One of the best ways to explore a city is by following a city walk or guided tour and Exeter is no exception. There are a host of fascinating guided walks around the city for you to enjoy, but if you want to set out on your own, why not plan a route around Exeter’s Blue Plaques where you can learn more about the city’s most notable residents and how they contributed to Exeter’s history.
Here are some of the individuals you can discover while exploring the city.
Exeter City Councillor
Redvers, Alphington Street
Rachel Allen was the first female councillor to represent the Labour Party on Exeter City Council. Allen was born in 1899 in Wales before moving to England and settling in Exeter. She was elected onto Exeter City Council in 1927 and sadly died just three years later, however, she had a busy three years and a big impact on the city, setting up mother and child health centres across Exeter. She lived at the location of the plaque at Redvers in Alphington Street in the St Thomas part of the city from 1924 until her death in 1930.
Cecil “Charlie” Brewer and Mary of Exeter
Pigeon breeder and Pigeon
6 West Street
Cecil Brewer, who was more commonly known as Charlie was born in Church Lane, St Thomas, Exeter in 1895. After getting married, he moved to West Street, where you’ll find his plaque. It was here that he began to breed and train homing pigeons, his most prized pigeon being Mary of Exeter who was enrolled in the National Pigeon Service. Charlie took on the duties of Special Constable and had responsibility for all the pigeons being used by the war effort in the 1940s, while Mary became known as the bird who never gave up, continuously being dropped behind enemy lines and always completing her missions, despite being wounded by gunshots, going missing and being attacked by hawks. Charlie would nurse her back to health when she returned home with important military news and at the end of the war, the pair were awarded with medals, Mary received the Dickin Medal, known as the animal’s version of the VC.
There are other memorials dedicated to Mary across the city, including at Northernhay Gardens.
Dame Georgiana Buller
Organiser and advocate of care and opportunities for war-wounded and disabled people
Bellair County Hall, Topsham Road
Dame Georgiana Buller, born Audrey Charlotte Georgiana Buller was born in 1883 at her family’s home in nearby Crediton. At various points in her life, she acted as estate assistant to her father but following his death would become famous in her own right due to her contribution to the war effort.
During WWI, she worked as Deputy County Director of the Devon Red Cross, the only woman to have held such a post at the time. While director, she raised money for and ran a group of eight military hospitals in Exeter and was made a Dame for her efforts.
After the war she was made chair of the Devonian Orthopaedic Association and managed a major programme of fund raising to enable the building of children’s orthopaedic hospitals. Later in life she developed training centres for people with disabilities across the south west. The centres were later used as a resource for rehabilitating men disabled in action. Her plaque can be found at Bellair, County Hall which is close to the location of the military hospitals.
Portrait miniaturist at the royal courts of Elizabeth I and James I and Goldsmith
Guildhall Shopping Centre
At the Guildhall Shopping Centre you’ll find a plaque commemorating the life of Nicholas Hilliard, who was born in Exeter and is credited as being the first British artist to gain international recognition for his work.
He came from a family of Goldsmiths, with both his father and grandfather working locally, some of their work can still be seen at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum. Examples of Hilliard’s work can be seen at the national Portrait Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum and other reputable places across the world.
Hilliard went on to become the miniature painter of choice for the royal family, particularly Queen Elizabeth I, James I and other members of the court, including Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake.
Dr Peter Hennis
Hero of Exeter Cholera outbreak
St Sidwell’s Church, Sidwell Street
Dr Hennis was born in Ireland and came to Exeter in the 1830s where he secured a job as physician to the Exeter Dispensary. During a cholera outbreak in 1832, he was appointed medical officer to the poorest district in the city, where he was recognised for his hard work and kindness to patients.
However, he would die a year later in a duel which took place at Haldon Racecourse. He was the last man to be killed in a duel in Devon, succumbing to his injuries eight days after the duel. It is said that his opponent, Sir John Jeffcott fired early and Dr Hennis did not shot at all. A warrant for Sir John’s arrest was issued but it would be years before he was brought to trial and was acquitted. Dr Hennis was so well loved in the city however that over 250 people attended his funeral and 2000 others lined the streets around St Sidwell’s Church.
The plaque marks the spot of his grave.
Labour’s first female Mayor of Exeter
1 Holly Road, Wonford
You’ll find a plaque for Ivy Johns at her former home at 1 Holly Road, Wonford. Previous to living at this residence, Ivy lived at the Burnthouse Lane Estate in the city, she represented the Wonford Ward on Exeter City Council for 17 years and was Mayor of Exeter between 1981 and 1982.
While Mayor she campaigned to get a new road into the city build from Pynes Hill and opening a doctor’s surgery. She is remembered for being a champion for the people of Wonford.
Elsie Knocker Baroness De T’Serclaes
Nurse on the frontlines during WWI
1 Barnfield Crescent
Elsie was the daughter of a surgeon working at the Royal Devon and Exeter hospital but was orphaned as an early age. She went on to become a nurse and midwife and during WWI, became a dispatch rider on the western front before working as a nurse, caring for 23,000 casualties.
In 1939 she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and continued to be active within the air force during and after the war.
Engineer and inventor
Tregear, Spice Road
Stephen Simpson was an inventor and engineer who is credited for creating the early coin in the slot gas meters, which were picked up by Exeter firm Willey and Co Ltd, prompting him to move to Exeter and work for them. Willey’s would go on to patent over 200 of Simpson’s inventions, some of which are still used today.
He also worked to raise money to repair Exeter Cathedral after it was bombed during WWII, he supplied steel girders at his own expense and also helped restore other bomb damaged buildings and monuments in the city.
Richard Douglas Sandford
Submariner, awarded VC in WWI
15 Cathedral Close
Lieutenant Richard Douglas Sandford was born at 15 Cathedral Close in 1891, the son of the Archdeacon of Exeter. He went on to join the Royal Navy and would be awarded the Victoria Cross for his work during the Zeebrugge Raid in WWI. He died of typhoid fever in North Yorkshire just 12 days after the signing of the Armistice. His Victoria Cross is displayed in Dartmouth.
First female city councillor for Exeter
33 Herschell Road
Edith Splatt, former suffragette worked as a dressmaker in Sidwell Street before becoming a journalist working for the Express and Echo. Later she would become the first woman to be elected as a councillor on Exeter City Council, representing the Belmont Ward as an Independent from 1921 until 1945.
The plaque is located on 33 Herschell Road, where she lived with her mother.
Sir Thomas Bodley
Founder of the Bodleian Library at Oxford
Corner of Gandy Street and High Stree
Bodley was the son of a wealthy merchant from Exeter and was born at what is now 229 High Street, on the corner with Gandy Street. The original house is no longer standing, but some of the features can still be seen at the current property.
In the 1550s, the family were exiled to Europe and while there, Thomas studied languages and divinity in Geneva before heading to Oxford University where he had a distinguished career as an academic and would go on to become an MP. He is best known for the Bodleian Libray at Oxford University which was named for him. He spent a considerable amount of his own money on the library and brought in books from across the world, some of which were sold to him by the Dean and Chapter of Exeter.
He was knighted by James I and left his fortune to the Bodleian Library.
He shares a plaque with John Shillingford, a former Mayor of Exeter and MP.
Champion of England at Devonshire wrestling and landlord of the champion Arms public house
28 Bartholomew Street West
Abraham Cann was born in nearby Crediton but would spend a lot of time in Exeter, particularly after becoming a wrestler. He won the titles of Champion of West of England and Champion of England. Later in life he would run the Champions Arms in Exeter between 1828 & 1830. The inn is no longer standing but the current building at 28 Bartholomew Street West is where you’ll find his plaque.
The Devon witches
Last people in England to be tried for witchcraft
Rougemont Castle, Castle Street
This is one of the most fascinating aspects of Exeter, and by extension, Devon’s history. The plaque is commemorated to Temperance Lloyd, Susannah Edwards, Mary Trembles and Alice Molland, all from Devon, who were the last people in England to be executed for witchcraft.
The women were tried at Rougemont Castle, where you’ll find the plaque, and hung at Heavitree. You’ll see a mural at Musgrave Row which features three witches in the depiction of Exeter’s history.
143 Fore Street
Yes, that Charles Dickens. You’ll also find a plaque dedicated to his parents who lived at Alphington. Dickens was known to lodge with them for several years and also stayed at Fore Street, the home of journalist Thomas Latimer, with whom he shares the plaque. The house also served as the office for the Western Times, which Latimer edited. The pair were friends and as such, Dickens would visit the city and often gave readings of his popular books.
Dick Pincher Pym
Football and salmon fisherman
Richard “Dick” Pym was famous in the 1920s for playing goal for Bolton Wanderers in the first FA Cup Final to be played at Wembley Stadium. As well as being a professional footballer, he was also dedicated to his community in Exeter and Topsham, working as a parish councillor, special constable, running Topsham Football Club, scout leader and serving in the army. He was also famous in and around Exeter for his job as a salmon fisher, something he did his entire life.
Violet and Irene Vanbrugh
Roman Walk and Southernhay
Located on the walkway between Roman Walk and Southernhay near the Exeter Blitz Memorial is a plaque for Violet and Irene Vanbrugh. The sisters were the daughter of Rev Reginald Barnes and were born in the city, being educated at Exeter High School.
Violet, the eldest was determined to be an actor and moved to London at 18 where she took the stage name of Vanbrugh and began acting professionally. She became best known for her Shakespearean roles and for appearing in the Oscar winning film, Pygmalion.
Her younger sister Irene followed in her footsteps and starred in Oscar Wilde and J M Barrie plays, even performing before King George V and Queen Elizabeth II. Irene was made a dame in 1941 because of her dedication to good causes. Their younger brother was director of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and built the Vanbrugh Theatre, named in honour of his sisters.
This is just a selection of the Blue Plaques you can find in Exeter, be sure to visit the city to find out more.