Does your Torbay home have a name or a number, or perhaps both?
These days all urban houses have a number, while the majority do not have names. But names can be important. We can sometimes work out who lived in a house, when it was built, who named it, and why. Names are vessels of history; and there have been specific times when the appellations of the Bay’s houses, great and small, acquired particular meanings.
So how did we get here?
The British have been giving buildings names for a very long time. Over a thousand years ago the meadhall in the epic poem Beowulf was named Heorot – the name survives as the White Hart, yet another ‘Lost Torquay Pub’.
Giving your home its own name is a custom which began with the gentry naming their manor houses, halls, lodges and castles. They tended to do this according to ancestry, location, and family titles.
Then tradesmen and merchants also started naming their properties, sometimes as a form of advertising – such as Mill House or Forge Cottage. Much of the population of Torbay’s villages couldn’t read and write, and didn’t travel more than a few miles away from where they lived, so medieval houses were usually named after the householder, the householder’s occupation, or the appearance of the house.
What changed was a national need to gather taxes, the evolution of the postal system, and a rise in the population. In 1765 an act of Parliament decreed that all new properties must also have a house number and a street name for better identification of buildings and boundaries.
House names and numbers became important locally due to the rapid growth of our three towns. In 1801, Torquay had 838 residents; in 1851, 11,474; and in 1901, 33,625 – though this now included St Marychurch and Cockington.
The real boom time for house names was from 1840 to 1910. The stimulus was the arrival of the railways, which reached Torre in 1848 and its present location in 1859. The new railways brought in visitors and the town consequently adopted the names familiar to the high-class clientele it was trying to attract. The hotels and guest houses in these areas would take on similarly elite names to cater for expectations – Grosvenor, Belgravia and Riviera.
A growth in personal wealth from an intense period of economic prosperity enabled many people to buy their own homes and allowed them to move away from the congested centre of town. This generated a new suburban middle class of both local folk and newcomers.
Torquay’s Victorian houses ranged from modest terraced properties in our town centres to large detached family houses with imposing drives and gardens.
Many became known as villas – Torquay claimed to have five-hundred.
However, the term isn’t a precise one. In the early eighteenth century it was applied to compact houses in the country. Yet, by the nineteenth century, the term villa was extended to describe any large suburban house that was free-standing in a landscaped plot. Later in the century, it came to encompass semi-detached villas and even exclusive terraced town houses. Effectively, a villa became a very broad marketing term aimed at this aspiring middle class.
In the early days of Torquay, house names were generally chosen by the first people to live there and often taken from the local surroundings. These emerging middle classes were, however, a new type of householder, aspiring to a higher status and they were dedicated house-namers. They could name their houses anything they wanted, but in practice they continued a tradition from the stately-homes. All were striving to talk up their owner’s social standing and, once the convention of house naming became the norm, other property owners followed suit.
These names were proudly proclaimed on large gatepost pillars, while the terraced villas generally had their name carved or painted on the lintel above the front door.
Across Britain there were themes. Some named their homes after distinguishing features of the property – such as Redhouse, Rose Cottage, The Pines, Orchard House, Moor View. Others used names associated with royalty or the classics. And some have long-forgotten antecedents- Sans Souci (No Worries) is named after Frederick the Great of Prussia’s eighteenth century palace, for instance.
Amongst these general trends, Torquay had specific characteristics. The town was originally a health resort promoting itself to the affluent with lung conditions. Hence, there were a significant number of disabled and retired residents. These incomers often named their homes after beauty spots or places they remembered from holidays, like Allerdale or Ambleside, or simply to make a statement, as in Dunroamin.
The English Rivera’s association with the Grand Tour also gave us place names transferred from southern Europe, Napoli, Roma and Florence, for example.
As with so much in Torquay’s history the naming of a property was about social class.
House names were complex codes that indicated the owners place in the social order. By relocating to the Bay, some incomers consciously moved away from their own history. We became a place to abandon past reputations, old accents; the upwardly mobile became intensely socially competitive. New names gave a rooted history and, consciously or not, we learned to read them as class and even religious signifiers. For example, Sunnyside was used by Quakers and other nonconformist religious households.
The new urban villas were often merely streets, or in some cases just yards, away from the more crowded working class areas. In many cases, just having a good view of the sea made the difference between the working and middle classes and so differentiation was crucial. Single-family homes were exceptional and, even a century ago, nine in ten homes were privately rented. Poor urban Torquay featured anonymous tenements and courtyards to be navigated by numbers. Accordingly, house names were rare in areas such as Pimlico- the name taken from one of the less salubrious parts of London. Homes in such close proximity found it essential to cleanly demonstrate what their status was.
Being known by just the name of your urban home remained a signifier of class. If you were of a higher social standing, you wouldn’t have to give a full address- it was expected that people would know who you were and where your house was.
The other significant influence in Torquay house names is that so many houses were, at one time, used as guesthouses or hotels and they needed to advertise. Accordingly, the location or view from the property would be utilised- Bay View, Sea Vista, Seascape, Waters Edge, Harbour Heights, and Anchorage, for example.
House-naming became popular again in the interwar years. By 1939 a quarter of homes were owner-occupied. Property developers and their customers identified old-sounding words and created novel hybrids to create new identities in ancient fields.
Not all were happy about the new aspirational classes, however. In 1939 George Orwell critiqued the middle-aged, middle-class Englishness of, “The stucco front, the creosoted gate, the privet hedge, the green front door. The Laurels, the Myrtles, the Hawthorns, Mon Abri, Mon Repos, Belle Vue.”
And then, in the mid-twentieth century, the propensity to name houses began to die out.
The post-war housing boom had created hundreds of thousands of homes. And with a surge in homeowners came a rise in home-namers, many being working class or lower middle class. This free-for-all also brought out the British sense of fun – one trend was the idea of blending two personal names together, the exotically sounding Pesharon being a celebration of the union of Pete and Sharon, for example.
Yet, with this new wave of home owning and naming came the inevitable reaction. The association of house names with social standing became confused. For some, the naming of a house in a new estate was seen as pretentious, imitating ‘one’s betters’, and a symbol of that quintessentially English put-down of being ‘naff’. There was subsequently a move to collectively distance from the many working-class people who were suddenly in a position to name their own home.
Address conventions had by the end of the twentieth century been standardised, few people built their own homes, many more of us were now renting, while apartment blocks didn’t lend themselves to the practice. The rising cost of home ownership meant people tended to buy property later in life, so reducing the numbers of innovative and comical namers.
But for every elitist display, and every action, there is a reaction… and then a counter-reaction.
House numbers were once a symbol of Torquay’s lower classes – now Avenue Road’s award-winning boutique B&B Edwardian villa goes by the name of No. 25.
And, in a most public act of subversion of the self-importance of Torquay’s Belgravia, we have the wonderfully named Lulu’s Fawlty Towers Hotel.
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