History of Paignton, Devon

History of Paignton
Paignton is sandwiched between the two other towns that make up Torbay (Torquay and Brixham) and is the oldest. The Saxon settlement of Paega’s-ton nestled on the shores of the picturesque Tor Bay. The inhabitants farmed the rich red soil behind the sand dunes and marshes and fished. Paignton is mentioned in the Domesday Book as Peintone and belonged to the Bishops of Exeter from 1049 until the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in (1536-1541). In his book The History of Paignton published in the 1950s, Mr C. H. Patterson describes early Paigntonians as “having a hand on the plough and an eye on the sea.”

During the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) against the French, the Royal Navy took advantage of Tor Bay’s deep water, sheltered aspect and strategic position for defending the English Channel, to use it as a harbour for the fleet. It was during this time that the visiting families of naval officers kick started the tourist industry, all be it in Torquay, by reporting to others by letter and word of the incredible natural beauty of the area. At this time Paignton was one of the local beauty spots visited on excursions by those visiting Torquay.

Paignton's Heyday, the Railway

Nothing of note really happened in Paignton until the arrival of the railway in 1859 which brought an ever increasing number of tourists. The Victorian pier, gently sloping sandy beaches, warm safe seas and mild climate made it the perfect family holiday destination. It’s heyday was the prosperous 60s by which time there were numerous B&Bs, holiday camps and camp sites providing reasonably priced accommodation for the thousands of happy grockles (the local word for tourists that came into common parlance after it was used in the Michael Winner film The System starring Oliver Reed which was filmed in Paignton). Comparisons with the south of France led Torbay to become known as the English Riviera with the five star accommodation in neighbouring Torquay attracting the rich and famous. 

For Paignton particularly, the start of cheap package holidays in the mid 1970s to Spain with its guarantee of summer sunshine signalled the start of more difficult times for the town. The holiday camps, especially those inland, closed to provide land for homes for the growing permanent population. The rise of supermarkets and out of town shopping saw the town centre contract and decline. The Central Business District is now comprised of the eastern end of Palace Avenue, the pedestrianised Victoria Street, Hyde Road which contains the majority of the town’s estate agents and the “grockle ally” of tourist shops in Torbay Road that takes you down to the seafront promenade.

Paignton Today & its Future

Today however it would seem that Paignton has turned a corner with new investment and development taking place. The Fragrance Hotel Group are building two new large hotels on the seafront and St Austell Breweries have extended and refurbished the Harbour Light to regenerate the entrance to the harbour (often referred to as Paignton’s hidden gem). Due to the steeply sloping hills to the west of the town parts of Paignton have always commanded stunning views of Tor Bay and the areas of premium quality housing in these favoured locations are in ever increasing demand today.
Paignton’s most notable building is the magnificent Oldway Mansion. Built by the wealthy industrialist and sewing machine magnet Isaac Merrick Singer in the 1870s, it was remodelled on the Palace of Versailles by his son Paris in the early twentieth century. For the majority of the twentieth century, after the Singers left in 1918, Oldway was used as council offices for Paignton and then the newly formed Torbay Council in 1968. Unfortunately, during the tenure of the councils Oldway suffered a serious lack of investment and the building gradually deteriorated. The council left the building in the naughties, plans for a luxury hotel evaporated and the building fell into disrepair. However, here again there seems to be a new dawn, with a charitable trust being formed with the aim of renovating the building so that it can be returned to public use using grants and lottery funding.

History of Paignton - Recent Photographs