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Burnthouse Lane Estate

Last update 17th July 2008

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Victorian Reformers and the Garden City

The Garden Suburb Movement developed as a result of the poor housing conditions of the late 19th century and the thinking of people like William Morris and Sir Ebenezer Howard in his 1898 book, 'Tomorrow: A peaceful path to Real Reform' .

The movement could be defined as "... by so laying out a Garden City that, as it grows, the free gifts of Nature - fresh air, sunlight, breathing room and playing room - shall be still retained in all needed abundance" (Garden Cities of To-morrow)

The first tentative attempt to put these ideas into practice was Letchworth in 1903 and then Welwyn Garden City in 1919.

The West Quarter is cleared

The West Quarter had become an impoverished slum area, during the 19th century, with crowded and unhygienic accommodation. By the 1920's soup kitchens had been set up to feed the poorest. The City Council decided that something must be done about the conditions, so the council embarked on an ambitious development of new housing, using some of the new ideas developed by the Garden City movement. On 21st February 1928 a compulsory purchase order was made by the City Council for 90 acres of farmland on either side of a lane in Wonford which took its name, Burnthouse Lane, after a farmhouse that burnt to the ground one Saturday Night.

Building Commences

In March of 1928 a layout for 12 houses per acre was planned with a broad, tree and grass verged road with curving streets on each side, and small cul-de-sacs branching off. The estate was designed by city architect John Bennett. The plans for No 1 site were for:

110 houses with a parlour and three bedrooms 170 houses with no parlour and three bedrooms 148 houses with no parlor and 2 bedrooms 6 shops

Tenders were accepted which included £25,888 for roads and sewers, £142,958 for 428 houses and a fixed sum per dwelling for installing electricity and gas. By July 1929 the City Architect informed the Housing Committee that 264 were employed building the estate, 75% of whom were local. He also reported that 298 houses were at some stage of construction from foundations excavated to slates on the roof.

Construction work continued through the winter of 1930, with shortages of materials and bad weather slowing progress. In March 1930 some brickwork had to be repointed because of frost damage, and plaster was slow to dry due to the cold. By June 1930, 395 houses were reported as completed.

The first streets were named Lilac Road, Laurel Road, Laburnam Avenue, Hawthorn Road, Holly Road and Briar Crescent.

The second phase of building known as No 2 site would consist of the roads named as Shakespeare Road, Milton Road, Chaucer Avenue, Tennyson Court, Cowper Avenue, Burns Avenue, Scott Avenue, Brooke Avenue, Spenser Avenue and Shelley Avenue. Three hundred and forty-six houses were in the process of construction by June 1932 on No 2 site.

Also by June, No 3 site, consisting of 62 three bedroomed houses at the rear of No 1 site was named Chestnut Avenue. Twenty-four further houses at the Topsham Road end of Chestnut Avenue were No 4 site.

By May 1933, No 2 site was completed and the occupants installed. No 3 site was complete by September and No 4 site by December 1933.

Shops, Schools and a Pub

Like the Garden Suburb Movement, the estate was designed with schools, churches, shops, recreation ground and its own pub, the Dolphin, named after the Dolphin Tavern that was established in Guinea Street, the West Quarter, from at least 1844.

Bradley Rowe School which was built for the estate in 1932, was a mixed primary school with a separate secondary school. In 1937, boys from the secondary school were transferred to the Senior Boys School at Ladysmith Road. The girls from Girls Secondary Modern School, as it was named in 1945, transferred to Priory Secondary Modern School in 1952, and the school became a primary school. It was split into an infants and middle school in 1973.

Next to the school was the Mission, a two storey tin hut, that was a combined church and hall. Opposite was the Salvation Army Citadel on the Corner of Chestnut Avenue, of which in the late 1940s, a grandchild of General William Booth was the officer in charge of the Burnthouse Lane.

In September 1932, plans were approved for a fruit and fish shop on the corner of Shakespeare Road and Burnthouse Lane. In April 1933 the Co-op were given permission to open a store.

The police were also provided with a sub-station that was at the corner of the Topsham Road and Burnthouse Lane.

Fresh air in Siberia

Within a space of four years, 2,500 people had been rehoused from the West Quarter. After the old housing of the city, it was a revelation. As many of the Willeys Foundry workers lived on the estate, Willeys built the Trews Weir suspension bridge to shorten their walk to work. Gradually, the West Quarter was emptied of its worst slums - however, the people lost some of the heart of their more central former home and Burnthouse Lane was quickly given the name 'Siberia' by its inhabitants.

Not all was well on the new estate. The City Council resolved to plant shrubs and trees on key plots of land to enhance the area. A small percentage of the inhabitants either damaged or stole the plants within a short space of time. Seventy shrubs were planted in the circle in the centre of the estate, and within a month, all had gone. A further thirty-two trees were also planted, which were soon reduced to twenty-four. Vandalism also took place, perpetrated by a very small minority.

The proximity of the Topsham Barracks proved to be a nuisance, as the live firing of guns would often break the tranquility of the estate. This was a time when there were virtually no cars, and certainly no loud music systems.

Post War

During the 1950's and 60's the area retained some of the old neighbourliness of the West Quarter. Many households grew fruit and vegetables in their gardens, and surplus produce was given away or sold for a shilling or two. Some tenants bought their houses during Margaret Thatchers 'right to buy' scheme and many houses are now valued in excess of £100,000.

The estate has had extensive traffic calming measures applied to it during the 1990's, but as the photo shows, the car rules supreme with a lot of on street parking.

Bradley Rowe First School was rebuilt in 2005 under a £94m PFI scheme for schools in Exeter, with a new name of Wynstream Primary School. The Priory High School, just west of the area, was built to serve the Burnthouse Lane Estate in 1952, and has also been rebuilt opening its new premises in 2006, also with a new name of Isca College of Media Arts.

Sources: Exeter City Council minutes, The Laners by Stella Darke, various articles on the Garden City movement, Flying Post article by A E Halifax.

Burnthouse Lane Burnthouse Lane on a sunny day. The Burnthouse Lane fish and chip shop The Burnthouse Lane fish and chip shop.
The Tap and Barrel The Dolphin Inn when it was still the Tap & Barrel.The Dolphin
The Dolphin Inn on the corner of Burnthouse Lane and Laurel Road.

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