In the first of a new series South Devon local historian Kevin Dixon looks into Torquay’s other history: Pubs, bands & us ordinary folk
There’s a lot more to Torquay’s history than the fixation on Agatha Christie. For instance, Donovan wrote the classic Catch the Wind while living in Abbey Road.
As a way of celebrating the lives of those forgotten residents and the contribution they made to what our town is today, this is – Editor permitting – the first of a few short articles on Torquay’s ordinary folk. There isn’t much of a logical theme, but it will be more about Rock Walk’s prostitutes and the Riff Power Band than visiting royalty.
First, back to the 19th century.
There’s always been a bit of tension between the image that Torquay wanted to present to the nation and the reality of how people actually lived.
Tennyson described Torquay as ‘the loveliest sea village in England’, while the 1871 Census said Torbay had the ‘charms of an Italian lake’.
Less impressed was Rudyard Kipling: “Torquay is such a place as I do desire to upset it by dancing through it with nothing on but my spectacles. Villas, clipped hedges and shaven lawns, fat old ladies with respirators and obese landaus.”
As now, the Bay hosted a good few eccentrics. The Blu Cargo Canteen Bar, just off Fleet Street, was once the church of a 19th century religious sect known as the Starkites.
This building has had a variety of names since I knew it as the Piazza, but I always thought that it had originally been the Torquay School of Art or the Vivian Institute.
However, it was built in 1839 as Salem Chapel by Robert Stark. Born in Chelston in 1788, Stark was raised in the Church of England tradition, but in 1814 he joined a group of Calvinist dissenters, and eventually built the Salem Chapel.
The 1851 Devon Religious Census says that the congregation, who became known as Starkites’, had around 250 members.
Stark died in 1854, the Second Coming of Christ didn’t happen, and a few years later the Salem Chapel closed. Since Robert Stark was into apocalyptic imagery about the end of the world, he may well have appreciated the sentiments of Eve of Destruction by Kohoutec who feature in this 1995 clip from the Piazza: