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Exeter Stories

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

Olive Johnson - life and poverty in the thirties


Old Exeter had such a cosy feel! Perhaps I am being too sentimental, but I really did love the city! I have memories that you could never imagine and I can hug them to myself, though some were not particularly praiseworthy.

As with any large community there are the black spots and Exeter was no exception. It had its slum areas and I can recall my experiences of them. My Mum was a very busy lady - a real church-worker. Having come from a very large Victorian family, well-heeled and wanting for very little, she was particularly concerned by the living conditions she found in some parts of Exeter. She had automatically taken on the duty of 'sick-visiting' church members and linked closely with this were the parents of Sunday School children, who were happy to have an hour or two to themselves whilst their children gathered together at the church hall at Palace Gate.

Two areas are deeply indented in my mind. One was a poor little family of a lone mother who lived in a couple of rooms, with her two children, in Coombe Street. This street ran directly across the bottom of South Street from Palace Gate - which led to the Cathedral Close and Bishop's Gate. Coombe Street was a curving road full of apartment buildings, stark and neglected. I remember visiting this family, when I was about five or six years of age and marvelling at the conditions in which this family lived - 'existed' may be a more suitable word. The mother was dying from TB, and was always in her bed, looking pale and ill and talking little because she was so frail. Her little son, just a year to two older than I was, used to get up early each morning to light a fire in the tiny grate in this bedroom, to keep his mother warm during the day when he was at school. He was taken by his sister, no more than eight years old, who did all the chores. I can still recall the smell of that place! Damp, dark, and a smell of dirt, if that can be so sensed. On a Sunday morning, my mother would wash these two kiddies and tidy their hair up a little, to take them to Sunday School to give their mother a couple of hours to herself. This was a normal ritual until their mother died and they were put into a children's home.

The other area was much 'nearer to home' ... right at the bottom of Weirfield Road! Here were rows of terraced houses in a street called Jubilee Street. Again, they were slums and probably rat-ridden being so close to the River Exe. On Sunday mornings, we would collect two little girls to take them to Sunday School - twins, but not identical because one of them had fair curly hair, which I envied. It was my job to call on them and bring them up to my Mum at 3, Weirfield Road, where we would then continue our walk to Palace Gate. I remember the neglected way in which they always turned up, particularly the curly-haired girl, whose hair was matted and unwashed. Clearly I can see these two kiddies, not a great deal younger than I was at the time, waiting for me to pick them up. Angels with dirty faces and clothes, but each child wearing a bright orange satin coatee, 6d from Woolworths, to make them look 'right' to meet all the other more cared-for children at the church hall. In such living conditions and probably with no money coming in, the heart seemed to have gone out of the inhabitants. It seemed to me that the disadvantaged and the privileged rubbed shoulders constantly in the twenties.

Illness and treatment

The 'fever ambulance' was seen often - the nurses carrying kiddies out of the houses wrapped in bright red blankets - whilst anxious neighbours huddled around watching the procedure. This was before the benefit of anti-biotics, when scarlet fever, TB, chicken pox, and all the other now rarely seen infectious illnesses, were part of life. It was quite normal for tonsils to be removed by a doctor on a prepared kitchen table! Gory indeed!

I remember that I was often taken down to our nearest chemist with a shop at the bottom of Holloway Street, a young man called George Wickham - whenever I had managed to acquire a wound or an imbedded splinter, which had 'gone septic'. He was a lovely fellow when it came to dealing with kiddies. He would open his arms and take me into his office, where my mother would describe my problem to him and he would examine the wound. He would then get hot water and cotton wool and stand this on a table, beside which was a large dish filled with tiny multicoloured candies. These always fascinated me and whilst I was deciding which of these delicacies I would choose, he was deftly treating my injury with such expertise that I hardly ever knew that he had finished! He would then pat me on the head and my Mum would proffer a few coppers, which he always refused - and it was all over, with a lovely new bandage to brandish to my friends!

God on the streets

We all attended South Street Baptist Church and my parents took great interest in it in many ways. Sundays particularly, when after the evening service, my Dad would go down to the church hall in Palace Gate to collect a large wheeled trolley which neatly held both a large Church flag, with tassel, which I loved, an organ, a chair and a light and wheel it up South Street, past the church to the High Street and deposit it at the corner of Waterbeer Street, or the road leading to it. Off came the organ with a seat for Mum to sit to play it, the trolley would be up-ended as a stage for speakers to stand on and the flag would be unfurled and dropped into a clip at the side of the stage. Soon there was a crowd gathered at this corner, singing their hearts out, whilst anyone who wished could take the stand to give his or her own personal story of their conversion. Lovely when it was warm, but windy and cold when it neared Autumn.

Dr David Miller Muir

As a little girl, I was taken on the carrier of my Dad's trusty pedal bike to a house in Bedford Circus at least I think this was the address, where, in their garden, was a huge quince tree which each year my father used to strip of its ugly fruit for both the owner and my Mum, to make delicious quince jam. This came about from the great friendship my Dad had with Dr. Miller Muir who lived at this house with his family. Possibly through my Dad's job as a motor engineer at Standfield & White's garage, then in Sidwell Street, Exeter, where the fairly few fortunate owners of motor vehicles took their chariots for servicing, the friendship with this doctor evolved ... and because of my father's inventive leanings, he and this doctor, who was a radiologist (possibly at the R.D.& E.) used, during the evenings, to travel into the 'backwoods' of Devon by car and trailer equipped with a generator and X-ray, to aid patients who were unable to visit hospitals and who had no electricity. I would have been too young to have taken much notice of these regular events which were evidently prior to the introduction of the National Health Insurance. The doctor's was a friendship much treasured by my Dad who was introduced to the world of medicine within the confines of this doctor's little laboratory, who also was an inventive man - hence the great friendship. I am not sure of the actual date, but the unexpected death of this doctor from a heart attack, around 1936, cut short this happy era, for my Dad.


Dr. Miller Muir's wife gave my father instructions to take whatever he wanted from her husband's study and workshop, particularly his lathe and all the equipment and personal things which had meant so much to him. I do recall handling one item with the name Miller Muir indented on it. It was a brass lighter, made from a shellcase, so perhaps this doctor had also served in the First World War, as had my father - yet another reason for the friendship. His lathe was installed in the garage of the new house - and we never wanted for a missing screw! Whilst other people would go out and buy one ... my Dad used to revel in the joy of using the doctor's lathe to produce the required item himself, undoubtedly recalling the technical ability of this doctor.

© 2006 Olive Johnson - David Cornforth

Olive Johnson nee Nibbs was born and brought up in Exeter. Her father was employed at Standfield and White, in Sidwell Street. The family lived in Weirfield Road. She married in 1942 and moved away from the city. Olive's memories go back to the 1930's and show a world that disappeared after World War 2.

Coombe Street was known as Rock or Roche Lane in former times. Only a short stub joining South Street remains, as the street was cut in two by the building of Western Way in the 1960's. The area was full of overcrowded tenements during the 19th and first half of the 20th century. See West Quarter

Coombe Street Coombe Street where Olive visited, with her mother, a poor family. Photo Dick Passmore. Baptist Church, South StreetThe Baptist Church, South Street. Flooding 1918The bottom of Weirfield Road in January 1918, when the River Exe flooded. Methodist charabancA charabanc outing from the Palace Gate Baptist Hall of the Women's League in the 1920's.

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