Julia Neville, of the ‘West Quarter in the 1920s Research Project’, investigates poverty in Exeter’s slums in the twentieth century.
I am a member of a research group hosted by the Devon and Exeter Institution. We are investigating what life was like in Exeter’s West Quarter slums during the 1920s. The area had once been the prosperous heart of Exeter, but was now run down, and home principally to those too poor to afford anywhere else to live. In 1924 the Council formally agreed to clear the area section by section. Yet the work did not actually start till the very end of the decade. In the meantime landlords were unwilling to invest in improving their properties and many people lived in appalling conditions.
We have been investigating the housing conditions and the general problems of poverty experienced by the people living in the West Quarter. In our researches we came across a number of paintings held in the RAMM collections that illustrate what life was like. The artist was someone called Charles Tucker.
Who was Charles Tucker?
Charles Tucker was born in the West Quarter in 1920, shortly after the First World War. His father, Charles, had fought in the war and received a small disability pension for the post-traumatic stress disorder he had experienced. Charles wanted to paint even when he was a boy at school. But his father only earned a small wage as a labourer and was often unemployed. So the family budget would never stretch to a box of paints. There was always something more urgent, like new shoes, on which the money could be spent.
Charles had an exceptional eye for detail and remembered his childhood all his life. As a toddler he developed polio. Perhaps the limitations on his mobility led him to take in his surroundings carefully. He described the bats ‘wheeling up and down Frog Street at dusk’, the ‘whortleberries, wild daffodils and wild chestnuts’ in Exwick Fields, and, closer to home, the fish floundering about in the leats when they were drained for cleaning in the summer. In later life he was able to use these memories to recreate his childhood world, recording then as part of an oral history project, and painting his crowd scenes of community life.
Charles Tucker’s West Quarter
Charles spent his childhood in the West Quarter. First in the garret at the rear of what is now No 6 West Street where he was born. The tumble-down houses were saved from slum clearance and refurbished during the 1930s. But by that time Charles and his family had moved to another, larger tenement a few streets away in Preston Street, opposite the rag and bone stores. The family stayed there until the mid-1930s. Then, like many other West Quarter residents, they were rehoused on the Burnthouse Lane estate.
The Farthing Breakfast
One of the subjects for Charles Tucker’s paintings was the ‘Farthing Breakfast’. The ‘Exeter Farthing Breakfast’ charity had been set up in 1902 by the Daveys, who ran a bike shop in Cowick Street and were members of the Salvation Army. It was modelled on an earlier Salvation Army project in London. The aim was to provide breakfasts for poor children before they went to school. For a farthing (a quarter of a penny) a child would receive a small loaf spread with butter and jam and a mug of cocoa. The farthing paid by the children did not cover the cost of the breakfast, but the deficit was made good by fund-raising.
Community Life in the West Quarter
Many of the histories that have been collected about the West Quarter refer to the Farthing Breakfasts. Children remembered that ‘It was lovely; you had this big bun with jam and a cup of cocoa’. Also how they would go out before breakfast delivering kindling for the fire to earn the farthing they needed for the breakfast. They remember the old public baths and washhouse. It was a huge building with a massive chimney at the end of King Street which dominated the streets around. They used to go there with their mothers either for a bath, or to take along their washing bringing your own soap and soda. But using the City Council’s laundry equipment which was by this time pretty old and prone to breaking down.
It seems Charles Tucker’s mother, like the women in the picture, put her washing in any basket or wheeled vehicle she could find and took it, with Charles and his brother in tow, up to the public laundry. At least as well as the work, there would be a chance for a good old gossip!
West Quarter in the 1920s Research Project, Devon and Exeter Institution
Childhood in Exeter, 1920-1950, Exeter Heritage Living History project, Exeter City Council, 1987. Charles Tucker appears as Mr W.
Exeter City Archives (Devon Heritage Centre)
Exeter Memories website, http://www.exetermemories.co.uk/
People Talking, Jenny Lloyd and the Fountain Community Association, Exeter