Exeter in the age of Poldark

Published on: 5 October 2015

Southgate in Exeter, which was taken down in 1819. In the eighteenth century prisoners were held in cells built into the city’s walls and towers at Southgate. Image courtesy of British History Online: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/magna-britannia/vol6/pp177-234

In the eighteenth century Exeter was the fifth largest city in England, a major trading centre and the cultural and economic hub of the south-west. For most of the century it was also the only city in Devon or Cornwall to have its own printing presses, and writers, poets, and scientists from all over the region came to Exeter to have their works put into print.

Research by Dr Joseph Crawford and Dr Andrew Rudd uncovers the legacy of the eighteenth century and shows why it is important to Exeter today. Their Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded work, which will be showcased in the Being Human Festival of the Humanities 2015, is designed to show how knowledge of a city’s past can create a sensitive appreciation of its present and greater confidence about the future.

Exeter became a modern city in the eighteenth century. Architecturally, Georgian sophistication is much in evidence in Southernhay, home to quintessentially Georgian townhouses and the former Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital, opened in 1743. The luxury flats being developed on the site are named after the hospital’s founder, Dean Alured Clarke. Bedford Circus, where the Princesshay shopping centre now stands, was a cutting-edge piece of modern architecture that rivalled the famous Royal Crescent in Bath.

The former Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital in Southernhay, now luxury flats.

Exeter also has connections to the Georgian monarchy. George’s Meeting House (now a Wetherspoon’s) in South Street was named to celebrate George III’s accession to the throne in 1760. And the Royal coat of arms still sits proudly above the Royal Clarence Hotel on Cathedral Green, opened in 1769 and thought to be the oldest hotel in the country.

In 1789, George III visited Exeter with members of the Royal Family. 40,000 people turned out to greet him, but the King was suffering from porphyria (thought to be insanity) and struggled to cope with the demanding itinerary. The only glimpse many Exonians had of the King was when he peeked over the walls of the Bishop’s Garden on tip-toe. Worse still, he did not appear at the banquet organised for him at the Guildhall, for which a special golden throne had been ordered. Despite this, the city had a festival atmosphere and was entertained by the celebrated actress Sarah Siddons, who performed at the New Theatre on Bedford Street.

Gandy Street was for many years the site of the city’s most important printing press. This was run by the eccentric Freemason Andrew Brice. Brice dominated Exeter’s print trade for decades, printing everything from geographical encyclopaedias to the librettos of popular operas. He wrote and published one of the city’s first newspapers, The Exeter Postmaster, and wrote the first work of secular poetry printed in Exeter, Freedom. Fittingly, Brice composed this work while under house arrest for non-payment of a fine for libel. Brice trained women as printers as well as men, and his widow and daughter continued in the print trade after his death in 1773.

The Royal Clarenece today still displaying the coat of arms. Photo by Dr Andrew Rudd.

Exeter Guildhall, formally the town hall in earlier times. Image courtesy of Exeter Memories.

Andrew Brice's Exeter Postmaster. Image courtesy of Exeter Memories / Devon and Exeter Institution.

For all Exeter’s Georgian modernity, it was still possible for newspapermen to get into trouble with the law. Several of them, including Brice, were fined for printing reports of parliamentary debates without permission. Two of the city’s earliest printers, Philip Bishop and Edward Farley, died in prison after being arrested for printing works which appeared to criticise the monarchy. In the eighteenth century, prisoners were held in cells built into the city’s walls and towers at Southgate. A marker now shows the spot where this once notorious prison originally stood. The old gate was demolished, prison cells and all, in 1819.

The research shows that eighteenth-century remains (much of Georgian Exeter was destroyed during World War II) reveal much about a vibrant but neglected phase of the city’s history. It was a time when Exeter was finding a new, more modern, identity, alongside traces of its more distant past. Similarly, eighteenth-century Exeter was evolving for itself a new relationship with the rest of the country, partly as a result of new and faster road connections.

The physical signs of this period can still be explored, and at the Being Human event taking place at Exeter Cathedral on 18 November, audience members will receive a specially produced walking guide to help them track Exeter’s Georgian ancestors. Above all, the research encourages people to take a historical view of their city. This promotes awareness of the past and in turn allows people to think imaginatively about the present and cultivate the city’s assets for the benefit of the future.

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» Arts and Humanities Research Council

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