The Blue Plaques of Exeter
Caitlin Barr takes Exeposé through a historical tour of Exeter’s most notable blue plaques
Hidden down Exeter’s winding streets and alleyways are over 40 blue plaques dedicated to notable people connected to the area. Many of these names are those of creatives who were key in Exeter’s literary and artistic history.
Undoubtedly the most famous of the names is that of Charles Dickens, who lived with his parents close by in Aphington for a few years, and performed readings in the Royal Public Rooms, where Boots is now. He was friends with the Western Times’ editor Thomas Latimer (who also has a plaque), whose offices could be found on Fore Street, where Dickens’ plaque was unveiled in 2013. It was even said that Dickens based a chapter of the Pickwick Papers on the drunken brawls he had witnessed at the 1835 South Devon by-election at Exeter Castle. What a shame he didn’t live to see a Fight Night!
Between Roman Walk and Southernhay, there’s a plaque dedicated to sisters Dame Irene and Violet Vanbrugh. Stars of the stage and screen, they were both born in Exeter and were educated at Exeter High School. Violet appeared in the 1938 Oscar-winning Pygmalion aged 71, and was devoted to theatre earlier in life, playing Ann Boleyn in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. Irene was cast in the premiere of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, as well as many J.M. Barrie plays. She performed for two monarchs in her lifetime (King George V and Queen Elizabeth II), which, along with her charitable work for a women’s hospital in London, earned her a damehood in 1941.
Despite some tax evasion and a hard-line attitude towards his workers, his charity work and legacy earned him a plaque
On Longbrook Street stands the old workshop of Harry Hems, a sculptor and architect who lived and worked in Exeter. The building, which boasts three floors and Hems’ own personal monogram, is now Harry’s Bar and Restaurant. His plaque appears next door at number 82. Heavily inspired by the Medieval Gothic style, Hems aided in the building and decoration of over 700 churches, most notably restoring the altar screen of St Alban’s Cathedral in Hertfordshire. He was also responsible for the memorial to R.D. Blackmore, author of the Lorna Doon books, which are set on Dartmoor. Despite some tax evasion and a hard-line attitude towards his workers, his charity work and legacy earned him a plaque.
There are plenty more plaques to find around the city, including those dedicated to a ‘sea rescue heroine’, various female political pioneers, and a wartime pigeon breeder along with his award-winning spy-pigeon, Mary. Why not tick them off on your lockdown walks?