Page updated 9th Feburary 2024
The Kings in Cowick Street is a modern variation on its old name, the King’s Arms, as inn and arms are being dropped from traditional pub names. Almost next to Brunel’s main railway viaduct carrying the line to Plymouth and Cornwall, there has been a public house on this site from at least 1828, when the first landlord, John Adams is listed in an early street directory. He was a family man who had at least four daughters, when in March 1833, Maria Thomas Adams, his fourth daughter died, aged 5 years.
The freehold of the King’s Arms was for sale in May 1854, and this description appeared in the Western Times:
Lot I.—All that old-established and well-accustomed Inn, called "The Kings Arms," situate fronting Cowick-street, in the parish of St. Thomas the Apostle, with the Yards, Stables, Coach-houses, Brew house, Cellars, and all necessary offices, Skittle-alley and Garden, now in the occupation of Mr. Charles Holmes. These Premises are well situated for Business, being close to the St. Thomas' Station on the South Devon Railway. The Purchaser of this Lot will be required to take the Stock-in-Trade, Brewing Utensils, and Fixtures at a valuation to be made the usual way. Lot 2.—All that Dwelling House and Shop, adjoining the said Inn, and fronting Cowick-street, now in the occupation of Mr. Charles Holmes.
There were several other lots for sale, all from the same vendor. The next year, Holmes had taken on the Sun Inn in Sun Street. The house became a popular venue for property sales for the next few years, although the name of the landlord is not apparent.
William Priston was landlord by 1873, and getting into trouble in 1874. He leased a yard at the back to a butcher, Mrs Helms, as a slaughter house. Through the yard ran a culverted stream into which drained the waste from the slaughter. The pair were charged with allowing blood and offal from the slaughter to enter the drain, and hence to discharge into Alphington Street, creating a pool of effluent 40 feet long, six to seven feet wide and 6 to 8 inches deep. Mrs Helms was ordered to create a drain into the public sewer, and Priston ordered to abate the nuisance and pay costs.
William Priston was still the landlord when in 1881 the Western Times reported the “Alarming performances of a bullock". A bullock was being driven through Cowick Street when the bright shawl of a local woman startled the beast, setting it off at a gallop. The animal went uder the railway bridge and entered the coal yard at the rear of the King’s Arms. It then rushed into the public house through a passage adjoining to the bar. Mr Priston and his family were taking breakfast in the kitchen when the bullock rushed in, and, according to the newspaper report “the bullock was in the midst of the family circle, and placing his fore feet on the breakfast table he was literally monarch of all he surveyed.” The family scattered, and Mr Priston was 'tossed' into the corner. The crockery on the table “was smashed to atoms.” The animal then made a rush for the window, but the sound of the smashing glass frightened the poor beast, and only the timely opening of a door by a family member gave the animal the chance to escape down the same passage way, and back into the street, before galloping back up Cowick Street towards the turnpike gate at Buddle Lane. Mr Priston was severely shaken but no bones were broken.
The house and adjoining buildings freehold were for sale again, in June 1890. The description for the King’s Arms was:
The King's Arms Inn, is most substantially built and comprises on the top floor—6 Bedrooms. On the first floor—Market or Dining-room, communicating means of shutters with room at the rear, with 2 windows, and with Sitting-room on the east, making together DINING-ROOM OF ABOUT 700 SUPERFICIAL FEET. There is also a Bedroom at the rear, and a w.c,. together with an Attic and 2 secondary Bedrooms in the wing over the entrance to the yard. On the ground floor—Capital Bar with separate Front Entrance, Tradesman’s-room, Tap-room, Kitchen, Scullery, Larder, and Wash-house with Copper Furnace, &o. The Buildings in the rear comprise spacious Beer Cellar capital Brew-house, excellent Stabling, accommodation together with Cart and Traps Sheds for over 50 Horses and Vehicles, Hay and Straw Lofts, Harness Room, Shippen Slaughter House. Pigs' House, Fowls' House, Good Dry Stores, Coal House, Large Open Yard, &c. There is also a Small Kitchen Garden.
The next year the license was transferred to Mr Lamacraft, late of the Horse and Groom. In 1899, W J Crowson conveyed their houses, including the King's Arms to the Heavitree Brewery.
The new century opened with a new landlady, Mrs Lucy Duffett, who was still in charge as late as 1919. These years were a quiet time for the King’s Arms, with a couple of cases of drunkenness and in 1916 a wanted advert for help and a further sale advert for three horses along with their harnesses. Even after the war, horses and various carriages were often for sale from the King’s Arms yard. By 1929, the age of the horse was over, and the King’s Arms was advertising a private car for hire, along with a careful driver.
In 1929, the city was planning to scrap the trams, and take the opportunity to widen some roads. The King’s Arms was mentioned in one meeting, when it was said that the pubs lock-up garages had improved the property. Non the less, it was proposed that 35ft be removed, of the frontage, leaving the rear as a public house. It was pointed out that the width of the railway bridge would still cause a bottleneck. The scheme was shelved, but it was a look at the future. Exeter City Council used a compulsory purchase order to acquire the house, in preparation to widening Cowick Street.
A fire in one of the garages at the rear of the house led to an incident in September 1940 that was described as “one the most spectacular in the city for a long time.” A fire in a car quickly spread through a large, three storey grain store and a number of other garages behind the King’s Arms. It was estimated that £30,000 of damage was done, before it was extinguished. During the war the building was used for storage and then demolished in 1946. Air raid shelters were built by J Wippell in the rear yard – in 1949 they were refurbished for garages and storage, and handed over to Heavitree Breweries.
The King’s Arms was a Heavitree Brewery house, and by the 1950s, the brewery had embarked on modernising many of their houses. The King’s Arms was demolished, and a new public house built, set back, just as envisioned in 1929. The rest of that side of Cowick Street was demolished and rebuilt during 1960. In 1974, Heavitree Brewery applied for permission to place a British Railways restaurant car beside the pub, to act as an overspill for the lounge bar. Although one councillor was in favour, the proposal was turned down. The old King's Arms became 'The Kings' on 18 March 1999, and is still serving the public after almost 190 years. The offical pub website can be found here
Source: Express and Echo, Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, Westrn Times, Trewmans Flying Post and a history display in The Kings.
The Heavitree Brewery sign over the entrance of The Kings. The sign has since been replaced by a clock. Photo © David Cornforth
Previous Tenants (date from)
1939 - Mr E Bond
1942 - Mr W Searle
1963 - Mr M Hendry
1970 - Mr F Pitt
1974 - Mr G Thomas
1976 - Mr D Elson
1990 - Mr A Seldon
1997 - Mr G Magee
1999 - Albion Pub Contracts
Present - Albion Pub Contracts/Heavitree Brewery
│ Top of Page │