History project uncovers Exeter's multicultural roots

By Lynne French
BBC News, Devon

Image caption,
Dorothea Hendy moved to Exeter in 1939 until her death in 2002

Is the Devon city of Exeter "quintessentially" English?

Perhaps not, according to the results of a year-long lottery-funded history project.

The charity behind the "Telling our stories, finding our roots" project, believes the information and stories uncovered will change people's perceptions of Exeter forever.

So much so that the city's multicultural roots are to be included in the curriculum for local schools.

Devon Development Education says it is one of the most comprehensive local history projects of its kind.

"There's much more to Exeter than the Cathedral and the Blitz in 1942," project leader Ghee Bowman said.

"Part of that hidden stuff is about people from minority backgrounds, people from elsewhere who've made their homes here or visited for a short time and have been part of the life of the city."

The project, which received a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, will be officially launched on Saturday.

A specially created website with Exeter's multicultural history timeline is already online.

People will be able to add their own stories and downloadable resources will be available for all the city's schools.

Mr Bowman said the community project was not about re-writing Exeter's history, but rather "adding another chapter".

"It's like we have a white picture and we're colouring it in," he said.

More than half of the 22 volunteers involved in the project are from Exeter's black and ethnic minority communities.

The website timeline includes details of what is known about some of Exeter's minority communities over the years, including those of Chinese, Asian, Jewish, Muslim, African and Caribbean origin.

Project volunteer Crystal Carter, who is originally from California but has lived in Exeter since 2005, helped research the "story" of Exeter's Dorothea Hendy.

Image caption,
Project volunteer Crystal Carter researched the wartime era and found black and white US soldiers were segregated and stationed on either side of the River Exe

Born in Cornwall to a Cornish mother and black Jamaican sea captain father, 21-year-old Dorothea moved to Exeter in 1939 and lived in the city until her death in 2002.

During World War II, she risked her own life to help rescue casualties during the German Luftwaffe's blitz on the city in 1942.

Mrs Carter, whose father and grandfather were servicemen in the US military, said researching Exeter's wartime era was of special personal interest to her.

"The American army was still operating segregation so when they came over here, they were essentially two separate armies - a black army and a white army," she said.

"The black GIs were based in tents at the County Ground in the St Thomas area on the west of the River Exe; the white soldiers were at Topsham Barracks on the other side of the river.

"They had military police on the Exe Bridge to make sure they didn't cross, but there were regular fights at the river."

Slave trade 'currency'

The project has also created a tour map on its website. People can either follow the map or apply to join a guided tour.

While working on the map, Mrs Carter learned that Bishop's Palace was one of three factories in the city which had processed sugar from slave plantations.

She also discovered a mould for making manillas - a bracelet used as currency in West Africa during the slave trade period - was found at a former foundry in Cowick Street.

Volunteer Sandhya Dave, a second generation British-born Gujarati Indian, researched how a statue of the Hindu god Ganesh came to be displayed in Exeter's Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM).

"Here was an object that was collected in the days of the Empire - but we have no idea whether it was gifted, bought or simply stolen.

"Because of my background I looked at this object with a different perspective and raised questions.

"Yes, it's a beautiful piece but where does it come from? For us, it's not an object - it's something of reverence and it's very alive for us today."

Image caption,
Project leader Ghee Bowman standing by a Mulberry tree brought to Exeter from China 300 years ago by a silk manufacturer in the city

The statue was donated to the museum in 1912 by the children of Judge Sir John Budd Phear, who lived in Exmouth after returning from India. It is not known how he acquired it.

St James School has been involved in piloting the project's learning resources and Helen Stephenson, the school's ethnic minority achievement coordinator, said the response from students had been "very positive".

"It's linking in to what students are studying in history and developing it further with a local element," she said.

'Sense of ignorance'

Ms Stephenson said the project helped the school to challenge the "stereotype" of Exeter being mono-cultural.

While the project has so far received mainly a positive response, Mr Bowman said a "small minority" has claimed it is "anti-English".

"This is why the project is so important, in order to educate," she said.

Ms Dave, who said she had been subjected to racism and some bad experiences, said Exeter was "no worse" than other areas.

"What we have in Exeter is a sense of ignorance, I think," she said.

"On the whole, Exeter and Devon is a beautiful place to live in and I believe most people have good experiences."

Mr Bowman said he was optimistic the project could make a difference.

"That's what we're hoping to do - enable people to see Exeter with another pair of glasses on," he added.

According to the Office for National Statistics, the 2011 Census revealed 93% of Exeter's population was white, with Chinese the largest minority ethnic group at 1.7%.

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