In the 18th century over 370 coaches left Exeter every week, destined for London, Bath and Bristol. For over two centuries, along with the New London Inn, the London Inn and the Mermaid, the Half Moon left was one of the principal coaching inns in the city. Coaching inns differed from taverns in as much as they supplied teams of horses for stagecoaches and mail coaches and often acted as points of departure in the way that modern railway stations do today.
The Half Moon at Exeter stood on the corner of the High Street and Bedford Street and dated from the 1680s, a direct consequence of the increased traffic between Exeter and other large cities across England. At the time of its demolition at least, it was huge; a rambling, sprawling establishment which covered the entire site, extending from its main entrance on the High Street all the way back to Catherine Street. The stables and the coachhouses were all located on the other side of Catherine Street in Egypt Lane, and following the demise of horse and carriage as a means of transport it became a very popular hotel.
The image right shows the location and extent of the Half Moon in 1905 overlaid onto a modern aerial view of the same area. The inn is highlighted in red. The site of the ancient New Inn is highlighted in purple. St Stephen's church is highlighted in yellow. The building labeled 'Savings Bank' marked the beginning of Bedford Circus and is shown to the far right in the photograph at the top of this post. The area was affected by bombing in World War Two and during the post-war rebuilding Bedford Street was realigned the west.
It's easier to write about the people who used the inn than it is to write about the building itself as so little architectural evidence survives. The Half Moon wasn't just a hostelry, it was also frequently used as an auction house and as a place for social gatherings. For example, in 1824 the governors and benefactors of Exeter's hospital "proceeded to the Half Moon Inn" to celebrate the hospital's foundation in 1741 and where "an elegant dinner was provided"; and in 1842 a "grand dinner" took place at the Half Moon with a guest list which included "Magistrates, Members of the Council, Gentry and respectable inhabitants of Exeter". These are two of many dozens of 19th century examples that were deemed worthy of mention in Trewman's 'Exeter Flying Post'.
In the 1850s the Half Moon was run by William Routley and later by Robert Pople, later to be thrice mayor of Exeter. In October 1868 Pople moved on to the New London Inn and the licence for the Half Moon was transferred to Thomas Gardner. Gardner, originally from London, had already taken out a lease on the Royal Subscription Rooms and was to remain at the Half Moon until the 1880s. Like both Routley and Pople before him, Thomas Gardner was a Freemason and a member of the city's St John the Baptist Lodge. Masonic dinners at the Half Moon were regular occurrences throughout the 1800s. In 1856 a "Grand Masonic meeting" took place at the inn, for which "the large Masonic room was adorned with laurels and other evergreens". Another report from 1872 recorded that "the brethren adjourned to the Half Moon Hotel, where a sumptuous banquet was served by Brother Gardner". In 1871 Gardner turned one of the rooms into a billiard room. This room was described at the time as being "lofty, the ceiling beautifully and richly moulded, and the sides are most elaborately adorned". This must've been one of the rooms which still contained late-17th century plasterwork decoration. One interesting historical event occurred at the Half Moon in August 1882 when Gilbert and Sullivan met in the coffee room of the Half Moon to discuss the finale of Act One of 'Iolanthe'.
Much less is known about the building itself. It was certainly established by the 1680s but it is impossible to say how much of the 17th century structure survived into the 20th century. James Cossins in his 1877 'Reminscences' stated that in 1827 the Half Moon "had a very different appearance". We can only guess as to what the building's original appearance was like before it received its 19th century makeover.
As shown in the image above left © Devon County Council, for most of the 19th century the street frontage was three-bays wide and spread over four floors with tiered oriel windows extending from first-floor level to a modillion cornice. The third-floor windows were crowned with triangular pediments. In the centre of the ground floor was an open passageway through which it was possible to access a central courtyard. This stucco facade was only dated to c1830 though. Presumably the late-17th century version was smaller with a gabled, timber-framed facade. I'm not aware of any illustrations showing the exterior of the inn prior to its modernisation. A building on the same site is shown on Caleb Hedgeland's early 19th century model which depicts the city as it appeared in 1769. This building, highlighted in red above right, stands on the corner of Bedford Street and the High Street but it would be unwise to assume that it's an accurate representation in miniature of the Half Moon itself.
One notable architectural feature of the Half Moon which has been documented though were several fine late-17th century plasterwork decorative ceilings and these survived up until the building's demolition in 1912. In terms of style they were similar to the great 'Apollo' ceiling at the New Inn, a few properties further down the High Street towards St Stephen's church. Although simpler in design, it's possible that the ceilings at the Half Moon were the work of Thomas Lane, the craftsman responsible for the ceiling at the New Inn in 1689. It's bizarre that Harbottle Reed could write retrospectively in 1931 that the Half Moon "did not appear to have much of interest".
The Half Moon inn was demolished in 1912 to make way for Lloyd's bank and the extraordinary neo-Baroque, quasi-Jacobean, Art Nouveau-inspired Deller's Cafe. No record was made of the building as it was being destroyed and so most of its structural history is now lost for ever. The Royal Albert Memorial Museum managed to salvage some of the plasterwork ceilings during the demolition and one of them can still be seen at the museum today above. It's ironic that, if the inn hadn't been demolished and the ceilings salvaged, then they would've been completely destroyed in the bombing of May 1942. During the post-war reconstruction the alignment of Bedford Street was significantly altered and the site of the Half Moon inn, and later Deller's Cafe, is now actually in the middle of Bedford Street itself below.