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Exeter Stories

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

Also see St Sidwell's and Sidwell Street

Mr. H. Aggett - The Sights & Sounds of St Sidwell's


A prominent feature of St Sidwell's was the Acland Arms on the York Road, a public house and hotel room with a large yard at the rear with stables and a brewing house which on brewing days emanated a very pleasant brewing smell of malt throughout the whole neighbourhood. A little further along York Road beyond Acland Terrace was another cobble yard with horse boxes up one side. And it was a very fine sight to see the horses with their heads and necks hanging out over the top half of the stable, doors. It was a livery stables. And there was Mr Roach next door, a veterinary surgeon; he was on the corner of Church Lane, which is King William Street now. Next door to him was a blacksmith's shop and you could hear the sound of the old smithy with his hammer on the anvil - the sound used to go right along Well Street. And it was quite a pleasant sound especially or a summer's evening to hear the clang, clang as he was making a shoe.

The pubs, the Old Coach and the New Coach and Horses and the Victory - oh they'd be in fine voice on a Saturday night. Occasionally a door would burst open and someone would come out to go across to the other side and as they came out you'd get this volume of song come out - you know, all the old favourites, Nelly Dean and all that. And you'd go on up the road and as I say it was really alive; the shops used to close somewhere between eight and nine. Of course, it's gone now.

And of course at the end of Well Street by the bridge - now it's called St James' Halt but at that time it was Lion's Halt - you could stand on the railway bridge there - I've done it many a time on a summer evening - and you could hear the rythmic pump, pump of the water pumps down at the ice Factory in Bonhay  Road. The sound used to come right up through the valley. I was a sort of errand boy for a grocer and I used to get the blocks of ice. He used it for making ice cream. We used to put it in the buckets and we used to turn the handle You'd get the ice a few pence cheaper if you fetched the blocks.

Sheep, cattle and slaughter

The top of Sidwell Street still contained same of its rural aspect 'cos there were trees along the pavement there, you know, where the chemist shop is - there were quite tall trees along the pavement down there. And of course the fountain was over there - there wasn't the roundabout you see. Course Sidwell Street was blitzed fairly badly. From York Road down to Paris Street it was practically flattened.

It wasn't an uncommon sight in those days to see bullocks being driven up York Road into Sidwell Street to a slaughter house which was behind the King's Head which was on the corner of Summerland Street, where the laundry is now approximately. Behind there, off Summerland Street was an arch that went in and these bullocks were driven in there; they drove them up from the Queen Street goods yard to be slaughtered. Very often you'd see sheep being driven up York Road and right up through Sidwell Street, up Blackboy Road and into the country to farms. They'd come by train, you see, at Queen Street goods yard; they unloaded them and then they'd drive them out; drovers, perhaps one drover, one man. There was one character in particular, a very clever chap; he used to wheel a bicycle so's he could ride back home - one arm he had; him and a sheep dog and he'd have anything up to a hundred sheep, driving them up through Sidwell Street.

Cabs, trams, trains and cars

You had the trams and cabs then and the trams dutifully slowed to a general crawl, crawling up the street behind this herd of sheep. And of course another thing was there were cabs. In those days there were cab ranks all over the city in different places, like taxi ranks. The cabbies used to drive up through Sidwell Street and in one or two places there were double tram tracks and the cabbies would drive along and the wheels would drop down into the grooves of the tram lines; all of a sudden they'd give a fearful lurch as a tram track would run into another one the horse was going straight and the wheels would be taking the cab into a new track and nearly throw the cabby off. And of course boys at that time - I can vouch for this - used to take a delight in Jumping on the axels of the rear of the cab and riding on the springs of the cab; we'd crouch underneath. And the other kids would shout out to the cabman, "Whip behind, cabby." And they'd flick- their whip up and over and sometimes the tail of the whip would get you across the face and it would sting like hell. But the chance of having a free ride on the back of a cab was really something. They were single horse cabs with the cabby up on the box; it wasn't a hansome cab with the cabby at the rear.

At this time I'm talking about, 50 years ago, there was the occasional car and lorry. I'll tell you there was two types of cars; a Trojan car with a chain drive and hard wheels, very thin wheels; they used to catch in the tram lines as well and they'd come to grief. And there was another car called the Climo, little tiny engine in it. The headmaster of the school. I went to, he had one - nine day wonder with the boys, cos there were cars, but not many.

Of course the road then was wooden blocks - the whole of Sidwell Street from the top of Paris Street right up to the fountain. You used to hear the horses clop, clop, clop, going up. I think they were taken away when they took a lot of the tram lines away; some of the tram lines are still buried in the ground but I know they took quite a lot away. But it was rather unique and they were so hard. They used to have to repair some of them sometime. Course it was a good surface; they didn't get slippery which was an advantage, specially where horses were concerned.

In those days of course the nation's transport was carried on the railways and, there was a very busy goods yard adjoining Queen's Street station and at night you'd hear the trains, the engines in particular, shunting various trucks that arrived by day up into one train to go off to somewhere else. And during the day you'd hear them quite a bit, the metallic bang, bang, -bang, bang. The trains were made up and the carriages and trucks were shunted together there in Queen's Yard.

Local Sidwell characters

Then of course St Sidwell's had its share of eccentric characters. There was one chap popularly called Fighting Mac. Now he was a porter for a well known Sidwell Street trader. He had a habit of carrying his goods and he'd come to a lamp post, and one lamp post an particular which was his favourite, on the corner of Well Street - it's got a circular island around it; he'd come along Church Lane carrying his boxes and he'd reach this lamp post and he'd chuck his boxes down and he'd start squaring up to the lamp post. He'd viciously go in and let one out, bob down like as if the lamp post was giving him one. He'd go on for about ten minutes doing that.

Then there was another fellow, Slab Dab. He was a character that used to go round and if you gave him a halfpenny he'd recite a lot of doggerel, improvise more or less on the spot, rhyming to quite a large degree. But he'd intersperse it every so often with "Slab dab"; then he'd go on again and start another verse and then "Slab dab". And we used to pay him this halfpenny.

Of course then there were the Bill Board men, the sandwich board men that used to walk around. There was one chap called Bread and Butter Harry; then there was another fellow Bug Whiskers. They'd advertise for shops and any local events. They'd just slowly walk up and down the town. That in itself gave a certain colour to the place 'cos the posters stuck on their boards were very often p'raps a bright red or yellow.

Then of course the other old character which people have mentioned lots of times was old Taffy Fulford with his little cart and sweets. "Plates,  cups and saucers," that was his cry. I saw him one day coming along Well Street with his little guttering lights either side of his cart, you know, pony pulling. And something frightened his pony and the pony bolted and bolted so suddenly that poor old Taffy's stock slid off into the road. Poor old boy. He used to go right out into the country; places like Tiverton and Bradninch and all the way round there. And you'd see him coming back quite late, half past nine, ten o'clock at night.

Then there were the girls from the farms with milk on yokes, serving the milk at the doors, and the old fish men with their carts, calling out, "Dawlish Mackerel": and the scissor and knife grinders. You know it all gave the city quite a liveliness in the air that there was something on all the time. Nowadays it seems so dead after about half past six.

Courts and tenements

There were numerous courts that ran down. Very often you had an arched entrance and then it would run down and you'd get these small cottages; sometimes they had little tiny front gardens; sometimes they were just open out to the centre. Course you had a great sense of community with people living like that. People got to know each other very well and there was sort of a pride in their particular little area. They didn't like people other than the residents coming down these courts. You had to be there on business - no use going down there to loiter arount 'cos they'd soon turn you out. Everyone knew each other; it was a small compact community. There's still left some of the cottages in Clarence Place. Half of them have been pulled down but one side they're still remaining, the original Clarence Place. On a Saturday night you could get some entertainment there. When the fellows came out. of the pubs they used to stagger down over the steps, steep steps going down, you, see, to the little cottages down the bottom. There used to be all sorts of fun and games depending to some extent on what had happened during the day. There'd be quarrels, you know, particularly where children were concerned. If Tommy had given Bill a bashing or something of that nature, the women would carry it on and then when the old man come they'd tell him about it and he'd go outside and you'd have trouble.

The First World War

During the First World War several of the schools round here were turned into hospitals for wounded soldiers. Between 1914 and 1918 there used to be hospital trains come into Queen Street Station - course there were colossal casualties in the fighting then, more so than in the last war. We boys used to go down to Northenhay, there alongside, and watch the chaps, poor fellows, coming out of the trains. Those that could walk were walking, and 1917 when Gerry was using gas, it was pathetic to see a lot of the fellows getting out of the trains, blinded with gas, and going along in crocodile holding the man in front to steer him along, And Bishop Blackall School was a military hospital and St Sidweil School. I can't remember what happened to the children.

St Sidwell School was a barracks as well because I remember they stationed a battalion of the Black Watch there and I thought it was wonderful because I'd never seen Scotchmen with kilts and the tartans before. They left the barracks late at night to go over to France and I remember being taken over to watch them come out playing their bagpipes and all the rest of it as they marched off. And at that particular battle I think there were one or two V. C. 's and they were nearly all slaughtered to a man.

Exeter was quite full of wounded soldiers like I say. Of course the soldiers all had blue uniforms on; that was the distinguishing mark of a wounded soldier. They used to wear a blue serge uniform with a red tie so that everyone knew that they were wounded soldiers.

The Sidwell skeleton

I remember as a boy, very adventuresome, we went down a little lane behind Queen's Crescent and climbed over the wall one evening. It was almost rural where that car park is now at the back of St Sidwell's Church; it was all sort of rough ground, hedges overgrown and trees and things. We climbed into this yard; we were creeping about among these grave stones - it was rather eerie you know. In those days grave stones were quite a feature in cemetaries: people used to have very ornate stones, characters out of the Bible carved and all that. We got into this outer shed place where the stone masons had been working and there was a long tall box. "I wonder what's in that box."

And we opened it and there was a ruddy skeleton stood in there. We turned and ran and leaped over the wall. It was years before I found out why they had a skeleton in a mason's yard. Apparently it's like with a painter: he gets to know the muscles of the body 'cos it gives him a feeling for the thing and this was the intention of having a skeleton - I suppose the sculptor when he was chipping away at the stone could look at the skeleton to give him some idea.

Shops

Walking up Sidwell Street on a Saturday night was a real experience; you could sense an atmosphere of excitement; because if you walked up Sidwell Street, possibly you left London Inn Square where the old Exeter Hippodrome, Exeter Variety Theatre: was, you know they'd be queuing up there for the second house. Perhaps you'd been to the first house and then you'd walk up Sidwell Street and most of the shops were open and brightly lit. 

And there were crowds of people - the pavements were packed with people - you often had to step into the road. Of course the pavements weren't so wide as now as they've taken the building line back. The original building line was the church wall of St Sidwell's Church. As I say there were these crowds of people right out to the edge of the curbs; trams clattering up through, bang, bang, bang; the tram chaps'd stamp their feet on the bell. The shops were brightly lit; the butchers stood outside their shops shouting, "Come on ladies, get your weekend joint." 

There was an ironmonger's shop that had a big kettle hanging out the front as a sign, corner of Cheeke Street. It all added a something different to the street really. Course there was Hunt, the baker, adjacent to St Sidwell's Church, where the church yard is. He had big double doors where he used to drive his horses in and stable them alongside his bakery. In those days it used to be quite a feature to see the youngsters outside the bakers' shops about half past seven in the morning. Before they opened the shop they used to sell them all the previous day's buns and cakes: they got them much cheaper, see; gave them quite a nice little feed.

There's only Panter's left now of the old shops; Wipples was down in the High Street in those days. Now it's all big concerns. The way the economy's gone, they streamline everything.

© 2007 Jenny Lloyd

These pre First World War memories are taken from the contributon by Mr H Aggett to the People Talking project that was created by Jenny Lloyd in 1976.
These are selected extracts from Mr Aggett's memories. Other short selections can be found on other pages.
The full transcript, and other People Talking memories are available at the West Country Studies Library or the Devon and Exeter Institution.

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