Exeter Civic Society

Exeter Civic Society

Hems, Harry

Harry Hems, 1842 – 1916, Ecclesiastical sculptor

The lozenge-shaped plaque is attached to the front of 82 Longbrook Street, Exeter, EX4 6AP.

The inscription reads:

Fairpark, Residence 1885–1916 of Harry Hems, born 1842, died 1916, ecclesiastical sculptor. Exeter Civic Society

Above the plaque is another indicating that the house, 9 Park Place, was the childhood home of William Kingdon Clifford, born May 1845, died March 1879, mathematician and philosopher.

The eclectic redbrick building to the left, at 84 Longbrook Street, was the workshop of HARRY HEMS, prolific architectural and ecclesiastical sculptor, born in London, but long-time resident in Exeter, where he established his reputation. The workshop, now housing a restaurant, conference centre and other businesses, was erected in the 1880s, and was dubbed “Ye luckie horseshoe” referring to the horseshoe Harry Hems found on his way from the railway station in 1866 to his first employment in Exeter as a sculptor for the Albert Memorial Museum, then being constructed.

His inspiration, as he built up his business, was always the Medieval Gothic style, and in this connection he assembled a large collection of medieval woodwork to serve as an inspiration for his growing workforce of craftsmen. At the peak of his activities he employed over 100 men. In the course of his long career he contributed sculptures and fittings to over 700 churches, as well as to some 100 public and other secular buildings. In Devon the roodscreens of Kenn, Littleham and Staverton churches are notable examples of his work, but perhaps his best known achievement was the restoration, at a cost of £12,000, of the great altar screen of St Alban’s Cathedral in Hertfordshire.

Harry Hems was himself a very hard worker, thinking nothing of putting in a 14 hour day, and was in turn an exacting and sometimes irascible employer. He clashed with the law more than once concerning incidents involving assaults on employees and as for the tax authorities, he was fined for non-payment on at least two occasions. There was a more positive side to his character as shown by his generous help to local hospitals and his charitable work. In his lifetime he was a consummate self-publicist and although his reputation has somewhat declined since his death, his creative legacy in wood and stone is still to be seen in Exeter, for example the memorial to the Devon-based author of Lorna Doone, R.D. Blackmore, in the Cathedral and the Livery Dole Martyrs Memorial.

After his death the Royal Albert Memorial Museum purchased some 500 examples of his woodcarving collection including bench ends, bosses and misericords. The business was carried on by his sons until 1938. JW

“Fairpark”, 82 Longbrook Street, Exeter, home of Harry Hems from 1885 – 1916