top of page

Torquay Harbour: Historical Haven for Sailors, Health Seekers, & Holidaymakers

Updated: May 24, 2023

Witnessed Through the Works of Artist Martin Dutton

The focal point of South Devon's premier resort town, Torquay Harbour stands as an emblem of both historical significance and natural beauty. Surrounded by a vibrant and cosmopolitan townscape, and looking out onto the serene calm of the enclosed Tor Bay, this historic harbour has deep-rooted origins dating back to the 13th century when the town and its small population would have been largely dependent on agriculture and fishing.

Torquay owes much of its initial development to Sir Lawrence Palk, 2nd Baronet, who recognized the potential of the area. In the late 18th century, Torbay's sheltered anchorage served as a haven for the Channel Fleet, protecting England from potential invasion by Napoleon Bonaparte. Wives and relatives of officers often flocked to Torquay, seeking proximity to their loved ones. Sir Lawrence Palk played a pivotal role by investing in the construction of a new harbour in 1803, replacing the dilapidated old one. The project, designed by John Rennie, commenced Torquay's transformation into a thriving town.

Torquay's reputation as a health resort began to take hold in the early 19th century. Visitors seeking respite from illness were drawn to the town's mild climate and fresh air. The arrival of the railway in 1848 further facilitated Torquay's growth, connecting it to the rest of the country for the first time. The population soared, and Torquay earned the monikers "The Queen of Watering Places" and "The Montpellier of England." The town's second hotel, the precursor to the present-day Queen's Hotel, opened in 1822, marking the beginning of Torquay's transition into a fashionable holiday destination.

During the late 19th century, Torquay's popularity soared among Europe's elite. Notable figures such as Emperor Napoleon III of France and the Russian Romanoff noble family visited Torquay, constructing grand holiday homes and enjoying the town's splendours. The presence of esteemed guests, including the Prince of Wales and Benjamin Disraeli, elevated Torquay's reputation further. The Imperial Hotel served as a favoured accommodation for these dignitaries. Torquay's golden age cemented its status as a prestigious resort town.

The introduction of railways in the mid-19th century transformed Torquay's fortunes. The town experienced significant growth, attracting tourists and wealthy residents. However, as the upper classes began seeking holidays abroad, growth slowed in the 1870s and 1880s. St. Marychurch and Cockington absorbed the overflow, evolving into thriving suburbs. Nevertheless, Lawrence Palk, 1st Baron Haldon, commissioned the construction of another harbour in 1870, making Torquay popular among yacht sailors. The harbour played a vital role in importing coal and wool from Australia, further bolstering the town's prosperity.

The early 20th century witnessed Torquay's transformation into a family-oriented summer holiday resort. Advertising campaigns were launched to attract healthy visitors from the industrial Midlands and northern England. Torquay's rail traffic increased steadily until the outbreak of World War I. The war brought significant changes, with volunteers enlisting for military service and the establishment of the Red Cross Hospital in the Town Hall.

Torquay Harbour Today

Torquay Harbour now stands as a testament to the enduring allure of coastal towns. Throughout its history, the harbour has been a focal point for sailors, health seekers, and holidaymakers, contributing to the town's growth and reputation as a desirable destination. Whether as a strategic naval anchorage or a fashionable health resort and a playground for the wealthy, Torquay Harbour has played a vital role in shaping the town's identity.

Today, it continues to entice visitors with its scenic beauty and vibrant atmosphere. The harbour area is a hub of activity, offering a range of amenities and attractions. Visitors can stroll along the promenade, enjoy the picturesque views of the bay, and indulge in a variety of watersports and boat trips. The bustling marina hosts numerous yachts and boats, adding to the nautical charm of the area.

Its historical significance remains evident in the well-preserved architecture that lines its shores. The grand Victorian buildings, elegant hotels, and charming cottages evoke a sense of nostalgia, transporting visitors back to the town's heyday. Exploring the harbour’s surroundings, such as the nearby Cockington Village with its thatched cottages and the beautiful Torre Abbey Gardens, provides glimpses into Torquay's rich past.

A Celebration of Torquay, Works of Martin Dutton

"Lockdown was a difficult and sometimes disastrous period for everyone. But for me it did have an unexpected positive outcome. As a practicing painter my annual routine included a period of painting in Europe. The exotic lavender fields of Provence, the acres of golden sunflowers and vine field patterns of the Dordogne bathed in sunlight were rewarding places to paint in situ. However, these activities were brought to a standstill when lockdown anchored us all to our own homes and local environments. But for me, this was not a negative situation as it encouraged me to look for painting subject matter in my local area and I “discovered” the town that had been my backyard for over twenty years - Torquay!"

"We’ve had glorious Summer weather during the lockdown years which has provided the in situ artist with the equivalent periods of dry, warm painting time as can be relied upon in places like Southern France and Spain. I suppose it was because of the unreliability of the English weather coupled with my enthusiasm for painting outdoors in sun drenched unexplored landscapes that I hadn’t considered developing a prolonged painting project in my local area. But when I started to do small in situ paintings in Torquay I realised that here was a place full of visual delight and positive human activity that offered endless painterly opportunities."

"When I begin a new painting theme the first paintings are always directly topographical and realistic, setting down what I see in front of me in order to get to know my subject."

"This representational approach will then develop into a more intuitively expressive response as the subject begins to reveal itself to me. This exhibition represents my journey so far in my exploration of a fascinating seaside town."

You can discover Martin's work at Artizan Collective Gallery until June 25th. For more information, visit



Related Works

bottom of page