From its very beginnings as a town, Torquay had a significant gay population. As in many other coastal towns, the gay community had its roots in the presence of the Royal Navy and the local maritime tradition.
Contributing to this was Torbay’s large sheltered anchorage which was used by the Royal Navy’s Channel Fleet.
Of course, sailors didn’t spend all their time singing sea shanties and tying knots. In any environment in which males live in close quarters for extended periods, homosexuality was well known. For that reason, the Royal Navy during the 18th and 19th centuries was defined as the home of ‘rum, sodomy, and the lash’.
One Victorian officer remembered:
“I have been stationed, as you know, in two or three ships….On the D—, homosexuality was rife, and one could see with his own eyes how it was going on between officers… nobody was ‘shocked’ on board either the A— or the B—. There were half a dozen ties that we knew about.”
While it was the visiting wives and relatives of naval officers that initiated Torquay as a tourist town, it was the Napoleonic wars that really led to the town’s rapid growth as a resort. The rich, denied their visits to continental Europe, were compelled to find leisure closer to home and so Torquay grew into a premier health resort.
From a small fishing village with a population of 838 in 1800, 50 years later Torquay’s population stood at 11,474. Many thousands more would visit depending on the season.
As the town grew, so did its gay community.
For many years, being gay meant leaving family and going to a place more accepting. For some gay people this meant journeying to a city, while for others spa and health towns became a favoured destination. Both could offer anonymity.
For the prosperous, Torquay was an attractive destination. During the 1880s the resort was described as the wealthiest in England.
Along with other pleasure-towns, such as Brighton, Torquay acquired a reputation for Bohemianism. Like-minded people gathered around musical, artistic, or literary pursuits.
For the less well-off, the town could offer work, even for the unskilled. Domestic staff could also live in. By 1901 18.5 per cent of Torquay’s population were employed as domestic servants.
Once the town had established a reputation as somewhere gay people could live and find companionship, more gay people came to The Bay.
We don’t know, however, the actual numbers of gay people in nineteenth century Torquay. Homosexuality was still considered a serious criminal offense, punishable by a long prison sentence or even by hanging. In fact, in 1806 there were more hangings in England for homosexuality than for murder. Homosexuality was only legalised in 1967.
Consequently, gay people learned to be discrete. Yet, we may be able to see some indications of a large local gay community.
For example, there were an unusual number of spinsters and bachelors living alone, and of single women and men living with elderly relatives. There were also many men and women who described themselves as writers or artists.
There are even examples of Torquay villas that had been specifically designed to make a second, less public, entrance for ‘gentlemen callers’.
And, of course, we do know of many gay visitors and residents.
To be sure, the most famous scandal of the nineteenth century began in Torquay.
It was at Babbacombe Cliff during the winter of 1892/93 that Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) completed his plays A Woman of No Importance, Salome and Lady Windemere’s Fan.
During this visit, Oscar was joined by his lover Lord Alfred (Bosie) Douglas.
In 1895, Bosie’s father, the Marquis of Queensberry, made allegations of homosexuality against Wilde. Oscar sued for libel, but lost. After details of his private life were revealed during the trial, he was arrested and tried for gross indecency. He was sentenced to two years of hard labour in Reading Gaol.
Upon his release, Oscar left for France, never to return. He died destitute in Paris at the age of 46.
Sometimes we can only assume sexual orientation. For example, local resident and philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906) was devoted to her companion Hannah, and they were socially recognised as a couple. When Hannah died in 1878, the Baroness said she was crushed by the loss of “my poor darling, the companion and sunshine of my life for 52 years”.
Even being married wasn’t a reliable indication. Winnaretta Singer (1865-1943) was long married to Prince Edmond de Polignac (1834-1901) in what was widely accepted as a Lavender Marriage – a union of convenience between a lesbian and a gay man.
Unfortunately, being gay in Victorian England often involved feelings of guilt. The St Marychurch poet, author and critic, Sir Edmund Gosse (1849-1928) found his sexuality a burden. He wrote to a friend: “I have had a very fortunate life, but there has been this obstinate twist in it!”
Vocation also seems to have been no indicator of sexuality. Torquay’s Anglican clergyman Reverend Edwin Emmanuel Bradford (1860–1944) wrote copious quantities of homoerotic poetry.
There’s certainly a gay history of Torbay waiting to be written!