In the grounds of one of Torquay’s best known buildings, most indistinguishable amid the trees and wildflowers, a metal pipe, barely 3ft high, protrudes from the earth.
But this is no modern safeguard against inquisitive squirrels or other woodland pests – it’s a surviving link to a grand design aimed at protecting a millionairess from Hitler’s bombs.
The pipe is a vent stretching more than 30ft undergound to what was once hailed as Britain’s finest private air-raid shelter,built for one of Torbay’s greatest benefactors – Ella Rowcroft whose name lives on in the hospice which has served thousands of Devon families.
The six-room underground complex is now just an empty shell. The lift which once served it is gone and there is a 30ft shft. But it once looked like another wing of the luxurious mansion, which can be seen on the hilltop above Torre Station, off Avenue Road.
But it was built so that the elderly millionairess and her staff could comfortably live below ground for some time if the Nazi’s should arrive in Torquay – a very real fear for England’s Channel seaside towns as Hitler stormed across Europe.
The bunker was decked out with the most ornate furniture, central heating and a well-laid out kitchen to suit the demands of even the greatest chef.
There were rugs on the floor next to her oak bed, besides which was her Bible, her barley sugars and a bottle of eau de Cologne.
A silk bedspread in blue – her favourite colour – covered her bed and on the wall above hung a framed inscription which said: “Angels are watching overhead. Sleep sweetly then. Goodnight.”
But the most remarkable feature about the bedroom were the imitation lattice windows which opened inwards to reveal stunning landscape paintings set back into the walls. They gave the illusion that the underground shelter looked out on the Devon countryside.
For Mrs Rowcroft, the bunker was a safe haven from the impending bombing raids of the Second World War. But she died 18 months after seeing the £24,000 creation completed and she never used it.
Bombproof and gasproof, it was made entirely of concrete with a steel and concrete reinforced roof on which was piled a two feet high row of sandbags. Above that the whole structure was buried by more than 15ft of earth.
The entrance to the bunker was built near to the rear door of Rainbow so that Mrs Rowcroft could be pushed quickly across the narrow yard.
To reach the bunker there was a complicated lift. Operated by ropes and pulleys, the lift descended to a long narrow passageway, with three rooms on either side.
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On the right was a dining room, Mrs Rowcroft’s bedroom and then a sitting room. On the left was the kitchen, a staff room and a control room which housed a transformer. In emergencies, it could automatically switch the power from the mains to a string of batteries.
There was an air filtration system, too. The main living area of the shelter was about 4,000 sq ft and could be sealed by two gas-tight doors at both ends of the passageway. At the far end, the corridor led to a boiler room and a rear exit.
The millionairess who never used her bunker
Ella Rowcroft was the eldest daughter of Sir Edward Wills, a director of the Imperial Tobacco Company, she had married Francis Rowcroft, an Army officer’s son, at a society wedding at Bristol Cathedral in 1905 – only the third marriage to be performed there in more than a century.
After her husband’s death, Mrs Rowcroft and her sister Violet Wills moved down to live at Barcombe Hall, Paignton in 1912. Eight years later they took up residence at Pilmuir, which overlooks Torquay from a hilltop site near Torre Station. The three-storey mansion, the former home of Lord Sinclair, had been built a decade earlier on the site of a demolished Georgian-style house.
According to friends, the wealthy widow did not believe in filling her new home with priceless treasures – instead she used her money to help others by investing in ever-more grand designs to keep an army of local builders in work.
With the town desperately in need of a new hospital in the 1920s, Mrs Rowcroft provided the £8,000 needed to buy the resort’s Hengrave House and its surrounding 15 acres. This was the beginning of today’s Torbay Hospital.
Then she offered the £100,000 needed to transform it into a new hospital as well as gifting, with her sister, a further £13,000 to set up an endowment fund to the stipend for a hospital chaplain.
She was also responsible for helping restore the resort to the tourist map after the ravages of the First World War by paying £3,000 for a major advertising convention attended by more than 100 editors of national newspapers.
She also donated to buy the town’s gold Mayoral chain, set with diamonds and rubies, and even paid for a missionary hospital in Japan.
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As the depression in the early 1930s began to bite, Mrs Rowcroft set out to boost employment through the building of a second mansion on her hilltop Pilmuir estate.She called in Torquay builder Edwin Lee who, after submitting designs, completed the project in 1934 with a workforce of 75 men.
Originally, Mrs Rowcroft, an invalid confined to a wheelchair, had planned the property to be used by her housekeeper and companion Mary Delve, but she died soon after it was finished and its owner moved across from Pilmuir. Later she presented Pilmuir to the town and a trust was set up to run it as the Rowcroft Convalescent Home for women.
Her new home had been built at a cost of £70,000 using limestone from nearby Stoneycombe Quarry near Kingskerswell.
It featured oak floors and fireplaces and a large sunken bath all made of coral and white marble from Dijon in France. A keen amateur photographer, Mr Lee took a series of pictures through each stage of the building work and once it was completed he presented the album to his grateful employer.
On one of the shots of the finished mansion he superimposed a rainbow in the sky surrounding the building. The picture had an immediate impact on Mrs Rowcroft who promptly named her new home “The Rainbow.”
In front of the mansion was a lake and a boating house for her boat “Der Schwann”which was modelled on a swan.
But when the Second World War loomed she ordered the lake to be filled in to avoid any reflection of the mansion being seen from the air. And she gave Mr Lee another major task – to build her an air-raid shelter.
Mr Lee’s son Leslie was a teenage apprentice in his father’s business when the bunker was commissioned.
Before his death in 1989, he recounted his time working on the project. He recalled: “I know my father was told by Mrs Rowcroft that she was still worried over the unemployment problem in the town. She knew in 1938 that the war was coming so she told my father to design an air-raid shelter.“
He drew up the plans and I worked on the calculations involving the stresses and strains associated with an underground shelter. It was an elaborate affair, but you would hardly expect a millionairess to build a corrugated shed at the bottom of the garden.
“The whole project had to be built and furnished in the style to which she was accustomed because at that time she naturally thought she could be spending sometime down there.“
It was designed so that the old lady and staff could stay down there indefinitely.
“Work actually began early in 1939 and our hardest job was digging the hole. We had to clear away a copse and dig for hour after hour. Remember there were no mechanical diggers in those days and about 50 men worked on that hole for about nine months.”
Mr Lee remembered the interest shown in the project by Mrs Rowcroft.
“We would frequently see her looking out from behind the curtains in the big house and watching us work, no doubt keeping a careful eye on our progress,” he said. “Although I never saw her enter the shelter, I am almost positive she went down there after we had finished building it to see what it looked like.
”When an air-raid warning did sound in Torquay, Mrs Rowcroft stayed in the house with her Bible beside her. According to a newspaper report at the time she was not thinking of herself, but of other people being bombed.
“I’m not afraid,” she would say to her staff of 18 servants. When Mrs Rowcroft died in 1941 she left an estate valued at £1.6million (the equivalent of £902 million today), most of which went to her sister Violet who in 1 937 had been made a Dame.
In 1972, the Pilmuir Estate was divided from Rainbow House, and some of the grounds were sold off. Around four acres were left, along with the main house, which the Trustees ran for some years as a nursing home.
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Raianbow House was due to be demolished but was saved by fine art auctioneering firm Bearnes (later Sotheby Bearnes) who used it as their headquarters. next to Rowcroft Hospice
Coincidentally Leslie Lee died at Rowcroft Hospice during Christmas 1989 and shortly afterwards his widow Bunny and his daughter Jenny presented the family’s photographic record of the building of Rainbow and its air-raid shelter to hospiceo officials.
Today the bunker is still intact, but all its contents were removed years ago. The entrance door is bolted tight to keep out prying eyes because there is no longer a lift, only a 30ft shaft going straight down.
The empty shell remains but there are no lights. When inspected 10 years ago it was said to be “extremely sound and dry as a bone, which is a testament to the quality of its construction.”