Great Devonians: Health benefactor extraordinaire

PUBLISHED: 09:00 26 June 2014

Ella Rowcroft

Ella Rowcroft


In the latest of his series of features for Devon Life on Great Devonians, IAN L.HANDFORD profiles Ella Rowcroft, whose legacies made such a difference to healthcare in Torbay

The taking of snuff and tobacco by pipe or cigars commenced in the 17th century yet it took until 1846 before W.H. Wills & Co created separate brands of tobacco products and 1888 before packets of five “ciggies” – at a penny each - went on sale. Now everyone was able to afford to purchase cigarettes and could smoke.

The daughters of Sir Edward Payson Wills, Ella and Violet, were always destined to be rich. Ella married Francis Rowcroft in Bristol in 1905 but seven years later she came to live with Violet, then residing at Barcombe Hall, Paignton.

Being strong-willed, during her time in Bristol Ella had already publicly recorded her firm views on the needs of fallen women and the difficulties women faced when ill and running a home.

The two sisters lived in an era of volunteer hospitals - in Torquay one created by Lord Haldon in Higher Union Street, Castle Chambers, was a six-storey building opened by His Imperial Highness Prince Peter of Oldenburg in 1853. Being on a difficult site it was already too small to serve the growing resident population, let alone the ever increasing visitor numbers. With just 64 beds it was 1909 before another philanthropist, Louisa Cary, built a new children’s ward, even though the local authority was aware a new hospital was needed.

Most local authorities in the UK faced a similar dilemma and some raised local taxes, others sought voluntary donations to build new hospitals. In Torbay a Voluntary Hospital Scheme required a payment of a penny a week per adult, plus two extra pennies for children in order to get hospital care.

By 1920 and with the First World War over the Wills sisters were living at Pilmuir near Torre Station, their new house on the site of a Georgian residence previously owned by Lord Sinclair.

Now a public town meeting was called to find a way to build a new hospital. Numerous dignatories, including the two sisters, supported the idea and a hospital committee was formed.

With a site donated by Major Kitson, Ella underwrote the six-figure fee for plans to be drawn. As numerous businesses and individuals donated money, the sums were always matched by Violet and Ella, which established a Hospital Building Fund. The result, Hengrave House and its 15-acre site, became the new Torbay Hospital.

One of the more generous gifts by Ella was so large someone remarked “she offered a gift of such magnificence that has not been equalled in Torquay ever before” (certainly millions of pounds today).

The foundation stone of Torbay Hospital was laid by Ella on 23 June, 1926, and by September 1928 the first patients were being admitted.

Ella was made a Freeman of Torquay in 1933 and later commissioned her final residence - Rainbow House, adjacent to Pilmuir. This was gifted to a hospital trust in 1937 in memory of her parents and to commemorate the Coronation of King George VI.

In 1938 the Rowcroft Trust fund arranged for Pilmuir to be converted into a convalescent home capable of accommodating 20 patients. It opened in April 1939 but only to females connected with Ella’s home city of Bristol or residents of Torbay. Her vision concerning the needs of women and her belief that family and home commitment was secondary to the individuals’ need for convalescence after illness was finally realised.

Ella continued to support the local authority by funding the accommodation costs of 100 UK journalists to promote Torbay after visiting our area. A year later she invited 170 Canadian editors and their wives to a similar event, in effect the first major promoter of tourism to Torbay.

Today, only the Ella Rowcroft Ward and Violet Wills Ward and Rowcroft Hospice remind us of these truly magnificent local philanthropists. Ella died on 26 January, 1941, leaving her estate of £1.6 million to her sister. Five years later the Government’s “Beveridge Report” established a free UK National Health Service.

Next month: The man of Devon who supplanted the most famous of overseas artists and is recognised as our greatest painter of the late 18th century.

Latest from the Devon Life