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HER Number:MDV9936
Name:The Retreat, Topsham


The site of a sugar refinery which is first mentioned in 1684 and where some 2000 French prisoners of war were held in 1762. The house appears to have been built by a Mr Orme in 1773. It is described as an 'elegant villa' in 1773. It was acquired by Sir Alexander Hamilton by 1781 who undertook considerable alterations to both house and grounds, as shown in sketches by Revd Swete of 1796. The property was sold on in 1931. The garden and coach house subsequently became a boat yard and by 1938 the house was converted to five flats'


Grid Reference:SX 957 887
Map Sheet:SX98NE
Admin AreaDevon
Civil ParishExeter
Ecclesiastical ParishTOPSHAM

Protected Status

Other References/Statuses

  • National Monuments Record: 447822
  • Old DCC SMR Ref: SX98NE/8
  • Old Listed Building Ref (II)
  • Ordnance Survey Archaeology Division: SX98NE11

Monument Type(s) and Dates

  • COUNTRY HOUSE (XVIII - 1773 AD to 1773 AD)

Full description

Polwhele, R., 1793-1806, The History of Devonshire, 2, 208fn (Monograph). SDV21030.

Ordnance Survey Archaeology Division, 1953, SX98NE11 (Ordnance Survey Archaeology Division Card). SDV23507.

The Retreat. Converted from a sugar refinery to a private house at the end of the 18th century. During the Napoleonic Wars it was used to house prisoners of war. It is now a block of flats.

Braddick, C. E., 1953, The Port of Topsham, 30 (Article in Serial). SDV23368.

Sugar refinery converted to a dwelling house in early 19th century by a Mr. Orme. In 1762 about 2000 french prisoners were held here.

Griffith, F.M, 1984, DAP/AS, 7, 7a (Aerial Photograph). SDV354857.

Cherry, B. + Pevsner, N., 1989, The Buildings of England: Devon, 825 (Monograph). SDV325629.

Described as a tall, handsome stuccoed house overlooking the river. It was divided into flats in 1938 and the grounds were subsequently partly built up. It was, according to Polwhele, converted from a sugar warehouse by Robert Orme pre 1775 and remodelled by Sir Alexander Hamilton circa 1790-5.
Description of house given.

Fox, A., 1991, The Retreat, Topsham, 131-141 (Article in Serial). SDV23511.

The Retreat is first documented in the 1684 title deeds. It is described in 1707 as 'a convenient house with the necessary utensils for the refining of sugar'. By 1718 it consisted of dwelling house, sugar house and lodge. By 1742 the buildings were 'in decay and void for the lack of a tenant'. It was bought in 1769 'with the utensils and implements used in a sugar bakery still remaining on the premises'. The present house was built by Mr Orme by 1773 when it was described as 'an elegant villa with numerous apartments elegantly furnished. And with useful offices at a proper distance from the house'. There were good gardens and 30 acres of pasture adjoining, as well as 'a small pavilion with 3 bedchambers, a library and a hot and cold bath'.
Blackamore's 1773 drawing shows a 3-storey house, the lowest terraced into the hillside. It has prominent rusticated quoins at the angles and below the central pediment on the east front. There is a porch with ionic columns and a flat roof spanning the 3m deep area excavated for the basement, which is railed off; no door is shown. The symmetrical fenestration includes, on the south side, 2 tall round headed windows on the ground floor, with 3 circular openings above. Fenced off from the house (to the south-east) is a planted garden, beside a tower-like building, previously identified as a drying house of the old sugar refinery. The whole is contained by a low wall and a shallow ditch. Small gabled buildings with 5 chimneys visible in the background probably belonged to the refinery, but may have been converted into the 'pavilion' described above.
It was bought by Hamilton by 1781. Considerable alterations took place to the house and grounds by 1794, when sketched by Swete - who shows it approached by a drive and fence, without the drying house, formal garden and refinery chimneys. The east front retains Orme's symmetry, but now centres on an imposing porch with 4 ionic columns and pilasters and a balustrade, with a dummy arched Venetian window above. On the south side, 3 sash windows replaced Orme's hexagonal motifs, with a new plain pediment and balustraded parapet above. These comparisons confirm that the upper storey was rebuilt by Hamilton, as Swete claimed and as repeated by Polwhele in 1793. Furthermore, when the north-west corner was rebuilt in 1992 it was found that the thick rubble upper walls were of much better construction than those below, where there was decayed brick and timber. The 8 bedrooms on Hamilton's new first floor were each provided with a carved fireplace of different design. The simple stair and handrail are probably also Hamilton's. They are placed at one side of the entrance hall, behind a door, probably to screen servants. The property passed to Alex Kelso Hamilton in 1875. He was probably responsible for adding the ball and billiard room, which was linked to the main house by an extension of the central corridor at ground level, and would have overlain the remains of the old refinery and its successor, the 18th century 'pavilion' and then was used as a dairy and carpenter's shop.
It has now become a house called 'Reeds'. In 1931 the property was sold with lodges, stables, coach house, walled gardens and 27 acres of park, which was sold in lots. The garden and coach house later became a boatyard and, by 1938 the house was converted into 5 flats.

Swete, J. (ed. Gray T. + Rowe, M.), 1998, Travels in Georgian Devon. The Illustrated Journals of the Reverend John Swete. Vol. 2, 80, 84 (Monograph). SDV341167.

Revd Swete visited The Retreat in 1794. He stated in his journal that it was the seat of Sir Alexander Hamilton, 'a most excellent house' and that it was a former sugar, the materials of which Mr Orme used to build the house some 30 years previously.
[The two accompanying sketches (DRO, 564M/F6/159, 161) are dated 1796 and depict a large, rectangular grandified warehouse like building.]

Pink, F., 2014, South Devon Coast Rapid Coastal Zone Assessment Survey Desk-Based Assessment (Interpretation). SDV357736.

Ordnance Survey, 2015, MasterMap (Cartographic). SDV357601.

Historic England, 2019, National Heritage List for England, 1103993 (National Heritage List for England). SDV362730.

The Retreat. Mid C18. Has been a fine house of the Adam period. Now divided into flats. The main rooms have Adam style fireplaces and moulded cornices. See listing description for full details.
Date first listed: 11th November 1952

Sources / Further Reading

SDV21030Monograph: Polwhele, R.. 1793-1806. The History of Devonshire. The History of Devonshire. Unknown. 2, 208fn.
SDV23368Article in Serial: Braddick, C. E.. 1953. The Port of Topsham. Transactions of the Devonshire Association. 85. A5 Hardback. 30.
SDV23507Ordnance Survey Archaeology Division Card: Ordnance Survey Archaeology Division. 1953. SX98NE11. Ordnance Survey Archaeology Division Card. Card Index + Digital.
SDV23511Article in Serial: Fox, A.. 1991. The Retreat, Topsham. Proceedings of the Devon Archaeological Society. 49. Paperback Volume. 131-141.
SDV325629Monograph: Cherry, B. + Pevsner, N.. 1989. The Buildings of England: Devon. The Buildings of England: Devon. Hardback Volume. 825.
SDV341167Monograph: Swete, J. (ed. Gray T. + Rowe, M.). 1998. Travels in Georgian Devon. The Illustrated Journals of the Reverend John Swete. Vol. 2. Travels in Georgian Devon. The Illustrated Journals of the Reverend John Sw. 2. Hardback Volume. 80, 84.
SDV354857Aerial Photograph: Griffith, F.M. 1984. DAP/AS. Devon Aerial Photograph. Photograph (Paper). 7, 7a.
SDV357601Cartographic: Ordnance Survey. 2015. MasterMap. Ordnance Survey Digital Mapping. Digital. [Mapped feature: #110381 ]
SDV357736Interpretation: Pink, F.. 2014. South Devon Coast Rapid Coastal Zone Assessment Survey Desk-Based Assessment. AC Archaeology Report. ACD618/4/3. Digital.
Linked documents:1
SDV362730National Heritage List for England: Historic England. 2019. National Heritage List for England. Historic Houses Register. Digital. 1103993.

Associated Monuments

MDV71497Related to: FINDSPOT in the Parish of Exeter (Find Spot)
MDV127004Related to: Sir Alex Walk, Topsham (Monument)
MDV127006Related to: Sugar refinery at The Retreat, Topsham (Monument)

Associated Finds: none recorded

Associated Events: none recorded

Date Last Edited:Nov 30 2023 1:23PM