Medieval Bridge over Exe
Medieval Bridge over Exe

      Exeter Workmen’s Dwellings &                      Dr Charles Lovely

Illustrated talk by Richard Holladay
Wednesday, 8 August 2018


Dr Charles Lovely (left) was born in 1864 in Calcutta, India, where his father was a Church Minister. The family returned to England (in a sailing ship) in 1869 when Charles was six and they lived in Ipswich for 13 years where his father was Rector of St Mary on the Quay until he retired.

Charles married Nina Allison in 1890 at age 27 and lived with his new wife in a gracious house called Undercliffe which his father-in-law, owner of a successful brewing business, had built. Charles graduated in 1889 as a doctor in Durham and then moved to Devon and was settled in Dawlish by 1892. in 1897 be took out a lease on a house called Knowle in Dawlish which he re-leased in 1903. It is now the Dawlish Museum and it has kept the surgery as it was.
He took out another lease for his surgery and this house he called Undercliffe, perhaps in memory of his first wife who had died in 1907, aged only 47, leaving him with three children. She is buried in Dawlish Cemetery. In 1911, Charles married Grace Fenner and they had two children, one of whom, Nancy born in 1916, was Richard’s mother.
He showed his philanthropic side even then, being a member of the Council and elected Chairman twice. He also worked at the Cottage Hospital and set up the Infirmary in the High Street which lasted until 1903. He moved to Exeter in 1920 having worked in Military Hospital No. 2 during the Great War and bought Bouverie House in St Leonards. He practised from there for many years with two colleagues. He was also heavily involved with St John Ambulance and was a prison doctor at Devon County Prison. He retired the age of 63 and moved to London but later returned to Devon to escape the blitz and died aged 84 in 1947.
A patient, one Mr Hammett, a dairy farmer, was persuaded by Lovely to sell his milk in bottles instead of using the open-topped churns which one could see being flicked by the delivery horse’s tail. This was an important hygiene development. Hammetts Dairies Ltd was formed in 1925 and existed until recently.

Dr Lovely was appalled at the living conditions of so many of Exeter’s poor. Rickets, TB and other infectious diseases prevailed. These hard working people lived in insanitary and over-crowded slum conditions in alleys and courts which were narrow and filthy. Many did not have easy access to clean running water - which led inevitably to poor hygiene - and housing backing onto the leats supplying the mills simply emptied their effluent into the waterways! (see above).


The big problem was the very poor state of the only buildings they could afford to live in. Dr Lovely and some like-minded people determined that new houses should be built and to achieve this they founded the Workmen’s Dwellings Company Ltd. Seeking to rehouse the working classes of the City into new spacious homes with good living conditions and secure tenancies, it was their mission to provide quality, affordable, rented housing.
For every new house built, the old one would be demolished. Directors of that company came from many monied people, such as the Acland family. By 4th October all shares in the company were taken up - it was noticed that not one minister of religion attended any of the meetings.  In 1928, 79 new houses were completed in Looe Road St Davids. This was celebrated by a reception at Powderham. However, each new house cost £500 so the £7,000 raised for the Company would only provide 14 houses. They solved this problem by using loans on mortgages for the next 400 houses.

In 1929 the Company received loans from Great Western Railways to enable them to build 50 homes – but these were only for railway employees. Mildmay Close (left) is an example of that housing.


In 1932 thirty 3-bed homes in Kings Dwellings, King Street near Stepcote Hill, were completed. The rent was six shillings a week (30p today!) and there was a grand opening by Ms Violet Wills (of the cigarette family). She. later became a Dame in acknowledgement of her many good works.
Raising money for more housing was most important and in September 1933 an American Tea was held in the Barnfield Theatre which successfully raised money for more housing. By 1934 400 homes had been built and by 1939 a further 150 houses and flats had been constructed.
At 73, Dr Lovely retired and went to live in London but the Blitz drove him back to Devon and lived in Silverton for the rest of his life.
The company’s headquarters in Bedford Circus were bombed in 1942 necessitating a move to Southernhay East. The bombing also destroyed many slums.
In 1939 rents were frozen and this ruling was not rescinded until 1957. For the company to survive this meant that they had to sell 40 homes. The Fair Rents Act did not come in until 1970. The Company now created its own workforce and 500 pre-war properties were improved. By 1992 a further 32 properties had been improved.
In 1953 the organization applied for and received charitable status and was thenceforward known as the Exeter Housing Society.
Norwood House, a fee-paying school, was replaced by housing in 1985 and on 17 September 2015 they celebrated its 25th anniversary while in 2016 occurred the 90th anniversary of the Municipal Dwellings Company.
Now known as Cornerstone, the organisation moved in 2013 to new modern offices on Western Way - where the filling station used to be. Continuing to serve the community by providing affordable housing, they are also hoping for a plaque to be placed on Kings Dwellings marking the contribution Dr Lovely has made to alleviating the housing crisis suffered by the poor in the last century.

Most talks are now on the second Thursday of a month. All meetings start at 7 pm and are held at LEONARDO Hotel Exeter, Western Way, Exeter EX1 2DB.                                              The nearest car parks are the Triangle Car Park (at the rear of Leonardo Hotel) and the Summerland Gate Car Park (next to Vue Cinema). Parking at the Triangle Car Park is, unfortunately, no longer free in the evenings.

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