Cecil “Charlie” Brewer and Mary the pigeon

Cecil ‘Charlie’ Brewer, 1895–1985, pigeon breeder, and Mary of Exeter, homing pigeon awarded Dickin Medal for animal gallantry.

The plaque was unveiled on 20 January 2018 at 6 West Street, Exeter, EX1 1BA. The inscription reads:

From 1922–1985 this building was the home and workshop of CECIL “CHARLIE” BREWER 1895–1985 bootmaker and pigeon breeder

From his loft at these premises his pigeon MARY OF EXETER carried top secret messages in World War 2, winning the Dickin Medal for animal gallantry

It is Exeter Civic Society’s first blue plaque to commemorate a partnership between an animal and its owner.

Cecil Brewer, who preferred to be known as Charlie, was born in Church Lane, St Thomas, Exeter, in 1895 and apprenticed as a bootmaker at the age of 15. He and his bride Ena moved to 6 (then 58) West Street in 1922 where he set up his workshop and bred and trained homing pigeons in a loft above the shop.

In the 1940s he enrolled his prized pigeon Mary of Exeter in the National Pigeon Service and took on the duties of Special Constable with general responsibility for control of war pigeons in the area.

Mary, “the bird who never gave up”, was dropped behind enemy lines and despite being attacked by a hawk and wounded by gunshot on different occasions, and once going missing for ten days, she always completed her mission by returning to Exeter where Charlie nursed her back to action.

Homing pigeons contributed greatly to wartime communications because they could fly home over enemy territory often unnoticed. The secret intelligence Mary brought from occupied France to her loft at West Street was collected by military motorcyclists.

The story of Charlie and Mary is a remarkable account of an ordinary citizen’s dedication to duty but it is also a thought-provoking reminder of the roles humans have required animals to play in bad times.

Mary needed 22 stitches as a result of her wartime flights. Her wounds were not stitched by a vet but by Charlie himbraveryself who was a master boot and shoemaker and used his skills with needle and thread. For a time, Mary also wore a small leather neck support, tenderly made for her by Charlie. At the end of the war they both received medals. Mary won the Dickin Medal, often called the animals’ VC, for her gallantry and outstanding endurance, and Charlie was decorated for his war services.

In the years that followed, Charlie and Mary raised money for charities including the Red Cross. Mary died peacefully in her loft in 1950 and her grave is in the PDSA Pet Cemetery in Ilford with other animal heroes.

Charlie, who served in India during WW1, was a churchwarden at St Mary Steps church at the bottom of West Street, as well as being a keen photographer and member of Exeter Camera Club.He photographed the moving of ‘The House That Moved’ and made and sold notebooks with reproductions of his photographs. He continued to breed pigeons and was President of the South Western Centre of the National Homing Pigeon Union. Charlie continued to work until the age of 80. He died aged 90 in 1985.

Present at the unveiling of the plaque was 94-year-old Bob Reeves who remembered Charlie Brewer and Mary well, and was instrumental in getting the small memorial to Mary installed in Northernhay Gardens near the Exeter War Memorial in 2003. Mary is also depicted in the mosaic beneath St Thomas railway bridge.