History group Talk April 2011

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The Reverend Christopher Pidsley gave the meeting a fascinating illustrated talk about The Haldon Belvedere and the Palk Family associated with it and Haldon House.

Rev Pidsley, was born in Exeter and as a child always wondered about that building at the top of Haldon, what was it and why was it there? Recently he decided that it would be his task to research as much as possible into its history and the history of those who were connected with it. 

His story began at Headborough farm Ashburton. It was there that Walter Palk (b1691) brought up his family. His second son Robert (b1717) was destined to become famous and amass a fortune. From Ashburton Grammar School he went to Oxford in 1736, ordained in 1739, then was a curate in Cornwall. In 1741 he became Chaplain in Royal Navy and by 1747 he was in India working for the East India Company (E. O. Co). General Stringer Lawrence, considered the ‘Father of the Indian Army’ met up with Palk who became known as ‘The Diplomat’. Between them and in conjunction with The E. O. Co. they were heavily involved with India in the mid 18th century. After about ten years he returned to England and married but in 1762 he was persuaded to return to India where he amassed a fortune while acting as Governor of Madras and while in that position happily received numerous ‘gifts’. He returned to England a wealthy man in 1767 and settled in Torquay, a small fishing village at that time. He purchased Torwood Grange, a big house, but tried to purchase from Sir George Cary of Torre Abbey access to the sea. Cary did not oblige. Palk then settled on Haldon House, near Dunchideock. He bought it in 1769 and it was reputed that it was modelled on Buckingham Palace. He developed the house and brought in grand furniture and fittings. This included a portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds of Maj. Gen. Stringer Lawrence. Palk became Member of Parliament for Ashburton and was knighted in 1772. Lawrence was a frequent visitor and was god father to Palk’s  first son. All future heirs carried Lawrence as a first name. General Stringer Lawrence died in 1775 and was buried at Dunchideock where there is a memorial to him. Another memorial to him is in Westminster Abbey. As a tribute to his great friend Palk built Haldon Belvedere completed in 1788. Inside the tower on the ground floor there are boards extolling Lawrence’s achievements and a life size model of Lawrence dressed as a Roman general. On the first floor there is now a ballroom and it is said that in 1789 King George III and Queen Charlotte visited on their way to Saltram. Some sources state that king George IV visited in 1820. Robert Palk died in 1798 and his family can be linked with the late Princess Diana.  The first Lawrence Palk (1766-1813) continued to develop the estate until his death in 1813. In those thirteen years since his father died he had consumed a vast amount of the family wealth. His son Lawrence Vaughan (1793-1860) continued to develop Torquay. As at that time we were in war with France, the French Riviera was out of bounds to the English aristocracy so Torquay became ‘The English Riviera’. In Torquay we find Palk Road, Lisburne Crescent, Vaughan Parade just to mention a few. Despite this apparent success in 1858 he had to flee to France to avoid his creditors. To follow this story well, one needs to look at the Synopsis of the Palk Family as recorded in the book “The Tower on the Hill“ by Christopher Pidsley. The Teign Valley Railway was another achievement of the Palks. Often political humorists made fun of politicians and notable men. The Palks also fell into this arena! The fourth Lord Haldon Lawrence Edward Broomfield (!896-!938) was recorded as a bit of a ‘drifter’. Soon after inheriting the title he was reported as ‘addressing envelopes by day and a waiter by night’. After his death the title passed to his uncle the Hon. Edward Arthur Palk who was the last Baron. The Palks abandoned the house in 1892 and it was bought by a Mr James Bannatyne from Ireland. He always wanted to be an ‘English Country gentleman’. He bought the house for £46,000 and spent £100,000 modernising it. It is said that Marconi of radio fame once stayed there and practiced sending radio signals from there to Haytor. During WW I many of the males of the Bannatyne family were killed and Mrs Bannatyne sold Haldon House. Much of the assets were sold off and in 1925 the house itself sold for just £8,500. In 1963 what was left of the grand house was bought and used as a guest house. Stories of ghosts and legends abound and interesting things can be seen when walking around the surrounding area. The house is now The Lord Haldon Hotel and run as a very successful business. Returning to the Tower, it was bought by a syndicate c1925 for £300 and in 1933 the Dale family purchased it. During WW II it was used as an observation post. The Tower deteriorated, struck by lightening in 1960. and the windows were blown in during 1990. Cyril Dale died in 1990 and in 1994 the remaining Dale, Edward, transferred ownership of the Tower to a charitable trust who maintain it as a memorial to General Stringer Lawrence. They obtained considerable grants and in 1995 restored it to its present ‘glory’. The final cost was over £450,000 and during restoration and excavations, evidence of early Neolithic activity was uncovered (3500-2500 BC).  Today the Tower is licensed for weddings and other events and it is open to the public on Sundays afternoons for cream teas from February to October. Standing there, one can oversee the area of land once owned and farmed by the Palk family. From farmer’s son at Ashburton the family name is still perpetuated by “The Palk Arms” at Hennock and by street names in Torquay. Thousands of miles away near Madras, there are the Palkonda Hills, and the sea channel between India and Sri Lanka, (Ceylon in those olden days), is named the Palk Strait. 

Copies of “The Tower on the Hill” by Christopher Pidsley  ISBN 9781898964827 at £3.25 were purchased by members. Two other books for more information are: “The Vanishing Houses of South Devon” by Rosemary Lauder; in which she recalls the old Devonshire saying of; “Rags to Riches and back to Rags in three generations”    And    “The Palks of Haldon and Torquay" by Ian Fraser

We thank Christopher for a most enlightening address.


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