New lease of life for landmark
WITH all eyes on the new John Lewis store in Exeter this week I am indebted to Sue Matthews for reminding us of a different time on that busy corner.
Sue, of Athelstan Road, has kindly sent in a photograph of the junction of New North Road and Sidwell Street in 1964 – when the new Bobby's & Co department store opened. It too had a remarkable effect on shopping in Exeter all those years ago before it became Debenhams.
With its seven-storey, 140ft high tower block the store was, and the new one still is, Exeter's tallest city-centre building and a landmark for miles around.
It began life as Bobby's store, replacing the original Bobby's in Fore Street which was destroyed in the 1942 Exeter Blitz.
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Work on the project started early in 1962 and it was officially opened in March, 1964.
It cost £1,250,000 to build, a vast amount in those days, but modest by today's standards. The cost of the complete revamp of the building for John Lewis was £18m.
Equally interesting is the lower right corner of the photograph where we can see that old Sidwell Street stretched a lot further than it does today.
The Pram and Toy Shop of happy memories can be seen, but from then on it's the old houses of the sort that still stand beyond the Duke of York pub further up the street. They were soon to be flattened to make way for new shops.
It now seems likely that Sidwell Street will be the next area to go with the redevelopment of the bus and coach station.
Another old story about Bobbys's was the suggestion that Danny La Rue, (real name Daniel Carroll) worked there .
In fact he worked as a window-dresser for J V Huttons, just down the road in Queen Street, and lived at Kennford.
When Huttons offered him the chance to work as a window dresser in its London store, he took the job and, while there, started in a small way in show business, appearing in Forces Showboat. It was during this time that he began appearing as a female impersonator.
He did not want Huttons to know too much about his show business career so he changed his name to Danny La Rue.
One man particularly pleased to see fresh life in the old building is George Lobbett.
From 1961 George, a scaffolding supervisor, had a team of men working under him on the building and was the longest-serving worker on site.
George, 86, who lives in Exonia Park, said: "I was devastated when they considered knocking it down a few years ago. I remember thinking that they would have a tough job to do that. Its foundations are a wall of steel encased in concrete drilled through Heavitree stone. It was a massive job and the soil was really tough. In my view it is the best constructed building in Exeter."
George began working on the project at the foundation stages, and saw it through to its official opening in 1964.