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Peter Hinchliffe - Walter Otton's and a cold case in South Street

Reading other matters on the site I suddenly realised that there is no mention of the famous ironmongers that occupied a length of Fore Street between Bart, Street West and Friernhay Street, whilst other businesses occupied the street frontage, Ottons took up all the space behind them.

It was the most fantastic store,(known as the City's biggest "help yourself to it" store they sold everything in hardware from half a dozen screws to Aga cookers, paint plumbing, drainage etc etc etc. the premises were a labyrinth of small rooms. It was well known that there shoplifting losses were stupendous.

In the latter years the company was run by Reg Otton, a bachelor, who lived in that nice Georgian house called Walnut house, in St Davids Hill. He had one or two notable assistants, Jimmy for one, and when he died in the late 60s/70s, Reg Otton left all the very senior men £100 each – virtually nothing for a life of subservience. He left the business to the staff, who sold the premises and moved down to Marsh Barton before selling to Jewson.

In the early 70s a local villain called 'Ricky' decided to break into Ottons, he climbed into the buildings from the street then started out across the roof, at some point he fell through the asbestos roofing and landed in the vehicle bay, he chose a Bank Holiday Saturday for this venture and he lay with a broken back and other fractures until Tuesday morning. The more callous of us would say it served him right, others remarked that from his wheelchair he found it difficult to commit burglaries.

The big freeze

'Ricky' had a previous conviction for another burglary that nearly killed him. Opposite the St Georges Meeting House, there was a long established city baker and confectioner called Droidge – they were probably one of the first in Exeter to start selling Frozen Foods, and they had a very large walk in fridge, an external job, in James Street, in a yard behind their premises in South Street.

The ever resourceful 'Ricky' seeing a chance to feed his family (and half the street as well) decided to break into the fridge one night, having effected entry, he was looking about and gathering together a consignment to steal, when the fridge door closed on him. (Now it could not happen because "elf and safety" say you got to be able to open the door from inside). 'Ricky' in his panic attacked the door but there was no way out – the excitement kept him warm for a while, but then he started to chill, the hours went by and he became distinctly cold, if not frozen.

But rescue was a hand, the overnight delivery driver arrived and found that somebody had forced their way into the fridge, he opened the door, saw 'Ricky' covered in icicles lurching towards him, so he quickly slammed the door again, got in his lorry and drove around the town looking for a policeman to go back with him and deal with 'Ricky'.

They said there was a pool of water in the cell when 'Ricky' thawed out!

Peter Hinchliffe is a retired police officer.

Ottons entranceThe main entrance to Ottons in Fore Street - now the Real McCoy arcade. Photo Nigel Bush.

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