There is very little that remains of the Exeter I knew as a boy some eighty years ago. I was then just five years of age. A few weeks after my birth I was brought to Exeter by my parents from my birthplace in Bournemouth and left in the care of an elderly lady, a Mrs West. She was known locally as Nurse West. I was from then on brought up by this lady; the year was 1923-24. I remained with her until I was thirteen during which time there were occasional visits by my parents who had settled and found more regular employment in Sidmouth.
Mrs West lived in a very small terrace house on the banks of the canal a few yards from The Welcome Inn, which still is there today, but the row of small houses have long gone. The house occupied by Mrs West consisted of one small room with a coal fire and oven, the front door opened directly into this room. Beyond, through an opening there was a tiny room no bigger than a large cupboard. On the rough earthen floor stood a gas cooker from here a narrow steep staircase led up to two bedrooms. Under the stairs there was the coal hole. The only lighting was given by two gas brackets over the fireplace, in the front room, and one over the gas cooker – there was no light in the upstairs rooms. There was no water in the house, or any toilet. Water had to be carried in from an adjoining yard in which stood three toilets, one for each of the first three houses in the terrace, these toilets were very primitive, consisting of three rough wooden compartments, each with a wooden seat containing the usual aperture. Underneath there was a bucket which a man came and emptied weekly by which time there was no shortage of flies or smell to attract them. Naturally, being a baby, I knew nothing of these matters, it would be when I was four or five that I have any memories of these Dickensian conditions and for some time as I had known no other, just accepted them.
As I grew and came to be more aware of my surroundings I came to understand just how very poor Nurse West was and what a day to day struggle life was for her. Her only income was a brown ten shilling note her weekly old age pension (50p today) and now and then a few shillings whenever my father came to see us, but that was not often. She did have a reputation among the local people as a nurse and being able to help when anyone became sick, they often came to her. She would mix medicines, visit the sick and give advice to the family on care for the patient who nearly always recovered. She never made any charge, but those who were working would always give whatever they could afford. She also had one other income but I will tell you, the reader, of this later.
Nevertheless, in spite of her poverty I cannot ever recall a single day when I went hungry , nor yet were my clothes shabby, patched and repaired yes, but respectable.
From a young age I addressed her as Grandma and to my friends as my Granny and even though my father said she was not my real Granny (he did not tell me who my real granny was ) to me she was and will always remain my Granny. She was so poor and I very clearly remember at the end of a week she would send me up to a small shop in West Street to buy a farthing (a quarter of an old penny) packet of tea enough to make just one pot,. Many years later, just before he died my father told me that he had never known his father or mother and Nurse West had brought him up. However that is another story for another time.
My memories of my schooling are very hazy. At age five I was sent to St Nicholas', situated in Mint Lane at the top of Fore Street hill. The school was run and staffed by the Nuns from the nearby Convent. My only clear memory is how very strict and ready to use the cane with a heavy hand they were. However I was never a victim of these extreme punishments. Later when I was older I moved into the Mint Methodist boys only school, also in Mint Lane. Once more I remember little of the lessons or the teachers. Geography and reading were my favourites. It is strange but I never remember been I was taught to read, but read I did, from a very early age. My journey to school took me across the river on the ferry (fare a half penny) up Coombe Street then South Street; there was a short cut through the West Quarter instead of using Coombe Street. The West Quarter was an area in which the very poorest people of the City lived in the most crowded unsanitary conditions, and I was warned that if I went through it I would catch some terrible disease or be robbed of the little I had. True to form as a young child I did just the opposite and often cut through this forbidden territory and never came to any harm.
In the years of my youth, between the ages of six to twelve the canal and the wonderful sweep of fields, orchards and farmlands through which the river and canal flowed to the sea were one huge adventure playground for me and my friends to explore. Explore we did, letting our imaginations take us where it would – one day we were cowboys fighting the redskins, another we were explorers looking for lost cities in the jungle, and when a ship came up the canal we became pirates ready to board her and seize the treasure. Sometimes as a ship was passing through Double Locks we would call to the master and ask if we might come aboard. On very rare occasions we were waved aboard and we imagined we had taken the ship. We never did manage to get the crew to walk the plank; we had in any case to jump ashore as the ship went through the next swing bridge. We roamed far and wide on those long warm summer days and we had perfect freedom. There was never any need for anyone to worry about us, it is so sad that world of youthful joy and freedom has gone forever. At the ferry, which was run at that time by a family named Gregory, there were kept several rowing boats for hire. They also had a floating pontoon at Shooting Marsh Stile from which there was a larger selection of boats for hire. These boats were designed mainly for two people, at the stern (back) was a seat with a backrest and armrests either side for the passenger, usually a lady. Further forward was the seat for the person who was to row (always a man). The passenger (the lady) was supposed to steer the boat by pulling on one of two cords that moved the rudder.
In summer these boats became a small source of income for us.
On the warm, long evenings young men and their ladies would flock down to the river hire a boat and row down to The Double Locks. After a drink or two they would row back. After a while many pulled in to the side and wandered off into the fields to continue their courting. We would wait at Double Locks until most of the couples had left and then slowly walk back along the tow path. When we spotted an abandoned boat we jumped aboard and then row it back, picking up any other boats that had been left. On returning them we were rewarded, usually about a half penny a boat, which was very quickly spent in the nearest sweet shop on Haven Road. In Cotfield Street, situated a few yards further down the canal from our house, there was another sweet shop known by all as Mrs Warren's. This lady had opened this small shop by using the front room of her house. While we boys sometimes spent our halfpennies, when we were lucky to have one, at her shop, it was always a bit of a nervous experience. She regarded us with a suspicious eye and was careful to see our money first for which we were given the exact weight, then shooed out.
The main reason we felt a little nervous was not her manner, but it was her appearance. Almost the whole of one side of her face was terribly disfigured with a vivid red wine birthmark. Looking back I can only wonder at the courage with which she went through her life, to open a shop and face the public every day – no wonder she was grumpy with a bunch of young boys.
At that period in time (1925-1935 ) Exeter was still a busy maritime port and the ships, from far and near, continued bringing a wide variety of cargo. Timber, oil, coal and wines were just a few of these. When ships from across the channel arrived, they often brought the French Onion boys, who could be seen with their bicycles on the ships deck, with all their long strings of onions. As soon as they got ashore, off they went their cycles, festooned with onions, selling from door to door. Many of the ships were sailing ships with only a small engine as a standby. When in the canal they were towed by two large powerful shire horses. There was a stable built at the side of The Welcome Inn for two of these horses – these stables have long ago been knocked down to make room for cars to park, but the back wall of the stables may still be seen.
Steam driven ships were kept to a strict speed limit to avoid creating a wash which would damage the banks of the canal. These coastal steamships of The Everard Shipping Company brought coal from Blyth in Northumberland for the Exeter Gaslight & Coke Company. The Ardasity and the Alacrity berthed just inside the Basin dock and their cargo was discharged into railway wagons where a small tank engine (much like Thomas the Tank Engine) then took them into the gas works. The engine driver was a Mr Reginald Hamilton; he lived in a brick built terraced house, owned by the gas company, on the canal banks at the end of Cotfield Street. He always carried a handful of sweets in his pockets just to give to children when he passed them at play. Both he and his wife knew my father and mother before I was born and when my parents came to see me they always went to visit them. They had five daughters; the eldest Vera, married the cook from one of the coal ships. His name was Charles Hodges. After the wedding, he left the ships and took his bride back to his home in London. The remaining four daughters, starting with the eldest, were Doreen, Phyllis, Beryl and Eileen. Of these, it is to Phyllis I now turn.
When my granny became too frail and unable to care for me (I was then almost 13 years of age), it was Phyllis who did what she could to help her. She chopped wood, fetched coal and kept a fire going, she brought hot soup and other food that her mother had prepared. Phyllis who was 15, also had to go to work to help bring a little money for her family, but still did all she could for my granny. Many long years later I was to learn of the debt Phyllis and her family owed to my granny, whom they called Nurse West. Of this I will tell you later in my story – meanwhile let us return to the Basin dock and the coal ships. Mr Hamilton, on the few occasions while he waited for the trucks to be filled, let me climb onto the engine footplate and show me how the controls were used. There was one other motor ship that was a regular visitor. She was the oil tanker of the Shell Oil Company; her name was The Ben Johnson. She always berthed at the far end of the Basin and discharged the oil through large pipes to the oil storage tanks in the nearby depot. Other vessels brought a variety of cargo, some to be taken away in railway wagons, some to be stored in warehouses.
Depending on their cargo, other ships would enter the river and sail up to berth at the quay, situated at the Customs House and the nearby Bonded Warehouse. There were also many other warehouses along the quay and in Commercial Road.
Across the river from the quay, opposite the Shilhay, there was a large piece of rough waste ground, sandwiched between the river and Haven Road. On this piece of land, two or three times a year, the travelling fun fair of Anderson & Rowland would be set up. Even though we boys had no money, we managed to enjoy ourselves, with all those bright lights, the loud music from the many roundabouts and the calling of the Barkers – we just could not fail to be happy in such a wonderland. For me one of the most fascinating sights were the three or four huge showman's traction engines standing along the Haven Road, all spotlessly clean, each thundering away, supplying the power for all the lights, roundabouts and many side shows, one of which was the Boxing tent.
The Boxing tent was always a big attraction for us young boys. Before it opened the Barker would parade several muscular men on a raised platform, and invite any man in the watching crowd to box any of his men. Should the challenger survive and still be on his feet at the end of three rounds he would win a sum of money. I cannot recall just how much that sum of money was, but it must have been a good one, for there were always plenty of men willing to try their luck, but very few ever succeeded and came away empty handed. As we had no money to pay to go in we would go round to the back of the tent, find a place where the canvas was a bit slack, when there was a lot of excitement and shouting from inside, and we would quickly crawl under.
Sometimes, if we were seen by one of the men in the audience, they would pull us in, and put us forward, so we could see better. We saw many fights, this way, but there was one in particular I well remember. One day a challenger stepped forward, and a murmur went round the crowd, for although I did not know, until my friend told me, he was a local heavy weight champion. There was a big rush to get in, and my friend and I managed to slip in with the crowd, all wanting a place close to the ringside. The result was a forgone conclusion. However the Barker who was also the referee must have been told what was happening and tried to extend the last round but the crowd got wise and he was forced to ring the bell. Then he declared it was an unfair fight as the challenger was a professional boxer, the crowd and would have started a free for all so the prize money was handed over and the victor thanked the crowd and went on his way.
Directly across the river opposite the fairground, on land we now call The Shilhay, stood large stacks of timber, put there to weather, before it could be used for building, This was the property of the timber merchants Gabriel, Wade & English. In those days, this piece of land was an island. Up stream, near the Exe Bridge, while the main river flowed on, part of it ran into a small creek (Coneylake Ed.) that then rejoined the river at the quay, there by making the Shilhay an island. This creek was very dark and creepy, hemmed in on one side by tall stacks of timber, and on the other, by the backs of warehouses. My friend and I, while returning a boat left on the canal, decided to explore this creek. We entered at the bridge end, but before long wished we had not, for not only was it creepy, it was a breeding place for rats that seemed to be everywhere. Needless to say, we rowed as if the Devil himself was chasing us, we were thankful to reach the quay, and the open river.
Situated on Haven Road, not far from the Basin, stood a large imposing building from which as you passed you heard a soft humming. This was Exeter's Electricity Power Station. We had tried to see inside but always chased away by one of the workers. One evening, just as it was getting dark, I was on my way home. It all seemed quiet as I walked quickly up the steps to the main doors, which were still open. As there was no one about, I gently opened the inner door and looked in. I was amazed to see it was one huge long and high hall. The walls were covered with shining tiles, and everything was spotlessly clean, even the handrails and floors. Down the centre, were the giant dynamos giving out that gentle humming we had heard and wondered about. To me it was just like something out of a science fiction magazine. Somebody must have spotted me and shouted. I was off like a rocket, and got home in record time, but I had at last seen the inside of the power station.
Next to the power station, and separated by the railway track that ran from the Basin docks, was the large sawmill of Claridges. To these. I often would see large tree trunks, on long pole wagons, drawn by teams of two or four shire horses, moving slowly along Haven Road on their way to the sawmill. There, the tree trunks were cut into planks or square lengths of various sizes.
Adjoining the saw mills was the gas works from which the railway track emerged and ran down to the coal ships.
During the day from early morning until evening this whole area was alive with the sound and bustle of men going about their widely different tasks together with the hum and noise of wagons mixing with machinery of all kinds, it was the beating heart of an old and proud city.
The land opposite my granny's cottage, that divides the canal and river, must at some time been a market garden, but had long ago been abandoned and just grew wild. However the rows of fruit bushes, although overgrown by long grass, still bore fruit in abundance, and we would fill bowls with redcurrants, raspberries and blackcurrants, and take them home, to be made into jellies and jam. We also explored along the river bank and, using thin string and bent pin, tried fishing but we never even had a nibble. In summer we could walk across Trew's Weir, for the river only trickled over, but in winter, when the river was in full flow, it was a raging torrent. Trew's Weir served two purposes; first it held the river back and maintained the level of water in the canal, which it fed through lock gates. It also, via a small leat on the far side, fed the nearby Trew's Mill to power its machinery. One day we discovered an old boat, it had been pulled out of the water and left. It must have been there a long time for it was overgrown with grass and weeds. In the bottom there was a loose and broken plank which we supposed was why it had been abandoned. This we decided would be our pirate ship, and set to work. First we obtained an old orange box; someone got some nails we and borrowed a hammer from his dad. Using wood from the orange box, we covered the hole and supported the loose plank. Then we launched our ship – she seemed sea worthy, so time to climb aboard and hoist The Jolly Roger. As soon as we did, she filled with water and sank. Fortunately, as we were still at the river bank, we were able to wade ashore. So we left our ship to the mercy of the river and trudged homeward, wondering what excuse we could give for our wet clothes.
There was one part of the river that was not usually used by us, just on odd occasions, as it was mainly a business and small industry area. This was upstream of the Exe Bridge between the bridge and St David’s Railway Station. Running along parallel with the river is Bonhay Road. Starting at the bridge end lay the cattle market, between the road and the river, next various buildings, possibly all connected with the market and farming, then came a large mill that manufactured a wide variety of paper, just above this mill there was another weir, this allowed water to run down a leat and provide power to operate the mill. Further up the river there was a section marked out with floating tree trunks, where bathing was permitted, and was the reason we strayed so far from our usual territory. Access was via a small iron gate, situated close to the railway viaduct, and down a path to a large iron clad shed in which you could change. Last summer I took a walk along the Bonhay Road; the little gate is still there, hanging on by its rusty hinges and secured with a padlock, old and rusted, whose key I suspect has long been lost. The path is overgrown, and all else demolished – only memories remained.
People say it is a mistake to return to the past, and perhaps for some that may be true, but for me while I see how much the never never land, of my youth, has gone forever, I will always have only happy memories. All of what I have described so far, are of my young days in the warm and mainly dry sunny days of spring, summer and early autumn, but the winters were a different matter altogether.
Roland Hugh Tuson © 2013
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