer knew nothing about them, he suggested a shuttle going back and forth while the needle went up and down. With two others a partnership was formed and a prototype was started, the "Jenny Lind". It took eleven days "sleeping but three or four hours out of 24". When the parts went together it did not work. Adjusting the tension of the upper thread, it finally sewed five stitches without breaking. The Singer Sewing Machine was born. Originally intended for the clothing trade, it was met with indifference so he began using his theatrical skills to sell it to ordinary people through demonstrations at country fairs, church suppers, circuses and carnivals.
The "Sewing Machine War" followed. There was strife and legal actions for some years but it did result in a shrewd lawyer, Edward Clark joining Singer and becoming his partner. The "Turtle-back" was put on the market and was highly successful. The company was soon producing its own components, including the cabinets which came from the company's own woodland.

Singer's success was due to:

  1. Clark introduced the trade-in system in 1856, a $50 allowance being made towards the purchase of a new machine, against a used one of any make, in any condition.
  2. He also introduced hire-purchase [not the instalment plan] in 1856, $5 down and $5 a month. The purchase was painless - and profitable. Contracts did not mention interest or service charges.
  3. He introduced price-cutting. Singer became the showman again. He created puns and jokes - "it seams so good" - and hired sewing teachers to give free lessons. He put attractive seamstresses in prominent shop-windows, all sewing away on Singer machines. He also gave clergymen and teachers 50% discount and machines were placed in schools free of charge. Modern business still copies his sales methods.

He set up his former wife Catherine, now divorced, and his mistresses in separate establishments in New York . Mary Ann also sued for alimony and named eight co-respondents. It was after the formation of the Singer Company, and no doubt with his matrimonial problems unresolved, that he fled to Europe.

While in Paris, he stayed at a small but elegant hotel owned by a widow named Boyer, who had a daughter Isabella Eugenie, beautiful, intelligent and just 21. He proposed and they returned to New York to marry. Back in Europe in 1867, the Singers settled in Paris where their third son was born, named appropriately, Paris. Isabella bore him six children, making the total of his known progeny to 24.

When the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1871 the family hastily left France and came to Torquay, staying at the Victoria & Albert Hotel. Singer first tried to purchase the Brunel estate at Watcombe but he also looked at other properties with space to build his dream mansion. He finally chose the Fernham estate, moving into "Little Oldway" until his new house was built. After the "Riding & Exercise Pavilion" was finished in 1873, he kept two special carriages there (he did not like rail travel); one was for travelling and picnicking, the other a tall four-horse coach in which he attended race meetings. Frequently seen at Plainmoor when the Races were held there, it created much attention. He died before the house was completed in 1873 at the early age of 63. Peggy Parnell, the theatre historian records: "On his 62nd birthday his children produced extracts from Henry VIII, Cardinal Wolsey and Cromwell all rendered by Mortimer. Mortimer and Winaretta performed Spooning in the Sands and Courting in the Rain. In Breaking the Spell: a comic opera, the part of Jenny Wood was played by his illegitimate daughter, Alice Merritt, who had recently arrived from the USA. She went on to become an actress under the name of Alice Eastwood.

Isaac's funeral was a great spectacle. His body was taken to the family vault in Torquay Cemetery in a glass-sided hearse, specially modified for the occasion. The deceased was attired in a black morning suit and lay on a satin-covered couch in the innermost of three coffins. The cortege was headed by a large cross made of maidenhair, and other ferns, Japanese lilies and the rarest of exotic flowers. When the hearse was passing the Strand (it went via the Babbacombe Road), the last carriages, filled with local business people, were still passing Livermead Sands.

The fornicator and litigant from the USA had "become a benevolent man who gave his money to the poor regardless of need. At Christmas several hundred-weights of meat and provisions were distributed to the poor of Paignton. The red letter days which he particularly distinguished by his generosity to the poor were Christmas Day, the 4th of July and his birthday".

Singer left an estate valued at $13 million. There were legal wrangles again for many years. In 1875 the Torquay Directory reported: "The Singer Estate is before the Westchester County Court as the Will is being contested. His first wife Catherine, whom he married about 1830, has two children who survive and are to some extent provided for. His second wife, Mary Ann, had ten children, eight still living and who between them get $2 million; his ex-wife receives nothing". Mary Ann alleged that "Isabella Eugenie Singer is named in his Will but is not his lawful wife": Washington, Mortimer, Winaretta Eugenie, Grant, Paris and Isabella were thus not the lawful children of Isaac Merritt Singer. The case was continuing.

The Singers were a strange family; some ran through their money in no time. Eight of his children died relatively poor. Twelve of the 31 of his grandchildren had marriages which ended in divorce, each with huge legal costs and alimony payments. Other Singers did well marrying into European nobility (with mixed success), warranting entries in Burke's Peerage and the Almanack de Gotha.

Paris was born in Paris in 1868, the third of the last four children. After he grew up he took over the Oldway estate from his father's trustees and, through the Paignton & District Development Company of which he was governing director, developed parts of Preston, Oldway and Barcombe. He was keenly interesting in motoring (he was at one time Hon. Secretary of the AA) and was one of the first people in the Westcountry to see the possibilities of aviation as a means of transport, having his own hangar built on Preston Green.

After the World War 1, crippling taxation forced him to St. Jean, Cape Ferrat, Paris but he also had a residence in London. At the time of his death in June 1932, he had four sons (including Cecil, who lived at Occombe) and a daughter (who became Lady Leeds). He too was buried in the Singer vault.

His liaison with Isadora Duncan has been well documented. The Times in April 1913 sums up the death of their son Patrick: "The car... left Mme Duncan's house in the Rue Chauveau at 3.20 pm in order to take the children for a drive to Versailles. It had only gone a few hundred yards when the driver had to pull up suddenly to avoid a taxi-cab. Masserand [her chauffeur] had to leave his seat to turn the crank before the car could be restarted. In all probability he had not properly adjusted the speed lever, since before he could remount the car it started of itself and proceeded at a rapid rate across the Boulevard Bourdon... down the grassy bank of the Seine and from whence it plunged into the river". Firemen were called and a large motor-boat requisitioned but it was an hour and a half before the car could be hauled ashore when the children were found clinging to their dead nurse. "The elder child Deidre, aged six [daughter of Edward Gordon Craig, the stage designer] was like the nurse, manifestly dead. The younger, a boy named Patrick, was thought to be showing signs of life, and the doctors from the American Hospital did everything possible to revive him, but in vain." Isadora herself died some years later when her flowing scarf became entangled in the wheel of the car in which she was travelling.

Also attending Paris's funeral was his sister Winaretta, the Princess de Polignac. She was said to mix "quite happily with many of the well-known artists of the day including Degas". In the early 1880s she met Garbriel Fauré for the first time when she was 16 and he at least 20 years older but "she remained for at least a decade, something of a confidant to him, providing him in times of difficulty and stress with moral support, and more discreetly, with material help". She married Louis de Scey-Montbéliard but divorced him in 1891. subsequently petitioning the Vatican for an annulment. In February 1892 the Curia declared the marriage null in the eyes of the Church. de Cosserat says: "Nobody knew why the marriage ended abruptly but the truth was that Winaretta developed lesbian tendencies sometime before 1887. Possibly her father with his flamboyant life-style had made her nervous of heterosexual relationships". [Louis was said to have homosexual inclinations]. She later married Prince Edmond of Polignac, who died in August 1901. He too asked to buried in the Singer vault in Torquay so his body was brought from Dieppe in the Vellada owned by his brother-in-law, the Duc de Cazes. Some of the wreaths measured more than five feet across.

Washington Merritt Singer was too ill to attend his brother's funeral though he did not die until February 1934 at Benet Wood in the Warberries. Although he inherited $1 million from his father, he decided to go ranching in the Far West but was discouraged by his brother. Instead, he took to hunting and started a stud of horses. One of his horses, "Challacombe" won the St. Leger in 1905. After he married he lived at "Steartfield House" which he enlarged and improved (this later became the Palace Hotel). His stables were at the junction of Manor Road and old Torquay Road. He also provided blocks of flats for working people which were built at St. Michael's with frontage on the Totnes Road. In 1891 he gave as founder, by enrolled deed "together with Mortimer and seven others including Richard Mallock as grantees", the field known as "The Crofts" with a 243 foot frontage as the site for the Paignton Cottage Hospital and Provident Dispensary. One proviso was "no one [to be] admitted suffering from and infectious or incurable disease, or is not at the time living within the parishes of Paignton and Marldon". Washington later lived at "Leihon" at Manaton.

The last of the "Boyer" children was Mortimer, later Sir Mortimer Singer of "Astra House", in Warren Road, Torquay. He was a benefactor to the people of Torquay (including gifts to the Torbay Hospital). Whilst in Egypt in 1910 he was badly injured falling out of an aeroplane [but must have made a full recovery]. The "J" class yacht Astra raced under his ownership for some years.

Franklin was once described as "Washington's Singer's brother and the Princess de Polignac's sister". He died in the American Hospital in Paris in 1939 and was brought back to Britain in his yacht Xarifa to be buried in the family vault in Torquay Cemetery.

© copyright John Pike

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