“EXETER WAS A JEWEL AND WE HAVE DESTROYED IT”
So boasted German radio in May 1942. Clare Maudling, in a fascinating illustrated talk on Thursday, 9 October, explained how 18 air raids destroyed 400 shops, 150 offices and 1,500 houses - comprising over 75% of the city centre or 15% of Exeter.
Clare told us that the Board of Trade refused help to rebuild shops and all over Britain no re-building was to be allowed until the war ended. However, Councils were told to plan boldly for a quick start with materials and labour when peace came. It was understood then that central government would cover the cost.
Exeter Council appointed Thomas Sharp to consider blitz redevelopment, with parks, housing and industry. Traders were questioned and newspaper ads solicited opinions from everyone – even the Townswomens Guild. There were many excellent suggestions and some less good. One was that all the main roads meet and circle round the Cathedral, thus turning it into a giant traffic island!
28,000 people attended an exhibition of Sharp’s plans – half the town’s population. His designs were for new open spaces, particularly around churches. Princesshay was to have a view of the Cathedral and there was to be a large square by what is now Boots and a big roundabout at the top of South Street. He also wanted to site the bus station alongside Central Station (thereby destroying the Rougemont Hotel) and to pull down the museum – considered too Victorian for Brave New Britain. None of these came to pass.
Sharp’s plan included moving industry further along the river to Marsh Barton to allow the quay, once an industrial zone, to become a leisure area. Mercifully he was against Plymouth-style boulevards, insisting that Exeter was an intimate city and did not need monumental architecture. He left it to the Council to design individual buildings.
The 1944 Planning Act enabled Councils to requisition land in bulk with the intention of leasing it back to traders in large blocks. But the compensation was only at very low 1939 levels and only paid in full if traders rebuilt on exactly the land they had previously owned.
Traders were unhappy at having to pay to rebuild on leased land and the expected government money did not materialise. So the only organisations who could afford to lease and build on the Council’s big blocks of High Street land were multiple traders such as Barclays, Boots and Marks & Spencer who still operate from those leased areas. Some other blocks were bought by developers who subsequently amalgamated into Land Securities.
The Council stipulated that the buildings should be of “neo-Georgian” style and even specified the types of bricks. They exercised tight control and forced the developers to conform. Their buildings stand today, though one might be forgiven for thinking they were more 1930s-inspired than Georgian.
Village-style housing estates which included shops were built and the Stoke Hill estate won an award. Schools which had been flattened were re-built in locations where children did not have to cross busy roads.
In the 1960s a rise in government subsidies meant re-building escalated. Fashions had changed by then so, although the High Street buildings were well received in their time, more modern buildings (such as the old Debenhams) were chosen for the later developments in Sidwell Street.