"Emily Trefusis and Charles Enderby were seated at a small table in Deller's Cafe in Exeter. It was half past three and at that hour there was comparative peace and quiet. A few people were having a quiet cup of tea, but the restaurant on the whole was deserted". The author is Agatha Christie and the book is 'The Sittaford Mystery' from chapter 25 entitled 'At Deller's Cafe'. Christie was a regular visitor to Exeter and the eponymous restaurant from chapter 25 was to become one of Exeter's most important 20th century buildings and one of its most popular.
Deller's was established in 1844 by the grocer Edwin Deller at Paignton, a small coastal town about 20 miles from the city, but the first Deller's cafe in Exeter didn't open until 1905. The building it originally occupied in the city was on the corner of St Martin's Lane and the Cathedral Yard, in the beautiful 18th century property that had been the first premises of the Exeter Bank (now the Michael Caines restaurant right). But within 10 years the firm was looking to expand into larger premises and a site just off the High Street had recently become available.
In 1912 the sprawling 17th century Half Moon inn had been demolished. The inn had occupied a large area on the corner of the High Street and Bedford Street, running all the way back to Catherine Street at the rear. The entrance into Bedford Street from the High Street was narrower than it is today and, prior to 1942, it opened out dramatically into the Georgian townhouses of Bedford Circus. Following the demolition of the Half Moon inn only part of the site was reused when a mostly single-storey structure was erected for Lloyds Bank on the corner of the High Street and Bedford Street. Deller's in Exeter saw its chance both to expand and to move into the commercial centre of the city.
The new cafe on Bedford Street was designed by the Paignton firm of Hyams and Hobgen in 1916 and proved to be one of Exeter's most extraordinary buildings. (Hyams and Hobgen had already completed the still extant Torbay Picture House in Paignton left and the surviving cinema shares some stylistic similarities with Deller's Cafe.)
The architects decided to take advantage of the single-storey Lloyds Bank building in Exeter by constructing the cafe both on top of the bank as well as on the open area left unoccupied towards Catherine Street at the rear. It was therefore possible to provide a ground floor main entrance into the cafe from Bedford Street as well as using all of the space above the bank that overlooked the High Street.
The building was a remarkable mixture of architectural styles. The exterior walls were built of red brick studded with a riot of large and small mullioned windows with dressed stone surrounds that evoked a sort of Jacobean revival complimented by the Dutch gables on the Bedford Street elevation and the single pointed gable on the High Street elevation. At first floor level, rounding the corner from the High Street into Bedford Street, was an enormous 21-light window framed by stone pilasters and surmounted by a lead-roofed dome decorated with wreathes. The main entrance in Bedford Street consisted of a gigantic Baroque scrolled pediment beneath which lounged two sculpted female figures with columns on either side. The photograph above © Express & Echo shows Deller's Cafe after the interior was damaged by fire in 1942. The walls up to roof height remained intact. The entrance from Bedford Street is on the left. The two Ionic columns to the far right overlooked the High Street and were part of the Lloyds Bank building on top of which much of the cafe was located. It was all demolished by the city council after the war.
But it was the interior that made Deller's such a renowned building. The main entrance led into a spectacular atrium that rose the full height of the building and which was lit from above through a glass roof (part of the atrium is shown in the postcard above and at the top of this post). Around the edges of the room were first and second floor balconies accessed from the ground floor via a wide oak staircase. Oak panelling clad the walls. Inset into the walls of the balconies were plaster reliefs of frolicking Rococo cherubs, each tiered gallery supported by columns whose capitals were decorated with instrument-playing female figures. Above the oak panelling ran a continuous sculpted frieze with diaphanous, robed figures interspersed with stylised trees, borrowing freely from both the pre-Raphaelites and the Art Nouveau movement, the frieze itself brightly painted in greens, reds, mauves and blues. The overall impression was one of sumptuous luxury and lavish ornamentation. From these galleries it was possible to see everything that happened in the cafe while a string quartet played from the floor below.
And there were other rooms, like the huge ballroom above with a sprung floor. The ballroom also had another coloured frieze and an ornate plasterwork ceiling divided into sections by intricately decorated ribs, and there was yet another large dining room with timber-framed panelling on the walls. The sculpted reliefs were by Arthur Glover, the paintwork was executed by James Williams and the plasterwork ceilings were created and installed by Jackson & Sons of London.
It was a remarkable building, not just unique in Exeter but possibly unique in the entire country. There was nothing else quite like it. In December 1916 Deller's in Bedford Street opened for business and between then and its demise in 1942 it gained a reputation as one of the finest cafes in England. As a building it featured in numerous architectural periodicals and journals throughout the 1920s and 1930s and had it survived into the 21st century it would've been one of the most notable early-20th century structures in the west of England on the strength of its interiors alone.
On 04 May 1942 Exeter was blitzed and the entire building was ignited from flaming debris as the High Street burned. By the following morning Deller's Cafe had been severely damaged by fire. As Peter Thomas states in his book 'Aspects of Exeter', "in spite of the roof and the floors having collapsed, there was enough left of this gabled brick building...to warrant preservation and rebuilding". It should be said that not all of the interior was destroyed. I've seen photos taken after the fire which prove that some significant portions of the interior decoration remained intact, including much of the ballroom with its plaster ceiling and coloured frieze. But, as with so many of Exeter's war-damaged structures, instead of reconstruction Deller's Cafe was "completely destroyed as a result of official policy" (Peter Thomas, 'Aspects of Exeter').
The city council swiftly authorised the total demolition of the remains. Bedford Street was widened and the original site of Deller's Cafe is now an open, pedestrianised area above. The loss of Deller's, a popular social meeting point, was a real blow to the citizens of Exeter. I've talked to several people who remember the pre-war city and they all cited Deller's as one of Exeter's most wonderful buildings and its presence is still missed even by those who never saw it.