Medieval Bridge over Exe
Medieval Bridge over Exe

Meeting the promise of ‘Homes for Heroes’ in Exeter after the First World War

with Dr Julia Neville on Thursday, 9 May 2024
at 7pm at the Mint Methodist Church Centre, Exeter (Rowe Hall)

Our speaker had given the Society several talks on Exeter’s social history in the past – Exeter’s First World War Hospitals, The Fight for Votes for Women 1866-1918, Farthing Breakfasts, and More Tales from the West Quarter. This latest talk was to share the next findings from Dr Neville’s long term research project into histories in the 1920s and focusing on the growth of new housing in Exeter during that decade.

Prime Minister Lloyd George

The talk began by outlining discussions that had taken place within the government of the time, and the legislation that had been passed to deal with the logistics of demobilisation, re-employment of soldiers, and those industries that had been developed to meet the needs of war such as munitions. A pamphlet, which had been published, acknowledged the need for a vast amount of new housing and stated that it was ‘A Large Task’, which would need to address the problems of slum areas, of crowded and narrow courts and streets, consisting of defective and insanitary houses deemed unfit for human beings to live in. The aim of the Prime Minister Lloyd George was “To make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in” and he was very aware of what those who had fought in the Great War had gone through.

Exeter City Council appointed a Housing and Town Planning sub-committee to develop proposals in conjunction with the Estates and Finance committees with regard to the number of houses which needed to be built. The plan had been for 1000 houses within three years, but that figure had not been achieved even within ten years. The first houses were built at Pince’s Gardens on land which had been purchased before the war, and then the council purchased 15 acres of land near Polsloe Bridge for the first of the new council housing estates.

A few council houses had already been built before the war on Isca Road in St Thomas, but Exeter needed a plan for where the intended 1000 new houses were to go. The annexation of St Thomas had happened in 1899, and Heavitree in 1913, and connectivity to Exeter by tram was seen as a positive factor in identifying possible building sites. In addition to land near Polsloe Bridge, a large area in Buddle Lane was developed, and Burnthouse Lane at the end of the 1920s. These new estates acquired the nicknames of Chinatown, Shanghai and Siberia which reflected a feeling of being isolated from the centre of the city, but nevertheless became rapidly occupied.

Thirty acres of farmland on the north side of Pinhoe Road, just beyond Polsloe Bridge station were purchased by the Council, with the intention that just over half was to be used to erect 150 houses and just under half to remain as open space or be developed as playing fields. The intention was that the new houses should be “Two-storied cottages, built in groups of four or six, with medium or low-pitched roofs and little exterior decoration, set amongst gardens, trees … and often laid out in cul-de-sacs … the standard (being) three bedrooms, a living room/kitchen, a bathroom, a wc, a larder and a coal store with optional parlour”. Another question to be considered (apart from a parlour or non-parlour) was where to put a bathroom.

Church Army Houses, Rutherford Street, Wonford

A problem was identified in relation to council house rents and had an impact on families from the West Quarter being possibly unable to afford those charged for the new estates.

In addition to new council housing there were voluntary societies that existed to provide what is now known as “social housing”. The Church Army had run a hostel in the old almshouses in Catherine Street where men could get lodging if they helped chop firewood which could be sold to cover costs.

Their ethos was to build homes for low wage-earners with large families and the Church Army said that preference should be given to ex-Servicemen. The first Church Army houses were built in Rutherford Street, Wonford, and by the end of the 1920s 18 had been built – 14 in Rutherford Street and four in the clearance areas of the West Quarter, two on King Street and two on Stepcote Hill.

2 First Avenue, Heavitree

Dr Charles Newton Lovely [who we previously encountered in a talk given by Richard Holladay - a descendant of Dr Lovely] had a more entrepreneurial approach towards raising funds and formed the Exeter Workmen’s Development Company. His stated desire was “for every house that was built, one slum habitation must be wiped out” to “prevent the practice of reletting the vacated property to other tenants”. EWDC built houses in Beacon Lane and by the end of 1929 had provided 79 affordable houses and flats as compared with the Church Army Housing Society’s 18. Other houses were built in the 1920s for owner occupiers and Dr Neville showed examples in First Avenue, Second Avenue and Third Avenue (streets off of Polsloe Road), one of which was 2 First Avenue, a house purchased by her grandparents in 1927 for £600. Her mother as a child aged 5 was fascinated by each room having a little switch that could be turned on and off and with a light coming on in the middle of the room. The family’s previous house in Stratford only had gas lighting and oil lamps.

Other houses were built on the Franklyn Park estate. When the Cowick Barton estate was sold off in 1920 it was split up into lots, creating more money for the sellers. The purchaser for what became Broadway sketched out the overall street, specified some minimum standards about fencing, and sold off to several different developers a pair of plots or four plots. Landed estates went up for sale in the 1910s and 1920s and this enabled tenant farmers to buy their own farms. Examples were the Earl of Devon selling off land on the Alphington side of the city, and Lord Poltimore selling off outlying portions of his East Devon estate with Birchy Barton farm being bought by its tenant. When this was sold in 1923 the property was advertised for sale, not as a single farm but in 14 lots. The farm occupied a large area north of Honiton Road from Heavitree Bridge to where the Sidmouth Road forks off from Honiton Road. Various builder-developers bought up plots, some were more successful than others in their desire to create semi-detached and detached “bijou residences with a certain amount of land enough to grow vegetables and have a tennis court and room enough for a garage” as was the vision of Charles Warren who purchased the garden plot, Footsfield Plot and the Gallows Field. Another not so successful builder by the name of Thomas Lucas ended up in the Bankruptcy Court at the end of the 1920s. He was originally a plumber and had set up in business as a builder in 1925 and started speculative building on the Birchy Barton estate. He built seven houses, made a profit on the first three and a loss on the last four. The Council also received complaints about houses built by other builders where purchasers found that the house plans did not live up to the finished houses – dimensions were smaller, internal cupboards had been omitted, and land was shaved off each plot for the builder to build some extra garages.

Lower Hill Barton Road – ‘Exeter's own Garden Suburb'

Dr Neville ended her talk by turning her attention to the clearance of the slums in the West Quarter and highlighting Burnthouse Lane in particular. Once decisions had been made as to where the by-pass should eventually be built (and not through Burnthouse Lane as had originally been suggested), 36 acres had been compulsorily purchased for housing and playing fields. It was intended “to be Exeter’s very own garden city with wide roads, gardens, shops and churches”. The first tenants moving in at the end of the 1920s found that, as so often with new estates, many of the promised services had not materialised and grievances were expressed at a public meeting in November 1929. Many of these were resolved in the 1930s but their demands involved the following: A reduction in rent; free conveyance to and from school; that the school promised for the estate be built; changes to the bus service for the area; provision of public conveniences; erection of fences around houses; roads and footpaths past finished rows of houses be completed; streetlamps to be lit; and covered dustbins to be supplied.

I [Sue Jackson] am grateful to Dr Neville for providing the text of her talk from which this precis has been produced.

I have my own story to tell regarding a move from slum clearance to a new estate. My grandmother (my father’s mother) had lived all her life in the West Quarter, for some time at The Fountain Inn (later re-named The Prospect) where her father was the landlord and some of her eight siblings had been born, and at other addresses in Quay Lane and Horse Lane, an offshoot at the bottom of Quay Lane. Many of her own nine children had been born in Horse Lane, not all of whom had survived beyond their first year. She remarried after her first husband died and in 1929 she, her second husband, and remaining adult children moved out to 30 Myrtle Road on the Buddle Lane Estate. They lived there for nearly ten years with three of my father’s siblings having married in 1929, 1933 and 1937. My father’s youngest brother joined the Army and was killed in the Dunkirk evacuation, but by 1940 my grandmother, her husband and my father had moved back to 2 Quay Lane again. The story I was told was that although benefiting from the modern conveniences that their new council house provided, my grandmother missed the sense of community she had always enjoyed living in the West Quarter. It seemed you could take the girl out of the West Quarter, but you couldn’t take the West Quarter out of the girl! My father was still there in December 1945, the address recorded on his marriage certificate.

[Sue Jackson]

[Thanks to Julia Neville who supplied the images.]

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