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Singer's Home

THE NAME English Riviera, given to the part of Devon's coastline known as Torbay, comes not from its reputation as a summer holiday resort, but from the many wealthy Victorians who were denied access to the South of France during the Franco-Prussian war.

They discovered the Bay, surrounded and protected on three sides by hills, had a very mild temperate climate during winter. The towns of Torquay and Paignton alongside its neighbour, the fishing port of Brixham, quickly gained a fashionable reputation.

Isaac Singer, himself forced to leave France in September 1870, left Paris only a week before the Prussian army took the City. He and his wife first moved to London but by December his wife, Isabella, already weak from the birth of their last child, Franklin, developed pneumonia. On the advice of a doctor the Singers moved to Torbay.

After settling the family into the Victoria and Albert Hotel, Torquay, Singer began looking for a home to buy. The first property he viewed, the estate of engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, was suitable, but his plans to purchase were halted when Brunel's agents only offered the leasehold. After two other unsuccessful attempts in Torquay, he purchased the Fernham estate in Paignton. Set in 10 acres, Oldway House was big enough for the family, though to Singer  it certainly was not grand enough for a man of his wealth and stature.

Commissioning an architect who was engaged on the extension to the family's hotel, Singer told him: "Build me a house, the most luxurious in the area, and when it is finished, I will call it "The Wigwam".

The Wigwam, though, was not the first building to be erected on the site. Singer, seeing that the family was adequately housed, ordered the architect to build him a stabling and exercise pavilion. This was to be a circular building with a long banqueting hall on one side.

The stable area was beneath the hall, along with the carriage house. In the main arena, beneath a removable floor, a green marble swimming pool was laid. Decorative wrought-iron balconies were placed around the walls for spectators. These were used not only by Singer's children but local children invited to watch any other entertainment he provided, which once included a complete circus.

The outer part of the building was used as accommodation for grooms and garden staff and, because it was circular, each room was wedge shape. Having finally approved the outside design of the house, the foundation stone was laid in May 1873. The house, or "Wigwam", was to have over 100 rooms.

Work though was to progress slowly, not through any fault of the work force, but the constant changing of plans by Singer and his wife meant that rooms completed were often changed on his or her orders.

The architect was quoted as saying:  "This constant interference drives me to distraction". Another quote, this time recorded in the official Minutes of Paignton Town Council by its chairman said: "Because of high rates of pay he (Singer) was paying to his workmen, the Council was forced to increase the wages of labourers because none would work at the old rate". Gradually, as each part of the building was completed, the family began moving in.

When not interfering with the progress of the work, Singer took to touring the district in one of his carriages. These were hand built by a local company. On one of these outings he came across a fete taking place in the garden of a house in Grosvenor Road. On asking the organiser what it was in aid of, she told him it was for the poor of the parish. He then told her he would double the amount raised, and she should send the bill to his house.

His generous donations to local charities are well recorded in the local papers of that time. Paignton Hospital, blocks of flats for the poor and the sea wall all still stand today as a memorial to his generosity to the town.

Singer's health began to trouble him in early 1875. His daughter Alicia's wedding set for June had to be postponed because of his continued ill health. A new date, the 14th of July, was chosen, and though he had not shown any improvement, the wedding went ahead.

Her dress of heavy white satin trimmed with Brussels lace cost 2,000; those of her bridesmaids a further 1,500.

The reception, for which Singer had invited friends from America and France, took place in the banqueting hall. He also invited local people, who were catered for on long bench tables in the garden. The local children, a number totaling 800 of all denominations, were given a special tea in their own school rooms.

The days after the wedding were very quiet. Isabella is quoted as saying her husband had told her that the past few years spent in Paignton had been the best of his life.

Isaac Singer died nine days after the wedding on the 23rd July 1875, the funeral taking place on the 30th with all arrangements having been made in advance by Singer.

Paignton cemetery could not be used; lack of room for the large mausoleum meant the burial would take place at Torquay. His coffin, drawn on a carriage by 12 of his own horses, three abreast, led the cortege, followed by family mourners in eight carriages. Representatives of the company followed next, including his great friend George Ross Mackenzie, soon to be the third President of the company.

A report of the funeral in the local paper had this passage: "While the first carriage passed along the Strand the last was at Corbyn Head, a distance of 1.5 miles and thereafter a huge host of mourners estimated at 2,000 followed on foot". Crowds also lined the route of the procession along Fleet Street, Union Street and all roads to the cemetery. Shops and places of business closed out of respect.

After the funeral, his wife stayed on in Paignton for three years before returning to France. Still only a young widow of 35, she was asked by the sculptor, Frederick Bartoldi, to sit for him as a model for a statue he had been commissioned for. This was to be a gift by the French Government to America. It was to be known as The Statue of Liberty.

When Singer's son, Paris, came of age, he bought his brother's interest in Oldway and set about altering the building. Architects were sent to the Palace of Versailles, and from their designs to the completion of alterations took nine years. Everything from its outward appearance to the inside was meticulously copied from Versailles. This included marble floors and staircase to finely-carved doors and the crowning glory, its painted ceiling.

The painter, Carl Rosner, who had worked on murals in Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, took six years to complete the ceiling.

In 1906, Paris Singer began an affair with the dancer Isadora Duncan which was to last for six years. He added an extension to the Mansion for a ballroom where she danced for his friends. (Vanessa Redgrave starred in the film "Isadora" which was shot on location at Oldway).

Paris Singer lived at Oldway until 1914 when the Mansion was given over for the duration of war for use as a hospital. All equipment and nurses' wages were also paid for by him.

After the war, increasingly-heavy taxes made him move to America and the Mansion was leased as a gentlemen's club. At the outbreak of war in 1939, the RAF took over the building for training purposes.

This included using the swimming pool in the Rotunda as a simulation exercise for pilots who crashed at sea.

After the war, the Mansion and its 20 acres of gardens, were sold to Paignton Town Council by the Trustees of the Singer Estate for the sum of 45,000.

In 1968, Paignton joined with Torquay and Brixham to become the Borough of Torbay. Since then the Mansion, apart from the ground and first floors, has been used as an administration centre for various departments. The ground floor is laid out as a heritage area with various exhibits associated with Singer, alongside other displays showing Paignton's history. Most of the first floor is used for conference and community activities.

                                              Derek Rendle

Reproduced, with permission, from the Clydebank Historical Journal