The Sea Front and Sands
The only building between Polsham and Roundham was "Torbay House". Possibly dating from the 16th century, it was demolished, together with its outbuildings, in 1874. Although the defensive walls against the sea on either side of it must have been rudimentary, the Sands had long been popular with both Paigntonians and visitors. Using sea water for treating glandular ailments was well established by 1850 which accounts for "William Ackrell of Yellands" then being a bathing machine owner.
Worries about the loss of the beach resulted in the Commissioners of the Admiralty in 1862 prohibiting the removal of sand and shingle.
Leisure pursuits on Paignton Sands were run privately by entrepreneur Arthur Hyde Dendy although the foreshore was the property of the Duchy of Cornwall until 1903 (when the Council bought it). Sexes were, of course, segregated there. Dendy ran into trouble with the Local Board over siting of his machines in relation to male and female bathing areas. Although the Board did not own the beaches it had powers to make "Bye-laws as to Public Bathing" which were not accepted totally by him. There appear to have been problems too with bathers in the nude during the daytime. (This was certainly prevalent at Goodrington at this time). The rules were strict. In August 1871 a man was prosecuted for bathing too near a ladies bathing machine. A late-19th century Guidebook says of the town's bathing machines:
Of these there is an ample supply, both for ladies and gentlemen. Being drawn by horses, they are available at all times of the tide, and the charges are lower than at most other watering places. The bathing season usually commences about the 1st of June and terminates about 1st October but by special arrangement bathers can be accommodated at any time of the year on application to the manager of the Esplanade Hotel.
Arrangements were eventually formalized by Mr Dendy's Paignton Bathing Company, which later operated both bathing machines and tents. In 1896 mixed bathing was discussed but it appears to have taken a year or two to receive approval. It was in about 1900 that the claim appeared:
With characteristic enterprise Paignton was the first town in the south west to introduce continental or mixed bathing. A feature of the bathing is the secrecy as well as security assured, there being an entire absence of the rude staring crowd so annoyingly evident at other watering places.
(Torquay probably soon followed Paignton with the introduction of mixed bathing, which was allowed here from October 1900).
In the early 1900s the Council (it was now an Urban District) also allowed scores of tents to be erected on the north side of Paignton Pier. By 1924 these had increased to about 300 in a double row, having become extremely popular with local people.
From the formal records of the Council it is possible to date the introduction of the various amenities on Paignton Sands. In 1899 it refused to allow stalls on the Sands but later relented and invited tenders "to sell sweets". Three applicants were successful, each paying half-a-crown (13p) for the season. For almost a decade a Mrs Penwell provided refreshments for which she paid 10s. (50p) for the whole of the summer. In 1904 it was announced that chairs could be hired on the Green for 1d an hour. Mr Langford was the provider but, a year later, he lost the contract to a rival who paid £30 for the season. Municipal enterprise soon prevailed and the Council acquired "75 good second-hand chairs with hoods, together with sundry others" and set up in the business itself. Other delights on offer at this time were Daniel's donkeys and several Punch and Judy shows. In 1907 the rent of a tent site was fixed at 10s.6d (55p) for the summer. When the Council bought its own two years later, the first Beach Inspector was appointed at a wage of £1 a week. In 1903 the Council finally acquired the foreshore rights from the Duchy, the cost having now increased to £256. Some years later, in 1912, a beach photographer was allowed to operate, paying 2s.6d for a season's concession. One of the last additions before World War 1 was the opening of Paignton Swimming Club's new pavilion on 21st May 1913.
The first rafts for swimmers were anchored off the Sands in the early Twenties and February 1921 saw the end of the "Bathing Company" when it sold its 30 machines with an office and equipment to the town for £1,425. Paignton Council operated them for only four years when they were sold up (some became summerhouses), the action providing the comment:
The modern bather does not want to be towed down to the waves so as not to be seen entering or leaving the water. They may have served some purpose in the Victorian era, today they have neither the merit of ornament or utility.
A familiar sight for well over half a century had gone for ever. The arrival of the "topless" beauty in the 1980s has replaced the modesty of our ancestors totally.
In 1924 an exciting new activity was advertised; this was "the growing sport of surf or plank riding. Planks are rapidly towed by motor boats, and the sport consists in riding the planks in standing positions by the aid of a guiding rope to ensure balance". Sixty years later, with the arrival of high-speed craft and plastic boards, it became "water-skiing".
In 1939 the last part of the foreshore at the Harbour end of the Sands was bought, following which a new promenade linking the sea front with the Harbour was completed. During World War 2 all beach activities closed down and miles of barbed wire put in place. Part of the Pier was removed to delay a possible German invader. All returned to normal soon after VE-day.
The "promenade pier" was an essential part of the seaside scene in the 19th century. The first, one built on stilts rather than of solid masonry, was at Brighton in 1823. (This was not strictly a "pleasure pier" as it was only used by the Dieppe Packet. The traditional pier, with its slot machines and "What the Butler Saw", came much later). Bournemouth had "an agreeable pier for visitors" which opened in 1861. It was built of wood but, like the Teignmouth-Shaldon bridge, suffered damage through wood-worm, the stanchions having to be replaced with cast-iron. All later piers were constructed in this form. Arthur Dendy purchased Teignmouth Promenade Pier for £1,100 hoping to bring it to Paignton but, finding that impractical, he restored it at a cost of £500 and reopened it to the public in July 1876. He therefore had to seek another way of bringing a promenade pier to the town. The Paignton Pier Act (37/38 Vict.c47) received Royal Assent on 30th June 1874. The directors, in addition to Dendy, were: John Finney Belfield, Frederick Palk, Charles Pridham and George Soudon Bridgman, who had designed it. Work started in 1878 and it opened in June 1879, having been erected "solely by and under the personal superintendence of Mr Dendy... and his foreman Mr. Richard Harris".
An 1885 guidebook tells of its facilities: "At the Pier Pavilion an ever-varying programme of music is provided; and here also are given vocal selections and organ recitals at stated intervals by musicians of high order, while in the adjacent saloon Billiard players will find two fine billiard Tables by Thurston, which afford ample scope for indulgence in their favorite pastime. In place of the peripatetic minstrelry, the shrimp teas, and high jinks which form the staple of amusement on most promenade piers, everything here is quiet and refined. Children of tender years, and those of 'larger growth', gyrate with glee on roller skates along the smooth surface of the pier, as a variation to the pleasures which are in plenty upon the sands; whilst staid and sober-minded folk look with subdued pleasure on the innocent mirth of the younger and more agile. Even the dances on the pier are conducted with the utmost decorum, not to say gravity". A billiard room was added at the pier end in 1881. A later account reads:
At the entrance to the Pier there are cloakrooms, refreshment room and roller-skating room... The pier is 780 feet only including the Pier Head. The Pavilion measures 80 by 25 feet and is connected to another refreshment room and the billiard room which has two tables by Thurston & Co. There is a covered way connecting the buildings which serve as a dressing room for bathers.
Swimmers had to be early risers; they were only permitted to bathe before 8 am. The Pavilion was "elegantly decorated, brilliantly lighted and fitted up with a movable stage, a Grand Organ, also Harmonium, Grand Piano, Kettle Drums and other instruments. It is admirably adapted for balls, concerts and entertainments". There were musical performances on weekdays and "the organ plays sacred music on Sunday". Gilbert & Sullivan's HMS Pinafore on the Water was performed there in 1880.
The Pier Head was burned down in 1919. In the October following the owners, the Devon Dock, Pier and Steamship Company, appeared willing to sell, the Council offering £1,500 for its purchase. This was turned down and so the amount was increased to £2,000. This was acceptable to all but local opposition from the public caused the purchase to be aborted. The Council's offer was revived again in 1923 when there were new owners. This too, met with opposition and so the Pier remained, as it is still, in private hands. The first major alterations for many years were made 1968.
This is prominent on many of the Frith photographs which were taken in the late Victorian period. In 1886 loan sanction was given for work on the new pleasure grounds and esplanade walk and by July 1888 it was reported to the Board that good progress had been made on the erection of an enclosed shelter with caretaker's room and small conveniences with a bandstand on the roof. There were objections to the latter so it was decided to erect a bandstand on the sea-wall directly opposite and keep the height of the shelter to 12 feet. Even after the completion of the bandstand (which had cost £730), the band continued to play on the roof, reaching it by a precarious single ladder. The bandstand appears to have remained unused.
The Board later, in 1889, considered the appointment of a caretaker, the hours of work having been agreed as:
- November-June 9am to dusk
- July-October 9am to 9.30 pm
- including Sundays and Bank Holidays
Shortly after Mrs Ellis, wife of George Ellis, was appointed from six interviewees at a wage of 7s. per week. It remained a bold feature of the Seafront scene for nearly 80 years until it was demolished prior to the building of the Festival Theatre. In the Thirties there was a lattice arch, illuminated at night, between it and the main road whilst, in its last years, it had an imitation windmill on its roof.