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

Mrs F E Gilpin - It's a sad story

Living in St Nicholas Priory

I was born in the Priory in 1891 and I lived there until I was in my teens. Originally we rented the Priory from a man who had a tea shop and then he sold all that property to St. Wilfred's and then we paid our rent to the convent. That was when St. Wilfred's was in full spate. We had a flat upstairs and the use of the downstairs room; we always called that the big room. I had two brothers and we learned to roller skate and we learned to cycle in the big room and we had all our Christmas parties there. We had a dance there when my brother was twenty-one.

I really loved it very much. I had a deep window seat in the bedroom and I had cushions there. Mother used to tell me never to open the window, because I nearly jumped out once. The children underneath said, "Come on, we'll catch you, jump out". Mother caught me just as I was going. She made me promise not to open the window. But I used to love to sit there and read with a cushion at my back and at my feet. I did nearly all my study there as a girl. And the things you could see from that window: I would look down on the Mint, and I saw men queuing with basins in their hands. There was no dole in those days, no unemployment money, and of course it meant if you were out of work you got nothing coming in.

Penny dinners

The sisters had a house in the Mint - it's been pulled down now - and they would open the door and serve penny dinners. They gave them a jolly good dinner and it smelt lovely. The smell used to come right up to my window. I can remember saying to my mother, "What are the basins for?" And she said, "Meat and potato and then if they've another little pot they can have the pudding, rice pudding".

I said, "Do they pay for it?"

And she said, "Yes, they're called penny dinners".

I said, "Couldn't we have some?"

She said, "I'm afraid they couldn't let us have any. It's only for the people where the father can't go to work because he can't get any work". So I said, "It's sad, isn't it?" That's how I met with sorrow as a child. I felt so sorry for these men who had no money to buy meat.

That was one thing that the sisters did; they had to cook it in this house that belonged to them. And then there was another good thing they did here. Next door to the Tudor room in the Priory was a door leading into the crypt and in the crypt was a kitchen which the sisters used to use for boiling saucepans and upstairs they had a row of tiny lavatories for very little children. And the mothers could bring their children, I suppose up to about four years old, but they could bring babies in arms; they paid fourpence a day. The mothers were responsible for the breakfast but the sisters would feed them and if it was babies they would put them into their cots: they had a big nursery upstairs. I used to love going up and seeing these babies in their cots. The sisters used to feed them and give them clean bottles and at about four o'clock they used to start bathing each child. Each child was bathed before it was sent home and given a clean napkin and when you went in all these clean babies smelt beautiful. Their mothers used to come back at about half past four when they left work. You see for housework they were wanted; perhaps the mother could get wages whereas the father couldn't get work. It was a wonderful creche: the children were well treated, never any yelling, crying - the sisters used to love them.

Running errands for Mother Teresa

That was the penny dinners and the creche - two very good things. And there was another thing when I was growing up: Mother Teresa asked my mother if she would lend me to her after school all the week.

"What for?" my mother asked.

"Well", she said, "we've got so many things where we want to send to the grocer or the baker or the candlestick maker. I think she'd be very good and do the work properly". So Mother asked me if I would like to do it.

I said, "Yes, I'd do anything for Mother Teresa 'cos she's always so nice to me".

So when I got in I used to go off with a bag full of golden sovereigns. I used to go up to Dickie's in what is now called Martin's Lane. Well there used to be lovely luxury shops there: a poultry shop, beautiful fruit shop and I used to go up there every Monday and pay the bills - always quite a lot of money 'cos they had all their vegetables and all their fruit from them and sometimes flowers as well. I had to take a book, the weekly book, and pay the money. I wasn't very old either and I never made a mistake. Then I used to go to Thomas', that was next door to St. Olave's Church - I think it's a wallpaper shop now. All the candles were bought there for the lamps. There was no electricity in those days; they had to have oil lamps in the convent and they used the candles in the chapel, which was beautiful. Now where the Norman arches are in the crypt of the Priory is where they think the money was made. Some people say the money wasn't made there but there have been coins found so I know they were made there and there were places where they used to heat the metal. Harbottle Reid used to bring a party of archaeologists every year. He was the chairman of the Exeter Archaeology Society and these others used to come from all over England, about fifty of them. He used to get permission from my mother; he couldn't come into the place unless my mother said, "Yes", because we rented it, you see. She always said he was very welcome to come. And although I was very young I used to listen to all the lectures he gave and he said they used to make the money there. He said the monks used to use the big room as a sort of reception room. He was a very charming man and he gave me a two shilling piece and I put it back in his hand.

I said, "No, thank you".

And he said, "Oh, but I thought you'd like to have it".

"No, I must never take any money from anybody. My mother would be very angry if I took it. Thank you very much though".

Father Ingle

Where St. Wilfred's School was, the end house at the top of the Mint, that used to be Father Ingle's house. He was the parson at St. Olave's when I was about four, a long time ago - about eighty years ago. He was taken in a wheelchair when he got old and his man used to drive him and he used to guide the front wheel.

And he always stopped when he saw me in the Mint and he'd say, "Would you like a ride, my dear?"    'Cos he knew my father very well 'cos Dad was church warden of St. Olave's at one time. And I used to sit down on the foot part and he used to ride me up to the door in the Mint, by the lamp.

Then he'd say, "Pick the little missy a clematis".

They grow all over the glass veranda and the man who was driving him, a tubby sort of man, used to pick me one flower and I used to take it home and mother would say, "Where did you get the flower? Did you steal it?" "Oh, no, no".

"Where did you get it from?" She said, "I only know one place where you can get them and that's in Father Ingle's house".

I said, "Father Ingle gave it to me. He told his man to pick it and he gave it to his master and then he gave it to me", and said, "Now there's a nice flower - you can take it home and tell your Mummy that Father Ingle gave it to you". I can remember it as if it was yesterday. When he died I came home from school and saw the ground was covered in brown stuff. Course I walked in the road and kicked the stuff along.

I thought, "How did that get here?" When I got home I said to my mother, "What's all that in the road?"

"0h, it's tannin".

"What's tannin" she said, "they get it from oak trees, the bark. It's to deaden the sound". She said that the horses go along clip, clop, clip, clop. There were no cars in those days, you see, and the wheels were noisy as well, some had rubber on them but nearly all of them were hard. She said, "They put down the tannin to keep the noise away".

"What do they want to keep the noise away for?"

"Well, you see, Father Ingle the old gentleman who used to let you ride on his chair is very, very ill and they don't think he's going to get any better".

"How will that make him better, to put the road stuff down?" "Well it keeps it quiet for him and then he can sleep". "Oh," I said "I wonder if they'd put it down if I was ill". So she said, "You'd better not try".

Course they had to pay for that. When he died I said, "It didn't stop him dying, did it mother?"

Bartholomew Street

It would be the Mayor or one of the high ups in the city spoke to my father and said they very much wanted to turn the Priory into a show place so that visitors could go in and see it: "So if you could get a house near enough, would you be prepared to go?"

My father said, "We'd be only too glad".

My mother had said she would like to get a house down in Bartholomew Street because my father's work was in Mary Arches Street, in a factory there; he was the manager. Now my young brother had a friend who lived here at number 30 and his mother, Mrs. Keynes told her boy to tell my brother to tell my mother to come and see her. And she said, "Do you want this house? `Cos you see I'm leaving - I'm going to live in Northernhay Street". Mother said yes, she'd like it very much. And that's how we came.

My father hated leaving the Priory. Mother had to leave his arm chair in the big room downstairs. And she said "Well if you aren't coming down to the new house, there's your chair, you can stay the night there. We're going, so I'll say goodbye to you". Course he was lonely then in the big room at night, so eventually he came down. "I'd rather have the Mint," he says, "it's much better".

You could never get a house to let in Bartholomew Street - it was like asking for gold. People stayed once they came, not like it is today. People lived here for a whole generation and you would hand on the house to the next generation.

We were friends all the way along. We had a Mr. Hunt; he was the parson down in St. Thomas'. And our dog used to love him and he would follow and go down to the church and go into the pulpit when he preached and lie down at his feet. And you see there was Mrs. Southcott and her husband's people and Uncle Frank and Aunty Anne. They lived further down and the house had big stone slabs leading up to it and a lovely house it was and a nice garden at the back. If my mother was cross with me I used to run down and say, "Aunty, may I come in?"

"Ooh, yes dear". And she'd say, "Mummy a bit cross this morning?" "Fidgety", I'd say.

And there used to be a church, Allhallows on the Wall; it was a plain ordinary sort of church; there was nothing architecturally worth saving. It was pulled down sometime after 1945. My father used to serve at the altar with Father Pearce when he was quite young, so we used to go there to church and I used to think it was beautiful because you had the doors open in the summer and you could see the trees. It was made a corset factory and the girls used to bring their lunches and throw bits away and the place was swarming with rats. We got one behind the front door here: my next door neighbour got his dog in here and he got the rat by the tail and then he and his son were waiting outside with hatchets and long sticks and they soon got rid of it. Before the girls worked the corsets they had withies brought in and they made baskets - not the same girls - but the withies were full of fleas and they had to stop that 'cos the girls wouldn't work there because of the fleas that came in with the withies. So then they had a corset factory.

After Father Pearce died they had a very brilliant parson at Allhallows, before the war and the church was packed every Sunday. Then the next parson had the church full and when he left there were four people in the congregation - he drove them all away.

In decline

The sisters of St. Wilfred's worked in the Mint - they should never have left here. They all had a job to do: some to visit the sick people, some to see the out of work people got food to eat, some had to go to the creche to help. There were thirty odd and the novices coming on who had to be trained. They went to all the churches: to St. Mary Step's Church, some to St. Olave's, some to St. Michael's and then they visited the various sick people around the city.

When Mother Teresa died Mother Agatha took over and she was my godmother. I remember Mother Agatha came here, the last place she went. We had a roaring fire and it was a bitter winter wet day and she put her hands out and I felt them - they were like stones. "Oh, you are cold", I said. She said, "I wish we had a lovely open fire like this. It's all gas fires in the convent". And she was dead within three days.

And the convent and the school were beautifully kept, good paint outside the windows and doors: now they've even pulled up the flagstones outside the entrance - dreadful, isn't it? They moved out to Streatham Hall after the war and it was left empty. I said, "What do you want to move out there for?"

Next to the convent was the home for naughty girls, St. Olave's. And there used to be another house similar in architecture just down here but Wheaton's pulled that down to make a place for their lorries to go in. The Council were mad to let that happen - you see it made the street look charming.

Wheaton's bought all that property and they used it for storing and now they've moved out to Marsh Barton. But their drive in place used to be a proper nightmare: the people who lived next door to it went up to Old Tiverton Road to live - they couldn't stand the noise. And the people in the next house have made it beautiful but they can't stand the racket of the traffic going by all the time.

And another thing: there was a whole row of cottages in Bartholomew Street East pulled down. The people were asked to go and they gave them houses in the suburbs and they pulled all those lovely little cottages down. They were only about three and ten pence a week, ten pounds a year. And they faced that beautiful sunset. You'd see them at their doors and at their windows during the summer watching the sunsets, marvellous they were - talk about Italy and Switzerland. That was the whole row starting from the corner shop where that bend is on the corner - that was a huckster's shop, you know, all sorts they kept and then these lovely cottages and they went right to the corner of Mary Arches Street to a shop called Spiller; he sold rabbits, to eat, not tame rabbits, and poultry and eggs; He dealt with the farmers direct. And as you went up Mary Arches Street there were ever so many little shops. On the left hand side there was a shop where they made home-made toffee with almonds on the top, on big black dishes. And right up through there were just ordinary living houses. And as you came through the Mint was this quaint shop with a round Dicken's window and a tailor used to sit on his board in the window with his legs crossed doing his work. And the next door was a man who did carpentry and upholstery - he seemed to be squeezed in the corner, you wouldn't think a house could be there. Then a house used to come out around and I think they were bill posters and then came the end bit of the Priory.

But of course all those shops were all pulled down and it's where the corrugated iron is now. This part is one of the most beautiful spots in Exeter. I've met people coming through who've come from all parts of the world. Even about a fortnight ago, on a Sunday evening, I was going for a walk along the path between the two cemeteries and I met a lady and gentleman who stopped and asked what this grave was doing here on the corner. I said, ."That's the Courtenay's grave and thank God it's there".

"Oh", he said, "why so earnest?"

I said, "If that grave wasn't there, they would have cut the corner of the churchyard right off ... goodness knows we get thirty feet lorries outside of the house now".

It's a sad story.

© 2007 Jenny Lloyd

This memory that starts at the end of Queen Victoria's reign and is taken from the contributon by Mrs F E Gilpin to the People Talking project that was compiled by Jenny Lloyd in 1976.
The full transcript, and other People Talking memories are available at the West Country Studies Library or the Devon and Exeter Institution.
St Nicholas Priory was occupied by multiple families through the 19th century. Mrs Gilpin's family were one of the last to live there, moving out before 1913 for the City Council to take over and turn it into a tourist attraction in 1916.

St Nicholas PriorySt Nicholas Priory in the 19th century.
St Nicholas Priory St Nicholas Priory when it was still tenements before the First War.

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