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A Brief History of Hesketh Crescent

Hesketh Crescent was commissioned by Sir Lawrence Palk, the Fourth Baronet who was elevated to a peerage in 1880 and became ‘Lord Haldon, of Haldon, Devon’ and after whom Haldon Pier and Haldon Road were named.

The crescent was designed by the brothers William and John Harvey and was completed in 1848, taking two years to construct.  It has been reported as being ‘The finest crescent of houses in the west of England’ and John Wilson wrote “The Regency ideals of London and Brighton reached their highest in the building of Hesketh Crescent.”

The crescent originally called ‘Meadfoot Crescent’ was renamed ‘Hesketh Crescent’ in 1849 after the first fruit of Sir Lawrence’s marriage to Maria Hesketh in 1845; their first son was called Sir Lawrence Hesketh Palk.   The Palk family had been notable landowners in and around Torquay for generations and produced the first town plan for Torquay.

The family fortunes were largely made by the first Baronet, Sir Robert Palk, who became Governor of Madras in 1763, and after whom were named Palk Straights, the Palonua Range and Palk Bay.  It was he who bought Manor of Torwood from the Earl of Donegal and the fishing village of Tor Key in 1768.  He was the friend, protégé and colleague of General Lawrence on whose death he inherited £80,000 in 1775.  The General requested that his own name ‘Lawrence’ should be passed on to Sir Robert’s first son and those of succeeding generations.

Unfortunately, the second and third baronets were recorded as being poor men of business.  Money was often spent lavishly on the development of Torquay but neither family, stewards or solicitors proved capable of producing a clear account of the estate finances.

In 1833 the Third Baronet (Lawrence Vaughan Palk) appointed William Kitson as the family banker – steward – solicitor, and although the merit for planning the chief distinctive features of Torquay is usually credited to the Palk family, William Kitson seems to have been the guiding force behind much of the work, and Sir Lawrence the figurehead.

Lawrence Palk, the Fourth Baronet, bitterly resented the restrictions imposed on the family expenditure by his father’s appointment of Kitson and at one point began to take steps to have his father declared lunatic!  Lawrence seems to have inherited his share of the family spendthrift nature, as he is recorded to have lost large amounts of money in the sport of  ‘Spider racing around a plate’, a favourite gambling pastime of the gentry.

The direct line of this colourful family failed with the Fourth Lord Haldon in 1938, but not without intrigue.  The Fourth Lord Haldon, reported by the Times as having been a ‘sea cook, film actor and a furniture salesman at Harrods’, was claimed by a ‘Lizzie Ireland’ to have married her in a hotel in Scotland and produced a son called ‘Lawrence Edward Bloomfield’.  This would have continued the line of the Haldons and given Lizzie the title that she sought, but the child did not really belong to them.  Lizzie Ireland was taken to court and sentenced to three years penal servitude, charged with conspiracy, concealing a birth and causing a false entry to be made in the Register of Births and Deaths…. She had tried to pass off a child as her own at the age of sixty two!

Hesketh Crescent was built as fifteen private houses  and the site was leased to the Architects from the outset in 1846, paying £1,000 for each house leased for 99 years and £6 per annum ground rent.  At the time of construction the grounds were devoid of trees as seen in the early copy of a print of the first page.  It is interesting to note that in addition to the Grade A listed preservation order on the crescent itself, the trees that now ornament the grounds also have a preservation order on them and thirteen trees had to be planted in 1982 to replace sickly trees felled for safety reasons.

In 1851 Lawrence Vaughan Palk (Father to the Fourth Baronet who commissioned the building) lived at number 15 Hesketh Crescent, then called Hesketh House.  He died in 1860 and his son (who became Lord Haldon) lived at number 8 then called Osborne House.  He moved three years later to a new manor house built on Lincombe Hill.

Many notable families lived or stayed in the crescent during the Victorian period, as Torquay had the reputation of being the Riviera of England at that time.  Charles Darwin is recorded to have stayed at House number 2 (now luxury Timeshare apartments) during which time he wrote a paper on orchid fertilisation. He may well have chosen this spot due to his poor health as Torquay was then a recognised Spa Town.

Meadfoot Spring which emerges a few hundred yards from our Hotel gardens is all that remains of Torquay’s Health Resort Heritage.  It is owned by Torquay Corporation and used to be pumped through a fountain in the foyer of the Marine Spa.  The water was analysed in 1938 by Dr Judd Lewis in accordance with the directions contained in the International Register of  Spas and Medical Water issued by the International Society of Hydrology.

His report stated that ‘because of the water’s high purity, it compares with the French Evian and Vittel drinking water; it relieves gout and metabolic gastro-intestinal disorders.’  Torquay Corporation used to sell the waters in 10oz and 12oz bottles in consignment cases of 3 dozen and send them to any address in the United Kingdom.

At the beginning of the Second World War, demand had dwindled and the rising costs of bottling contributed to the end of the sale of this medicinal water.  The spring was polluted during the war and closed for a period, but it has now returned to its original purity and is available free to anyone who cared to fill their bottles from the spring.

Many local people come and collect this water, sometimes 23 and 14 gallon containers and claim that it is good for arthritis and rheumatism.  An article in the Sunday Independent of 27 January 1974 states that one Exeter Doctor always collects his water from the spring at Meadfoot and advised his patients to do likewise!

The Osborne Hotel dates from 1853 and was situated at House number 8.  The first advertisement found in the Torquay Directory was Wednesday 18, 1854, and read:

‘Mrs Cather respectfully announces to the nobility and families of distinction visiting Torquay, that she has suites of apartments vacant, replete with every comfort and convenience (with private board).  The pleasure grounds are beautifully set out in walks and terraces, bordering the ocean at the foot of Torbay and are exclusively for the visitors residing in the crescent.  Bathing machines are kept on the beach adjoining the grounds for the exclusive use of Hesketh Crescent.’

The name ‘Osborne’ does not have any easily identifiable history, but it is interesting to note that Queen Victoria’s yacht was called ‘Osborne’ when she visited Torquay before her coronation and it is a well known naval name.   The Harveys also advertised in the Torquay Directory to fill the houses of the crescent they leased.  One such advert appeared on September 13, 1854: ‘Hesketh Crescent. To be let, furnished houses and apartments.  Apply at the Lodge, or make enquiries of J and W Harvey, 4 Park Crescent, Torquay.’

The Haldon family continued to decline as the years passed, and in 1885 the harbour and other portions of the settled estates were sold to the local board for £75,000.  In 1887 and 1894 many of the family leases and properties were auctioned subject to a condition of sale that no new building or additions may be erected except the plans be sanctioned by the Local Sanitary Authority.   Hesketh Crescent appeared in Haldon Sales Catalogue as Lot 89 and was auctioned by Waldon and Lee (Land Agents) at the Royal Hotel on Tuesday 19 April 1887.  It was opened by Mr Walton who dwelt on the excellence of the properties to be disposed of and their exceptional security.  The assembly room was filled and there was a large muster of solicitors, money lenders and lease holders desirous of enfranchising their tenures.  Time has also been allowed so that existing lease holders could purchase freeholds if they so wished.

Hesketh Crescent was auctioned with special stipulations that it should not be used for ‘any trade, hospital, or as a public or charitable institution, or for holding public meetings, or for public worship, or otherwise used than as a private dwelling house, but this is not to preclude the reception of lodgers or boarders, nor the carrying on of a learned or artistic profession.’  This stipulation was modified specially to allow the continuation of a First Class Family Hotel.  At the time of the Haldon Sales, the Osborne Hotel was managed by Miss Marsh.  The Crescent was bid for, but did not reach its retaining price, so it was withdrawn from the sale.  Visitors arriving at The Osborne Hotel during the week of the Haldon Sale were The Honourable Mrs Grey and Lady Sybil Beauclark.  A little later that year the Archduke and Archduchess Renier Ferdinand of Austria stayed in the Hotel under the names of Count and Countess Schonkertchen.

Miss Marsh seems to have been with the establishment for a good number of years as adverts as late as 1894 still mention her as Manageress, and this advertisement mentions tennis lawns and secluded sea bathing.

In 1899 the town’s byelaws stated ‘no person of the male sex shall at any time bathe within 50 years of the ladies’ bathing machine!’  However the following year mixed bathing was allowed.

The Hotel must at some time have expanded to occupy five houses it now consists of, and it is possible that this expansion took place while Mr Westaway was the manager because between 1907 and 1910 he advertises and says:  ‘To meet the demands of its numerous visitors, the hotel is being enlarged by the addition of a large number of rooms.’

In 1926 the new ballroom was opened; Mr Brett was the manager at that time and it seems the Osborne was keeping up with the times as the advert states: ‘The hotel car meets all trains, elevator to all floors, electric light and gas fires to all bedrooms, tennis and croquet lawns.’

It would appear that the Hotel also owned a farm at some time although as yet no record has been discovered of when it was sold.  The 1938 advertisement in the Torquay Handbook says of the Osborne: ‘Fresh produce is supplied from our 300 acre farm.  Garage 50 cars, 40 acres of unspoilt woods for quiet meandering adjoin the Hotel.

In the late forties Colonel Partridge bought the Hotel.  This was a period of great life at The Osborne with dances and orchestras.  Valerie and Clemson Young, the well known Ballroom dancing experts often gave exhibitions and lessons at The Osborne.  One of their many famous pupils was the Countess of Athlone.

A newspaper cutting of 11 June, 1954 reads: ‘Osborne Hotel ball Aids NSPCC’.   An appeal on behalf of the NSPCC made at the first ball of the season at the Osborne Hotel on Friday raised £50.  The appeal was made by local president Sir Bernard Whitby to cover 200 invited dancers.

The dancers were friends and pupils of Mr and Mrs Clemson Young, who organised the event; better know as Clemson and Valerie, the exhibition dancers.  Mr and Mrs Young provided an attractive feature with some dances d’elegance.

TV star Benny Hill came specially from Plymouth to appear in midnight cabaret and Maurice Roberts and his band, resident at the hotel, played for dancing.

Among guests was Mr Abdul Hakki, the Egyptian ambassador, Mr Ahmed Hakki, Dr A Farouk, a relation of ex-King Farouk and Mr Hassan Macklouf, the Libyan charge d’affaires, who were staying at the hotel for the weekend.

The event was a pre-wedding day festivity for Baron Kurt von Gleichen-Russwurm, who was married the following day to Miss Anne Elizabeth Porcelli, or Torquay.  A party included the bride’s father, Lt-Col the Baron Porcelli and the bridegroom’s mother, the Baroness Helene von Gleichen.  Mr P H W Almy was present as hon. Secretary of the local NSPCC with Mrs Almy and other guests included Lady Lillian Atkey and Mr Lawson Walton, former Director of Public Prosecution.

A further newspaper cutting reads:

‘Sorry to leave… the Earl and Countess of Athlone who were pictured today at Torquay Station when they left after spending a holiday at The Osborne Hotel.  Also in the picture was the Station Master, Mr G D Collins.  The Earl and Countess, who are returning to London, said they had benefited from their stay at Torquay and were sorry to be leaving.

In 1958 the Hotel received further modernisation and the Easter Tariff mentions the rooms with private bathroom and toilet and some rooms with ‘private bath and (toilet near)!’  This facility cost guests a supplement of 25/- each person weekly.  The inclusive terms per person with sea view were from 55/- to 70/- per day.

In 1963 Mr Kappler a Swiss hotelier bought The Osborne and he sold it in 1978.

In 1978 Caparo acquired the 100 bedroomed Osborne Hotel with a view to develop a timeshare resort.  In 1979 many of the privately owned houses were acquired and the development began.   In 1990 the hotel had been reduced to 23 bedrooms and in 1992 a decision was taken to retain the hotel as a centrepiece of the crescent.  In January 1997 building work commenced on the construction of 6 additional bedrooms.

Today The Osborne has 46 self-catering apartments which can be purchased for Timeshare ownership or booked for long and short breaks.

The history of this marvellous piece of architecture has not been totally discovered; there may well be many interesting stories connected with the building that will come to light later; for example: near the tennis court there is a small gravestone.  On it is written, ‘Bill, honourably loved, 3 August 1910.’  It is said that this is a grave of a dog, but no one really knows…