Medieval Bridge over Exe
Medieval Bridge over Exe


by Sue Jackson

As members will be aware from earlier Newsletters, the Society email receives queries from the general public and Frances forwards these to me to see if I can help. An interesting one received was from someone renovating a 1920s semi in Birchy Barton Hill where the cladding was removed to reveal a fire surround bearing the name of the maker as W.Otton & Sons which included photos as evidence and asking if anything was known of the history of the firm and its employees.

As luck would have it, my father Albert Henry Richards (known as Bert) had worked for Ottons practically the whole of his working life until his death in 1971. I remember him telling me he had worked briefly after leaving school as a delivery boy using a bicycle. His job at Ottons was as a van delivery driver which had the registration number FFJ 681. The firm of Walter Otton & Sons, Ironmongers and Builders’ Merchants was based at 135-139 Fore Street and photos and interesting information are available on the Exeter Memories website. The yard door was next door down from Tuckers Hall (No. 140) and the remaining façade stretched nearly to Bartholomew Street. There was also a branch at 110 Fore Street on the opposite side of the street next door down from St John’s Church which was famous for its clock jutting out from the Church and which was still listed as the Church of Saints John & George in a street directory for 1939. The photo dated 1910 in Peter Thomas’s book The Changing Face of Exeter shows the Church and its clock with Walter Otton’s façade level with the Church and a tobacconist and another shop set back and this is borne out by the entry in the 1897 Kelly’s Directory which lists Ottons as 110, Edward Charles Hansford, tobacconist as 111 and Robert Strang, fruit salesman at 112 and 113 on the corner of King Street. The site is now Taunton Leisure and Cody menswear but I remember Langans Foam Shop occupying Cody’s premises down as far as King Street. Both branches of Ottons in Fore Street were listed in the 1897 Kelly’s Directory and Exeter Memories indicates that the firm was in existence from before 1889.

Walter Otton was born in the September Quarter of 1849, was married in the June Quarter of 1873 and died in the December Quarter of 1920, aged 71. It is possible (although not proven without the purchase of a birth certificate) that his eldest son was Walter John Otton born in the March Quarter of 1874. (Walter Otton is listed on Exeter Memories as a Sheriff of the City and County of the City of Exeter in1932 and in separate research carried out into the buildings taken over by the University of Exeter as Halls of Residence I came across Walter J.Otton living at Homefield/Lazenby Annexe at Hope Hall in the 1939 Kelly's Directory.) Walter Snr’s son Reginald Tom Otton was born in the March Quarter of 1879 and it was Reg Otton who took over the running of the firm until his death in the December Quarter of 1972, aged 93. Reg Otton married Mrs Laura James of 10 Victoria Park Road in the March Quarter of 1966 but it was rumoured that as a bachelor at the age of 87 it was a marriage of convenience as he continued to live at Walnut House, 63 St David’s Hill and Laura Otton at 10 Victoria Park Road as both were listed in the 1971 Kelly's Directory at their respective addresses. Laura Otton’s death was in the March Quarter of 1982, aged 93. Following the death of Reg Otton the firm moved to Marsh Barton and was then taken over by Jewsons. The Yard became McCoy’s Arcade and the remaining frontage as well as McCoy’s is Spice Magic listed as 139 and Hidden Jewel Tattoos as 136. Below these to the corner of Bartholomew Street are Viva Hair (134), Darker Enterprises Book Retailers (133) and The Press House Café (132).

Otton's premises at 135-139 Fore Street was a veritable rabbit-warren of various rooms and sold everything you could think of in hardware including Aga cookers, nails, screws and paint. It was well-known that customers would ask for very obscure items and a sales assistant would go off to search the many areas upstairs and the back of the premises for said item. He might be gone for ages until he found it, but find it he always did. Whether he took a tea or lunch break at the same time is not known. One summer’s day, as a very small child dressed only in my pants and sandals Dad drove me to the yard in the delivery van and weighed me on the huge industrial scales – I was so little it didn’t register. The yard was open for vehicles to drive into and had galleries which stored tins of paint and Walpamur Distemper. Roy Tootell as a young man accompanied my father on his deliveries. There was one occasion when Dad drove to the address and stayed in the van whilst Roy tried to locate the owner. He was gone ages so Dad decided to look for him and found him in a state of panic pinned to the wall by a very large dog which had his paws on his shoulders. Another time Roy had been sent up to the gallery to get some paint for a delivery and managed to tip it up over his head. My Dad made him sit on an old sack in the van and Roy took his overalls home to his mother who soaked them overnight in a bucket of Parazone. I believe the buckles were still recognisable, but not much of the overalls was left.

Dad drove the van up until a recurrence of TB and a long spell in hospital put him out of action. Following this and his return to work, he was transferred to the Exmouth branch in Rolle Street and worked as storekeeper until his death in 1971. There were at least three employees who lived in Exeter and worked at the Exmouth branch and Reg Otton decided he could save money on train fares by putting one of his very old cars back on the road that was currently in cold storage in his garage at Walnut House for my father to drive them down and back each day. The car was a 1930s Humber Snipe complete with running board and my father lovingly hand-painted the car black. He parked it overnight outside our pre-fab in Prescot Road and I’m sure the neighbours must have wondered about us and living in a Council house with a massive car parked outside. I’m not sure Reg Otton ever saved any money in this venture as my father reckoned that the oil consumption matched petrol consumption, which I think managed about 8 miles to the gallon! When going to Walnut House to collect the car my Dad noticed a yard broom parked outside the back of Walnut House with just a few bristles left in it – Ottons actually sold brooms!

My Dad did not consider himself to be well-paid and there were occasions when he was minded to ask Reg Otton for a raise in his wages and when visiting his office to plead his case he made sure he was wearing his oldest shoes and shabbiest trousers. Dad was not always successful in his quest. But although Reg could be regarded as penny-pinching, the firm nevertheless laid on a summer outing for the staff (no family members included), and paid for families to attend the annual pantomime at the Theatre Royal – one of my best memories of childhood. There was also an annual Christmas dinner and dance at the George & Dragon presided over by Bill Greenhalgh as Master of Ceremonies. Bill Greenhalgh’s shop selling musical instruments was at 125/127 Fore Street, close to West Street and almost opposite Ottons.

There are a few names I remember among the staff. As well as Dad’s sidekick Roy, I remember Bill Hawker, Ed Puddicombe who was my Uncle Sam’s brother-in-law, and Ken Derges. Leslie Hawke was the Exmouth branch manager and he was one of the men Dad drove down to Exmouth in the Humber Snipe. There was another Exeter man whose name I cannot remember and Norman Bumstead who lived in the Exmouth area.

As well as the Fore Street premises Walter Otton took over the firm of Edwin I.Munk, Wholesale Ironmonger in Waterbeer Street sometime between 1949 and 1957. From research previously carried out they were next door to the back entrance of The Turk’s Head as far as the corner of Goldsmith Street at Nos 13, 14, 15 and 16 from at least 1897 (my earliest Kelly’s Directory which includes a street directory). From my 1939 Besley’s they were listed as 14, 15 and 16 up until at least 1971 and later became Southern Health Foods Ltd (16) and is now Zebel Custom Tailors & Barbershop (15 and 16) and Flavour Vapour (14). My father was deployed to the Edwin Munk premises when one of the two assistants employed there was on holiday. Charlie Screech was one employee and I seem to remember the manager was a Mr Partridge (but I may be wrong). It was said to be the last shop in Exeter with gas lighting. My father showed me the upstairs where an original delivery bike, complete with the firm’s name was stored.

The firm of Walter Otton & Sons had a long presence in Exeter and there will be many of a certain age who will remember it fondly, and maybe with a degree of frustration, when they had to wait for what seemed like hours before the more unusual items they wanted could be found.

[February 2023, based on the research for current shops carried out in January 2022]

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