Wednesday, 13 October 2010

The Lower Market, Fore Street

The Lower Market above c1920 was one of two exceptional neo-Classical market buildings constructed in Exeter in the 1830s. The other was the Higher Market in Queen Street. In 1833 the city authorities decided to gather Exeter's many street markets into two separate market halls. The Lower Market, or Western Market, was the first of the two to be completed and was designed to cater primarily for the city's butchers (formerly located at Butchers' Row in Smythen Street since the end of the 15th century). A room was allocated above the main entrance to function as a Corn Exchange. The Higher Market was used for poultry, fish and vegetables.

The Lower Market was designed by Charles Fowler, born in Cullompton in 1792 and already the renowned architect of the former vegetable market at Covent Garden in London. Work began in 1835 on a site at the top of Fore Street, extending back from Fore Street itself to truncate Smythen Street as it ascended towards South Street and demolishing the medieval Butchers' Row which stood within the footprint of the new market building.

The photograph right shows the huge colonnaded hall of the Lower Market prior to 1942. The high clerestory windows, arched arcades, aisles and barrel ceiling, supported on pillars of granite, were reminiscent of a Roman basilica. During the excavations for the Lower Market's foundations, a Roman medal was unearthed. In a truly remarkable coincidence, on one side of the medal was the head of the Emperor Nero and on the other was a depiction of a building not dissimilar to the Lower Market itself. The Roman medal had itself been struck to commemorate the construction of a meat market in Rome 1700 years earlier. This discovery inspired the Exeter Corporation to issue their own medal to memorialise the creation of the Lower Market. Fashioned out of bronze, one side of the medal featured the facade of the Lower Market and on the reverse were the three-towered emblem of Exeter.

The image left shows the Lower Market on a street plan of 1904 overlaid onto an aerial photograph of the post-war city. The market is highlighted in red. The area shown was comprehensively bombed in 1942 but the market building could've been salvaged and the ruins stood for many years after the war. The market building was bounded by Milk Street to the east, Guinea Street to the south, Market Street to the west and Fore Street to the north. The Fore Street frontage was much narrower than the full width of the building. The market was finally completed in 1836 and opened for business on 9 December the same year. During the building of the Lower Market the public water conduit in South Street was relocated to a little square in Milk Street where it was marked by the construction of a stone obelisk. The square was actually created by the demolition of buildings on the corner of Milk Street and George Street.

It was a colossal building of which the city at the time appears to have been justly proud. There were two entrances, one through the main facade in Guinea Street and one through the narrower facade that faced onto Fore Street. The magnificent Guinea Street facade (shown at the top of this post) consisted of a row of high arches flanked at the ends by two partially rusticated large towers surmounted by low pyramidal roofs. A neo-classical pediment marked the full height of the hall inside.

In the words of Professor A. E. Richardson, who wrote about the Lower Market in an edition of 'The Architectural Review' in 1920, the Guinea Street elevation showed "the fine scale of the building, the refinement of the ornament, the originality of the conception, and the correctness of expression, for it is unmistakeably a market and nothing else." Over the Fore Street entrance Charles Fowler had incised his own name. Italian composition and Greek detail merged to create "a building both monumental and useful".

The narrower facade in Fore Street right was supported on four rusticated square columns, topped by sculpted bulls' heads and wreaths, above which were three arched windows which gave light into the first floor Corn Exchange. Above these were a series of smaller arched windows, the whole being crowned with a neo-Classical pediment, the tympanum dominated by a large representation of the coat of arms of Exeter.

The Lower Market remained in use until 4 May 1942 when it was gutted by fire following the bombing of the city during World War Two. The roof and the interior were totally destroyed but most of the external walls remained standing. The local historian, W. G. Hoskins, wrote that the Lower Market "stood in its ruin after 1942 like a piece of ancient Rome: indeed one could imagine oneself among the ruined public buildings of the fifth century in Exeter". As with Bedford Circus, the Lower Market could've been reconstructed had the local authority been willing to do so.

The photograph right © Express & Echo dates to 1953, eleven years after the Exeter Blitz. It shows reconstruction work in South Street going on in the foreground and in the background, highlighted in red, are the considerable remains of the Lower Market. In fact the ruined shell of the building stood until 1960. Structurally, the remains of the gutted exterior were sound but, along with almost every other city centre building damaged in the 1942 air-raid, the Lower Market was comprehensively demolished. Its huge granite blocks were torn down and thrown into the river to help shore up a riverbank.

Even more extraordinary then was the dismal building which eventually arose almost on the same footprint of the Lower Market itself in 1960: St George's Hall and Market, a large function room with an accompanying market. Like all of the post-war reconstruction, the resulting building was a total break with the historical pre-war character of Exeter. Even the city council's own conservation area report states that the buildings are "undistinguished and make no attempt to fit into the context of historic Fore Street". It was designed by the city council's own in-house architect H. B. Rowe and is described by Pevsner and Cherry as "a rather tatty effort in a belated Festival of Britain spirit". Unfortunately there's nothing remotely festive about it. It's one of the post-war buildings in Exeter which I particularly dislike. As with a number of other post-war eyesores in the city, trees have been planted outside to try and disguise it. St George's Hall and market remained as a market until several years ago when it was 'rebranded' as The Corn Exchange, although any comparison with the great Corn Exchange buildings at Leeds or Bristol will be short-lived once you see the feeble and inappropriate structure which sits now on the site of the Lower Market.


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