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The history of Coleton Fishacre

A black and white archive photo of the D'Oyle Carte family and friends relaxing on the house terrace with a dog at Coleton Fishacre, Devon.
Leisurely days at Coleton Fishacre | © National Trust Archives

It's not often that someone discovers the perfect location for a country home while sailing. However, that's what happened to Rupert D'Oyly and Lady Dorothy in the early 1900s. The couple spotted a valley leading down to the sea close to Pudcombe Cove while out on their yacht and decided this spot suited their outdoor lifestyle perfectly. So, Coleton Fishacre was born.

Building Coleton Fishacre

Architect Oswald Milne designed Coleton Fishacre house to sit in harmony with its surroundings. Nestled in the coastal valley, he wanted the house to make the most of the sea views and natural light.

Meanwhile, outside, the Arts and Crafts design celebrated local materials by using stone quarried from the garden.

Building work starts

Building work on their new country home began in 1925 and Lady Dorothy and Rupert D'Oyly Carte moved into Coleton Fishacre in 1926. The family enjoyed many outdoor pursuits. Sailing trips, swimming in Pudcombe Cove and entertaining friends were central to their time here.

Archive photo of the D'Oyly Carte's and their cars at the front of Coleton Fishacre house.
The D'Oyle Carte family at Coleton Fishacre | © National Trust Archives

The D'Oyly Carte's

Rupert D'Oyly Carte

Son of Richard D'Oyly Carte, the impresario behind Gilbert and Sullivan and the Savoy Hotel. Rupert succeeded his father as Chairman of the Savoy Hotel Company in 1903, and ten years later took over the management of the Opera Company from his stepmother.

Rupert modernised both companies and patronised artists and designers who brought a fresh and colourful approach.

Lady Dorothy

Rupert married Lady Dorothy Gathorne-Hardy, the daughter of the second Earl of Cranbrook, in 1907. Lady Dorothy was described as having the ‘common touch’.

She was a handsome woman, had dark hair and was noticeably taller than Rupert. Lady Dorothy stayed at Coleton Fishacre during the week while Rupert was in London. This allowed her to indulge in her favourite pursuits of fishing, gardening and sailing.

Life at Coleton Fishacre

As well as a love of the outdoor life, Rupert and Dorothy loved their garden. They would often sail their yacht out on weekend jaunts to south Cornwall in search of inspiration. They would walk around Coleton Fishacre garden together on Saturday mornings, discussing their plans for planting.

The couple also enjoyed entertaining. Weekend guests included musicians like the conductor Sir Malcolm Sargent and painters such as Charles Ricketts. Guests came for bridge parties and were often put to work weeding the garden.

The initials of Rupert and Dorothy D'Oyly Carte set into the stonework of the Entrance Hall at Coleton Fishacre, Devon
Initials of Rupert and Dorothy D'Oyly Carte at Coleton Fishacre | © National Trust Images / Mark Bolton

Family tragedy

The D'Oyly Carte's had two children, Bridget and Michael. Tragedy struck in 1932 when Michael died in a car crash in Switzerland, aged 21. This caused a rift between Lady Dorothy and Rupert that would never heal, and in 1936 they separated.

After their divorce, Lady Dorothy left England and settled in Plymouth, Tobago. She became a prominent member of the community and was a tireless fundraiser for local charities.

Bridget D'Oyly Carte

Rupert and Dorothy's daughter was one of the first pupils of Dartington School. After school, she married her cousin in 1926. The marriage only lasted four years and then from 1939 to 1947 she was involved in child welfare work in London.

She devoted herself to running the opera company after 1948. She went on to form the D'Oyly Carte Opera Trust as a charitable organisation, become a director of the Savoy Hotel group and also became a Dame in 1975.

Coleton Fishacre after the Second World War

Bridget sold Coleton Fishacre in 1949, because it was too far from London. Rowland Smith, a well-known London motor trader and owner of the Palace Hotel in Torquay, became the new owner.

Rowland and his wife Freda maintained the house and garden with great care until his death in 1979. Coleton Fishacre was then offered to the National Trust just before Freda's death in 1982.

The electric bell board in the Servants' Corridor at Coleton Fishacre, Devon

Coleton Fishacre's collections

Explore the objects and works of art we care for at Coleton Fishacre on the National Trust Collections website.

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Coleton Fishacre's collections 

Explore the objects and works of art we care for at Coleton Fishacre on the National Trust Collections website.