The idea for Bedford Circus started with Robert Stribling, a speculative architect/builder who, in 1773, who began the construction of 14 townhouses on the site of John Russell's Bedford House, itself a remnant of a Dominican Friary which had been on the same location from the 13th century until it was dissolved in 1538 during the Reformation.
The image left is based on Caleb Hedgeland's model of Exeter. The model depicts the city as it was in 1769, prior to the construction of the Circus. Bedford House is highlighted in red. At least one of its three ranges was formerly part of the Dominican Friary. Bampfylde House, on the corner of Catherine Street and Bampfylde Street, is highlighted in green. Chapel Street, also known as Egypt Lane, borders the Cathedral Precinct to the bottom left. The completed Circus, based on the 1905 map of Exeter, is highlighted in purple. It's easy to see how the north-eastern crescent, the first of the houses to be built, was constructed on top of Bedford House. The first stone of Bedford Circus was laid 27 May 1773.
According to Jenkins "in digging for the foundation, great numbers of human bones were dug up, with the foundation of a church, broken mouldings [and] fragments of sepulchral monuments", all left over from the medieval friary. Lead coffins were unearthed and a lead box containing "three or four human skulls, and bones." The lead coffins were salvaged for scrap and the bones, much to Jenkins' disgust, dumped "among the rubbish, to the disgrace of humanity". Stribling's 14 houses took the form of a sweeping crescent, facing south-west towards the cathedral and were originally known as Bedford Crescent. The ground facing the crescent was taken up with stables and other buildings, including Brown's Coach and Harness Manufactory. Tozer's 1793 map of the city clearly shows that the first crescent had been completed by the end of the 18th century.
The photograph right shows one of the beautiful entrances which accompanied each townhouse. Tuscan columns with acanthus leaf capitals stood either side of an arched doorway above which was a scalloped-edged fanlight.
After a hiatus of nearly 50 years preparations began for turning the crescent into an architectural circus. It seems that the creation of a circus had always been part of Stribling's original plan as it was being called Bedford Circus as early as 1803, over 20 years before steps were taken to complete it. A report in Trewman's 'Exeter Flying Post' dated 19 May 1825 states that "active measures are being taken for commencing the new houses on the Bedford estate in this city in order to complete the Circus as originally intended; Mr T. Horrell is the architect and builder; and we understand the Duke of Bedford has, with his usual liberality, satisfied all those who had any claims on the old building which has so long been a great nuisance, and disgraced this part of the city." The ground was still owned by the Dukes of Bedford but the report appears to suggest that remnants of old buildings associated with the sprawling Bedford House estate might still have existed on the site even after the completion of the first phase of the construction in the 1770s.
Nine matching townhouses and an extra-parochial neo-Classical chapel (completed in 1832 and shown left) were eventually built in another crescent facing the one from the 1770s. In 1832 workmen digging a shaft for new sewerage pipes for the later houses discovered a new collection of human bones, including two skulls. When completed the overall effect of the Circus was of a gigantic ellipse, entered from the High Street via Bedford Street, with a small private park situated in the centre filled with mature trees and surrounded by iron railings.
All the houses in Bedford Circus were of a similar type. They were built of locally-fired brick, earthy-red in colour, a white stone string course being used to separate each floor visually. The windows on the third floor of the later houses were slightly different but the architectural details were secondary compared with the overall impression of the whole scheme. The image at the top of this post is a composite of three separate photographs and is an attempt to try and give some indication of the magnificent visual impact of Bedford Circus as entered from the High Street. I'm not aware of any photographs which show the entire arrangement at ground level. Even today, had they survived, a wide-angle lens would've been needed to capture both crescents and the chapel in the same shot.
The photograph below shows Robert Stribling's original crescent of 14 houses from c1773 as seen from the entrance into Southernhay. Careful scrutiny of the first floor of the facades will show the coat of arms of the Russell family, carved in stone and reclaimed from the entrance porch of old Bedford House. Beneath the coat of arms, on the ground floor, can be seen the late-19th century bronze plaque (shown further below) commemorating both the Circus and Bedford House.
the original Roman city, laid down nearly 1800 years earlier. It wasn't built in a new suburb but was shoe-horned into a small medieval city, obviously designed to be a showpiece and a tour de force of domestic architecture, which it was. Although there were already a number of brick neo-Classical houses in the city by the 1770s (e.g. the Notaries' House in the Cathedral Close and Paragon House in South Street) they were still vastly outnumbered by timber-framed buildings of the preceding centuries. Stylistically, the creation of the Circus was something entirely new in the architectural history of Exeter. The size of its footprint rivalled that of the Cathedral itself. Only the superlative surviving fragments of Georgian architecture in Southernhay provide a hint as to what Bedford Circus was like.
The aerial view right shows the full magnificence of Bedford Circus as it stood in the summer of 1928. Few cities in England could boast of anything comparable.
The end began in the early hours of 04 May 1942 when German bombs set light to much of Exeter's historic centre. The fire from burning buildings in the High Street spread east into Bedford Circus. By the morning many of the townhouses had been gutted by fire with only the walls remaining, although some did survived intact with just broken windows and missing roof slates. In almost any other European country Bedford Circus would've been reinstated and restored to its former state. It would've been too important to lose. Many of the walls remained sound and the task of reconstruction would've been relatively straightforward. Instead, the inexplicable decision was made by the city council to remove the Circus in its entirety. The burnt-out buildings were bulldozed, the few surviving townhouses were demolished, the railings ripped up and the old trees chopped down. Even the outline of the road fronting each crescent was erased during the post-war rebuilding. There is no excuse for what happened as Exeter lost, forever, one of its finest architectural treasures.
The image left © Express & Echo shows the site of the completely destroyed Abbots' Lodge in the foreground with the badly damaged Choristers' School to the left. Highlighted in red in the background is the curving rear elevation of one side of Bedford Circus, with broken windows and damaged roofs, but structurally still intact, proving that parts of the Circus survived and could've been repaired and reconstructed with relatively little difficulty had the city council decided to do so.
It's interesting to speculate exactly why the city council decided to destroy the Circus completely. The evidence suggests that once it was damaged they couldn't get the ruins down fast enough. Thomas Sharp, the town planner behind much of the city's post-war reconstruction wrote in 1946 that: "Bedford Circus has gone. The bombs shattered it to bits. It is so utterly destroyed that a man returning to Exeter can walk over its site without knowing he is doing so". Sharp was either lying through his teeth or he had been completely deceived about exactly what survived the Blitz of 1942 and what didn't. If he had seen the ruins perhaps he would've recommended a faithful reconstruction as he did with the Georgian townhouses of Dix's Field (although, despite this recommendation, the city council destroyed the remains of Dix's Field anyway as well as the facades of the two damaged terraces in Southernhay West).
The council moved swiftly to remove almost all bomb-damaged buildings and it's likely that when Sharp arrived in the city to survey the damage all he saw were the cleared plots rather than the ruins themselves. John Summerson in his 1949 book 'Heavenly Mansions' stated that Bedford Circus had been "utterly destroyed by enemy action", and that myth has remained widely believed up to the present day, but the Blitz of 1942 in no way "shattered it to bits" or "utterly destroyed it". As Gavin Stamp writes in his book 'Britain's Lost Cities', in which Exeter has the dubious accolade of having a chapter dedicated to it: "Photographs taken for the newly established National Buildings Record show that, immediately after the raids, the Georgian facades of Bedford Circus and the damaged parts of Southernhay were still standing: surely they could and should have been shored up and retained?".
The image right shows an aerial view of the city in 2011 overlaid onto which is the 1905 map of Bedford Circus. It give some rough idea where the two crescents were positioned in relation to the recent redevelopment of the area.
So why wasn't Bedford Circus restored? The reasons probably include the economic reality of the times, as well as a more general desire to embrace Modernism, with its deluded promise of a cleaner, better society. One reason was a disinterest towards Georgian architecture in general in the first decades of the 20th century. But surely anothr reason which can't be overlooked is that of sheer, iconoclastic ignorance. The same city council had no qualms about the demolition of dozens of medieval and Tudor townhouses during the slum clearances in the first third of the 20th century. It never seemed to occur to them that Exeter was targeted in 1942 precisely because of buildings like Bedford Circus. It never seemed to occur to them that in clearing away the damaged remains of so many historic buildings they were actually finishing a process that the Germans had already started themselves.
The subsequent decades have shown that in Exeter historic buildings had almost no value whatsoever beyond a merely commercial one. If it was in the way of a new road then it came down. If it was in the way of a new shopping centre then it came down. If it could be replaced with something which provided more retail space then it came down. A building's historical or aesthetic value ranked well down the list of considerations.
Thomas Sharp himself reflected on the fact that the city council's own pre-war guide to the city made absolutely no mention of Exeter's stunning Georgian architecture, despite the fact that A. E. Richardson had singled out the city's Georgian buildings for particular praise in the 1920s. Clearly it simply wasn't seen as being of any importance whatsoever. Exeter's historic architecture has been relentlessly squeezed between the two demands of catering for an increase in traffic and catering to commercial interests. The result was inevitably wholesale demolition in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s that involved hundreds and hundreds of buildings, most of them in or around the historic central core of the city. And it wasn't a building here or a building there. It was acres and acres of property, entire streets and districts, totally flattened and redeveloped.
above right. Part of this was to occupy the site of the north-eastern side of Bedford Circus. The rest of the site was taken up with a much-altered Bedford Street, including a row of low shops standing where the south-western crescent and chapel had stood. It was all mind-numblingly mediocre. Bridget Cherry called these post-war shops "depressingly shack-like", adding that it was all "a poor compensation for the loss of the Georgian Bedford Circus."
Between 2005 and 2007, the entire area was demolished again and rebuilt as yet another clone shopping precinct. The improvements are negligible as the new precinct's architecture is as banal as its predecessor. It already looks dated and no doubt in 20 years time it will in turn be demolished and something else built in its place, and so on and so on. The image below shows part of the new Princesshay shopping precinct that now stands on the site of one side of Bedford Circus. Drag the handle with your cursor to see before and after images!
History has judged the council's demolition of Bedford Circus justifiably harshly. W.G. Hoskins, probably Exeter's most significant 20th century historian and one of the founder members of the Exeter Civic Society in 1961, called it an "unforgivable act of vandalism". Peter Thomas states that "to have destroyed it all is unforgivable." According to Todd Gray, a contemporary historian, Bedford Circus was "destroyed partly through the Blitz in 1942 but more due to the indifference of city planners."