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Exeter folk and friends in their own words - << Previous storyNext story >>

Burnthouse Lane in the 1940s - Glyn Short


In retrospect it would be misleading to say we kids in Burnthouse Lane felt deprived. Certainly I did not. In many ways the experiences of modern children, buried as they are in an electronic world with an over-abundance of information, is cause for regret. I for one do not envy them. Too often it seems they are being forced to forgo the innocence of childhood activities by a premature exposure to adult society through television, cinema, hoardings, playstations, radio, newspapers and videos, before they have the perspective to assimilate that world. Whither this will lead only time will tell.

Burnthouse Lane (BHL) is the local name for the area of land bounded by Topsham Road to the West, Barrack Road to the North, Wonford to the East and Countess Wear to the South. It was built up with several hundred council houses beginning in the 20's, and has gradually expanded to the extent seen today. Settled there by Exeter City Council was a mixture of poorer families comprising ex-agricultural labourers from Devon's rural areas, couples with marriage problems, sociopaths and those associated with the seamier side of life. But also included were warm-hearted and generous individuals and some talented artisans. Overall life in BHL was lively, with exposure to a range of human activities and behaviours not always accessible to inhabitants of more prosperous Exeter locales.

During the war years, as elsewhere, there was an exodus of males into the services. Like most others, I effectively did not see my father between 1938 and 1945. The psychological effects of a matriarchal society on the children, especially boys, during their formative years, has, to my knowledge not been assessed. Suffice it to say we ran wild: our mothers preoccupied with jobs and the endless household chores of the pre-appliance era. It is said that this generation was the healthiest ever because of rationing and consequent limited supply of sugar, sweets and calories. We went every week to a BHL clinic for orange juice and cod liver oil, provided gratis by the authorities on a national basis to address potential vitamin deficiencies. Needless to say the medicinal benefits of both items were offset by their revolting taste: a nod to the prevailing bureaucratic belief that nothing can be both beneficial and enjoyable.

BHL people who went to church seemed to be exclusively Church of England, attending a temporary building near the Topsham Road entrance to BHL (now replaced by a brick built edifice). I presume those of other religious persuasions were not housed in the area, bearing witness to a city council mindful of minimising public expenditure.

Without television, life revolved around street games, homemade toys, rambling around the river and neighbouring countryside (it should be remembered that most of the riverine areas were unspoiled farmlands in those days), and any other activity that restless boys could dream up: conkers, catapults, blackberries, mushroom hunting, fishing, bird nesting, chariot racing, cowboys, chestnuts, peashooters, skipping ropes, tree climbing, street football and cricket. The local stream, running from Heavitree Bridge through the farmlands (later the Playing Fields, later still more housing) to debouch into the Exe mill leat at Countess Wear (adjacent to the modern Crematorium), was called the Panee, which interestingly is the Urdu for "Stream", and possibly therefore a name brought back by ex-Indian Army personnel.

Our cultural exposure was the Saturday morning cinema. All three Exeter cinemas offered children's films and serial features, usually revolving around endless discord between cowboys and indians, leavened by the occasional Flash Gordon adventure. Buses were run from BHL to the Gaumont, Savoy and Odeon and each performance began with mass singing of the chain's song. Of course the City Library was available to everyone, so reading was an acceptable activity if all else failed. In addition there was radio: the Christmas speech by the King, Churchill's exhortations, ITMA and Family Favourites.

The local school was Bradley Rowe School, named after a local worthy. It offered infant education for 5-7 year olds, and elementary education for 7-11 year olds (with the genders being separated). At this point the 11+ exam determined whether you were destined for Ladysmith School, Hele's School or Exeter School (if you were a boy); or Bradley Rowe Secondary School, Bishop Blackall School or Maynard School (if you were a girl). In my day the Headmistress of the Infant School was a Mrs Smallwood, while the Headmaster of the Elementary Boys School was a Mr. Berry, the teachers being Miss Gean, Mr. Lidicote, Mr. Stone, Mr. Thornton, Mr. Paine (who more than lived up to his name); and last but not least Mr. Philips. The latter was an outstanding teacher, and under him we won the local schools' football Challenge cup in 1950, playing the final at St James Park.

Hitler lives in BHL

Many people in BHL kept chickens during the war. It was a very efficient way of converting waste food materials into eggs and protein. Of course in the absence of men the women had to steel themselves to undertake the necessary corporeal processing, but the eggs were always a highly desirable supplement to the rations. Our cockerels were named Hitler, Mussolini and Goering, sobriquets which lessened the emotional impact of their inevitable dispatch.

Christmas was enlivened in the later years of the war by the Children's Christmas Party laid on by the American soldiers stationed at the barracks at Countess Wear, off Topsham Road. Long tables laden with cakes, bread and fruits represented an unbelievable feast for underfed kids: the munificence of the young Americans was legendary. We even had chewing gum handed out.

War scenes in BHL were the same as everywhere else: nightime displays of searchlights and starshells, barrage balloons and shelters, bombers and Spitfires. A couple of bombs fell in the area, with damage limited to one or two houses since incendiaries were not involved. Each house was provided with a steel plate to cover a table so that a family could find some shelter under the table in the event of an air raid, (notified by a siren), and there were bomb-proof concrete shelters built in the streets to accommodate others. Everyone was given a gas mask, although fortunately they were never utilised.

The local shops, situated on Burnthouse Lane, were Martins, Halse's, a Cooperative Store, a Fish & Chip shop, and a Butchers. Bread, fresh produce, fish, and ice-cream (Casilucci's) were all delivered on either a daily or a weekly basis. Milk was delivered daily in a churn by horse and cart, and ladled out into a jug by the milkman. Itinerant gypsies sold clothes pegs and wild flowers, rag and bone men collected their specialities, Breton onion men went house-to-house selling their strings of onions, mobile grindstones mounted on bicycles enabled sharpeners to put an edge on scissors and knives, while Italian POWs found a way to market their hand-made toys to the neighbourhood children. If variety is the spice of life, then I would venture that our life in BHL was well seasoned....

Glyn Short went on to study at Bristol and Exeter Universities and MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He currently lives in Delaware, USA.

Burnthouse Lane Burnthouse Lane circa 1960.

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