Medieval Bridge over Exe
Medieval Bridge over Exe

Bedless and Lifeless: The History of The Devon and Exeter Hospital

with Richard Holladay on Thursday, 11 April 2024
at 7pm at The Mint Methodist Church Centre, Exeter (Wesley Room)

Richard Holladay’s talks have delighted Exeter Local History Society members many times in the past and have been quite frequently connected to his ancestors – Garton & King (his father), Eland’s map and book shop (his great-grandfather), Exeter Workmen’s Dwellings & Dr Charles Lovely (his grandfather), a talk and images of retailing in Exeter 1880-1940, and Exeter City Sight Seeing Tours from his time as a bus operator in Devon.

This presentation of photos came about as Richard was granted access in 2009 to the Royal Devon & Exeter Hospital (Southernhay) when it ceased to be a hospital and before it underwent refurbishment for other uses. His mission was to find evidence of work by Garton & King and he was able to roam the whole premises and take photos.

From printed material left in-situ Richard was able to compile lists of staff from 1941- 1942 and 1943-1944 – doctors, nurses, orderlies, maids and porters and interesting information gleaned from receipt books and extracts from a diary. He showed an image of a plan of the “Devon & Exeter Hospital at Exon” and shots of the entrance to Dean Clarke House. He found Garton & King’s manhole covers where coal was delivered, radiators, and a memorial stone in a wall where a wing of the hospital was erected in 1856.

Richard started his search in the Cellars and worked upwards and found the foundation stone recording the date AD 1741 [see details below], the boilers fed by coal via chutes, and later evidence of oil-fired boilers which replaced the coal-fired boilers. There were lots of views of empty corridors with notices of “Rooms decommissioned and not available for use”, potato peeler machines and an early switchboard; a control room and meters, pipes, stop cocks and brass taps. A box bearing a label of “syrup of figs” [how that brought back unpleasant memories to this author of being force-fed this in childhood]. There were several memorial plaques and notices in the basement and a board with WRVS Codes. There was a memorial board of the Ten Commandments which had been removed from the Chapel and one in memory of a Sister Benson. There was a tablet “in recognition of the munificence of Mrs Maria Elisabeth Nosworthy” and also a board about a special appeal. Moving on to the Outpatient Department and there was a plaque “In Remembrance of Sister Summerhays (Nora Britten)” and one to a Jane Johnson, and one to Sir Edgar Plummer, President, The Sun Balconies.

On the Ground Floor Richard found a room where there were keys everywhere. He photographed a brass door latch, the Board Room, more memorial boards, the entrance to the chiropody room, treatment room and evidence of rooms being partitioned, “Catering Department Enquiries”, staircases, lifts, an empty ward, old-fashioned wiring and 3-pin sockets. Richard photographed a toilet from Rowe Bros. with a long-drop cistern and a wash basin, a lift entrance with no lift mechanism and a cupboard with a notice attached “Do not obstruct – Margaret”. Richard photographed the water tank and the attic and showed us views from the roof, the weather vane and cupola. He showed views of the Cathedral in the distance, a view of the Courts, the outside iron staircase, a view across to Haldon Belvedere, lots of chimneys (but he had not come across any evidence of fire-places), a view of the old Eye Infirmary (now the Hotel Du Vin), and scaffolding. Then pictures of more corridors, and a Way Out sign. Then an image of the only other occupant of the building while he was roaming around – a cat!

Richard had been clear that he was unable to give a history of the hospital, but the wealth of photographs gave a very interesting glimpse into the building once it had become “bedless and lifeless”.

For an interesting article about the hospital see the Exeter Memories website:

See also: Discovering Exeter 10: Public Inscriptions by Den Perrin, Exeter Civic Society, 1999, p.31, Inscription No. 77. Dean Clarke House, Southernhay East:

“The foundation stone of this building, one of the oldest provincial hospitals in the country, was laid by the founder Dr Alured Clarke D.D. Dean of Exeter, 27th August 1741”.
‘The site, formerly a tilt yard*, was given by John Tuckfield, Member of Parliament for Exeter. John Richards was the designer and builder’.
‘The title Royal Devon & Exeter Hospital was granted in 1899 after a visit by the Duke and Duchess of York. The hospital was maintained throughout by voluntary contribution until 5th July 1948 when it was taken over by the National Health Service.

Note - *(‘tilt yard’ an area for jousts and tournaments).

This author has her own memories of the hospital – once as a child in Accident & Emergency to remove a rusty broken sewing needle from a big toe. My Mum was a dressmaker and had in the past dropped a needle into the matting in our prefab where my bare feet had located it rather painfully. The doctor removed it from the side of the nail and asked if I wanted it back. The other memory is of visiting my father when he was an in-patient. I remember having to wait on the staircase up to the ward for visiting time to begin and he was able to tell us an amusing story concerning the man in the next bed who had persuaded a friend to bring him in a bottle of whisky or brandy. He had just turned his back to the nurses’ office to take a surreptitious swig of the bottle when the nursing Sister in charge of the ward moved like a galleon in full sail, starched uniform rustling, and swiped the bottle as it was about to reach his lips with the words “Gotcha”. My father was highly amused.

[Sue Jackson]

[Images supplied by Richard Holladay]

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