Exeter Civic Society

Exeter Civic Society

Little Silver


History of Little Silver

by Maeve Creber

The area of Exeter called Little Silver is made up of Little Silver itself on the North side, Silver Terrace running into it at a right angle from Richmond Road to the South, and directly opposite, with gardens running down to it, is Russell Terrace. In the middle of this square, there is a Green with several trees.

The area is not accessible by car. There are three footpaths into Little Silver. One is a narrow path behind St David’s Church, another is from St David’s Hill and a third is through the gap in the back wall of the Richmond Road Car Park. The residents of this area, then, have one thing in common — they cannot drive to their front doors. The car is useful, but by no means central to their lives!

Even people who have lived in Exeter for many years have never heard of Little Silver. It is truly a well-kept Exeter secret, even though it is within five minutes’ walk of Marks and Spencer’s!

(click on aerial image from 2014 to enlarge)

Little Silver, the name, has nothing to do with metal. It refers to woodland or the sylvan nature of the landscape. Before 1832 it was largely beech and bluebell woodland, with some scattered farms.

Numbers 1, 2 and 3 Little Silver were probably one thatched roof farmhouse, and there is evidence that a farm had been on this site since the Roman Garrison occupied the city. The farm would have been just outside the Roman city wall. One can imagine that there must have been plenty of trade between the soldiers and the farms. Many oyster shells were discarded and thrown on the ground around No.1 Little Silver and oysters are well known to have been a favourite Roman delicacy.

By the late 18th and 19th centuries, however, more houses were needed as the wealth and industry of the City expanded.  Cottages and houses of some size were built and packed in, back to back, so that where there are now gardens at the rear of Russell Terrace and to the front of Little Silver, there would have been two lines of houses. In each house there would have been a considerable number of people, families and lodgers, and throughout Exeter the Little Silver area was known as The Rabbit Warren. By the end of the 19th Century and into the 20th, The Rabbit Warren was thought of as an Exeter slum.

The reason for this increase and density of population must lie with the success and expansion of the wool trade and the need for workers’ housing, but in 1832 disaster struck Exeter in the form of cholera. The link between cholera and polluted water was not understood, but what was clear enough was that the essential workers in the wool trade, many of whom lived in the West Exe quarter of the city, were dying in considerable numbers. What was also apparent was that the region around St David’s Church seemed to be safe, or at least safer than in other parts of the city. So it was that in 1832 the houses in Russell Terrace were built, with three storeys, the top floor being a single large attic, where looms and stretching frames with tenterhooks could be set up and where work could go on at home and out of reach, it was hoped, of the deadly cholera.

As the stairs inside these houses were narrow and winding, a means had to be devised to raise and lower the bales of cloth, so each attic had a door, sometimes called a ‘coffin’ door opening directly at second floor level onto a sheer drop at the back of the house, to ground level.

Today the Russell Terrace houses have ground and first floor extensions for kitchens and bathrooms, but all still have their ‘coffin door’, either blocked off inside, or else opening onto a roof garden or balcony.

As the cloth industry declined in Exeter, so, in a sense did the significance of the houses, and by the early 20th Century the whole area of Little Silver was regarded as overcrowded, hence the pejorative title of The Rabbit Warren.

The Second World War provided an excellent excuse to pull it all down.

(click on aerial image from 1928 to enlarge)


Post World War Two Demolition

In the aftermath of the Second World War, many town and city councils rushed into a programme of ‘re-development’. Perfectly good houses and communities were destroyed to build council estates and high rise flats. There is no doubt that pockets were lined during these transactions, and the excuse for it all was ‘war damage’. The fact that there was very little war damage of any consequence in Exeter was ignored, and by the 1950s and 60s demolition was in full swing. There were, of course, many strong voices of protest, particularly from people in the academic and professional classes, but the decisions of the Council appeared to be impossible to halt. Nevertheless, to these valiant protesters we owe the survival of the Iron Bridge, the Queen Street Clock Tower and much of Little Silver.

By the mid 1960s most of The Rabbit Warren had been demolished. All that remained was Little Silver itself, a row of cottages built at various times in the 18th and early 19th Century, and indeed, as in the case of nos. 1, 2 and 3 probably much earlier than that. Russell Terrace (parts of which had previously formed the largely demolished Spring Place) also remained, in poor condition, and some but not all of Silver Terrace. All that remained was however under the threat of demolition, and the Bulldozers had arrived to tear down no.1 Little Silver and the rest of the terrace.

(click on image to enlarge)

It was at this point that Karl Hawkins, an Exeter bus conductor, had had enough, and he decided to fight demolition single handedly. Karl Hawkins was and remains a figure of some mystery, but it was he who saved the Little Silver area. He revealed very little about himself or his background, but he understood a great deal about restoration and preservation of old buildings. He was a typical ‘hippy’ with long black hair, and a laid back view of life, but his determination to stop the destruction, and to save what he could, was total.

Number 1 Little Silver had a demolition order on it, and the bulldozers were closing in. Karl seized the opportunity to buy it for a few hundred pounds, accepting the risk he was running of losing his money, and then he fought to get the demolition order removed. This he did, probably with the help of the Conservation Officer with whom he was in constant communication. Many people regarded Karl as an eccentric, typical of the 1960s generation of young people, but there is no doubt that he fought the prevailing ethos of the Council, and though he himself had no interest in personal wealth and possessions, he saved not only Little Silver as an area of Exeter, but many other old houses in the city due to be demolished. If anything can be said for the attitude of the Council in those days it must be that by demolishing most of The Rabbit Warren they created the Green as it is today, and gave the present residents the light and space that they now enjoy.

(click on map from 1897 to see area which was demolished)

But there is another intriguing social factor that reflects the old attitudes of the Council and those of the residents today. The majority of the Council members, regardless of political party, were people whose parents and grandparents had been born and bred in Exeter, and who had lived in these old houses. Their ambition had been to move out of such ‘slums’ and live in new housing with all ‘modern’ conveniences. They did not value the old houses and could see no particular beauty in them or advantage in keeping them. The old houses only reminded them of humble family origins and status. But by 1960 Exeter was a city with a flourishing University and a highly educated section of citizens, who respected the old houses and wanted to live in them. There was a whole change in attitude.

Something else happened in the 1960s which was of significance to Karl Hawkins. The church of St Mary Major which stood on Cathedral Green where the current War Memorial is, was pulled down. St Mary Major was a 19th century church that had contained many objects from previous medieval churches in Exeter which had been demolished in years gone by.

Karl had no car, but he did have an old pram and he pushed it down to the ruins of St Mary Major and collected what looked like abandoned bits of stone. Two pieces of stone work are significant. One was a coat of arms and the other a round pedestal in two halves that marked the site of an important grave.

Karl loaded these two abandoned pieces of rubbish into the pram and pushed them back to his house, No.1 Little Silver. One can imagine that as he reached his house he wondered where to put the heavy stone pedestal, so whilst he made up his mind about that, he heaved it out of the pram (it was extremely heavy) and dropped it on the Green near to his house. And there it still stands, some 40 years later!

(click on image of stone to enlarge)

However Karl was precise. These were not two stone objects picked up at random. He made careful note of where the pedestal had stood, marking the graves of Sir Richard Vyvyian, merchant who died in the late 17th century, and of all six of his little sons. Karl put the Coat of Arms over his front door, and as he was in no way interested in social class or status, this Coat of Arms must have represented his family.

(click on image of crest to enlarge)

So who was Karl Hawkins? An Exeter bus conductor? An artist, which is what he wanted to be? Or a member of one of the famous Elizabethan sea-faring and slave trading families, the Vyvyians, the Drakes and the Hawkins?


Little Silver Today

In the 1970s the houses in Little Silver, Russell Terrace and Silver Terrace became listed buildings, very much to the bewilderment of the remaining residents, who finding that they could not ‘modernise’ their houses or erect satellite dishes, sadly moved out. The houses are now highly prized and aesthetically valued, and the Green is being partially transformed by the residents into a wild flower meadow.

But Little Silver is not just a pleasant place to live in the City Centre. It is a small and compact icon of social change and mores that narrowly escaped destruction in the post-war clamour to re-develop.

(click on image of Little Silver to enlarge)


Article written by the late Maeve Creber and editing of maps and photos by Pamela Coleman, with thanks to those who provided the images: Britain from Above website, Alan Rosevear, and the residents of Little Silver.