Page updated 29th October 2015
The crossroads formed by the High Street, Sidwell Street and Paris Street, New North Road is a postwar construct created out of the destruction of most of the buildings in the area through war and modernisation. Newcomers to Exeter won't be aware, but the area occupied by Waterstones was once London Inn Square, also named New London Inn Square in the first part of the 19th century.
Longbrook Street and Sidwell Street once met in what was almost a point somewhere to the right hand side of Waterstones. Set back towards the rear of the Waterstones site, was the New London Inn and the area in the front formed the London Inn Square. The inn was built at the rear of the square in 1793-94 for Mr John Land on the site of the Oxford Inn, which had closed in March 1790. The New London Inn opened on 17 July 1794.
At right angles and to the left of the New London Inn was a mixed terrace of buildings known as Northernhay Place, which stretched up the hill, towards the entrance to Northernhay Park. The second building in the terrace was the Royal Public Rooms, built in 1820. It became the Hippodrome in 1908 and the Plaza Cinema in 1931. It is now the site of Boots.
The right side of the London Inn Square consisted of a couple of shops at the point formed by Sidwell and Longbrook Street. In 1898, could be found Thomas Edmund Bartlett fruiterer and Mousell Brothers, furniture depository. By 1939 only one business was listed, the fruiterer, Henry Hill.
London Inn Square has seen numerous interesting events. Many visitors crossed the square by foot or in a carriage to enter the inn or attend a ball or variety show at the Royal Public Rooms and the later Hippodrome and Plaza Cinema. Princess Victoria addressed a crowd from her carriage, while Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Dickens and Jane Austin have all passed across the cobbles of the square.
There was a rivalry between the Trinity boys' and the St Mary Major boys' when beating the bounds of the city, in the first half of the 19th Century. When the two factions met at the end of the bounds, in London Inn Square, then there a fight would often break out between the young men of each side. The parishioners sometimes were obliged to intervene, there being no police force then.
Two Theatre Royals were positioned at the meeting point of Longbrook Street and New North Road, and it was the tragic fire that destroyed the first, in September 1887 with the loss of 186 lives that saw some of the most distressing scenes in London Inn Square. A poem written by William Topaz McGonagal, at the time, has the verse:
shrieks of those trying to escape were fearful to hear,
Especially the cries of those who had lost their friends most dear;
Oh, the scene was most painful in the London Inn Square,
To see them wringing their hands and tearing their hair!
In 1935, the New London Inn was demolished to make way for the Savoy Cinema, which covered the same footprint as the old hotel. The only building to survive the bombing of May 1942 was the Savoy - the southern end of Northernhay Place was destroyed when the Plaza Cinema was hit by a single, high explosive bomb. The High Street, opposite and the end of Sidwell Street were also destroyed.
The post war rebuilding saw the square shrink in size, as the High Street was widened and a realignment of the roads created a squared off Sidwell and Longbrook Street junction and a tower block Debenhams. Then in 1963 and 1964 thousands of young fans queued, and no doubt screamed in the square, when the Beatles played three shows at the ABC. In 1980, a vigil for the murdered John Lennon was held there.
McGahey's the tobacconnist had a kiosk in the square, and it was also a favoured pitch for the local Forte's Icecream seller. Many will remember the wooden information kiosk, in front of the ABC, from which you could purchase tickets for the Northcott Theatre.
Strangely, the council website still refers to London Inn Square in a plan to refurbish the High Street, even though there is no longer a trace of what was arguably one of Exeter's most interesting and colourful places.
Source: Various sources including Kelly's street directories - photo from the 1950's courtesy of John Watson, James Cossins, Exeter Fifty Years Since.
The ABC/Savoy was built on the footprint of the New London Inn and Boots on the site of the Hippodrome. Photo John Watson.
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