Together with Torquay, the compact seaside resort of Paignton is part of the English Riviera and one of the main holiday resorts of South Devon, boasting a mild climate, promenade, traditional pier, colourful beach huts and Paignton Green.
Around one third of residents in employment work in the tourism related sectors, although more than half are aged 45 and over, noticeably higher than both the regional and national averages. No fewer than one in eight of all residents can be classified as ‘Prudent Pensioners’ while almost another one in six are categorised as ‘Affluent Greys’. These predominantly older people tend to have relatively high levels of disposable income, proving a boost to the local economy.
Perhaps not surprisingly, there are plenty of places to buy buckets and spades near the seafront, together with amusement arcades and inexpensive eateries. In addition to both a theatre and cinema, several pubs along the front offer live music.
A number of fetes and events are held on Paignton Green, which also boasts a free children’s play area.
Paignton Zoo, which attracts more than 400,00 visitors every year, can be found further inland, set some way back from the coast.
The original Anglo-Saxon settlement was located on dry ground sandwiched between the hills to the west and the marshes, low sand dunes and beach to the east. A separate fishing hamlet was sited in the shelter of Roundham Head.
First mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 as Peintone, the settlement initially grew as a small fishing and farming village, known for its grapes, cabbages and cider, and was given the status of a borough in 1294, having both a market and a fair.
Centered around Church Street and Winner Street, formerly known as Wynerde Street, meaning ‘Vineyard Street’, as during the Middle Ages the Bishop of Exeter’s vineyards lined the adjacent slopes, in the fifteenth century it developed as a trading area after Henry VIII closed the Bishop’s Palace. Not long after, the vineyards fell in to neglect.
In 1750 Dr. Richard Pococke, then travelling through Devon, described Paignton as “a poor town of farmers at the bottom of the bay”. But, just a few years later, the sandy, marshy land between the settlement and the beach began to be enclosed and drained.
Even so, more than 40 years later in 1797 Richard Polwhele noted in his The History of Devonshire that: “the greater part of the houses are built of mud walls and covered with thatch, but not remarkable for neatness or commodiousness”. There was also, he added, “a great quantity of orchard ground”. At the time the population numbered around 1,570.
However, everything changed in 1837 when the Paignton Harbour Act led to the construction of a new harbour, built in 1847, with the name being spelt as Paignton for the first time.
By 1850, in his History, Gazetteer and Directory of Devonshire, William White could describe Paignton as “A neat and improving village and bathing place delighfully situated ... along the shore of a beautiful bay. Paignton has risen into notice as a place of resort for invalids during the last fifteen years, and is capable of being made a first- rate watering place, having a good beach, and a large extent of contiguous ground, which may be converted into a beautiful esplanade and carriage drive.”
On 2 August 1859 a railway line was opened to passengers, creating links to Torquay and London and heralding a new beginning for Paignton as a holiday resort catering for mass family holidays.
At the start of the 1870s John Marius Wilson's Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales described Paignton as “a seat of petty sessions, and a fashionable watering-place”, with a population that had grown from 2,746 in 1851 to 3,090 in 1861.
In the 1870s Isaac Merritt Singer of sewing machine fame built Oldway Mansion for himself, designed by local architect George Soudon Bridgman, and what are now the Palace Hotel and the Inn on the Green as homes for his sons Washington and Mortimer.
Paignton Pier, also designed by George Soudon Bridgman, and some 780 feet long, opened in 1879 and continues to dominate the seafront.
Also in 1879, on 30 December, the premiere of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance took place at short notice in the since demolished Royal Bijou Theatre so as to secure the British copyright on the work.
By 1867 the population had risen to 4,613 and was, according to John Bartholomew in his Gazetteer of the British Isles, “a rapidly increasing watering-place with extensive and firm sands, and has a pier which affords depth of water for ships of 200 tons. Cider-apples are largely cultivated in the neighbourhood, and cider is manufactured here in large quantities.”
In 1907 the now closed Torbay Picture House opened. Believed to have been Europe's oldest purpose-built cinema, Seat 2 Row 2 of the circle was the favourite seat of crime novelist Agatha Christie, who lived nearby in Galmpton. The cinema is said to be the model for all the cinemas and theatres in her books.
In less than 40 years, between 1901 and 1939, the town’s population tripled, from 8,385 to 25,227, growing again to 30,292 in 1961.
Until its closure in January 2009 the department store Rossiters, said to have been the inspiration for the sitcom Are You Being Served?, was a centrepiece of the town.
Paignton Zoo was in at the beginning of the modern zoo movement, developed from the private menagerie of Herbert Whitley, an eccentric millionaire who died in 1955. Whitley believed the zoo should be a place of learning, not just recreation, and opened its doors to the public in 1923. Currently there are around 2,500 animals in the collection, including 400 mammals, 1,000 birds and 1,100 lower vertebrates and invertebrates. In 2009 four rare Sumatran tiger cubs were born, and in early 2012 the first zebra at the zoo in 10 years.