Torquay harbour dates back to medieval times. It was in a poor state in 1540 when chalices and other church-plate was sold "for the reparacion of the harbour at Torrequay". The first attempt to make major improvements appears to have been made in 1763 when "the Right Hon. Lord Donegall arrived at his seat near this place and this day viewed our pier where he intends to build a mould sufficient to contain eighty or ninety ship of sail, as being the best part of Torbay, screened from almost all winds". Just five years later Tormohun was sold to Robert Palk and nothing further was done for 40 years. On 24th June 1803 the Act "to rebuild... the quay or pier" received Royal Assent. In spite of the masons being at risk from the Press Gang (according to the advertisement for them), it was completed about two years later. Almost 200 years later, it has served Torquay well, forming the present Inner Harbour. During the 1840s and 1850s there was a thriving trade in emigrants, mainly to Canada, from Torquay. Mr Crossman offered, what were in effect, cheap passages for poor people (£3 to £3.10s. for adults, £1.10s. for children), several hundred crossing the Atlantic safely in his trading vessels.

In mid-century Torquay still lacked a proper haven for visiting ships and yachts. Coasting and pleasure vessels could leave at high water only. There was no protection for vessels anchored in the roads outside, particularly from Easterly gales. A new pier and breakwater was first proposed in 1860, the Harbour Order of 1861 authorising, among other works, the construction of a quay from North Quay West then Southeast and there were also plans for a limestone breakwater from "Lands End". Although the Board of Trade approved, this project failed to materialise. Another scheme was put forward in 1862 which reduced the size of the new harbour but this too failed after opposition. Finally, in 1866, a new Order was obtained, only coincidentally in the aftermath of the Great Storm, for a more modest scheme. Haldon Pier was built under this Order. Mr J. P. Margary was appointed engineer-in-charge. He had been the assistant to Brunel during the building of the Dartmouth and Torbay Railway. It appears from a photograph that he used some surplus broad-gauge railway track to carry the concrete blocks used for its construction along the pier-top. Concrete, as made today, dates from the discovery by Aspdin in 1824 of "Portland Concrete". Something similar was used by the Romans; this was basically a lime-mortar but was the only form used until the 1850s. James Mountstephens was the builder and completion was delayed because the Board of Trade demanded a 30 metre addition at the end. This was lengthened further during the creation of the marina in the early 1980s.

A guidebook of 1882 notes: "The material of these extensive works... [is] limestone and the picturesque Beacon Hill which stood on the site now occupied by the Bath Saloon, was quarried away, much to the regret of the inhabitants, in order to provide the requisite stone". The Pier was opened on 20th August 1870.

It is also at this period that a committee was set up to investigate the rights of the Duchy of Cornwall to levy tolls, or Petty Customs, on wines, iron, wool, etc. brought into the ports comprising the "Water of Dartmouth". In Elizabeth I's time a commission had defined these as from Hopes Nose to the River Erme at the entrance to the Port of Plymouth. During the reign of James I, the Duchy had leased these powers to the water bailiwick of Dartmouth and the tolls had been collected by the Borough of Dartmouth for 200 years until 1859 when the Duchy steadfastly refused to grant a new lease. Old records showed that the tolls were levied on "merchant strangers" and were for goods exported and imported only "from beyond the seas". The Duchy, however, decided to levy dues on all imports and exports, foreign and coastwise. Two local importers in particular stood against this imposition, Mr Crossman (foreign and coastwise timber) and Mr Harvey (for timber, cement and slate landed at Torquay). Records showed that culm (used for building) and slates had been imported for about 50 years (perhaps from as early as 1800); salt came from Lymington and Portugal; timber from the American colonies and the Baltic and coal (not surprisingly) came from Newcastle. The committee presented its report in December 1867 and action in the High Court followed. However, the case went against the defendants and, as a result, the inhabitants (after approval at a public meeting) agreed to pay an additional toll of sixpence a ton for five years on coal to extinguish the tolls at Torquay, the town finally being "freed" on 20th March 1875. In 1870 the Local Board agreed to purchase the foreshore at Cary Green and Torre Abbey Sands from the Duchy for £100 plus "two guineas for the conveyance".

The building of a second "arm" which would create an "outer harbour" began when the Local Board (shortly before Torquay became a borough) commenced building "a pier and pleasure ground"; the contractors were Cochrane & Sons, the tender amount being £29,750. The original plan was for a groyne only but was later altered to a more ambitious plan for a promenade pier. This was opened informally on 26th June 1895 and officially on 23rd July. It was named the "Princess Pier". Pleasure vessels had used Haldon Pier from the earliest years; steps on the sheltered side accommodated newly-arrived steam-launches as early as 1870. After the building of the Princess Pier many of the later operators sailed from the wooden jetty there, including the Duke of Devonshire and the Duchess. The even larger vessels, including those owned by the GWR, operated from Haldon Pier between the wars and again after World War 2.

The Harbour was used for maritime purposes in both World Wars. During the 1914-18 conflict naval patrol boats used it but sheltered water had a more important role as a sea-plane base operated by the Royal Navy Air Service (they were housed in the Coastlines shed at Beacon Quay). In World War 2 a Royal Air Force Air-Sea Rescue unit was based there. United State forces embarked in large numbers from the newly-built ramps and walkways at Beacon Quay in late May and early June 1944. As well as lengthening Haldon Pier, the marina company dredged the outer harbour, put down piles and created walkways and berths for several hundred privately-owned yachts and cruisers. This was completed in 1984.

The earliest reference to a REGATTA is of an "Annual Boat Race" which took place in 1811. For some reason the official commemoration of the event has assumed a starting date of 1813, possibly because in that year cups and prizes to the value of 20 guineas were offered. The word "Regatta" first appears on a cup raced for and won by Belle Savage in 1825. Writing about 1832, Blewitt says: "Babbicombe formerly had a Regatta jointly with Torquay, under the title of Torquay and Babbicombe Regatta. Some of our readers no doubt retain remembrance of many a pleasant days spent at anniversaries of the festival". In 1839 Victoria, by that year Queen, granted royal patronage to Torquay Regatta. Fireworks seem to have been introduced in 1836 and five years later, in 1841, the "Strand appeared as a Fair, with many booths, a show of wild beasts and swings and roundabouts". However, in 1847, the Improvement Commissioners requested the surveyor "to keep the streets adjoining the Harbour clear of obstructions during the Regatta and not allow the caravans to stand in any other place than Daddyhole Plain, and to prevent any noise or disturbance after half-past eight in the evening". In 1866 "fair people" were forbidden to enter Torquay because of a cholera threat; however, they disobeyed. A further attempt to move the fair, this time to Ellacombe, was made in 1876. This too failed but it was moved to Daddyhole Plain from about that time until 1883. The final removal from quayside to Torre Abbey Meadows was not until 90 years later.

The Torbay Yacht Club was founded in 1863 with Sir Lawrence Palk as the first Commodore: it became the "Royal Torbay Yacht Club" in 1875. From that time until 1914 many prominent yachtsmen, including two Kings, raced their vessels in Torbay and anchored in the Outer Harbour (after the Princess Pier was completed). When regattas re-started after World War 1, King George V's Britannia raced again; first in gaff-type rig but was later converted to the more recognisable Bermuda sails. A "Corinthian Sailing Club" was also started in Torquay in June 1895 for owners of smaller yachts. The last great days of the gentlemen-yachtsmen were the 1930s. Their yachts, including the famous J-class giants (Valsheda; Shamrock; Astra; Candida, Endeavour and Endeavour II) sailed in all the Torbay regattas and their large steam yachts lay at anchor, envied by both residents and visitors. Since World War 2 racing dinghies of all sizes have competed around courses set out in Torbay, the most important year being 1948 when the racing events of the Olympic Games took place (with the old Marine Spa as headquarters).

Torquay had its own LIFEBOAT for many years until the 1920s. On 31st January 1876 a letter was read to the local committee of Lifeboat Institution (later the RNLI) saying that Mrs Mary Brundrett, through the Manchester branch, had given £1,000 to pay for a lifeboat and station to be set up in Torquay. The Mary Brundrett (a 33-foot ten-oar, self-righting vessel with a wheeled carriage so that it could be taken and launched elsewhere in Torbay) was launched on 24th May from the slipway on the Strand. The event had been preceded by a flood of letters to various newspapers by a Mr Josiah Harris and so its journey to the Harbour attracted thousands of spectators. The procession of local dignitaries was accompanied by several bands and many decorated "floats", scenes more usually seen at coronations and jubilees. The site for the boathouse on Beacon Cove was given by Sir Lawrence Palk. In November 1889 it was replaced with the James and Eliza Woodall, a 37-foot 12-oar boat given by Mrs O'Connell in memory of her parents. The story of its coxswain, William Brown (the father of Ernest Brown MP and government minister) and its history to that year was told in 1894. After just over twelve years on the station, it was replaced by the Wighton which arrived in May 1902. It was first called on service on 30th January 1903 but, for the next 20 years, there were few others. The arrival of the motor lifeboat at the Brixham station in 1922 rendered it superfluous, the boat being withdrawn at the end of March 1923. The lifeboat station did duty as a "Corporation Cafe" for many years.

© copyright John Pike

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