Everywhere you look in Torquay, you can find evidence of one of its most famous residents: Agatha Christie, otherwise known as the Queen of Crime. The author was born in Torquay, helped with the war effort here and would later own a holiday home nearby. Her association with Torquay isn’t just evidenced around the town though, you can also find snippets of her past within her various novels. So, here is everything you need to know about Torquay’s most famous resident.
Agatha Christie was born Agatha Clarissa Miller on 15th September 1890 in Torquay. She was the youngest of three children and her parents were described as being “gentlefolk”. The family was fairly well off and lived for some time at a villa called Ashfield. Though Ashfield no longer stands, the site of the house can still be seen and is marked with a blue plaque – just one of the many markers of Christie’s time in Torquay. You can find it on Barton Road.
As the youngest child, Agatha was kept mostly at home and was home-schooled until she turned 12 when she was enrolled at Miss Guyer’s Girls’ School in Torquay, before going to a boarding school in Paris. She had always been interested in writing, completing her first short story at 18, but her early attempts at getting published were all rejected. Interestingly though, the same manuscripts were later submitted after her initial success and went on to be published under different titles. Despite her love of writing, she initially planned to go into the performing arts, with hope of becoming a pianist or opera singer, however, on returning to Torquay after completing her education, she decided against it and concentrated on writing instead. Here she moved back into Ashfield with her mother and was well-known around the town.
According to reports she and her nephew would often swim at Beacon Cove in Torquay as a child and in her early adulthood – almost drowning on one occasion and photographs held by the Torquay Museum, show her rollerblading along the pier.
While living in Torquay, she attended a dance several miles away where she met her first husband, Archibald Christie. Archibald was in the airforce and the pair were very taken with each other. However, just two years after meeting, WWI broke out and Archie was sent abroad. Agatha didn’t just wait around for him to come home however, she worked with the Red Cross in Torquay, first as a volunteer nurse and then as an actual employee working as a dispenser, after qualifying as an apothecary assistant. During her time working as a nurse, she perfected her knowledge of poisons and came to know a number of Belgian refugees that were housed in Torquay. These men would go on to inspire her most famous creation, Hercule Poirot. At Christmas in 1914, while Archie was home on leave, the pair married and once the war ended, the pair relocated to London where she began once more to write, eventually securing a publishing deal for five novels, the first of which was titled the Mysterious Affair at Styles and introduced the world to Poirot, in 1920.
While finishing the Mysterious Affair at Styles, Agatha returned to her mother’s house in Torquay to have her only child, a daughter, before using the profits from her books to buy her own home in Berkshire, which she named Styles after the book. Over the next six years, she and Archie would travel widely and Agatha would continue to write. One of their adventures included visiting South Africa where they learned to surf and Agatha is said to have been one of the first Britons to surf standing up in New Zealand. The British Surfing Museum even has quotes from her about the experience in an exhibition.
In 1926, while living at Styles, Agatha became aware that Archie was having an affair. The pair argued and the following day, Archie reported Agatha missing. Her car was discovered on the edge of a chalk quarry containing her clothes and passport with no clues as to where she had gone or where she was going. Locals feared she had drowned in the quarry, but no evidence of this was found. Her disappearance became a huge news story with newspapers offering rewards and even Arthur Conan Doyle getting involved in the investigation. Her disappearance would prove harder to solve than the mysteries in her novels, however. She was discovered at a hotel in Harrogate where she had booked herself a room using the name of Archie’s mistress with seemingly no memory of who she was or how she had gotten there. Doctors at the time did confirm that she was suffering from amnesia and she moved to her sister’s home in Cheadle where she hid away from journalists, applied for a divorce and continued writing. It has never been proven whether she was unwell, creating publicity for her upcoming book or more sinisterly, trying to frame her husband for murder. Despite writing an autobiography about her life, she made no reference to the incident and never spoke of it after returning home.
Two years after divorcing Archie, Agatha married her second husband, Max Mallowan, an Archaeologist. Together they travelled extensively, which would inspire much of her fiction that was set in the middle east. The marriage made her officially Lady Mallowan, but she kept the name Christie for writing purposes, creating even more of her best-loved work while the pair were together. The pair initially lived in Chelsea, London, but would return to Devon in the summer prompting them to buy a holiday home, Greenway, which is now managed by the National Trust and welcomes hundreds of visitors every year.
Until her death in 1976, Agatha continued to write and receive accolades for her novels. By the end of her life, she had written 66 detective novels, 14 short stories and penned the longest-running play in the history of the West End. If that wasn’t enough, she published a further six novels under a pseudonym! Several of her books featured Devon, particularly the Torbay area where she grew up. Her novel And Then There Were None was inspired by Burgh Island in South Devon and remains one of the top-selling books of all time. Other novels that feature areas of Torquay include the ABC Murders, which features a scene inspired by Elberry Cove in Brixham, while the Imperial Hotel features in at least two of her novels under different names. Burgh Island also makes an appearance in Evil Under the Sun and Kent’s Cavern, which is also in Torquay, is in The Man in the Brown Suit.
There are several places across Torquay and Devon where you can celebrate Agatha Christie’s incredible storytelling, including at Torquay Museum and by following the Agatha Christie Mile around the town which has stops at Torre Abbey, where there is a garden dedicated to her, and Princess Gardens. Every year, the town hosts an Agatha Christie Festival and several themed events take place at Greenway, which was remains as the family left it before donating it to the National Trust.