Exeter Civic Society was founded over 60 years ago in 1961. Its aims were to maintain local distinctiveness and pride of place. At the time there were several dire threats to the city centre which galvanised opposition. The “Golden Heart” development would have resulted in the demolishion of the Higher Market, and proposals for a new bridge across the Exe would have entailed a “spaghetti junction” across Bull Meadow. Traffic still drove through the High Street, and plans to widen its western Tudor end threatened the merchants’ houses nos. 225 -226, and might even have involved moving the Guildhall backwards.
The eminent local historian W G Hoskins was incensed. In 1960 the “Exeter Group” met “to encourage the citizens to take an active interest in the amenities of the city, particularly the preservation of buildings of historical and architectural merit” and to start a civic society affiliated to the Civic Trust. The inaugural meeting for this was on 17th March 1961 and 300 attended. Hoskins took the Chair and Bishop Wilfrid Westall became president. Committee members included Aileen Fox (the archaeologist who had been excavating Roman remains in the post-war rubble), James Smeall (Principal of St. Lukes), Dr Fortescue Foulkes of Poltimore Hospital, architect John Radford and historian Robert Newton.
The constitution stated the Society’s aims: To promote high standards of planning and architecture. To educate the public in the geography, history, natural history and architecture of Exeter. To secure the preservation, protection, development and improvement of features of historic or public interest in Exeter.
The Society’s original 8 point programme was:
- A new library to replace the bombed one.
- A riverside walk.
- A city walls walk.
- Green belt designation and open spaces in the city.
- To preserve the Western skyline.
- Screen the new reservoir behind the University.
- Designate footpaths in the city and district.
- Open a local history and archaeology museum.
Aileen Fox took over as chairman in 1967. She said “From the start it was emphasised that we were not a preservation society but were interested in the all round and balanced development of the city.” In the 1960’s planning applications were not even advertised but we now monitor all applications and comment where necessary. The Society introduced “Conservation areas” now taken up efficiently by the city council. We saved the Duryard Valley from development and it became the first of Exeter’s Valley parks. The Society has since put up plaques, published booklets of the suburbs and used the proceeds to maintain the Matthew Miller clock, Sidwell Methodist Church cupola, the sundial on the Devon and Exeter Institution and the wind vane on the North Gate, among other things.
By Hazel Harvey September 2011, updated May 2022