By now we’ve probably all noticed that Torquay has more than its fair share of eccentric locals and visitors.
One of these past lovers of our town was William Topaz McGonagall (1825-1902) who has been widely accepted as the worst poet in British history. A self educated hand loom weaver from Dundee, William discovered his talent in 1877 and embarked upon a 25 year career as a working poet. In his lifetime, he became a music hall joke. He was paid five shillings for a public recital so that his mostly working-class audiences could jeer at his bad poetry or pelt him with fish and rotten vegetables.
Unable to sell his poetry, William lived partly off the generosity of benefactors. His verses are respectful of his social betters and he believed in the Victorian mission to civilise the poor. Indeed, he thought that alcohol was to blame for his audiences’ failure to appreciate his work – it didn’t help that he recited his anti-drinking poems in pubs.
William believed that if he was going to succeed as a poet, he required a patron and so he wrote to Queen Victoria. He received a polite letter of rejection, written by a royal functionary, thanking him for his interest. William, however, took this as praise and decided to give a live performance before the Queen. And so, in July 1878, he walked from Dundee to Balmoral, a distance of 60 miles over mountainous terrain and through a violent thunderstorm, “wet to the skin”. When he arrived, he announced himself as “The Queen’s Poet”. The guards informed him, “You’re not the Queen’s poet! Tennyson is the Queen’s poet!” They were referring to Alfred Lord Tennyson – who also wrote Torquay-based poetry – who was the Poet Laureate at the time.
Ironically, though his audiences threw rotten fish at him, the authorities banned his performances, and he died a pauper, William’s fame has outlived many of his more traditional fellow poets.
William’s most infamous poem was the ‘Tay Bridge Disaster’ – see the clip below. What we’re interested in here, however, is a poem included in his collection of over 200 works. This is ‘Beautiful Torquay’ reproduced here in full.
So, for lovers of truly challenging poetry, enjoy!
All ye lovers of the picturesque, away
To beautiful Torquay and spend a holiday
‘Tis health for invalids for to go there
To view the beautiful scenery and inhale the fragrant air,
Especially in the winter and spring-time of the year,
When the weather is not too hot, but is balmy and clear.
Torquay lies in a very deep and well-sheltered spot,
And at first sight by strangers it won’t be forgot;
‘Tis said to be the mildest place in ah England,
And surrounded by lofty hills most beautiful and grand.
Twas here that William of Orange first touched English ground,
And as he viewed the beautiful spot his heart with joy did rebound;
And an obelisk marks the spot where he did stand,
And which for long will be remembered throughout England.
Torquay, with its pier and its diadem of white,
Is a moat beautiful and very dazzling sight,
With its white villas glittering on the sides of its green hills,
And as the tourist gases thereon with joy his heart fills.
The heights around Torquay are most beautiful to be seen,
Especially when the trees and shrubberies are green,
And to see the pretty houses under the cliff is a treat,
And the little town enclosed where two deep valleys meet.
There is also a fine bathing establishment near the pier,
Where the tourist can bathe without any fear;
And as the tourists there together doth stroll,
I advise them to visit a deep chasm called Daddy’s Hole.
Then there’s Bablicome, only two miles from Torquay,
Which will make the stranger’s heart feel gay,
As he stands on the cliff four hundred feet above the sea,
Looking down,’tis sure to fill his heart with ecstasy.
The lodging-houses at Bablicome are magnificent to be seen,
And the accommodation there would suit either king or queen,
And there’s some exquisite cottages embowered in the woodland,
And sloping down to the sea shore, is really very grand.
You do not wonder at Napoleon’s exclamation
As he stood on the deck of the Bellerophon, in a fit of admiration,
When the vessel was lying to windbound,
He exclaimed – “Oh, what a beautiful country!” his joy was profound.
And as the tourist there in search of beautiful spots doth rove,
Let them not forget to enquire for Anstey’s Cove,
And there they will see a beautiful beach of milky white,
And the sight will fill their hearts with delight.
Oh! beautiful Torquay, with your lovely scenery,
And your magnificent cottages sloping down to the sea,
You are the most charming spot in all England,
With your picturesque bay and villas most grand.
And, in conclusion, to tourists I will say,
Off! off to Torquay and make no delay,
For the scenery is magnificent, and salubrious the air,
And ’tis good for the health to reside there.
William’s ‘The Tay Bridge Disaster’: