Torquay is a seaside town in Devon, England, and is part of the unitary authority area of Torbay. It lies 18 miles (29 km) south of the county town of Exeter and 28 miles (45 km) east-north-east of Plymouth, on the north of Tor Bay, adjoining the neighbouring town of Paignton on the west of the bay and across from the fishing port of Brixham. In the 2011 UK Census, Torquay's population was 65,245, about half of that of the whole of Torbay.
The town's economy, like Brixham's, was initially based upon fishing and agriculture, but in the early 19th century Torquay began to develop into a fashionable seaside resort, initially frequented by members of the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars while the Royal Navy anchored in the bay. Later, as the town's fame spread, it was popular with the crème de la crème of Victorian society. Renowned for its healthful climate, the town earned the nickname of the English Riviera and favourable comparisons to Montpellier in France.
Torquay was the home of the writer Agatha Christie, who was born in the town and lived there during her early years.
The area comprising modern Torquay has been inhabited since Paleolithic times. Hand axes found in Kents Cavern have been dated as 40,000 years old, and a maxilla fragment, known as Kents Cavern 4, may be the oldest example of a modern human in Europe, dating back to 37,000–40,000 years ago.
Roman soldiers are known to have visited Torquay during the period when Britain was a part of the Roman Empire, leaving offerings at a curious rock formation in Kents Cavern, known as "The Face". No evidence has been found of Roman settlement in the town.
The first major building in Torquay was Torre Abbey, a Premonstratensian monastery founded in 1196. Torquay remained a minor settlement until the Napoleonic wars, when Torbay was used as a sheltered anchorage by the Channel Fleet, and relatives of officers often visited Torquay. The mild climate attracted many visitors who considered the town a convalescence retreat where they could recover from illness away from the cold winters of more northerly or easterly locations. The population of Torquay grew rapidly from 838 in 1801, to 11,474 in 1851.
Torquay Tramways operated electric street trams from 1907. They were initially powered by the unusual Dolter stud-contact electrification so as not to disfigure the town with overhead wires, but in 1911 was converted to more conventional overhead-line supply. The line was extended into Paignton in 1911 but the network was closed in 1934.
The Royal National Lifeboat Institution's Torquay Lifeboat Station was at the Ladies Bathing Cove from 1876 until 1923. A second lifeboat was kept at the harbour from 1917 until 1928. Torquay was regarded as a "Spa Town" after the Marine Spa was built on Beacon Hill near the harbour. Originally called the "Bath Saloons complex", it had an open air tide-filled swimming bath. The complex was opened in 1853 after Beacon Hill headland was dynamited to make space for it. Charles Dickens was said to have made readings there. In the 1900s a ballroom and a new sea water-filled swimming pool were built. The Marine Spa provided various therapies such as seaweed baths, needle, douche showers, hot and cold water baths and electric shock treatment. Bands such as Ivy Benson and Ted Heath played at Marine Spa ballroom. Four stone arches that were part of the Marine Spa are still visible on the outside of the harbour wall.
During World War I, military hospitals were sited in Torquay – many survivors from the Battle of Gallipoli recuperated in the town – and it was used as a troop staging area. In September 1915 King George V and Queen Mary visited. After the war the Great Western Railway launched an advertising campaign to attract tourists, and this helped the town grow to a major south coast resort.
The water sport events of the 1948 Summer Olympic Games were held in Torquay, and the Olympic flame brought from London to Torre Abbey Gardens. Although it did not host any Olympic events for the 2012 Summer Olympics, with the sailing taking place in Weymouth, Torbay looked to host teams as a preparation camp and the flame passed through once more on its route around the UK.
After World War II several private high-rise blocks of flats were constructed above the Rock Walk cliffs and harbour, giving the area a Monte Carlo feel. In 1971, after a tragedy, the Marine Spa was demolished to make way for the ill-fated Coral Island leisure complex. This was characterised by its concrete arches on its uppermost floor and sunbathing decks like those of a cruise liner. The site featured a hexagonal outdoor plunge pool surrounded by sunbathing terraces leading down to Beacon Cove beach. Inside the building were several lounges, a restaurant and a nightclub within the arches of the ancient swimming bath. All levels were served by a hydraulic passenger lift. Coral Island opened in 1977 and closed in 1988. The complex was demolished in 1997, 20 years after its construction. The site remained derelict until 2002 when the Living Coasts coastal zoo was built there.
In the late 1980s Fleet Street was rebuilt as the Fleet Walk shopping centre which has street-level shops and an upper level shopping deck. The long, curved building which follows the street is magnolia-coloured and in mock Victorian style. In the late 1990s and early 2000s new pubs and night clubs opened around the harbour, leading to an increase in binge drinking, however in recent years a better police presence and responsible drinks promotions have improved the situation. Since World War II, the nature of tourism in the United Kingdom has changed significantly. Increasing wealth has meant that holidays abroad are now commonplace. Coastal towns are now more popular for short stays as part of a touring holiday. Recently, Torquay has seen an increase in foreign visitors, and is a major destination for foreign exchange students who come to the town to learn English in summer schools.
Torquay is the administrative headquarters of Torbay, which was created in 1968 as a County with Torquay being the county town. In 1974 it was returned to Devon County Council control. Torbay was formed from the amalgamation of the Boroughs of Torquay, Paignton and Brixham. Torbay was again made a unitary authority on 1 April 1998 when it became responsible for its own affairs. For local elections Torbay is divided into 11 wards, 7 of them in Torquay itself.
The town is made up of a number of small settlements that amalgamated into the town of Torquay. The town's historic core consists of Tormoham, Wellswood, The Warberries, Upton and Ellacombe and is based upon what were once the holdings of the Palk family. In 1900 Chelston and Livermead (part of the Cockington estate owned by the Mallocks), were annexed by the town and this was followed by the absorption of the former borough of St. Marychurch. (In this period St Marychurch covered Plainmoor, Watcombe, Babbacombe and Kingskerswell.) In 1928 the Mallocks' last holdings in Cockington were integrated into the town borders. Torquay expanded throughout the century leading to the development of Shiphay, Hele Village, Barton and, since the 1990s, The Willows, and from 2010 onwards Edginswell and into Kingskerswell giving the town its current layout.