Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was born in Barton Road, Torquay on the 15th of September 1890 and was christened in All Saints Church in Torre, just a five minute walk away from Villa Marina. She grew up in the area and returned in her later years to enjoy her beloved Devon. Her father was Frederick Miller, a rich American with an income from his late grandfather’s business in New York, and her mother, Clarissa (Clara) Bohemer, a British aristocrat. It was Clara who first took the family to Torquay, having bought a delightful Victorian house, Ashfield, surrounded by a pretty wooded garden on the edges of town. Visitors to the house included the novelist, poet and dramatist Eden Phillpotts who remained a firm friend of Christie until his death in 1960.
Agatha’s home life was idyllic, the youngest of three children enjoying the peaceful garden with her beloved dog, Toby. An incredibly shy child, her parents decided that she should be educated at home where she was encouraged to be imaginative and creative. At her mother’s suggestion, she tried her hand at writing and her first published work, a poem about electric trams, was printed in a newspaper when she was just 11 years old. Later in a BBC radio interview she explained “So by the time I was 16 or 17, I’d written quite a number of short stories and one long, dreary novel. By the time I was 21, I had finished the first book of mine ever to be published, the Mysterious Affair at Styles. I’d sent it to one or two publishers who didn’t want it and eventually it went to John Lane. About a year later, I heard it had been accepted. Well, that’s how it began.”
As a young lady Agatha enjoyed roller-skating with friends on Princess Pier, listening to concerts in the Pavilion and bathing at the ladies’ beach, Beacon Cove.
Her mother made certain that Agatha’s education was not neglected and, in 1906, she was sent to Paris to attend a finishing school. While there, she earned a reputation as a gifted singer and showed a talent for music. There was, in fact, some discussion about the possibility of Agatha becoming a professional singer, but the notion passed as her tutor described her as far too nervous to endure public performance. However, her love of music and drama was to remain a strong influence throughout her life.
She met her first husband, Lt. Archie Christie in Torquay. After attending a concert at the Pavilion they returned to Ashfield where he proposed marriage. Married on Christmas Eve 1914 they enjoyed their honeymoon night at Torquay’s Grand Hotel before Archie left to fight in the First World War.
It was whilst Archie was serving in France during the first World War that Agatha began working as a nurse for the Red Cross Hospital in Torquay’s Town Hall. She was later transferred to the dispensary where she qualified as a pharmacist and acquired her detailed knowledge of poisons – central to the plot of ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’ (1920) her first published novel.
The world around her in Torquay and elsewhere was full of people and places that would feature in her works. In 1915 Torquay became home to a number of refugees from German occupied Belgium and one small Belgian, spotted by Agatha on a tram, became the model for Hercule Poirot her most famous detective. The name Hercule is a pun on the small stature of this famous detective.
Agatha and Archie had one daughter, Rosalind born in 1919, but sadly the marriage became an unhappy one, ending in divorce in 1928. Determined to move forward, Agatha developed another of her life’s many interests by visiting an archaeological dig in Iraq. It was on her second dig that she met the charming archaeologist Max Mallowan, 14 years her junior, and they married in 1930. Agatha continued to join him on many digs in the Middle East and her fascination with the archaeology and lifestyle of the great explorers were to inspire a number of her later works including Death on the Nile.
Max Mallowan’s contribution to archaeology was honoured in 1960 with a CBE and in 1968 with a Knighthood, giving them the titles Sir Max and Lady Mallowan. In 1971 Agatha was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
Mr and Mrs Mallowan bought the estate at Greenway in 1938 as their summer residence. Already a prominent house with a renowned botanical collection, the house became a perfect second home for Agatha and her family. They were all inveterate collectors and the house was filled with a collection of antiquities gathered during their extensive travels. Agatha never worked at Greenway but she would read her current manuscript to the family before it was published. Agatha’s daughter, Rosalind, moved to Greenway in 1968 and lived there until her death in 2004.
In 1962 Christie had tried to save her beloved Ashfield from development and was disappointed to visit the location later to find that only a single monkey puzzle tree remained. Ashfield may have been lost to development but Rosalind and her family were determined that Greenway would be preserved. They gifted the estate to the National Trust in 1999. The gardens and the house are open to the public and further details can be found at www.nationaltrust.org.uk.
In 2006 a sale of treasures from her South Devon home made £303,000. A first edition of Death on the Nile was the top selling book in the auction reaching a price of £2,400!
Agatha Christie died on the 12th of January 1976 at the age of 85. She had published 79 crime novels, 19 plays and 6 romantic novels under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott. Described by the Guinness Book of Records as the best selling writer of books of all time she published one billion books in the English language and a further one billion in 43 other languages.
Christie’s Grandson, Mathew Prichard is now Chairman of the company that owns the right to her works. Agatha loved her grandson, regularly sending him advance copies of her books while he was away at school and even giving him the copyright to The Mousetrap as a present for his tenth birthday.
Across the English Riviera you will find many locations linked with Agatha’s life and works. Many are easily accessible or open to the public and all combine to make a visit to the home of the Queen of Crime a must for all fans.
The Agatha Christie Mile
The Agatha Christie Mile was established in 1990, her centenary year, and marks 11 specific locations along a one mile route around Torquay seafront, each marked by a centenary plaque.
It was here at the Grand Hotel in Torquay that Agatha and Archie Miller spent their honeymoon night after their wedding in Bristol on Christmas Eve 1914.Two days later Agatha travelled up to London with her new husband and waved him goodbye as he set off for war in France.
It was to be 6 months before they would see each other again and nearly four years before their married life could really begin. The Grand Hotel now has an Agatha Christie Suite. The hotel’s popular restaurant and bar have fine sea views and are well worth a stop on your tour of the Agatha Christie Mile.
The Agatha Christie Exhibition at Torquay Museum includes a delightful image of Agatha as a young lady in her fine, feathered hat enjoying roller-skating along the pier with her friends. Skating on the pier cost tuppence and was a noisy and bumpy affair but incredibly popular!
Opened in 1894, the Princess Gardens in Torquay were built to a classic Victorian design with an ornate fountain, rich flower beds and of course the famous Torbay Palms imported from New Zealand. Agatha was doubtless a frequent visitor to the gardens and they featured in the ABC murders.
This elegant building was opened in 1912 as a grand concert hall. Agatha had a great love of music and attended many concerts here. In early 1913 she enjoyed a Wagnerian concert with Archie Christie, who she later married.
Always at the heart of Torquay this busy thoroughfare was a popular meeting place in Agatha’s day. Young Agatha would have shopped here with her mother at the exclusive department store William and Cox, now Hoopers.
Agatha Christie Bust
This bust was crafted and erected in Agatha Christie’s centenary year and is the only one anywhere in the world. It was unveiled by her daughter, Mrs Rosalind Hicks and is the work of Dutch sculptor Carol Van Den Boom-Cairns. The bust is situated in Torquay sea front.
Agatha Christie Shop
The Agatha Christie shop is immediately adjacent to the bust and stocks a wide range of Agatha Christie books and DVDs are available.
Agatha’s father was a Fellow of the prestigious Torquay Natural History Society, which managed the original collections of the museum, many excavated from Kents Cavern. In 1990 the museum established the Agatha Christie Exhibition with the help of the Christie Family.
It contains many previously unseen images of the Queen of Crime and provides a fascinating insight into her life and her works.
Royal Torbay Yacht Club
Torbay boasts some of the finest sailing waters around the UK and includes in its rich maritime history the first modern day tall ships race and the 1947 Olympic watersports. In her autobiography Agatha talks fondly of the club, of which her father Frederick was a prominent member.
He would visit the yacht club daily to play cards, read the newspapers and chat with friends; a routine that would change in the summer months when he would devote his time to his role as President of the Torquay Cricket Club.
At the turn of the century, Beacon Cove was known as the Ladies’ Bathing Cove although the men of the Royal Torbay Yacht Club were regularly seen at the club window, hoping for a glimpse of the female bathers!
As a teenager Agatha got in to difficulty whilst swimming out from the cove and was spotted by a boatman who helped her from the water and returned her to the cove. The Cove is accessed by a footpath behind Living Coasts and is now a quiet and peaceful place from where to watch the sea birds preening on nearby rocks.
In the opening chapter of Peril at End House the Imperial Hotel (renamed the Majestic), is described by Hastings as….”In its own grounds on the headland overlooking the sea. The gardens of the hotel lay below us freely interspersed with palm trees. The sea was of a deep and lovely blue.”
The terrace of the hotel is also the setting for the final chapter of ‘Sleeping Murder’, Miss Marple’s final mystery. Agatha attended many social occasions here and the hotel still reflects the elegance and grandeur of that period.
Experience the ambience and elegance with a delicious afternoon tea served in the Palm Lounge and enjoy panoramic views over the Bay.
Agatha’s father was a fellow of the Natural History Society and helped finance the excavations. Kents Cavern appears as Hempsley Cavern in ‘The Man in the Brown Suit’, published in 1924, several years before her own interest in archaeology was stimulated by a trip to the Middle East.
Marple and Poirot never met in any of the Christie books but in 1990, in celebration of the writer’s centenary, the two actors known best for representing Marple and Poirot, Joan Hickson and David Suchet, met at Torquay Station. Miss Marple held out her hand and, in his unique style, Poirot raised it to his lips and kissed it to the delight of the watching crowd.
Torquay Town Hall
During WW1, the town hall was used as a Red Cross Hospital and when Agatha joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment she worked here as a nurse. In 1915 she transferred to the dispensary where she acquired her knowledge of poisons, which later proved such an integral part of her writing. The public can visit the foyer of the Town Hall which is open during normal office hours.
All Saints Church Torre
Agatha was baptised at All Saints Church and regularly attended Sunday services. Her father made a financial donation to the church and ensured that Agatha was entered in the records as a founder member. Visitors are welcome and guided tours are available on request. Telephone 01803 328865.
Agatha enjoyed riding through Cockington estate. Visitors today can take a horse and carriage ride through hidden gardens and along the grand driveway to Cockington Court. In the 1900s, Cockington Court was home to the Mallocks, friends of the Miller family. Amateur theatricals were often organised and Agatha was encouraged to take part in the open air dramatics on the lawns in front of the house! Cockington Court and Country Park are open all year round.
Built in 1874 for Isaac Singer, creator of the famous sewing machine, Agatha came to this magnificent mansion to attend social dances that were held in the lavish ballroom. Oldway Mansion is open to the public and includes a free exhibition of the Singer family and the history of the house.
Churston Ferrers, Brixham
Agatha was a frequent visitor to this pretty village, nestled between Paignton and Brixham, near to her summer residence at Greenway. She attended St Mary the Virgin Church, which she later helped by endowing the beautiful stained glass east window. After church Agatha would often take lunch at Churston Court with Lord and Lady Churston. The Manor is now a period Inn with a popular bar and restaurant.
Paignton and Dartmouth Steam Railway
Agatha loved train travel. Her journey on the Orient Express to Baghdad was to inspire her 1934 novel. Hercule Poirot arrived at Churston Station (named as Nassecombe Station) to join the mystery in ‘Dead Man’s Folly’. The station also appears in ‘The ABC Murders’. This steam railway route provides an ideal car free route to Greenway with beautiful footpaths from the station to the house (2 miles).
Greenway is a beautiful country house with a woodland garden on the banks of the River Dart. Of all its well-known owners it is Agatha Christie who is best known to visitors. She bought the estate in 1938 and used it as her summer residence until her death in 1976 . Greenway was given to the National Trust by Agatha’s daughter and family in 1999. The glorious gardens were opened to the public in 2004 and the trust restored the house and catalogued the many personal collections inside before opening it to the public in 2009.
Agatha Christie Festival
The next annual Agatha Christie Festival will be taking place from 9th – 16th September 2012 and is co-ordinated by the Torbay Cultural Partnership. The week is part of a nation-wide celebration of the life and works of the most published novelist of all time. Events range from talks of the famous crime writer, street performances, creative writing workshops, screenings of Agatha Christie classics on film and murder mystery evenings.