Red coats revel in Exeter's grisly past
THIS month sees the 25th anniversary of Exeter's famed and much-loved Red Coat city tour guides who bring to life the city's rich history for thousands of visitors.
The Red Coat movement, which offers free tours of the city, was the brainchild of photographic historian Peter Thomas. As well as specific tours relating to ghosts, some of the most popular tours still remain the Catacombs and Bartholomew Street West.
In fact it is fair to say that Exeter owes quite a debt to surgeon William Cook, for without the good/bad doctor and his DIY body dissections, the city would not be able to boast its odd attraction.
It was back in the 1830s that the old sawbones was involved in the disturbing case of Elizabeth Taylor, 67, who was buried at St David's Church – but not for long.
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Her body was dug up by grave robbers and ended up in Cook's front room where he undertook a little off-the-cuff slicing and dicing – all in the best possible taste and to further medical science.
This was regarded as wholly bad form in the less-than-easy-going Victorian times and he was fined £200 for his trouble. Happily for him, the editor of The Lancet was alerted and raised the sum through a public appeal.
In any event, it greatly perturbed the rich and famous in Exeter who wanted to make sure that they stayed put after shuffling off the old mortal coil.
Hence the catacombs with guards outside to keep the bone-snatchers away. Of course, that kind of peace of mind came at a price – 20 guineas, the equivalent to £6,000 today.
If you could not run to that you could spend nine shillings (45p) on an 8ft deep grave, five shillings (25p) on a six-footer or, if you were really hard up or couldn't much care what happened to your old bones, one shilling and six pence (7.5p) to go just 4ft under.
This is the sort of thing Red Coats know off by heart, along with loads of other interesting and well-researched facts that go to make the Red Coat tours of the city one of its major attractions.
The guides – who take their name from the old Indian word for reconnoitring or going ahead – were set up in the late 1980s by Mr Thomas, the city's innovative tourism officer. At first they were a government-funded job creation scheme but when the money ran out the city turned to volunteers.
Red Coats undergo six months' training two days a week. The volunteers all learn the details about the various tours – and never make things up. There are about 12 regular public tours around the city, each lasting around 90 minutes, with another eight "specials" like the ever-popular Ghosts & Legends and the once-a-year scare-fest that is Halloween.
On Halloween it is all hands to the pumps – with about 400 people coming along and ten separate tours to accommodate them all.
Cathedral Green is a great attraction as it was one big burial site. People were buried 10-deep and the ground level rose to the level of the cathedral windows.
It was only later that the bodies were removed and reburied elsewhere and, in 1637, Bartholomew Fields were consecrated for burials. It was around the time of the cholera outbreak in 1832 that saw Lower Bartholomew Field consecrated.
It is all voluntary work for the guides, although the city council provides the red blazer, a red waterproof and a red fleece for those chilly days.
Now and again visitors, particularly Americans, are keen to show their appreciation of a job well done by extending a gratuity which is often passed on to the Lord Mayor's charity.
One of the first guides was Margaret Smith, who became a Red Coat in 1988, shortly after moving to Exeter from Surrey.
Margaret, of Heavitree, was interested in history and keen to learn more about the city.
And after six months of training, she received her smart red blazer and certificate from the Mayor of Exeter proclaiming her a guide. Margaret admits she was nervous before her first tour, which was on a sunny Sunday afternoon in May, 1989.
She said: "As I walked down to the Quay to begin a tour of the riverside I'm afraid my prayers were well on the lines of, 'Please God, don't let there be anyone there'. But God provided two of the nicest people you could wish to meet – a couple on holiday from close to a place where I used to live."
At that time Margaret was secretary to John Budworth, then editor at the Echo, and did her guiding at weekends.
She loved the job, meeting people and picking up new information. "If they're local, they can give you a nice little sideline on it," she said.
Guides come from all walks of life and have included former doctors, civil servants, teachers, office workers and lay ministers.
They offer 16 tours and operate throughout the year, except Christmas Day and Boxing Day. There is no need to book, just turn up at the meeting place. They last around 90 minutes and give visitors the chance to learn why Exeter is reputed to be one of England's most haunted cities – or explore those catacombs by torchlight.