Medieval Bridge over Exe
Medieval Bridge over Exe


Thursday, 10 November 2022

Dr Julia Neville, already well known to members of Exeter Local History Society, has been continuing to research the West Quarter’s early twentieth century history. The release of the 1921 census has greatly enabled this research.

On Thursday, 10 November 2022, so close to Armistice Day, Dr Julia Neville shared with us recent research into the lives of those who lived in the West Quarter and particularly the World War I veterans in the 1920s.   The West Quarter is a triangle of land bordered by South Street, Fore Street and the river.

The impact of World War I continued for some years.  First, of course, there was Armistice Day on 11 November 1918 although celebrations were delayed until the following summer perhaps because demobilisation continued into 1919 and perhaps also there was hope for better weather.   That hope was not realised – it rained all day on a magnificent programme of processions and religious services.  There were also more raucous and blood thirsty events with little peace or goodwill.

The West Quarter certainly celebrated the Armistice.  A cleverly constructed effigy of the ex-Kaiser was hung across Stepcote Hill and a crowd assembled to burn it.     An old fiddler merrily played and the crowd danced with delight as the effigy was completely destroyed.  An impromptu dance continued while the fiddler played on his old violin, enjoying himself as much as the dancers.

It is thought that the effigy and the event were organised by one James Slack, a Royal Marine for five years and a great patriot but known to turn aggressive after a drink or two. 

Within the West Quarter, Follet’s Buildings were a block of Victorian model flats erected for the “industrial classes” in Mermaid Yard.  There were 24 flats of various sizes, having 4, 3 or 2 room with six flats on each floor and a central staircase.  Families moved around between flats which makes their histories quite difficult to trace.

According to the 1921 census members of the Dorothy family of boatyard fame, one Thomas Dorothy with his wife and six children, occupied a 3-room flat in Follett’s Buildings.  This was a 2-salary household as Thomas was employed as a labourer by Exeter City Council and their 15-yer-old son was an errand boy for Farr Ltd, gent’s outfitters in Queen Street (now rebuilt and occupied by Tesco).  Many of the 3-room flats were occupied by far larger families.

Julia explained that the 24 flats provided accommodation for serving soldiers and seamen, seven with disability or recurrent illness and there were also three war widows with their fatherless children.  Several elderly people ineligible to serve occupied some flats and there may have been more than one family in some flats.   The Follett’s men had served in many roles.  There was a little cluster from the Royal Navy.  We don’t today associate Exeter with seafaring but in the 1920s the port was busy and there were many trades a boy could learn.  Two of the cluster served at Jutland, the principal North Sea Battle, and survived though one died later in an accident.

There were in Follett’s sixteen serving soldiers.  Many had joined early and served with the Devons: Thomas Dorothy, William Elderbrand, Henry Greenaway, George Gale and two who died - John Nike killed at Loos and  Alfred Badcock at Neuve Chapelle where he was serving in a Field Ambulance unit.  In the 1921 census his two children and their mother were still living at Follett’s but Ellen had remarried.

Later in the war men were called up and posted to county regiments such as the Norfolks and the Warwickshires where the losses were greater.

A cluster served in the Royal Field Artillery – always stationed in Topsham Barracks - and those with particular skills or experience were deployed to specialist units such as the Royal Engineers, the Royal Army Medical Corp and the Royal Veterinary Corps.

The majority of the men from Folletts did return after the war.  One Charles Ewings had been transferred to the Army Service Corps and by 1921 was back at his old trade of plasterer working for Coles the builders in Alphington.  He was not originally from Folletts coming from Newtown then via Holloway Street to Folletts where he probably stayed until his death in 1933.  Henry Greenaway, a brickmaker, joined the Devons and served in the Cyclist Corps.  He was hit behind his right knee in 1917 and his final medical assessment stated that his joint was mobile with no muscle wastage.  He experienced pain when walking, however, and was awarded a pension.  In 1921 he, his wife and their five children were all living in a 2-room flat in Cotton’s Buildings, a big block alongside Follett’s.

Many men went back to their original trades but by 1921 some had been laid off and opportunities were limited for those with disabilities.  Ernest Steer at 2 Folletts Buildings had driven a cart for a poulterer but was badly wounded in both arms and discharged from the services.  In 1921 his wife died and he was living with his brother-in-law’s family in Heavitree and working as a time keeper at Willeys. There was some support for those who could not go back to their previous occupations so perhaps his post was reserved by Willey’s for a disabled veteran.   For instance, a man from Stepcote Hill who had joined the Devonshires before the war and married an Exeter girl in 1916 was demobilised with substantial sight loss in 1930 with a pension.  Because of his sight loss he was able to join a DCC plan to retrain disabled soldiers to work on smallholdings or market gardens.   Not perhaps an ideal choice for someone who had been a city dweller all his life!

Not all those claiming disability pensions had been wounded in action.  Thomas Dorothy’s brother Fred broke his leg while shifting furniture and claimed because of a permanent (though slight) deformity.   And one George Tapp claimed for having contracted pulmonary tuberculosis and heart disease but the Pensions Board concluded these were not attributable to his war service so he was refused a pension.  George Gale served in Egypt and is recorded as suffering from wounds and shell shock – now known as PTSD.

Sometimes we only learn about these invisible injuries through the records of the police courts, for instance:


  • William Jakes of Tighe Place spent time in hospital for treatment to his leg.  His disability was assessed at 30%; his mental disability may have been similarly profound.  He beat and injured his wife because, as her solicitor said, he was ‘mentally wrong’.  Family issues such as this which came before the courts cast light on the re-adjustment difficulties many experienced after the war.
  • In 1917 William West was discharged to his wife and parents in Coombe Street, suffering from ‘shell shock’.  Drink ‘went straight to his head’. The Chief Constable and the magistrates tried hard to get him effective treatment but even the Maudsley Hospital could not help.
  • Ellen Black from one of the little courts off Smythen Street, summoned her husband for desertion, applying for a separation order, custody of their two children and an order for her husband to contribute to the maintenance of the children and herself.  Theirs was a war time marriage - they never had a proper home but lived with her parents.  One day in 1919 he went out ‘to buy a cake’ and never returned.  He contacted her from Scotland but she refused his invitation to join him there.  He sent her occasional money but declined to return.  The court agreed that this was desertion, awarded her custody and a maintenance order.
  • James Slack (aforementioned) and his neighbour Frank Miller went on a drinking spree in 1919. A policeman tried to stop them, already in a drunken state, from entering the Horse & Groom in Heavitree.  They insisted on entering and ordering drink and, when they refused to leave the pub, the policeman arrested Slack.  Slack said he’d been away fighting for four years for the policeman and threw the policeman to the ground causing the loss of his whistle and the numbers from his uniform.   Both men were fined ten shillings for being drunk and sentenced to one month in prison with hard labour for assaulting a policeman.
  • Thomas Chambers of West Street met a few old friends from France in the 1920s.  ‘They fought all their battles through again over sundry pints of beer’ according to the newspaper and Thomas was later found ‘lying on the footpath in Bonhay Road, drunk and incapable’ for which he was fined 7s 6d./li>
  • In 1920, Emma Vanstone’s husband left their home in Preston Street and never returned.  In 1922 he was tracked down and the NSPCC prosecuted him for arrears of maintenance.  As of course he had no money he was sentenced to three months in prison – no help to Emma who refused to take him back.  A few months later their son Richard (who earlier had been sent away to an industrial school for young offenders) was in court accused of theft. Emma claimed that he was her ‘stand by’ and that she did not want him sent away again.  The court compassionately agreed that he should be put under the probation officer for twelve months.


Schooling was undergoing radical change in the 1920s.  The school leaving age had been raised from 12 to 14 which meant schools had to find extra space for those pupils but also organise space for those children who would now be choosing to stay on until they were 16.

Very few West Quarter children stayed on after 14, however, and those few came from relatively well off families – the son of the landlord of a pub on Market Street and the sons of the headmaster of Rack Street School, for instance.

The government saw this as creating a better educated workforce but the chair of the Education Committee in 1919 was concerned that parents took away their sons at the earliest possible moment because ‘abnormally high wages’ were being paid for child labour while adult unemployment was high.

Unemployment was a very big problem in the 1920s.   Lloyd’s cigarette factory had provided many young women with work before the war but by the summer of 1921 it was on the verge of closure and the only teenage girl who reported employment there listed herself as out of work.

This was still a busy area for youth employment, though, with several printing firms in and around South Street and seven West Quarter teenagers – both male and female – were employed there.  Businesses around the Quay and the leats also provided work opportunities. Willeys, a major engineering company (which employed a disabled man as a time keeper) employed five teenagers from the West Quarter as brass workers involved in the production of gas meters and gas light fittings – not yet superseded by electricity!  There were also two brush- making factories, one in North Street and one in Fore Street which employed four teenage girls from the West Quarter as brush makers.  On Fore Street there was also a jam factory and a big soap factory – all employing some West Quarter teenagers.

Further employment was available at the big City Brewery on Commercial Road and then there was a collar factory in St Thomas producing the detachable collars men wore in their shirts.  Several of our young people had ‘front of house’ jobs as shop assistants or serving at table, though not as many as those working behind the scenes: packing, portering and delivering goods.

Although there were good job opportunities for the young most of them were considered dead end jobs.  For girls it was mostly housework – or child minding (called ‘nurse girls’) - but for boys it was as errand boys although they were often laid off when they became eligible for adult wage rates!  About a quarter of West Quarter teenagers were in these ‘dead end’ jobs.

At the end of the working day, these teenagers repaired to homes which were so often a crowded flat or a slum tenement.  The West Quarter was designated a slum in 1919 but by 1928 photographs show that little had been done to clear and rebuild, or even to improve the properties.

POSTSCRIPT: Efforts were made in the 1930s to provide improved accommodation for these unfortunate people.  Julia’s talk entitled ‘Farthing Breakfasts’ described the opportunity for improvement provided for the family of the artist Charles Tucker in the 1930s and Clare Maudling gave us a talk during lockdown setting out some of the great post war efforts made in the late 1940s and early 1950s to improve the living conditions of many of Exeter’s poor. Things did get better.

Print | Sitemap
© exeter local history society