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History of Exeter's Pram and Toy Shop

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(12 reviews)

Exeter's Pram and Toy Shop during the 90s

For the best part of a century, a countless number of Exeter's youngsters flocked to the city's best known toy store… Exeter's Pram and Toy Shop. Although the business closed its Sidwell Street doors for the final time in September 2000, utter its name to any Exonian and you're likely to hear tales of the slithery stair-rail, the Stork on the side of the building; or maybe even the Noah's Ark van that used to deliver presents to enchanted kids of the 50s in a superb piece of guerrilla marketing.

Thanks to Tim Hawkins, one of the 3rd generation of Exeter's Pram and Toy Shop owners who co-steered the business through rapid change and expansion from the 70s to the noughties, we're able to bring you a history of this much-loved Exeter institution.

Help us capture a piece of this store's history by emailing us your images, memories or anecdotes. We'd love to know what defines Exeter's Pram and Toy Shop for you.

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Originally founded by Percy Hawkins in 1909 at 43 Sidwell Street, the first shop was then known as Exeter Cycle Works. The business of selling and servicing bicycles was soon expanded with the introduction of a very popular phenomenon – gramophone records! Although this may seem like a strange mix of products, it was fairly common at the time because the bicyle engineers could utilise their mechanical skills on gramaphone players!

The original Exeter Cycle Works shop circa 1909

A number of Exeter based shops such as Moons and Godfrey and Co. also jumped on the gramaphone band wagon which was as exciting for people in that era as the introduction of the iPod in 2001. Around 1928 the business expanded and moved to 116 Sidwell Street with another shop coming later at 174 Sidwell Street which had a large baby car and toy department.

A plastic label that used to be attached to those baby carriages sold at Exeter Cycle Works

Once the Luftwaffe had finished bombing and flattening most of Exeter during World War 2, trading continued at 174 with more of a focus on the nursery and toy side of the business. Percy’s sons, Jack and Ted, who took over the running of the business, decided that Exeter Cycle Works was too out of date with the shops current offerings and changed the name to Exeter’s Pram and Toy Shop.

174 Sidwell Street was a rambling building with several showrooms spread over two floors. A large workshop at the rear of the premises (run by ‘Uncle’ Bert Hooper) ensured that repairs to prams, cycles and toys could be carried out as swiftly as possible. Bert was in fact the uncle of one of the company’s other longest serving employees, Jeanne Chapman; both of whom proudly received gold watches on their retirement.

In the days when customers hardly ever collected their purchases by car, the Hawkins brothers had the brilliant idea of commissioning a special delivery vehicle – a Noah’s Ark! This fantastic vehicle delivered prams and toys to customers all over Devon, and was one of the finest pieces of advertising in its era. It was so popular, that kids would wait at home just to see their toys delivered in it!

Exeter's Pram and Toy Shop Noah's Ark delivery van

During this time, Exeter was being re-built after the Blitz, and eventually the Exeter City Council decided that the block of shops that contained 174 Sidwell Street should be demolished to make way for more modern buildings. Jack and Ted Hawkins were offered a site next door to another redevelopment at the lower end of Sidwell Street where a huge new shop was being built for Bobby’s department store, latterly Debenhams.

A leaving note from the staff at Exeter's Pram and Toy Shop

This 'best wishes' card from August 1961 was kindly supplied by Alan Fereday. He worked in the Model Department at weekends and holidays whilst studying at Hele's School in Exeter.

The new modern Exeter’s Pram and Toy Shop at 12 Sidwell Street opened for business in November 1963. It was actually on such a steeply sloping site that it was built on 5 floors – two huge shop floors of 7000sq ft were supplemented by a large stockroom and basement levels for deliveries and staff quarters.

The ground floor was fitted out for the customary enormous selection of prams, pushchairs and nursery furniture, with the upper floor being totally devoted to toys and models. The customer staircase to the first floor was fitted with two painted ‘snake’ stair-rails at just the right height for all the junior customers who would be flocking to see the latest toys and gadgets. These stair-rails soon became a city wide talking point, and much appreciated by parents of small children. A huge wrought iron outline of a stork carrying a baby sling in its beak was commissioned for the side of the building facing down the High Street, and this was as much a talking point as the famous handrails.  

Percy’s two grandsons, Peter and Tim Hawkins gradually took over the running of Exeter’s Pram and Toy Shop and constant adjustments were made to shop layouts to reflect changing customer requirements and fashions. A large showroom extension on the first floor added another 2000sq ft of trading space that allowed a much larger range of outdoor and garden toys to be displayed.

The interior of the Sidwell Street shop

Customers were king of course, apart from the one irate father who presented an empty clockwork boat box on the counter and demanded his money back. He claimed the boat had sunk halfway across a deep pond! A discussion of events took place, and an amicable agreement of 50/50 responsibility was agreed upon!

Special character visits were becoming all the rage, and a memorable one in the 1980s saw Darth Vader, Boba Fett and a Stormtrooper almost besieged by the hundreds of Star Wars fans who had turned up to see their favourite film characters. The girls weren’t disappointed with a visit by Barbie who happily posed with hundreds of Exeter girls who turned up to have their picture taken with this iconic mega star.

Membership of the Toymaster buying group helped the business gain even more prominence as a specialist toy shop which endorsed all the values of Real Service and Real Value. Toymaster’s puppy mascot even made a personal visit one Christmas to meet all the shoppers!

Visit from the Toymaster puppy

Peter and Tim expanded the business using the Toymaster name to open other smaller shops in Exmouth, Taunton, Newton Abbot and Barnstaple. Distribution then took place from a large warehouse on Sowton industrial estate.

As time moved on, more and more shops in Exeter decided to try for a slice of the toy and nursery business, and the advent of out of town multiple trading gradually took its toll on this much loved and popular Exeter shop, that was almost an institution in its own right.

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12 people have commented on Exeter's Pram and Toy Shop:

Average score:

4.9166666666667

* * * * * I loved this shop

Comment by Katie Wilson, 17th August 2016

I remember the LEGO displays and playing with the LEGO. As a child walking round the shop was brilliant... it's such a shame our children don't get to experience it.

* * * * * Wonderful shop

Comment by Sue Scott, 17th August 2016

What a wonderful shop this was. I (like many others) liked to go upstairs using the snake handrail. My favourite part was the glass case on the right at the top of the stairs. It contained stringed puppets. I was desperate for one but wise parents realised that I'd probably tangle it badly on its first outing from the box so I never received one. Such a shame when these individual shops close and we're left with shops that are the same wherever you go.

* * * * * Exeter Pram and Toy Shop

Comment by Dave Wybrow, 16th August 2016

Lovely place to visit, we bought loads of stuff from there for our children, the displays were excellent for babies to be and for children alike.

There was a VERY helpful lady downstairs who was always keen to give excellent advice - she was short in stature but big in helpfulness.

The owners Peter and Tim Hawkins were always keen to help and the display of Hornby trains was enough to keep any model railway enthusiast happy for hours.

Sadly missed, but never forgotten.

* * * * * Dolls clothes

Comment by Michelle Flower, 16th August 2016

I used to buy my eldest son's clothes in there! He was prematurely born and the dolls clothes they sold were the only ones in Exeter that would fit him! That was 32 years ago.

I also remember their fabulous sales. We used to come out of there with bags full of bargains ready to store away till Christmas. Happy memories!

* * * * * Superb shop

Comment by Sylvia Costigan , 16th August 2016

How I loved visiting the pram and toy shop, as has been said the snake handrail was superb and the variety of toys was excellent. I also purchased my Silver Cross pram from there. It was such a great shop and I was sad to see it go.

Other great shops now gone are French's Feeds & Seeds on the opposite side of the road. Tinleys and Waltons too with their superb Santa's grotto!

* * * * * Exeter Pram & Toy Shop

Comment by Nick Higgins, 15th August 2016

My brother and I would race upstairs to see what was new in stock, Airfix models, model railway items etc. Such an important part of growing up, learning to save up for the thing you really wanted and to dream about what Christmas money could come your way to spend. Very happy memories of this special place in Exeter.

* * * * - Old toy shop

Comment by Margaret Green, 15th August 2016

I can remember as a child going into the old store with my father, and getting new eyes put into my doll, and new hair. Also remember Aunty Jean as we used to call her, also Uncle Bert, many times did he repair spokes on my bike. The snakes on the stairs still stick in my mind. Good old days, and a wonderful toy shop, never to be replaced.

* * * * * Love it

Comment by Sam, 15th October 2014

I can remember, as a child, when this shop was on the other side of the road to your picture above and I believe Father Christmas visited it many times before he came to my house.

After it moved to your picture above, I can remember buying my pram there in the early 1970s for my children who in turn used to visit it many many times, including the annual visit to see Father Christmas. We all too remember the snake handrail which was in both shops. Fond memories.

* * * * * Lego and robots

Comment by Martin Langmaid, 19th August 2014

I loved Exeter's Pram and Toy shop as a child. I have very fond memories of the snake handrail, the technic Lego shelves and the BigTrak robot when it was released.

* * * * * Wonderful place

Comment by Duncan, 10th July 2014

I have terrific memories of visits to Exeter Pram and Toy as a child. The variety of toys was wonderful, and in a nostalgic mood I can still half remember the smell of the place and the excitement of walking up the stairs.

I completely missed the closure of the shop while I was away at university, and Exeter is very much the poorer for it.

Sad not to be able to find a photo of the snake handrail anywhere online!

* * * * * Model department

Comment by Jeremy Bright, 19th October 2012

There was a Mr Dixon in the model aircraft department at the back of the store in the 1950s. He was very knowledgeable and helped me in the pursuit of my hobby which I still enjoy today.

He once showed me a small scale model of a Mig-15 a customer had made. I could not believe the painted finish on it. Gloss white. He told me it had twenty coats of paint. I have never forgotten that lesson.

* * * * * My first job!

Comment by Alan Fereday, 5th March 2012

Fascinating history, some of which I remember well as Ted & Jack gave me my first Saturday job whilst at Hele's School in the mid to late 50s.

I assisted with the running of the model department with Peter Hawkins and Guy Strover. I remember clearing out the entire stock of Trix 3 rail to the famous TV personality Dave King who was appearing at the Theatre Royal at the time.

I also drove the Noah's Ark occasionally. Great in a straight line! Peter had his first company car, a Mini van. Somewhere I have a list of all the staff who signed my farewell present when I left in 1961.