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

Henry E Holladay - Exeter in the 1910s and 1920s

Trams and Horses

Obbie, our maid, had parents named Rowsell, who were living in the farm cottages on the right of Whipton, roughly where the present bypass is. He was the ploughman and visiting there in about 1920, I rode on the back of one of the plough horses, my feet in the air unable to straddle its wide back.

Also Obbie's brother was a young constable, and he showed me where he wore his truncheon. He later became Chief Constable of Exeter, and then of Brighton.

We always walked to town or granny's and only used a tram if we were going to St Thomas, or a cab if one had luggage. My father had frequently walked to and from St Davids Station, and no one thought anything of it.

The result was that one knew all the shops and most of the owners in the High Street, and many had a distinctive smell, e.g. leather goods, wool, chemist and perfumery, grocer, tobacconist, etc. To keep your watch with the correct time, you checked with the GPO clock or the railway station clock as both were supposed to be kept spot on with a telegraphic time signal each day.

At general election time you used to go down to one of the newspaper publishing offices (Express and Echo, Western Times), who used to put up handwritten posters with the latest news item. I went down with my father to the Express and Echo to see the poster declaring the Armistice at the end of the 1914-18 war.

London Inn Square

London Inn Square had shops on the east side, a fish shop where one of the girls serving looked like a cod, a greengrocers and a tobacconist; on the southside were the Cathedral Dairy, Boons the butcher and 'Caunters' a dingy wineshop whose manager and owner was renowned as a muscle and bone manipulator, who also helped the rugby and football clubs with their injuries. On the west side was the Scotch Wool Shop, and the Hippodrome a music hall, which had been the Public Rooms, and later became the Plaza Cinema, a coffee shop and isolated between Northernhay Place and New North Road was Pople's New London Hotel with its stables, later becoming the Savoy Cinema. Also along New North Road was the Fire Station. In the centre of the square was the cab stand.

Bedford Circus

Bedford Circus had been a pleasant residential area. There was a curved crescent of houses on the north-east side with egress to Southernhay and on the southwest side from Southernhay was the Drill Hall, then the corresponding crescent houses, with the Bedford Chapel, a 'Peculiar' in church terms, in the centre and the savings bank at the Catherine Street end. The link road to the High Street, had Deller's Cafe at the corner with Catherine Street, and Lloyds bank, the opposite side having shops with the Conservative Club above them. By the 1920s, the Circus become a commercial centre, with dentists, solicitors, accountants, estate agents, photographer (Henry Wykes) etc but no residents, though they still maintained the garden oval behind railings in the centre, but it was just a mass of greenery. At the High Street end of the over was Courtenay's statue, and in the centre of the High Street link were the underground 'public conveniences' which generated as much activity as the offices etc., also a cab stand. Whilst it had been an attractive area, the buildings were becoming worn out and obsolete.

Bedford Circus is one of the areas cited when people claim Exeter and its High Street was a marvellous place for architecture before the blitz. My recollection is that there was always some building undergoing substantial repairs, or being pulled down to make way for a better new one. Buildings wear out and also become entirely unsuitable for many uses, as do living species.

They are really being nostalgic about a small provincial town of 60,000 inhabitants, with all its workers, employees and owners living in the town, only a few travelling by rail or bus, but they want to live with all the modern conveniences in a town which has to cater for well over a 110,000 population with many more coming into work, shop or do business. The two do not go together.

When my uncle came to Exeter in 1898, they had just pulled down the shops and houses which stood in the front of St Petrock's Church to widen the High Street which had been about one cart wide.

Shopkeepers remembered

I have a recollection of going into the shop at the corner of the High Street and North Street, then a pharmacy with a manager called Delves, whose sister was a great friend of Aunt Margaret. Outside on the corner was an effigy of St Peter. Later it became Holman Hams and moved to the South Street, High Street corner. The interesting part was that at the back there was a glass covered area filled with greenery and a small fountain. Delves of course lived on the premises and this was his garden, somewhat gloomy being surrounded by buildings.

In the 1920s many owners or their managers lived over their shops. Ivan Passmore, the dentist, lived and had his surgery in a house, Speranza, next to the GPO. Arthur Milton lived over his chemist shop, so no restricted hours for emergency service. Eland's chief clerk lived on the premises to deal with the morning newspapers, arriving on the newspaper train about 4am. and delivered to them by 5-30am. Some of these people still lived there up until the blitz.

Now we complain of car fumes, but the hazards then were more immediate, droppings, liquid and solid from horses and occasional dog, with a street sweeper maybe appearing once in the day. Agility was essential.

The main streets were probably quieter because of the use of wood blocks in place of granite sets. However, when someone was seriously ill in their home it was quite common for straw to be spread on the road outside to quieten the noise of the traffic. There was certainly more substantial noise than now. Works such as the gasworks, Willeys, etc., had hooters, which marked shifts going on or off. Railways had steam whistles and had to use them on the many more night trains, goods trains had trucks loosely coupled by chains so they clanked all down the train, when starting or stopping or shunting. In town there were not even the noises usually associated with the countryside. We now only seem to hear the drunks going home and the dawn chorus.

The story was told that Ellett Lake, a respected jeweller, was returning home from the Exeter Club, in Musgrave Alley, on his bike via High Street, not having lit his acetylene lamp. A bobby standing in one of the shop entrances, stepped out and stopped him. Bobby "why is your lamp not lit?" Mr Lake "oh, I am sure I lit it before leaving, it must have gone out." During this speech he put his hand in his pocket and found something. Mr Lake putting his hand on the top of the lamp "yes, I can feel it is still slightly warm." The Constable puts his hand on the lamp "Um, perhaps it has been lit, but be more careful in future - goodnight." The Constable's hand deposited something in his own pocket.

© 2007 Richard Holladay


Henry Holladay was the managing director of Garton and King. In this edited extract from his memoirs, he describes life in Exeter during the First War and 1920s. Henry Holladay died in May 2007.

Cathedral Dairy The Cathedral Dairy opposite London Inn Square occupied a site that is now Next.Dellers Cafe Dellers Cafe from Bedford Street.

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