Page updated 14th February 2018
This carved statue of St Peter holding a church and the keys of heaven, while trampling the Devil, once stood on the corner of High Street and North Street, at ground floor level, with a money box for offerings below. When the corner was rebuilt in the first years of the 19th Century, it was moved to first floor level. The rebuild of the corner in 1892, for Exports, saw it moved to a high ledge on the front, on the High Street.
It is thought that the figure dates from the late 15th or early 16th-century. Carved from oak, it is not typical of local work, nor of English carving. It was originally under the care, and repaired and repainted by the Dean and Chapter. Part of the figure fell off in 1868, leading to an article in the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette about its history–Mr J Cowan was contracted by Holman Ham to restore it in the same year. The museum speculates that it may have been carved locally by an immigrant artisan from Germany or the Low Countries. It is also possible that it is French in origin where similar figures can be found on house façades, especially around Morlaix in Brittany. There are records of a French immigrant community, in Exeter, from when it was carved.
The location is still referred to as 'St Peter's Corner'. The building housed the West of England Fire Insurance Company between 1809 and 1821 and then Holman Ham from about 1830. When the building was replaced, in 1892 for J Hepworth and Son, the statue was moved from the corner to an elaborate niche and platform over the front of the new shop in the High Street. In 1906, a comment in the Gazette lamented the placing of the figure in such a high position, and to make the point, reproduced this poem.
FATHER PETER’S CHRISTMAS LAMENT
Now many a year I have been aloft,
Out of sight and out of mind;
In winter’s snow, and summer heat;
In storm and tempest, rain and wind.
No pitying eye looks up to me.
The trams and cabs go rushing by.
Visitors trot up and down,
But poor old Peter’s up too high.
Looking across the busy street,
I see a corner snug and warm
Against the church, now trim and neat,
Protected from the winter’s storm.
Please take me down, and that once,
So that I may see the life, as yore,
And view it from some happier place,
Some sheltered nook, or the old church door.
Take me down, niche and all,
And put me up, it is my will,
Outside far-famed St Petrock’s Church,
For I am old Father Peter still.
The statue remained in its lofty post–in 1929, another part fell from the statue and injured a girl. In the next year Hepworth's spent £94 restoring the statue and offered it to the council for a payment of £40 towards the repair—the council accepted the offer, and it was allowed to remain in position.
The figure was removed from its position in the High Street, in 1986, to the museum where it has been carefully conserved. Decayed wood has been consolidated in resin and the whole painted in colours that are thought to be representative of the style at the time of its carving. The Devil was replaced at the end of the 19th-century.
There was a plan to place the statue back on its niche, but it was considered to be too fragile. Then the museum considered using a new laser technology to scan the statue in three dimensions and build a life size replica, using a computer controlled prototype modeling machine. The statue would have to be sent to Liverpool for laser scanning, and the total cost was to be about £20,000, a sum thought to be excessive for the recessionary times of 2010.
A similar figure was once placed over the entrance of the Broadgate, facing the Cathedral. Whether there is any connection between the two is unknown.
Sources: Exeter and Plymouth Gazette.
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