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Mary Project off to a flying start!

Posted on Thursday 8th February, 2018

Exeter’s animal hero, the valiant pigeon, Mary of Exeter, and her owner, Cecil “Charlie” Brewer, was honoured recently by the unveiling of a blue plaque at her owner’s former home in West Street.

Mary, part of the National Pigeon Service during the Second World War, carried top secret military messages across the English Channel to her pigeon loft above Charlie’s bootmaker’s workshop. She was awarded the Dickin Medal, the highest award for animal bravery.

The blue plaque by Exeter Civic Society is its first to honour a partnership between an animal and its owner.

The story of Charlie and Mary is being brought to life by an animated film being created by Double Elephant Print Workshop, and due to be completed next year.

Double Elephant is working with local youth groups and partner organisations to bring Mary’s story to life via an animated film, thanks to National Lottery funding of £27,700 awarded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). During the two-year project, young people in the city will learn about how their WW2 contemporaries fared during the war, using Mary’s story as a focus. From their initial research and thanks to an article in the Express and Echo, contact was made with Charlie Brewer’s grandsons who have shed more light on their grandfather’s life.

George Barron, Project Leader for Double Elephant, said: “It has been amazing to uncover what was the largely forgotten story of Mary’s wartime heroics. Charlie Brewer and his pigeons held an incredibly vital role in wartime communications. We are delighted that Exeter will remember them and to have helped make that happen as part of our project.”

Charlie Brewer was born in Church Lane, St Thomas, in 1895 and was apprenticed as a bootmaker at the age of 15. He and his new wife Ena moved to 6 (then 58) West Street in 1922, where Charlie set up his workshop and bred and trained homing pigeons in a pigeon loft at the back. In the 1940s he placed his prized pigeon Mary at the disposal of the National Pigeon Service and took on the duties of Special Constable with responsibility for control of war pigeons in the area.

Mary was dropped behind enemy lines and despite being wounded three times and once going missing for ten days, she always completed her mission by returning to Exeter where Charlie nursed her back to action. On one occasion he used his skills as a craftsman to make her a small leather neck-support because of her injuries.

At the end of the war they both received medals. Mary won the Dickin Medal, often called the animals’ VC, for her gallantry and outstanding endurance, and Charlie was decorated for his war services.

Mary died in 1950 and is buried with other animal heroes in the PDSA Pet Cemetery in Ilford. She is also commemorated close to the war memorial in Northernhay Gardens, Exeter, and on the animals’ war memorial in Hyde Park, London, as well as being pictured in the mosaic under the Exeter St Thomas railway bridge. Charlie Brewer, who afterwards raised money for charity by giving talks about Mary, died aged 90 in 1985.

Handcrafted by Rock Kitchen Harris