This was Torquay’s ‘Golden Age’ – the late 19th century when the Victorians decided the town was a special place and the early foundations of what was to eventually become the English Riviera were laid.
Torquay was mostly owned by three families: the Mallocks and the Cockington area, the Carys, owners of Babbacombe, St Marychurch and the old monastery at Torre Abbey, and the Palks, of central Torquay or Tormohun.
This era was also the start of what was to become Wollen Michelmore solicitors!
The partnership of what was then Hooper and Wollen was formed way back in 1868.
The law firm and its partners have been at the heart of Torquay’s rich history – which has included Royalty, the rich and famous, pioneering and game changing scientists and inventors and world-renowned authors, artists, politicians and even Napoleon, Charles Darwin and Agatha Christie.
It all began with Briscoe Hooper and Grant Wollen who had both practiced separately as solicitors for several years came together in 1868.
Mr Hooper was Clerk to the Torquay Local Board and Mr Wollen held a similar position with the St Marychurch Board.
The merger of the two boards was the catalyst for the partnership of the two law men which was to lead to a legal firm spanning over a century-and-a-half and which is still going stronger than ever today.
Partners Briscoe and Grant would have mixed in the same circles as the landed gentry who were about to shape Torquay’s very future.
Their first office was what is now Carlton House at 30 The Terrace. It is still the head office for Wollen Michelmore’s Torquay operations today – although more properties
next door, 32 and 34, and later numbers 26 and 28 were added over the years.
In those days, there were no cars or shops with the River Fleet flowing beneath. The Terrace was a dirt track and partners would arrive in horse-drawn carriages.
Apparently, Mr Hooper had two Dalmatian dogs that ran between the wheels of the carriage which was a popular Victorian status symbol – just like a modern personalised number plate today.
Torquay, which then had a population of around 2,000, was becoming more and more popular with the rich and privileged of the time and from around the world.
The Russian Romanoff noble family built themselves a private holiday home in the town called the Villa Syracus which is now the Headland Hotel at Daddyhole.
During their absences, the villa was often let privately. In 1864 the Prince of Wales visited the Grand Duchess Maria of Russia while she was staying there. Amongst her party was the Count Gregoire Stroganoff and Countess Alexandra Tolstoy – wife of noted novelist Leo Tolstoy.
Evidently, Torquay owes much to Napoleon Bonaparte!
The Napoleonic wars meant that the rich elite could no longer visit continental Europe and looked for local destinations to visit instead. Torquay was ideal.
Tor Bay was also the perfect place to shelter for ships and it was frequently used by the Channel Fleet which protected England against invasion by Napoleon.
The story goes that after Napoleon was captured following the Battle of Waterloo he was held on the warship HMS Bellerophon in Torbay for two days. Upon his first sight of the Bay the former Emperor has been quoted as saying “Quel Bon Pays” (“what a lovely country”) and he compared it favourably to Porto Ferrago on Elba.
He also helped the prosperity of Torquay in another way: local smugglers did good business ‘importing’ French brandy during the Napoleonic Wars.
The Imperial Hotel was in its heyday – the Wollens were to play a dominant part in its history. It accommodated many famous guests, including Emperor Napoleon III of France, the Queen of the Netherlands and King Edward VII.
Benjamin Disraeli was a prominent visitor to the resort through his political career.
Rudyard Kipling, the famous novelist, was a resident of Torquay for a brief period in 1896.
Charles Kingsley lived in the Livermead region of the town.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning settled in Torquay in 1838 for health reasons.
Rudyard Kipling lived at Rock House in Maidencombe.
The world’s number one crime writer Agatha Christie was also born in Torquay in 1890, and was christened at All Saints Church in Torre. She is reported to have based many of her novels in a thinly-veiled version of Torquay.
The Christie family has become one of Wollen Michelmore’s most famous clients stretching back all those years.
In 1870 Lawrence Palk, 1st Baron Haldon commissioned the building of a new harbour in Torquay, which made the town popular amongst yacht sailors. Sailing is something which has survived and thrived over the length of time with different members of the Wollen family having close links with the local yacht club.
Proposals were also put forth for the construction of a canal to Newton Abbot at the same time, but nothing came of it. The harbour work cost £27,000.
Torquay was heavily involved in importing coal and wool from Australia, which was then sent to the mills in the North of the country.
The upper-class nature of the resort and the huge wealth of its residents during this period was reflected in the Worth’s Tourist Guide to Devonshire in 1886 which declared “in proportion to its population it is the wealthiest town in England”.
During this period the first town plans were also drawn up by Palk. After touring Europe, he brought back from Italy architectural ideas which he incorporated into his villa designs.
These designs were delivered by William Kitson, known as “the Maker of Torquay”, Kitson became chairman of the newly formed local council, acting on behalf of the absentee landlord Palk.
An exclusive residential area was created in the Warberries and Lincombes which retains its character today with several of the original properties like those in Hesketh Crescent.
1892 was a key date in the history of the town. Through trains were introduced and Torquay was granted borough status by a Royal Charter, with the motto Salus et Felicitas which meant Health and Happiness).
The healthy as well as the sick were encouraged to visit, and the Victorian watering place was soon transformed into a holiday resort.
We mustn’t forget Torquay United in all this They became the town’s first professional football team in 1899. They were founded by a group of school leavers under the guidance of Sergeant-Major Edward Tomney. After a season of friendly matches the club joined the East Devon League and went on to join the Football League in 1927.
In 1833, Princess Victoria visited the town and Victoria Parade was named in honour of the place where the future queen first stepped ashore.
The people of Torquay knew that the railways would bring visitors and prosperity and they wanted the railway to come to their town. In 1848, Torre railway station was opened and Torquay was connected to the rest of the country for the first time.
By 1850 the town was calling itself “The Queen of Watering Places” and “The Montpellier of England”.
On a Saturday morning in 1852 a town meeting decided to continue the railway down to the sea and on to the harbour. But the decision sparked controversy and that afternoon another meeting was held cancelling the earlier decision The new railway station was opened in 1859 with the line to Paignton – well away from the harbour but close to Torre Abbey Sands and the seafront.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel was an important figure in Torquay’s history during this period. He built the nearby Atmospheric railway and the rail links to Torquay, and had begun buying up large areas of the Watcombe area of Torquay where he had planned to retire – but he died early.
The town came through two world wars.
During the First World War hospitals and convalescent homes were set up. In World War II, the town, with its array of hotels, was ideal to provide training facilities for the RAF. From 1944, many American troops were also stationed here.
In 1948 Torquay hosted the water sports events of the Olympic Games. In 1950 the European Broadcasting Union was formed in Torquay.
The Hooper and Wollen partnership and its people would have witnessed all this at various stages of their lives and the company.
Nigel Wollen, of the Wollen family and a partner between 1971 and retirement in 2007, has helped piece together the history of the company.
The first-ever partnership between Grant Wollen and Briscoe Hooper pre-dated the introduction of the telephone It was eventually introduced in the 1870’s and the firm’s first telephone number was Torquay 2.
Apparently, Grant Wollen was very put out that a rival firm had been allocated Torquay 1.
In these days of modern technology it is hard to imagine an era when there was no e-mail, fax or even an extensive postal service.
The photo-copier had not been invented. Most letters were written in longhand by the partners, and it was not until the 1880’s that primitive typewriters became more prevalent.
Deeds were prepared on vellum using quill pens, and the clerks were trained to write in a legible copperplate.
Briscoe Hooper went on to become Mayor of Torquay and died in 1914. His son, Harry Dundee Hooper, joined the firm in 1880, and Grant Wollen’s son, Cecil Wollen, succeeded his father in 1899, followed by Tom Codner in 1921.
Dundee Hooper’s son Stewart was killed on active service in the North Sea on August 15, 1916, while serving on one of the very first submarines, H.M. submarine “E.4”. He was just 22.
It was a tragic 12 months for Dundee, as he lost his wife the following year aged just 47, and his second daughter aged 18. There is a commemorative tablet in their memory in St Matthias Church in, Wellswood.
John Wollen (Cecil’s younger son) joined his father and Dundee Hooper in 1926.
It was the year of the General Strike, and during his time at Law College in London he had helped the national cause by serving as a traffic policeman on point duty at Lancaster Gate.
It appears from contemporary reports that Lancaster Gate soon became a traffic hotspot, and that he was going to be much more successful as a lawyer (he qualified with First Class Honours).
Cecil and John Wollen were the sole partners during WW2 and the firm was busy with handling compensation claims for clients whose properties had been requisitioned.
Most of the staff had been called up (John’s profound deafness precluded this despite his strenuous efforts to join the Royal Navy), and so they had their hands full.
John would reminisce about manning a gun emplacement on Daddyhole Plain as an ARP warden, and trying to combine keeping a watch for enemy aircraft with drafting clients’ wills.
The Imperial Hotel had been a client since its foundation in 1863. Grant Wollen was one of the original directors, and Cecil and John acted as Chairman for many years.
The hotel was requisitioned at the outbreak of war for use as a hospital but following its closure the War Office changed its mind.
Cecil and John were faced with some very worried shareholders and had the task of reviving it (most of the staff having been paid off or called up).
Thanks to Cecil’s friendship with the d’Oyley Carte family at Coleton Fishacre (who owned the Savoy Hotel in London) they recruited a promising young hotelier called Michael Chapman.
He was to become one of the leading hoteliers in the land and the hotel soon became the only five-star hotel outside London.
John succeeded his father as chairman and remained so until the hotel was sold to Trust House (later to become Trust House Forte) in 1969.
Cecil Wollen died in 1948, and two new partners joined the firm, Cyril Wreford (who was married to Johns sister-in-law) and Ben James, followed by John’s eldest son Richard in 1955 and Ben James’s son Jeremy in 1961.
The post war years saw a period of rapid growth. Ben and Jeremy James developed a litigation practice and this was given impetus when Ian Scofield became a partner in 1964.
The firm had not previously handled criminal work, and the tiny waiting room was soon shared by an interesting mix of clients.
John Wollen remained in practice until his death in 1988, and his son Richard died in 1989.
The Wollen line was continued when Nigel (John’s youngest son) returned to Torquay after a few years working for a large City firm.
He succeeded his father and grandfather on several fronts, including as solicitor to Agatha Christie, and in later years he was to handle the gift of Greenway House to the National Trust.
He was closely involved with several developments in Torbay, including both Torquay and Brixham Marinas.
Like his father and grand-father, he became very involved with local charities, and was a founding trustee of Torbay Coast and Countryside Trust. He was appointed a Deputy Lieutenant of Devon in 1995.
The Wollens had always had a love of sailing, and Cecil, John and Nigel all served as Commodore of the Royal Torbay Yacht Club.
John was very involved in organizing the Olympic Games in Torbay in 1948. In pre-war years the staff of Hooper and Wollen were given time off during the annual Torbay Royal Regatta but were expected to spend this on Haldon Pier admiring the partners efforts afloat!
Nigel continues the family involvement and is the Honorary Admiral of the Royal Torbay.
Now 73, Nigel was articled with the company for five years from 1965. He went to London to work and returned as a partner in 1971 and retired in 2007.
Carlton House (number 30) was the first property bought by his great grandfather Grant and Briscoe Hooper.
The offices span other buildings – 32, 34, which was bought in the 1980s. Numbers 26 and 28 followed years later.
They were all houses or apartments for private residents in the early days.
The story goes that Nigel’s former office, now occupied by Wollen Michelmore chief executive Chris Hart, was once a love nest where a lady friend of Edward VII used to stay. “Well that’s how the story goes,” says Nigel. “There is no evidence to support it.”
The people who lived in the properties before they were purchased would have all been ‘quite well heeled.’
Nigel remembers how The Terrace – upper and lower – was built by the Harvey Brothers.
Slowly the offices started coming along.
32 and 34 were being used by an architect and accountant when they were bought.
A name from the past he remembers was Henry Windeatt,.
He had been a crew member on one of the Brixham sailing trawlers before becoming a paid hand on Nigel’s grand-dad’s yacht.
Nigel says: “He was a very canny old sailor.”
He and his wife lived in a ‘poky’ room at the back of Carlton House and acted as caretakers. It is now a store room. He was known as Hen, his wife as Mrs Hen.
They often served the partners with tea and coffee and took lunch to their offices.
Nigel said: “Some clients took exception to the smell of Mrs Hen’s cooking and the partners had bottles of Earwick in their rooms to try to get rid of the smell.
“The Hens were succeeded by their niece Mrs Chapman, but she sensibly declined the offer of taking on their accommodation.
“John went to see Hen just before he died in his bed in the building, and found that Hen was busy trying to finish making some new mackerel lines before his time ran out.”
All very spooky.
On that front Nigel says: ““There are probably ghosts knocking around, but I haven’t heard any ghost stories.”
One thing Nigel also recalls was the habit of smoking over the years.
He says: “For many years, virtually all the partners smoked pipes or cigars, enjoying some very evil smelling tobacco. Most of the staff smoked as well, along with many clients. The whole office was wreathed in smoke.
“It was not until the late 1980’s that some controls were introduced (all the smoker secretaries were corralled in one room), followed by a total ban some years later.”
Wollen Michelmore has grown into becoming one of the largest independent laws firms in the West Country employing 185 staff and with offices in Torquay, Newton Abbot, Dartmouth, Exeter and Barnstaple.
It is award-winning and has enjoyed glittering finals nights at places like the Hilton Hotel in London and Exeter Cathedral.
Now after an extensive branding project, it is changing its name, image, look and key messages to make it fit for the 21st century.
Wollen Michelmore is now Wollens with a ‘Full Spectrum Law’ strapline reflecting its expanded and comprehensive services for its private and commercial clients.
The new name and branding will give a more modern and brighter feel to the business, enhancing its corporate and professional identity and supporting its other new slogan ‘The law firm that thinks in colour. But keeps things black and white’.
The company, its management, partners and staff have never forgotten their roots, the part they play in the community and always putting people and the clients first.
Nigel Wollen says: “The firm has seen many changes through the careers of four generations of Wollens, but it is very appropriate that the name should continue.”
Just to show some things never change:
- In 1822 Torquay’s second hotel was opened on the site of the modern-day Queen’s Hotel, despite objections raised by the Vicar of Torre who believed that ‘two hotels in the town would be detrimental to its moral health’.
- By the time trams had arrived, Torquay was piloting having electric studs instead of overhead cables. But the studs kept electrocuting the horses as they rode past.
Only in Torbay!
The plan now is to move out of those listed offices on The Terrace next year and move into brand new office accommodation as part of the £32million Torwood Street regeneration scheme.
The firm will able to retain its prestigious ‘The Terrace’ address and its all-important links to that rich, rich history.