Drawing of Oldway Mansion in Paignton, Devon

Oldway Mansion is a grade II listed building set within 19.5 acres of stunning grounds and within a short walking distance of Preston seafront. Once the private residence of the famous Singer family, the mansion and gardens are steeped in fascinating history and still contain some remnants of its former grandeur.

Although the building can no longer be accessed it’s still possible to walk around the grounds to enjoy the landscaped gardens, public park, popular bowling green and tennis courts. You can approach the estate by following the road signs and the driveway from Torquay Road (A379), the main access route between Torquay and Paignton.

The Victorian Society, a charitable organisation and advocate for the preservation and restoration of Victorian and Edwardian buildings in England and Wales, has listed Oldway Mansion in their 2018 Top 10 Endangered Buildings list.

Oldway Mansion history

In 1870 Isaac Merritt Singer, a wealthy American industrialist and his French wife, Isabella arrived in England. They purchased the Fernham estate in Paignton which included Oldway Villa, a mid 19th Century house. The Singers used Oldway Villa, later referred to as ‘Little Oldway’ as their temporary residence whilst Oldway Mansion was being designed and built for them. Local architect GS Bridgman was commissioned to create a French Renaissance styled private residence which included a rotunda building to be used as a riding pavilion and area to exercise horses. The building work commenced in 1873 and the mansion became known to Isaac and his family as 'The Wigwam’.

Sadly Isaac died two months before the building work was completed in 1875. However, his son Paris, one of his 24 children, purchased his siblings share of the inherited property and carried out further changes instructing garden designer, Achille Duchene to landscape the grounds and surveyor, JH Cooper to carry out extensive alterations to the mansion, remodeling it in the opulent style of the Palace of Versailles, France.  

War Efforts

During the first world war the mansion was used as the American Women’s War Hospital with Rolls Royce ambulances transporting many of the 5,000 service men who were treated there. The American Women’s War Relief Committee which included Lady Churchill and Nancy Astor, the first female member of parliament, raised funds to support the hospital’s efforts. When the war ended the Singer family used the mansion as a holiday home. In 1927 it became the Torbay Country Club, and was later requisitioned by the Royal Air Force in 1939 and used as an initial Air Training Wing during the second world war.

Who owns Oldway Mansion?

In 1946 the Trustees of the Singer Estate sold Oldway Mansion to the local authority and the site was used as council offices and a registry office with a small exhibition about the Singer dynasty. Since its closure in 2013, the site and its future use remain the focus of local debate and online petitions.

Who was Isaac Merritt Singer?

Isaac Merritt Singer was born in New York, America on 27th October 1811. He left home at the age of 12 to pursue his dream of becoming an actor and toured the country with a theatre company. In 1830 he married Catherine and had two children, William and Lillian.  

When there was little acting work available he undertook a number of jobs and it was during this period that his true vocation as an inventor emerged.

In 1839 whilst working as a labourer digging canals he designed the first mechanical rock drilling excavator and a metal and wood carving machine. He sold his patented designs which provided him with funds to set up his own touring theatre company. When large debts started to mount up he shifted his focus to becoming a full time inventor.

As an apprentice machinist working in a shop he repaired a Lerow and Blodgett sewing machine.  This provided the inspiration to develop his own design and he took out a patent for a new, improved performance, sewing machine capable of producing continuous and curved stitching, up to 900 stitches per minute. Isaac’s designs revolutionised the manufacturing industry which had previously seen women hand sew garments. He secured 12 additional patents, as he continuously strived to improve his designs. In 1851 he formed I.M. Singer & Company with Edward Clark and the partnership later formed Singer Manufacturing Company. The worldwide success of his innovative creations plus his shrewd business acumen, which included pioneering the first hire purchase scheme allowing his customers to pay for goods by instalments, set new marketing and business practices and secured his vast fortunes.

Meanwhile, Isaac’s private life was complicated. He left his first wife to live with another woman, producing 10 children and had a further six following a number of affairs. He moved to France where he met his second wife, Isabella, who had once modelled for the Statue of Liberty sculpture. They had six children and when the Prussians invaded France in 1870 they fled to England. He died in Torquay on 23 July 1875, leaving an estimated fortune of £15 million.

His son, Paris Singer married Cecilia ‘Lillie’ and had 5 children. He is perhaps most famous for his affair with Isadora Duncan, an American considered to be the ‘Mother of Modern Dance’ and a free spirit. They had one child together, Patrick who was involved in a fatal motor accident in Paris with his half-sister Deirdre. Tragically Isadora died in Nice, France when her long flowing scarf became caught in the wheel of the Bugatti sports car that she was travelling in and her neck was broken. In his later years, Paris spent much of his time in America, investing in property ventures in Singer Island and Palm Beach, Florida. He died in London on 24th June 1932.

Today, you can visit the gravestones of Isaac Merritt Singer and Paris Singer in the grounds of Torquay Crematorium. There are many references to the Singer family in Paignton including Paris Road; The Isaac Merritt pub and The Palace Hotel, once the home of Isaac’s son, Washington Singer.


Oldway Mansion development

The gardens are of special historic interest and contain a number of grade II listed structures including 14 metal urns with goat-mask handles, a grotto and grand marble sphinxes. The parking area, once a carriage court has a monumental classical arch and screen walls, a replica of the Porte St Antoine at Versailles. There are many sub-tropical plants due to the English Riviera’s mild climate, a series of terraces, formal lawns, flower beds, a network of weaving paths, attractive rockeries and ponds to admire.

Following the local authority’s decision to close the premises on financial grounds, there have been several attempts to engage with investment and commercial property developers to restore and revitalise the listed buildings and its surroundings, incorporating some residential housing developments. To date the future of Oldway Mansion remains uncertain.

Inside Oldway Mansion

The palatial interior included an ornate grand hallway with striking marble surroundings, sweeping staircases and painted murals as well as a reproduction of the Hall of Mirrors in Palace of Versailles, France. The paintings included a full size copy of an original of Napoleon and Josephine by French artist, Jacques-Louis David and Persephone by English classicist painter, Arthur Hacker.

Oldway Mansion ghost?

Access to the building has remained closed to the general public since 2013 with only a security presence in place. There have been recent claims of a sighting of a mysterious figure believed to be a ghost looking out of a mansion window. There have been suggestions that there might be a link to the spirit of Isadora Duncan following her untimely and tragic death. Local sceptics consider that these supernatural claims remain unfounded.

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