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Exeter Stories

Exeter folk and friends in their own words - 1890's to the 1990's │ << Previous story │ Next story >>  │

James Bell - Exeter in the 30's and 40's


My Family

My parents were members of the strict Plymouth Brethren. They had seven sons and five daughters, all born in Exeter. I was number 11. Father was an auditor and worked for the Ministry of Health in Dix's Field, which was burned down in the blitz. My father was a conscientious objector in the first war, and six of his sons during the second emergency. My eldest brother Gilbert, DFC. was a flight lieutenant in the RAF. He flew Lancaster bombers and was killed in May 1944, on his 73 mission. We were never the less very proud of him. Four of my sisters became trained nurses and midwives.

Father would not have a wireless in the house, novels, magazines, cinemas, theatres, dancing, were all a no, no. Smoking and alcohol were banned. To do any of these things would entail being excluded from the Brethren fellowship, as was associating with any one out side of the fellowship. Before the war we did not even have a newspaper. I remember when they first arrived, (in 1938) father said it was important for us to know any government announcements. Because of this, it made us more observant, and you tended to soak up everything like a sponge, and talk about it among ourselves. Every evening before 9pm my father would leave the house and listen outside a house where they had the 9 o'clock news on loud, mostly at the bottom of Richmond Road. He would then come back and report on what he had heard. He would discuss the Political, Economic, Social, and Military, implications, and say we live in historical times children, historical times.

We had large maps on the wall in which we followed the course of the war, with postage size paper flags pinned to the map, they sold these paper flags in packets from Woolworth's. British, German. American, in fact all nations that were involved.

We did not go to school outfitters, but each August, large laundry size baskets would arrive from Cornishes, or Thomas Tucker, containing complete sets of uniform for each of the children, including underwear and shoes. These were in various sizes, qualities and prices, we would try them on in the front room, keep what we wanted and send the remainder back. Father paid everything by monthly account.

Flowerpot Fields and Bonhay

I understand that in the 1920s and early 1930s Flowerpot Fields was largely a marsh, low down almost level with the the river. It was then that a deep cutting was made just beyond the railway bridge. I do remember that there were some railway sidings adjacent to the railway, and a single railway viaduct which crossed the cutting, The metal trellis falling to pieces during the 1940s.

Flowerpot became the Corporation rubbish dump, and the whole level was raised by at least six feet. It was at this time that the concrete river walls, and the lower weir was rebuilt. The dump attracted rats and they soon could be seen in thousands, they swam across the river, and went into the houses, of Exe Street, Bonhay Road, Rock Side, and Haldon Road. I used to stand by the weir with my brothers, and shoot at them with catapult's.

Bathing in the Exe

The path that led from Bonhay Road to the bathing area, was tarmac and was shielded from the base of the railway bank by a six foot railing. In the summer a Walls Ice cream man used to come down the path on his three wheel bike which had a strongbox attached to it, full of various ice creams, and sell his wares to the bathers.

The Head Weir bathing area was first started immediately above the upper weir, in the late 1920s. I think you can still see a concrete platform next to Bonhay Road. Owing to a number of drownings, due to bathers being sucked down into the leat, which went under the road and emerged at the bottom of Exe Street, the Head Weir bathing area was moved up river, three hundred yards down from the rail bridge. A large area was given over to this - changing huts for both male and female, toilets, and showers and facilities for young children.

There was a long concrete apron from which was fixed a diving board. There was a charge for admission. This facility was run by the city council, the same staff who worked at the swimming pool in the High Street - its entrance near where Lloyd's Bank is today. One of the staff only had one arm. It was only opened during the summer months and was closed in bad weather or when the river was in flood. The entrance was by the railway arch, a long path following the base of the railway embankment to the bathing area. I never heard it referred to as a lido. only "Head Weir."

© 2005 James Bell - David Cornforth

James Bell - was born in Exeter in 1932, to a Plymouth Brethren family,and was one of twelve children. This article is one of five edited selections from a series of emails I received relating his memories of Exeter. There is a short biography of James' son, Stephen Bell, the mountaineer, in Exeter People.

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