Exeter Civic Society

Exeter Civic Society

Blue plaques news archive

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Archived 03.02.2019. Plaque commemorates Dame Elsie Knocker, heroic WW1 nurse


Paul Baker unveils the plaque to Elsie Knocker, 4 November 2017. Also in the picture (left to right) Ernie Milverton, Peter Wadham, Todd Gray, Ian Maxted and the Lord Mayor of Exeter Councillor Lesley Robson

Exeter Civic Society’s blue plaque to Elsie Knocker was unveiled by Paul Baker, the regional director of the Royal Air Forces Association, on 4 November 2017. The unveiling was attended by the Lord Mayor of Exeter and about fifty members and guests of the Society. An appreciation of Elsie’s life was given by local historian Todd Gray, there was a display of archive photographs from the Imperial War Museum and a reception, generously provided by Patrick and Mark Simpson, the owners of the property. This enabled the Society to view the magnificent interior of no. 1 Barnfield Crescent, the home of Thomas Shapter (1809–1902), the noted physician and epidemiologist.

Elsie was born here on 29 July 1884, baptised as Elizabeth Blackall Shapter, the daughter of Dr Lewis Shapter, surgeon at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital and granddaughter of Thomas, who had by this date moved to London. Elsie, as she became known, was orphaned at an early age and adopted by Lewis Edward Upcott, a teacher at Marlborough college. She trained and worked as a nurse and midwife and married Leslie Duke Knocker in 1906 but the marriage was dissolved after the birth of her son. She became an enthusiastic motor cyclist which is how she met Mairi Chisholm.

Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm outside their sandbagged third poste in Pervyse, 9 September 1917. Copyright: © IWM Q 2969.

On the outbreak of war in 1914 she volunteered with Mairi Chisholm to work as despatch riders on the western front but they soon found that their nursing skills were more in demand. Working independently they set up a first aid post in the cellar of a bombed out building on the front line in Pervyse and from a series of locations in that town they worked for four years in atrocious conditions, during which time they cared for some 23,000 casualties. They had to raise funds to support their work and, when they visited the Barnfield Hall in 1916, Exeter citizens raised sufficient to run their dug-out, two ambulances and one lorry for three months. They were visited by King Albert of Belgium and other dignitaries and were awarded the British Military Medal in 1917 for rescuing a wounded pilot in no-man’s land. In 1918 they were invalided out following a gas attack. Elsie finished war as an officer in the Women’s Royal Air Force. In 1916 she had married a pilot, Baron Harold de T’Serclaes but they separated after the war when he learned of her divorce.

Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm attending to a wounded Belgian soldier in their third advanced first aid post at Pervyse. Ministry of Information First World War official collection. Date: 6 August 1917. Photographer: Lieutenant Ernest Brooks. © IWM (Q 2676).

Between the wars Elsie had a variety of jobs, at one time running a knitwear shop in Torquay. In 1939 Elsie joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force as a senior officer working with RAF Fighter Command and was twice mentioned in despatches. On 3 July 1942 she lost her son, Wing Commander Kenneth Duke Knocker, who was killed when his plane was shot down over Groningen. She withdrew from the RAF after her son’s death but was active as a fundraiser for the Royal Air Forces Association during and after the war. The Red Cross arranged for her to acquire a cottage at Ashtead through the Earl Haig Homes charity which she called Pervyse. In 1964 she published her memoirs, Flanders and Other Fields and died in 1978 aged 94.

While they were celebrities during and after World War 1, being known as the angels or madonnas of Pervyse, the two women became relatively forgotten until recently and a memorial to Elsie in her native Exeter was long overdue. Thanks are due to Ernie Milverton who for some years has been campaigning locally for her recognition – and for the recognition of other women who dedicated themselves heroically as nurses, clearing up the carnage that men had inflicted on the world.

As well as her autobiography there is an excellent work on her life by Diane Atkinson, Elsie and Mairi Go to War: Two Extraordinary Women on the Western Front (Cornerstone, 2009). The Wikipedia article at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elsie_Knocker also gives links to other sources, both printed and online and there are a large number of illustrations as well as her diaries and some moving images at the Imperial War Museum.

Many of these sources miss the sting in the tail – what happened to her second husband, the Baron de T’Serclaes. Far from dying in 1919, as the Oxford dictionary of national biography entry states, he in fact died in Rome in 1952. After the separation he took up with another woman who also went under the name of Baroness de T’Serclaes. During World War 2 he informed on Antwerp resistance fighters and those protecting Jews. He fled from Belgium in 1944 and in 1947 was tried in absentia by the War Council of Brussels, stripped of his honours, and sentenced to death by firing squad. He remained in hiding, initially in Austria and then in Italy and was never brought to trial. Elsie cannot have known of this as she continued to be known as the Baroness de T’Serclaes until her death

Archived 20.12.2017. Plaque unveiled to Dame Georgiana Buller

Courtesy National Portrait Gallery

The unveiling of a blue plaque commemorating Dame Georgiana Buller took place on Saturday 23 September 2017 at Bellair, County Hall. Bellair was the home of Dame Georgiana Buller from 1926 until her death in 1953.

Dame Georgiana Buller, who was born in 1883, was a pioneer of the care and rehabilitation of injured and disabled people. During the First World War she managed Exeter’s war hospitals, and afterwards she was a driving force in establishing both the Princess Elizabeth Orthopaedic Hospital, and later, St Loye’s College (now the Exeter charity Step One).

Historian and Civic Society member Dr Julia Neville spoke about Dame Georgiana’s achievements and legacy.

The unveiling was carried out by Dame Georgiana’s great-grand-nephew, Henry Parker.

Archived 15.09.2017. Central Exeter plaques walk

On 22 July a group of Society members was led through the rain-drenched centre of Exeter on a plaques trail based on a selection from the leaflet produced by the Society. Starting at the plaque to the Vanbrugh sisters, the actresses Violet 1867-1942 and Dame Irene 1872-1949 on the walkway between Roman Walk and Southernhay, it showed the range of issues to be faced when installing and looking after plaques. The Vanbrugh plaque shows the problem of locating a plaque when the house is no longer there, in this case following war damage. The next two plaques were not yet in place, illustrating that the Civic Society’s programme was still continuing: the folk song collector Sabine Baring-Gould 1834-1924 was born in Chichester Place, Southernhay and Elsie Knocker 1884–1978 the heroic nurse and ambulance driver in World War I was born at 1, Barnfield Crescent. Work is in progress on both of these plaques.

The group looked at the inscription commemorating the opening of Barnfield Hall which Elsie Knocker visited to give a talk on her work, and then found the plaque to the Rev. Theodore Bayley Hardy 1863-1918 on the wall of Barnfield House at the corner of Southernhay East and Barnfield Road. An army chaplain awarded the Victoria Cross, he died on 18th October 1918, just three weeks before the end of the war. Entering the Close under the iron footbridge with its inscription to Burnet Patch, mayor in 1814 and the printer of the Exeter Flying Post newspaper Richard Trewman, the group found two plaques facing each other. One is to another First World War VC, Lieutenant Richard Douglas Sanford, awarded the medal for his actions in command of HM Submarine C3 during the Zeebrugge Raid in 1918. It was unveiled by the Submariners Association in 2016, showing that it not only the Civic Society that installs blue plaques in Exeter. The same is true for the plaque to John Graves Simcoe 1752-1806, first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada which was erected with the assistance of the Ontario Heritage Foundation. The nearby statue to Richard Hooker 1554-1600, the Elizabethan writer and theologian was the only three-dimensional memorial on the trail. The statue dates from 1907, sculpted from white Pentilicon marble from Greece by Alfred Drury. Hooker faces the plaque to the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt 1811-1886, who gave two recitals in the Royal Clarence Hotel in 1840. Unveiled by Exeter Civic Society in 2013, it survived the fire of 2016. The plaque commemorating Sir Thomas Bodley 1545-1613, the founder of he Bodleian Library and Nicholas Hilliard, the Elizabethan miniaturist has been less lucky. Erected in about 1974 at the corner of Gandy Street and High Street, it has recently disappeared and its replacement has become a priority for the Society. Two other colonial administrators are commemorated further along Gandy Street: Col. David Collins 1756-1810, first Judge Advocate of New South Wales (1788-96) and first Lieut. Governor of Tasmania (1804-10), and George Prideaux Harris 1775-1810, first Deputy Surveyor General of Tasmania (1804-10). It was erected in 1999 by the Exeter Civic Society with the Royal Overseas League and the Collins Site Committee in Australia.

The tour ended by Rougemont Castle where there were several plaques: to the Devon witches, executed in 1683 and 1685, the last to receive this punishment in England, to the surgeon John Patch (1723-1787) who built Rougemont House, and to Rougemont Castle, built by William the Conqueror. These last two were erected by the Civic Society in 1977 to celebrate the Queen’s silver jubilee. Rain cut short the planned continuation to Longbrook Street (Harry Hems and William Kingdon Clifford) and Saint Sidwells (Dr Peter Hennis) but this short stroll gave participants a taster for further exploration of the more than one hundred historical inscriptions to be found in the centre of Exeter.

Archived 15.09.2017. City centre blue plaque badly damaged

The remains of the
Bodley plaque

The fate of the blue plaque on the corner of Exeter’s High Street and Gandy Street can be seen on the right.

It is not clear how the damage occurred earlier this month but it does underline that once plaques have been installed they have to be safeguarded.

The plaque, which commemorated Sir Thomas Bodley, founder of the Bodleian Library, was one of the first that the Civic Society installed back in the 1960s. We already had plans to update it, including the possibility of replacing it with two plaques – the other commemorating Nicholas Hilliard, renowned for his portrait miniatures from the court of Elizabeth I. The plans have become more important now because of the damage.

The story of how these famous Exonians are linked to the same house can be viewed by following the links to Thomas Bodley’s entry from our blue plaques listing. The site, which forms a prominent part of the city centre streetscape, is also of interest for being the home of a mayor of Exeter, John Shillingford, who is noted for the surviving collection of his letters dating from 1447 to 1450.

Archived 15.09.2017. New plaques in the pipeline

Other new blue plaques are already in the pipeline. Dame Georgiana Buller will be commemorated later this year, as will the story of Mary, a pigeon who won the Dickin Medal for Outstanding War Service in the Second World War, and her breeder Cecil Brewer who used his pigeons for covert military intelligence. Work has also begun on the folklorist and hymn writer Sabine Baring-Gould and the Exeter-born First World War nurse Elsie Knocker, among others.

2016 November 21. Hennis plaque is back in place at St. Sidwell’s

The refurbished blue plaque commemorating Dr Peter Hennis is now in place on the wall of St. Sidwell’s Church, Sidwell Street.

On Monday 21 November a hardy few braved the elements to hear Peter Wadham, chair of the Civic Society, pay tribute to the hero of the Exeter cholera epidemic of 1832 who was fatally wounded in a duel the following year.

Dave Wright pulls aside the curtain to unveil the refurbished plaque to Dr Peter Hennis watched by Peter Wadham and Ian Maxted of Exeter Civic Society

Dave Wright, manager of St Sidwell’s Community Centre, cut the ribbon to unveil the refurbished plaque. Among those present at the unveiling was Linda Findlay who gave a talk about Dr Hennis at the Community Centre later in the week.

The plaque to Dr Hennis was the Civic Society’s first blue plaque, installed in 2006. Linda Findlay said it was noticing the plaque that first sparked her interest in the story of Dr Hennis and encouraged her to learn more about it.

Dave Wright and the Community Centre have been supportive of the Civic Society’s blue plaque scheme and have plans to commemorate the forgotten heritage of the St Sidwell’s area. After the unveiling Dave showed visitors the recently rediscovered and restored stained glass window depicting St Sidwell, rescued from the church after the 1942 blitz. You can find more about Dr Hennis on the Civic Society’s blue plaques page devoted to him.

2016 October 31. Plaque to Franz Liszt survives the fire at the Royal Clarence Hotel

The plaque commemorating the visit of the famous composer and pianist remains on the facade of the ruined hotel. For more information see the news report sent out by the Civic Society.

2016 September 24. Plaque to Richard Douglas Sandford unveiled by the Submariners Association

The Blue Plaque commemorating Lieutenant Richard Douglas Sandford VC was unveiled on 24 September 2016 at 15 Cathedral Close, the Cathedral School, where he was born. The Dean of Exeter Cathedral had granted permission for the plaque to be placed, and civil and naval dignitaries were invited to attend the unveiling, including the Lord Lieutenant of Devon, High Sheriff of Devon, Chairman of Devon County Council, The Lord Mayor of Exeter, Sandford family members, Rear Admiral Niall Kilgour CB (President of Submariners Association), Rear Admiral Robert Tarrant (Rear Admiral Submarines) and the Chairman of the Submariners Association. The Submariners Association have been conducting a project to install plaques to all Submariner VC recipients. You can find more about Richard Douglas Sandford on the Civic Society’s blue plaques page devoted to him.


2016 July. New team for blue plaques

A new team is to take the Civic Society’s blue plaques scheme forward. Hilary Neville (hneville.ecs@btinternet.com), Ian Maxted (ianmaxted@hotmail.co.uk) and John Monks (jbmonks@btinternet.com) will plan new plaques, improve these web pages and develop our plaques map and audio trail.You can still nominate a candidate for a blue plaque by using the “Who’s Missing?” nomination form on the right. Alternatively contact Hilary, Ian or John for more information. We would like to hear your suggestions.

2016 June 22. Hugo unveils plaque to Victorian gardening celebrity

Hugo Bugg, the Exeter-based landscape gardener who in 2014 was Chelsea Flower Show’s youngest gold medal winner, has unveiled our latest blue plaque to the Victorian nurseryman and horticulturist, Robert Tosswill Veitch.

Robert Veitch (1823-1885) was a pioneer who popularised greater knowledge of plants by making different species available to people for their gardens, as well as being a landscape designer whose work is still to be seen in Exeter.

Robert Veitch

The unveiling by Hugo, one of today’s leading garden designers, is a compliment to gardening past, present and future.

It took place on 22 June at 11 Elm Grove Road, Exeter, which was Robert Veitch’s home from 1865-1884. His extensive Veitch “Exotic” Nurseries covered land behind Elm Grove Road in New North Road and where Velwell Road is now.

The plaque was sponsored by the Bury Meadow Residents Association.

Hugo Bugg returned from this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show with a prestigious Silver Gilt medal for his Royal Bank of Canada Garden design. The garden celebrates water and explores connections between water, people and life.

Robert Veitch created many new gardens including that of Streatham Hall,

now part of the grounds of Exeter University, and sparked fashions in the design of rock and water gardens. He also laid out Exeter’s Higher Cemetery.

For more about Robert Veitch and the plaque, see his entry in

For more information, see our blue plaques page.

2016 April 20. Blue Plaque for Harry Weslake

A blue plaque to the innovative Exeter born engineer Harry Weslake (1897-1978) whose designs gave more power to motor car, motorbike and aero engines was unveiled on 20 April 2016. The ceremony was performed by Mike Dalby of the Crash Box & Classic Car Club of Devon which sponsored the plaque. A number of members brought their classic cars to the unveiling at Clyde House, Prince’s Street South, St. Thomas, where Harry Weslake lived from 1908 to 1919.

John Monks, blue plaques co-ordinator, said: “Harry Weslake was a motor engineer of genius. He dedicated his entire life to making car, motor bike and aeroplane engines more powerful and more efficient. Many cars on the road today are better because of his groundbreaking engineering and Exeter can now at last show its pride in his achievements through this blue plaque.”

Harry Weslake’s achievements included designing engines that powered racing cars to grand prix victories and set motor cycle and speedway records, as well as being used in production models.

For more information, see the blue plaques page.

2015 December. General Gordon lamp post restored

General Charles Gordon, 1833 – 1885 is remembered not by a blue plaque but by a new information board, installed by Exeter Civic Society beside the recently restored lamp post which bears an inscription in memory of General Charles Gordon (1833-1885), the hero of the siege of Khartoum which is located at Livery Dole, at the junction of Magdalen Road and Heavitree Road, Exeter.

2014 October 12. Plaque to the artist Frederick John Widgery unveiled

Exeter Civic Society has unveiled the plaque to Frederick John Widgery, a renowned artist and former mayor of the city at 11 Howell Road. It was dedicated by the society’s blue plaque co-ordinator John Monks with the inscription: Exeter Civic Society. F. J. Widgery, 1861-1942, Landscape painter and Freeman of Exeter, lived here, 1891-1940. For more information, see the blue plaques page.
Source Express and Echo, 12 October 2014.

2014 December 4. Plaque to the Vanbrugh sisters unveiled

For more information, see the blue plaques page or the news article.

2013 August. Plaque to Charles Dickens and Thomas Latimer unveiled

For more information, see the blue plaques pages for Latimer and Dickens or the news article.

2013 June. Plaque to Franz Liszt unveiled

For more information, see the blue plaques page or the news article.

2006. Exeter Civic Society’s first blue plaque, to Dr Peter Hennis, unveiled

This was unveiled on the wall at the entrance to St Sidwell’s church in Sidwell Street. For more information, see the blue plaques page.

An earlier blue plaque, to the historian of Devon, W. G. Hoskins, was unveiled by the Devon History Society in October 2003. Other early plaques to individuals installed by the Exeter Civic Society include those to Richard Ford, Harry Hems, William Kingdon Clifford and John Patch. This last was one of a series of plaques installed on the occasion of the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth in 1977. Most of these are not to individuals but they include plaques for Cathedral Close, the Port of Exeter, Rougemont Castle, Rougemont House and Saint Lawrence Church. A blue plaque was installed to Thomas Bodley and Nicholas Hilliard at the corner of Gandy Street and the High Street in 1973 or 1974. The details of this have not been ascertained but it may have been placed there by Exeter City Council.

Return to plaques listing.