Sydney House was situated in South Street where the entrance to the car park is now. The house was built by William Vaughan, a wealthy glove manufacturer who owned the factory in Whites Lane. The house was enormous, built of local cream-coloured Marland brick and Ham stone in the Modern English Renaissance style with turrets, pinnacles and gabling. A local woman remembers it being ‘like a fairytale castle’. The Vaughan family moved into the house, called Enderley, in 1889. After William Vaughan collapsed and died in 1903 on his way to the factory, his family moved away.
During the First World War Enderley was used rent-free by the Red Cross as a hospital for sick and wounded soldiers which was supervised and financed by William Martin of Chulmleigh. The house was renamed Sydney House in his honour for that was where he had lived when he made his fortune in the wool trade in Australia.
After the war the house was used by Devon County Council as an ‘Open-Air School’ for delicate children suffering from pre-tuberculosis and asthma. The regime in the school was strict and the conditions spartan and children often felt homesick. When the Second World War started the Devon children were joined by evacuees who needed special care.
On 19th February 1942 fire swept through the building and fifty-four children were rescued and taken next door to the Conservative Club but five boys were discovered to be missing and, despite heroic efforts to rescue them, died in their top floor dormitory.
The house was demolished in 1950 and a lot of the building materials were sold off and used in the locality. One pair of wrought iron gates are now at the Warren Lane entrance to Rack Park gardens.
In 2002, sixty years after the boys’ deaths a commemoration ceremony was held in Torrington attended by relatives of four of the boys as well as survivors and staff from Sydney House and North Devon dignitaries. A stone was placed at the grave of one of the boys in the cemetery and a memorial plaque was unveiled by a survivor of the fire and dedicated by the Bishop of Exeter at the entrance to South Street car park (renamed Sydney House car park). The large slab of stone, to which the plaque was attached, was once part of Sydney House and had been used for years as a doorstep to a stable in Little Torrington. The owners donated the stone for the memorial.
At the end of the book about Sydney House by Susan Scrutton and Harry Cramp, they say that most people who were affected by this event ‘have expressed gratitude that a suitable tribute is being paid to the boys who lost their young lives and feel that it finally closes a tragic part of Great Torrington’s history’.